On the eve of what Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has long referred to as the “unofficial kickoff of the season,” he and his staff put some finishing touches on the roster they’ll take into it.
The Cardinals completed one-year contracts with all four of their eligible players within hours of the deadline to exchange salary figures for an arbitration hearing. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, who set a franchise record with 48 saves this past season, received the most substantial raise, leaping from near the league minimum to $5.6 million. Outfielder Brandon Moss, the most veteran of the arbitration-eligible players, was the first to finish a deal and, because service time matters, received $8.25 million.
• CAREER STATS: Brandon Moss
Reliever Seth Maness and, as the time to exchange neared, first baseman Matt Adams also agreed to salaries for the 2016 season.
The flurry of signings around baseball, prompted by Friday’s deadline, meant an active day for Mozeliak near the end of an offseason that has inspired many reactions. As the Cardinals arrive for the 20th annual Winter Warm-Up, a three-day fanfest at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch, they do so without the headliners they pursued and decided to go elsewhere. After an aggressive pursuit of lefty David Price and some buoyant moments of belief that he would sign with the Cardinals, the team turned its attention to re-signing right fielder Jason Heyward. Despite a larger guaranteed offer from the Cardinals, Heyward chose the Chicago Cubs.
He did so weeks after John Lackey, the Cardinals’ top pitcher this past season, had signed with the Cubs and months after the archrivals had ousted the 100-win Cardinals from the playoffs.
The Winter Warm-Up weekend usually offers the chance for the team to celebrate the season ahead. A year ago, the Cardinals staged an introduction for Heyward and a dramatic presentation, in front of a throng of fans at Ballpark Village, of his No. 22 jersey. (It has been returned to manager Mike Matheny for the 2016 season.) In past years, the Warm-Up has seen the unveiling of Mark McGwire as hitting coach and Matt Holliday as the biggest free-agent signing in club history. This year’s could have a different tone – a spring thaw to a chilly winter – and a showcase of the team that Cardinals believe can contend.
“I feel like the answer for us is still we feel we have the right pieces,” Mozeliak said. “I know that some people disagree and want us to do something else. Matt Adams. Having Moss. Giving (Randal) Grichuk an opportunity to be an everyday center fielder right now feels right to us. If we go out and add an outfielder – where are they going to play? Who is not playing? How does that affect us? What does the short-term view look like vs. the long-term commitment? Honestly, we feel very comfortable with what we have.”
The moves Friday, while mostly procedural, reinforce that.
All four arbitration-eligible players were set with one-year contracts in early December, but they had the right to use the arbitration process to set their salaries. The Cardinals have not gone to an arbitration hearing since 1999, and often they are able to agree to deals as they did Friday – before salary figures are even exchanged. For Rosenthal, Maness and Adams, this is their first crack at arbitration, having reached three years of service time. For Moss, it is his fourth and final arbitration year before becoming a free agent.
It’s one of the reasons the Cardinals found him so appealing.
Another is the role this winter has cast for him.
The Cardinals acquired Moss, 32, at July’s trade deadline from Cleveland in exchange for rising prospect and lefthanded starter Rob Kaminsky. Moss came with a power reputation and a hip that was still recovering from surgery. In 51 games, Moss hit .250 with a .409 slugging percentage and four homers. It wasn’t the power jolt the Cardinals imagined from the lefthanded-hitter, but the move was also made with 2016 in mind. To the Cardinals, Moss offered depth — and should Heyward sign elsewhere or the Cardinals elect not to pursue a slugger, he would be positioned as a starter.
Moss hit 19 homers overall last season, and he has averaged more than 20 home runs in the past four seasons.
Although unsuccessful in their pursuits of Price and Heyward, the Cardinals did make four noteworthy acquisitions this winter, two of whom are scheduled to appear at the Warm-Up. In need of a starter to bring some quality innings to the rotation, the Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million deal. It is the largest the club has ever finalized with a free-agent who had not previously been with the organization. To add an alternative with some offensive potential to the middle infield, the Cardinals traded for San Diego’s Jedd Gyorko. Leake and Gyorko will both sign autographs Monday, the final day of the Warm-Up.
The Cardinals also re-signed reliever Jonathan Broxton and lured righthander Seung Hwan Oh from Korea for depth.
As much as they do have newcomers, the Cardinals speak of Moss and young outfielders Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty as having new opportunities. They are three reasons the club has not plunged into the slow-moving tide of free-agent hitters, staying out of talks for slugger Chris Davis and remaining on the periphery of the market for an outfielder like Justin Upton. Mozeliak’s preference is to see what he already has.
“We have some good moves that have been made,” Matheny echoed. “They’re all in the same direction of what we’ve tried to do in the past. I like where we are.”
How warmly the Warm-Up will react will be intriguing.
One of the first events Saturday of the Warm-up is Mozeliak taking the stage for a question and answer session with the fans. That could set a tone. But all around him will be the answers he’s already given. Moss will be signing autographs early. Adams, a challenger at first base who received a $1.65 million contract, will sign later. Sunday features two MVPs from the 2006 World Series run – NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan and World Series MVP David Eckstein – along with Adam Wainwright, the former closer and current ace. On Monday, Matheny and Tony La Russa appear, as do the newcomers. The Warm-Up closes as the Cardinals intend games to end this season, with Rosenthal.
All proceeds raised from the autograph sales and other events benefit Cardinals Care, the charitable arm of the organization.
The Cardinals’ first-round loss to the Cubs came at the beginning of a winter that featured turmoil at Mizzou and Gary Pinkel’s retirement, the disappointment and departure of the Rams, and, of course, Heyward’s and Price’s decisions to sign elsewhere. Mozeliak was asked if he wondered how an undercurrent of discontent could change the Warm-Up.
“Not at all,” Mozeliak said. “After 2015, winning 100 games is an enormous accomplishment and one we’re all very proud of. Most people would tell you if you can get into the postseason, you’re going to take your chances and for us it didn’t end where we had hoped. What this organization has been able to do is extremely positive. I anticipate the fan base and everybody to be just as excited as all of us are moving forward.”