John Mozeliak convened a Tuesday afternoon press conference to announce he’s already gotten everything he wanted for Christmas.
For about 20 minutes the Cardinals general manager formally addressed his newest addition, free agent second baseman Mark Ellis, while noting earlier gifts, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos and free agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
All swing a righthanded bat, meaning they fit a need for greater punch against lefthanded pitching like a pair of Fratelli Orsini gloves.
Each is an understated match for the Cardinals’ clubhouse culture, like putting together a Ferragamo tie with a Charvet dress shirt.
Mozeliak comes with a sense for fashion. He confirmed the Cardinals’ look as “balanced.” At first blush the ensemble works. It’s what happens when one works the market early, spending before the big sales are announced.
“As we look back over the last six weeks, we feel like we were able to improve this club,” Mozeliak assessed. “A lot of times that’s not easy to do when you’ve had the type year that we’ve had.”
We can’t confirm if Mozeliak immediately sought physical therapy after attempting to pat himself on the back with both hands, but he can be forgiven for the attempt. The Cardinals led the National League in wins last season before reaching the World Series. They appear a better team at this writing — and carry a reduced payroll.
Even following former ace Chris Carpenter’s retirement and taking a pass on Jake Westbrook’s option, the Cardinals have seven starting pitchers for five spots in next season’s rotation. A healthy Jason Motte is projected to set up for closer Trevor Rosenthal two years after Motte tied for the National League lead in saves. Ellis started at second base for the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers and is now billed as a $5.25 million insurance policy behind rookie Kolten Wong. Nice depth.
This is officially Mozeliak’s team now. Every player either reached St. Louis or signed an extension since Mo’s rise to general manager on Halloween 2007.
Mozeliak counted down the organization’s stated off-season goals: improve center field defense; find an everyday shortstop who could stop the seven-year spin cycle at the position; add to a bench that represented a glaring weakness during the postseason. The club used third baseman David Freese as trade bait for Bourjos before spending $53 million on Peralta less than three months after he returned from a 50-game suspension for using a banned substance. Ellis committed to the Cardinals last weekend for the same salary he enjoyed last season but potentially a lesser role.
Pressed on the 36-year-old Ellis’ role, Mozeliak alluded to Wong’s opportunity to play more frequently. Frankly, that seems a stretch given Ellis’ salary and experience. However, Mozeliak insisted the club is paying Ellis based on an overheated market for free agents, not his projected role. “When you’re trying to improve and look at bench players and your 25-man roster, sometimes the cost of playing poker goes up.”
A year ago Mozeliak had to sweat whether Carpenter’s shoulder would be sound for spring training. (It wasn’t.) The club held its breath whether shortstop Rafael Furcal would require a ligament transplant on his right elbow. (He did.) Would lefthander Jaime Garcia’s winter rehab allow him to push through the entire season after he was shut down during an October 2012 Division Series? (Somewhat predictably, no.)
The Cardinals enter this winter with redundancies where most clubs still have questions. 'Mo’ can go on vacation as his NL Central counterparts scramble to address gaping issues.
Cincinnati Reds GM Walt Jocketty would love to deal talkative second baseman Brandon Phillips but apparently can’t generate a reasonable market. Meanwhile, the loss of free agent Chin Soo-Choo leaves an obvious need in center field and the leadoff role.
The Pittsburgh Pirates scramble for first-base help after signing enigmatic free agent starting pitcher Edinson Volquez to a $5 million guarantee. Volquez crafted a 5.71 ERA between San Diego and Los Angeles in 2013 and two years ago led the National League in walks. Volquez has allowed more than 1.5 baserunners per inning in nine major-league seasons.
The Cardinals paved over any offensive ruts last season by hitting an unreal .330 with runners in scoring position. (Next best in the NL was .254.) Seeing this as unsustainable, Mozeliak set out to address the club’s vulnerability against lefthanded pitching. (The Cardinals hit .238 against lefts, 13th in the NL, compared to a league-best .280 against rights.) Peralta hit .352 with a .964 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefthanded pitching last season. Ellis hit .304 with a .792 OPS against lefthanded starters. Bourjos’ splits are less dramatic between left and rights but he moves to a position that has been vulnerable versus lefthanded pitching.
The Cardinals, by the way, led the National League by 77 runs scored last season. They outscored teams that played home games at less than a mile above sea level by at least 85 runs.
Tuesday’s audience was reduced to asking about Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma’s standing, Oscar Taveras’ readiness for spring training and even if Ellis could play shortstop. Mozeliak sidestepped most hypothetical questions while acknowledging that Taveras will face a tall challenge to make the opening day roster after requiring season-ending ankle surgery last summer. It’s almost certain that one of last October’s shortstops is around in April but extremely difficult to envision both.
Any remaining low-hanging fruit will be gathered for Memphis. No medical shoe is poised to drop.
More than a week before Christmas, 'Mo’ slipped from the room confident he wouldn’t need to reappear until after New Year’s. He sounded like someone tough to shop for — like a man who has everything.