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As winter meetings arrive, Cardinals warm to pitching market
Winter meetings

As winter meetings arrive, Cardinals warm to pitching market

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When members of Mike Shildt’s major-league staff begin contacting position players next week to discuss reports delivered this week and discuss how they’ll prepare for this spring, the information will all be individualized, but the first question won’t be.

“It’s always going to be: ‘What do you think?’” Shildt, the Cardinals’ manager, said Saturday.

Shildt and his staff have spent the opening weeks of the offseason auditing, evaluating and number-crunching performances from 2019 with a focus on how to upgrade, player by player, for 2020. That work has produced reviews for each player that “capture the information we hope without inundating people,” Shildt explained. The reports offer information on what each player did well, some aspects where a player struggled, analytics that support both, and then areas of discussion for how preparation this winter could lead to improvements for summer.

They’re meant to be conversation starters, and as the Cardinals plot their offseason moves they’re as important to the team as any of the front office’s ongoing conversations.

As Major League Baseball, its clubs, their front offices, and the million-footed beast of the baseball industry descend on San Diego for this week’s annual winter meetings, the Cardinals continue to operate on parallel tracks. To address their offense — which was the lowest-scoring of any playoff team — they are looking for improvement from within. They insist they have depth.

To fortify their pitching — the strength that won the National League Central title — they cannot ignore the talent available from outside. Not when they aren’t sure of their depth.

Unlike the cold stare that gripped baseball’s free-agent market the previous two Decembers, there’s been a thaw before San Diego.

As prelude to the meetings, a handful of starting pitchers signed a variety of deals that reveal the scope of available talent. Kyle Gibson, a former Mizzou starter, finalized a deal with Texas that reportedly is worth $28 million over three years. Zack Wheeler, a darling of advanced pitching metrics, signed a five-year deal worth $118 million, while veteran lefty Cole Hamels received a one-year, $18-million deal from Atlanta.

This weekend, righthander Jordan Lyles, who rescued his sinking season with a 2.45 ERA and seven wins in 11 starts for Milwaukee, reportedly reached a two-year, $18-million contract with the Rangers. Those four signings already illustrate the bandwidth of options available this winter — especially when it comes to the level of certainty and the commitment of years.

There’s a pitcher for every price point, and the Cardinals are comparative shopping. They’ve waded into a deep pool.

In coming weeks, the current could grab them.

‘Things are picking up’

“The market is healthy, and it’s moving,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “It’s not at a standstill like we’ve seen, not by any means. There’s a fluidity to it now, things are picking up, and we have to pay attention to that. There are a lot of discussions. I don’t see a complete finality in the market, not right now, not yet. So, we’re not in the mindset of ‘uh oh.’ I think we can still be opportunistic there.”

Influencing the Cardinals’ level of interest in starting pitchers is their evaluation of Carlos Martinez’s availability for 2020. Martinez received an injection into his right shoulder of platelet-rich plasma to aid healing and clear a past injury for a defining winter. Martinez recently was cleared to begin a throwing program, and both the Cardinals and the former All-Star hope that he can return to the rotation for 2020. Hope being the agreed-upon verb. It won’t be possible for the Cardinals to know for sure until spring training begins and his ability to respond to a starter’s workload is tested and revealed.

At that point, Mozeliak said, the team should be able to “speak with confidence and say it’s full go or not.”

At that point, appealing pitchers will have signed.

The Cardinals are intrigued by the possibility of adding a lefty to the rotation and have explored what Madison Bumgarner is seeking as a free agent, a source described. They’ve also discussed Dallas Keuchel and Wade Miley as possible options.

With Martinez either in the rotation or returning to the closer role, the Cardinals see the opening for as many as two pitchers from the outside. The Cardinals believe adding a pitcher who could provide guaranteed innings for the rotation would strengthen a strength — augmenting a quintet that at the moment already includes rising stars Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson plus former All-Stars Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright.

The Cardinals have in-house contenders, such as lefty Genesis Cabrera, to compete for an opening in the rotation, and Mozeliak said there has been a “good internal debate” about the outside options vs. internal candidates.

The bottom line

Cost, as always, is a consideration.

The Cardinals have more than $140 million already committed to the 2020 team — the most they’ve ever already spent entering an offseason. Many of the signings the Cardinals planned for this winter were finalized last spring with a $237-million spending spree: Paul Goldschmidt’s five-year $130-million extension, and extensions presented Matt Carpenter (two years, $39 million) and Mikolas (four years, $68 million). The Cardinals have eight players who will make more than $10 million each in 2020, and they are braced for Yadier Molina to command a new contract and Flaherty to use arbitration for a whopping raise by 2021.

The Cardinals are absent from the highest-dollar pursuits this winter, such as the courtship of ace Gerrit Cole, sources outside the team say. And asked if the club was more financially handcuffed than before, Mozeliak insisted no.

“We have room for something if we need to,” Mozeliak said. “(Ownership) has made it clear that if the right thing comes along let’s discuss it. Let’s see. Let’s not speak in absolutes.”

They absolutely see internal improvement as vital to defending the division title.

Asked how that process is going this winter, Mozeliak offered one word.

“Active,” he said.

Focus on offense

Similar to a year ago when the Cardinals formulated winter ways to improve a rickety defense and flawed baserunning, offense has been the focus this offseason.

After his first year in the role with the Cardinals, hitting coach Jeff Albert has driven a lot of the planning But many departments are involved, from analytics to the performance group. Shildt illustrated how data will reveal an area of the strike zone in which a hitter struggled and then the team’s training stuff will explore if there is a physical limitation that explains the trouble. The advancements players will be urged to work on this winter include the usual slate of mechanical tweaks and pitch-recognition drills and more — all as a prelude to spring’s drills and competition.

Whatever work they put in before opening day and however the lineup looks, the area essential to any offensive improvement the Cardinals make is the outfield.

The Cardinals are bracing for cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna to sign elsewhere — with rival Cincinnati as one of the pursuers — and publicly have committed to a casting call of young outfielders to fill openings in the outfield. The team considers elite fielder Harrison Bader the incumbent in center field, and sees Bader and Tyler O’Neill as ready to prove where they belong in the majors.

The Cardinals are eager to see what Lane Thomas, who led the organization in homers in 2018, does when given consistent playing time, and speedy Randy Arozarena’s pyrotechnic production at Class AAA Memphis in 2019 puts him in the mix. The Cardinals continue to canvass other teams for possible outfield trades, especially one that would provide a clear starter or a lefthanded-hitting regular. But otherwise they’ve positioned their outfield question a lot like their pitching question of a year ago.

They’re betting on quantity to produce quality.

They didn’t add a starting pitcher from outside a year ago. They played the numbers game and got the numbers needed. They’re ready to rest their offensive improvement not just on the work of the coaches and hitters, but also how well the front office hits on its decisions.

Second time around

Like new Angels’ manager and former Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon, Shildt made a quick stop in St. Louis to attend an annual Pujols Family Foundation event.

This will be Shildt’s second winter meetings as manager, his first as the reigning manager of the year, and he’ll have the second-most seniority of any manager in the division.

The schedule of the winter meetings are more familiar, for sure, and so is his role when it comes to the front office chatter. Shildt said he’s “asked to evaluate what we have and what we think we have.”

They think they have options.

They’ll always look for solutions.

“Depth is good. Depth is great. But you also need guys who are going to produce,” Shildt said. “Ideally for them and for us is that somebody we have says, ‘This is my job.’ And, it is going to require being a click or two beyond what they’re already doing. We recognize that. That’s what we’re asking. Can you be a click or two beyond what you were?

“I’m optimistic because I know all the guys are more than hungry to run that race.”

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