Undoubtedly, some Cardinals fans envisioned this offseason finally being the one where the franchise closed the Arch-sized financial gulf between it and the big spenders in the National League.
St. Louis filled its biggest need -- signing free-agent All-Star catcher Willson Contreras -- but it passed on another star-studded shortstop class and was unable to add a frontline ace.
Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak feels the club has a chance to be improved over the one that won 93 games and the NL Central crown last season. Did the Cardinals accomplish all their offseason goals? No, Mozeliak admitted, but the franchise did add the top catcher on the market, and it received a very important commitment from Contreras that should help ease the catcher’s transition from the Cubs to the Cards.
“We got our biggest need, but there were some things that we were also hoping to do, but we weren’t able to accomplish them, or they weren’t in our best interest to pursue,” Mozeliak said candidly this week. “There are always ups and downs and things you think through in the offseason, but we still feel pretty confident about where our team is and where we’re headed. We’re definitely excited to get going.”
Spring Training certainly will have a distinctly different feel with Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina no longer wearing the birds on the bat across their chest. Also, as many as eight Cardinals could be missing while competing in the World Baseball Classic -- namely, NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Adam Wainwright.
Not on that list is Contreras, who will be in camp with the Cardinals instead of catching for Venezuela in the Classic. The Cards thought it so important Contreras be in camp building bonds with the pitchers that they discussed the issue as the two sides were finalizing his $87.5 million contract.
“Obviously, part of Spring Training is creating your culture, but the good news is we don’t have a big turnover with our club and most guys know each other well,” Mozeliak said. “One of the keys for us was making sure Mr. Contreras is going to be there so he will have the opportunity to get to know all the pitchers. I would be a little nervous if he was gone for a month, given him being new. For the most part, we’ll be able to deal with the WBC players being absent. It will open time up for others.”
One of those “others” is 6-foot-5, 220-pound outfielder Jordan Walker, the top prospect in the Cardinals' system and the No. 6-ranked up-and-comer in baseball, per MLB Pipeline. Walker, who dominated at Double-A Springfield last season and thrived in the Arizona Fall League, will be given every shot at winning the Opening Day job in right field in Spring Training. Mentally mature beyond his 20 years of age and physically imposing, Walker seemingly has “can’t miss” written all over him as a prospect.
Cardinals fans might be thanking the baseball gods in a matter of months because the franchise saved a starting spot for Walker, their can’t-miss kid and potential superstar.
“When you talk about combining the physical impression with the performance impression, it’s an exciting combination to have,” Mozeliak said of Walker. “You never want to put ceilings on players, and we certainly won’t do that here, but it’s easy to dream with the kind of potential that this young man has.”