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As MLB rules shift, star shortstops hit free agency. Enticing? Cardinals have short answer.

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Cardinals, Nats at Busch

Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman throws to get Nationals batter Luis Garcia out to end the fourth inning on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022 at Busch Stadium.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon run through some popular names in the free-agent class and assess their potential fit with the Cardinals.

LAS VEGAS — While views varied on how Major League Baseball’s flurry of new rules will shape team’s roster decisions this winter, from underplaying the potential uptick in production for left-handed batters to no longer overplaying infielders on the shift, a consensus among executives did emerge.

They met in the middle.

As part of new rules to spur action on the field and increase the pace of games, MLB will outlaw defensive shifts for infielders, mandating that they begin the play on the dirt, two to a side of second base. Milwaukee general manager Matt Arnold described how “guys with added range who can cover those holes” are going to be more valuable, and he suggested shortstop would be the position most heightened by the lack of a shift.

“You want athleticism and you’re forced to cover the actual space,” said Jed Hoyer, Cubs president of baseball operations. “I think the days of seeing some below-average guys playing second base or out of position — that’s going to be gone.”

What timing.

For the second consecutive winter, a superb class of All-Star caliber shortstops is available, and the banning of the shift only amplifies what defensive whizzes like Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, and Dansby Swanson could bring to teams looking to upgrade their middle-infield defense as well as their lineup. Range matters more. But it comes at a cost.

“Those rare shortstops who give you that two-way dynamic are — they’re just generational,” said agent Scott Boras, who represents Correa and Xander Bogaerts, two shortstops available to any team as of Thursday. “They’re hard to find. Realize that we have a few shortstops on the market because it’s just a rare, rare time (that) you can have players of young ages who are so accomplished at their position. I think teams recognize that. Whenever you know that there are twice as many teams after a small group, the demand is very, very great. And it should be.”

In that market, the Cardinals are lurking, strolling the edge of the pool and considering whether to dip a toe in to test the temp.

The Cardinals were described as “milling about” the available shortstops, unlikely to take the plunge on one of the headliners, according to sources, but interested in seeing where the bidding goes for the next group. Turner, one of the top players in the game, and Correa are considered the class of their class, with Bogaerts, Swanson, and Jose Iglesias also available. The Cardinals’ initial focus is on adding a catcher, and their wish is to acquire an experienced bat for the middle of the order.

A year ago, when the market was rich with shortstop options, the Cardinals declined to take that dip. A second chance yields a similar position. Asked about his starter at shortstop, John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations, said: “Right now, Tommy Edman.”

Edman finished second in the voting for Gold Glove awards at second base and utility, and when he moved to shortstop earlier in the season he was one of the leading defensive players there, too. Among the leaders in Defensive Runs Saved, Edman is the kind of fielder teams expect to thrive — and need — in the post-shift era. The Cardinals have Gold Glove-winner Brendan Donovan positioned at utility or second base, and they also have Nolan Gorman and former All-Star Paul DeJong as middle infielders.

“Paulie — this spring is important for him,” said Mozeliak, of the shortstop who has struggled offensively for the previous three seasons. “He has to make some changes. When you think about when he came up (from Class AAA in 2022), he brought a lot of energy and he brought some impact with his bat for about three weeks. Then it was back to the prior (struggles). Clearly he’s got to figure out how to get back there. What can he do differently to get there? He’s got to make some changes.”

The Cardinals are surveying and engaging in the market for left-handed hitters, any of whom could suggest their production will increase without the shift to swallow their line-drive singles to right field. That free-agent group includes Joey Gallo, Anthony Rizzo, and former Cardinal Matt Carpenter. Mozeliak said there is a way to tweak the scouting reports and analytics to see how shift bans enhance expected production.

He cautioned about judging the new rules compared to a single year’s roster and rather give the rules time to get their footing. Though he did note that a lack of shifts and bigger bases to potentially reward athleticism and speed is a direction the Cardinals welcome.

“We have a pretty fast team,” he said. “It literally puts a premium back on everybody’s defense. … You’re trying to create action, create movement, create events. That’s the hope.”

Reyes decision a difficult one

With 11 players who are arbitration eligible, most of the Cardinals’ decisions on tendering those players contracts are obvious — from bringing Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty back for the rotation to giving Tyler O’Neill the chance to bounce-back in left field. The most difficult decision for the Cardinals will be right-hander Alex Reyes, who is one year away from free agency and coming off a stretch of seasons interrupted by injuries.

An All-Star closer in 2021, Reyes missed the entire 2022 season and required shoulder surgery. He is expected to be game ready at some point in May, a source said. Through the arbitration process his salary would likely remain static — $2.85 million — but the Cardinals must weigh that cost against his healthy return and the value of a roster spot. The Cardinals are having internal discussions about not tendering him a contract by the Nov. 18 deadline, and that would allow the longtime top prospect to become a free agent.

Goldschmidt, Arenado win Silver Sluggers

For the fifth time in both of their careers, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado were named Silver Slugger Award winners at their positions. Goldschmidt’s Silver Slugger gave him the most ever for a first baseman since the honor was first awarded in 1980 and was his second since becoming a Cardinal. He was tied with Albert Pujols and former Rockies All-Star Todd Helton for the all-time lead by a first baseman. Arenado sits behind Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt (six) and Wade Boggs (eight) for the most by a third baseman. This season marks the first time since 2018 that Arenado won the award.

Pujols and Edman were also nominated for Silver Sluggers with Edman’s nomination being for the first-ever utility spot. A pair of Padres in Josh Bell and third baseman Brandon Drury were the winners for those positions.

International notes

Count former Cardinals So Taguchi and Kwang Hyun Kim along with current Cardinals executive Matt Slater among the recently crowned champions in Asia’s top leagues.

This past week, Kim started and closed and powered SSG Landers to the KBO championship. Kim got the final two outs of the clinching game after starting and throwing five innings in the previous game.

A World Series champion with both the Cardinals and Phillies, Taguchi earned his first title ring as a coach this year with Orix Buffaloes won the Japan Series. Orix won Game 7 against the Yakult Swallows on Sunday to claim the franchise’s first championship in 26 years, since the team was known as the BlueWave and Ichiro Suzuki was its star outfielder.

The Cardinals have had a cooperative partnership with Orix for several years. Front office exec Slater, the Cardinals’ special assistant to the general manager, serving as a consultant for Orix. He will join Taguchi as one of just a handful of players and executives to have both a World Series championship ring and a Japan Series title ring.

A member of Orix’s championship club, outfielder Masataka Yoshida, is expected to be available as a free agent this winter. The 29-year-old left fielder has a .326 average, a miniscule 9% strikeout rate and a batting championship in Japan’s highest league. The Cardinals have extensive scouting reports on Yoshida and familiarity.

Extra bases

Marlins manager Skip Schumaker has reunited with a former Cardinals teammate as Miami hires Jon Jay, a Miami native, to be first base coach. Jay joined Schumaker's first staff formally Thursday. ... The $16 million the Colorado Rockies are sending to the Cardinals this season as part of the trade agreement for Nolan Arenado goes toward the third baseman’s 2021 salary. The Rockies negotiated a deferred payment (with interest) directly with Arenado before the completion of the trade, and that included the payment coming in this season, but not applied to his salary for this season. … The Cardinals, as expected, did not make qualifying offers ahead of Thursday’s deadline to their two free agents, Jose Quintana and Corey Dickerson. … The Cardinals returned Reyes and Drew VerHagen (hip) to the 40-man roster from the 60-day injured list, moving the roster up to 38 as of Thursday morning.

Post-Dispatch reporter Daniel Guerrero contributed to this report.

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