How the Cardinals might approach free agency

December 2nd, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

After packing 3.3 million people into Busch Stadium last season and being assured that the payroll will grow in 2023, Cardinals fans are likely dreaming of a Christmas that will bring them Willson Contreras catching Justin Verlander while being backed up at shortstop by Trea Turner.

Undoubtedly, that won’t be happening for a Cardinals franchise that historically hasn't splurged on top-dollar free agents, and one that prides itself on being a “draft and develop” organization. The Cards are expected to upgrade a roster that wilted early in the postseason for a third straight October by adding a catcher and a lefty bat -- even if they only marginally increase the payroll or come by trade instead of free agency.

What if the Cardinals' biggest offseason acquisitions weren’t actually pricy free agents and are already part of the organization? Can’t-miss superstar Jordan Walker, anyone? Fire-balling shortstop Masyn Winn or catching prospect Iván Herrera? The promising arms of Connor Thomas or Gordon Graceffo?

The mere mention of a youth movement will assuredly elicit eyerolls from a Cardinals fanbase eager to see the club make bold moves to become true contenders again. But what if going young -- as opposed to breaking the bank on free agents -- is a practice proven to be highly successful?

Ponder what has taken place the past three seasons. The Astros replaced superstar Carlos Correa with Jeremy Peña, who won ALCS and World Series MVP honors. Those same Astros also used loads of homegrown youngsters to absorb the defections of Zack Greinke, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel and the loss of Verlander for two years.

The Braves, who won a title in 2021, have made a habit of this in recent years, handing the keys to the franchise over to Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley and William Contreras, all of whom are 25 years old or younger. Then they brought up a pair of 21-year-olds in 2022, Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom, both of whom made immediate impacts on the way to another NL East title. Much is made of the Dodgers -- champions in 2020 -- coming up short even after spending $280 million last season, but they have leaned on cost-controlled youngsters for years (Joc Pederson in 2015, Corey Seager in '16, Cody Bellinger in '17 and other homegrown talent like Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Will Smith).

Will the Cardinals follow those examples of successful youth movements and rely on talent already within the system over free-agent acquisitions? Not likely to those extents -- especially with cornerstones Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado in their primes and Adam Wainwright signed on for one final season. Personally, I believe there’s a greater chance of an injection of youth (think: Walker, Thomas and Graceffo) than a spending spree of $35 million for a player such as Verlander or Turner.

For further proof look no further than last August’s MLB Trade Deadline when the Cardinals recoiled at not only emptying their farm system for Juan Soto, but also being forced to pay a king’s ransom for the outfielder. Heck, the Cards didn't give legendary slugger Albert Pujols $240 million 11 years ago when he was coming off the best 11-year stretch in franchise history. What makes anyone believe they would sling that kind of cash at Dansby Swanson?

Fans will be plenty frustrated if the Cardinals don’t overspend to get Contreras or if they yawn at a second straight star-studded free-agent class at shortstop. The Astros, Braves and Dodgers have proven that there are other ways to win than simply spending wildly on free agents. The randomness of the playoffs has seemed to debunk the notion that teams can spend their way to World Series wins, and it is likely to continue now that the postseason has expanded again.

Be frustrated, if you must, if it’s Walker, Winn and Thomas on the Cardinals' roster next season instead of Contreras, Verlander and Turner. Just don’t be surprised by it, and don’t be so quick to doubt the merits of it.