ST. LOUIS -- While making his boldest proclamation yet that a Cardinals club that has fallen well below expectations will be resigning its fate for this season and turning its focus to rebuilding for 2024, team president John Mozeliak didn’t even try to hide where the strategy will be shifted to going forward.
It will be an attempt to address an area the Cardinals ignored last offseason and one that will almost certainly define how quickly they can recover from a disappointing 2023 that’s likely to only get uglier as the team plays out the string of games over the final 2 1/2 months.
“I definitely think we're going to treat the trading deadline as pitching, pitching, pitching, right?” Mozeliak asked rhetorically while declaring this season a lost cause and vowing to try and quickly rebuild so that the Cardinals can potentially contend in 2024. “I think the goal would be to address as much pitching as possible.”
That a Cardinals franchise with a streak of 15 straight winning seasons and one that has been in the playoffs each of the past four seasons would pronounce themselves out of the hunt for the postseason before August is downright jarring to the system, Mozeliak admitted. However, a 10-24 start and an 8-15 June swoon were enough to convince the front office that rallying late this season would be unlikely and major changes are needed with the construction of the roster.
“Well, it's definitely different,” Mozeliak said of the Cardinals rebuilding midseason after not posting a losing season since 2007. “I don't know if I would use the phrase, ‘not trying to compete.’ I mean, obviously, if there are people that are getting moved out of here, that's just going to create more opportunity for someone else. I feel like with where this club's at right now, we just know it's not working intact and so we do know we have to make some changes.”
The bulk of those changes will likely come to a pitching staff that has struggled beginning and closing games. Coming into Monday’s game against the Marlins, the starting staff had a 4.74 ERA (25th in MLB), while the relievers had a 4.50 ERA (25th in MLB) with 21 blown saves (most in MLB). Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz are the only two current starters under contract for 2024, while Adam Wainwright is poised to retire, and Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty are two high-profile pending free agents. While the Cardinals signed Mikolas to an extension, they didn’t pursue pacts with Flaherty or Montgomery and both could be dealt before the Trade Deadline in hopes of receiving some long-term pitching help.
“I think from a payroll standpoint, we should have some room for growth there [to add pitching] from resources that are available,” Mozeliak said. “Part of that is with people coming off [the payroll]. We’re thinking about how we evaluate pitchers and that’s something we’re taking a hard look at upstairs. … More swing-and-miss versus ground ball [pitchers] would be baked into future thinking.”
Mozeliak expressed disappointment with how the signing of free-agent catcher Willson Contreras has played out this season, with the veteran ceding time to Andrew Knizner and rookie Ivan Herrera because of issues handling the pitching staff. With the benefit of hindsight, Mozeliak said the team also erred in not adding more pitching depth.
“I mean, it’s a fair question and I think I would add more starting pitching and I would add more bullpen,” Mozeliak candidly admitted. “A lot of the decisions we made just haven't worked out either, a., from injury or b., from performance. I mean, you never have enough depth, and we always know that, but clearly this year it screamed it.”
Some of the changes to the makeup of the Cardinals started on Monday when the club designated disgruntled reliever Genesis Cabrera for assignment and signed reliever Ryan Tepera. The Cards also plan to return Tyler O’Neill to a starting role in left field -- likely to showcase him for trade purposes. Manager Oliver Marmol said his starting outfield would feature Lars Nootbaar in center, prized rookie Jordan Walker in right and O’Neill -- meaning Dylan Carlson and Alec Burleson will be squeezed out of playing time.
Mozeliak did say he would not be actively looking to trade cornerstone stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado as they would likely play major roles in the club being able to return to contending status in 2024. Mozeliak said not even a hot streak between now and Aug. 1 will likely change the team’s plans to focus on planning for 2024.
“Do performance, wins, losses change our direction? I would say probably not at this point,” he said. “I think with where we are and where we are in the standings, it's going to make [a rally] very difficult to change. From our standpoint on how we're thinking about using our energy and time, it won’t change.”