With a major free agent signing that answers a few of the Cardinals’ looming questions this winter, the biggest of which was who their everyday catcher would be in 2023, the club must turn a prudent eye to the horizon and the rising unknown that’s about to be glaring.
Who exactly will Willson Contreras catch in 2024?
The Cardinals, treading cautiously because they’ve been blistered before by such confidence, believe they have at least six starters ready to be a part of their rotation for the coming season. Beneath the surface of such depth is the fact that only one of those six, lefty Steven Matz, is under contract beyond 2023. Four of the six can be free agents at season’s end. Without an addition this winter or an extension this spring, the Cardinals could find themselves shopping for multiple starters at a time when aces are rare and salaries are soaring.
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“I think when you look at where we are a year from now, we know we’re going to need starting pitching,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “Where do you get it? You either develop it, you trade for it, or you go sign it. It’s pretty clear we’re going to need some arms next year.”
The Cardinals finalized a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the top free-agent catcher on the market and introduced Contreras, their new No. 40, at Busch Stadium on Friday.
That search for a catcher shaped so much of what the Cardinals aimed to do this winter, and at least one possible scenario included trading for a catcher and pursuing a free-agent shortstop like Dansby Swanson. With their free-agent splurge going to Contreras — the everyday catcher and middle-order hitter they craved in one move — the Cardinals will continue looking for pitching additions. They’ve been mostly absent from the starter market, exploring instead the swingman and reliever market. But their future need can inform present interest.
“I think you would feel a little more confident by doing something,” Mozeliak said. “If we don’t, we’ll be OK, I think. But one of the things we’ve done with the roster is to almost have perpetual churn. Now, where it’s five guys you have to replace? Or four? We’re cognizant of it.”
The Cardinals re-signed veteran Adam Wainwright to a one-year, $17.5 million contract earlier this offseason to return as the rotation’s leader. He joins All-Star Miles Mikolas, lefty Jordan Montgomery, and Jack Flaherty as the four starters who can be free agents after 2023. A fifth starter, Matz, has a contract through 2025, and the Cardinals’ sixth starter, right-hander Dakota Hudson, remains unsigned after 2023 but under control through 2024.
Wainwright, 41, has said the coming season will be his last. Back in February 2019, when Mikolas signed a four-year, $68 million extension that expires this coming year, Wainwright texted him that he “cannot wait for you to pass the torch on.”
Mikolas might be the one who keeps the torch lit.
In the coming months, the Cardinals plan to explore contract extensions with at least two of the starters who are unsigned beyond 2023. Mikolas is the most obvious candidate for one. The right-hander led the rotation with a 3.29 ERA and the pitching staff with 202 1/3 innings this past season. When healthy, the Jupiter, Florida, native has been an innings bulldozer and two-time All-Star. He’s a stalwart. The open market for pitchers like him has assured a raise just as it’s informed the Cardinals’ the cost of waiting to address their rotation.
The top two free-agent pitchers available this winter, Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander, signed deals that average greater than $37 million per year. Eight starters have already signed for deals that will pay them more than $13 million per year, and that group includes former Cardinal Jose Quintana, who reportedly reached a two-year, $26 million agreement with the Mets. He had interest in returning to the Cardinals, but the Cardinals had other immediate priorities and no indication they’d match that bid.
Taijuan Walker signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Phillies that hints at where the Cardinals must reach for extension offers — or next year’s free agents.
Walker made 29 starts this past season for the Mets, went 12-5 with a 3.49 ERA and pitched 157 1/3 innings. He had a 7.6 strikeout-per-nine rate and his ERA+, a stat that accounts for ballpark and compares against league average of 100, was 111. Walker is 30, and Montgomery will be by the end of this month. He too had an ERA+ of 111, a 3.48 ERA, and he logged more innings (178 1/3) and a higher strikeout rate (8.6) than Walker. Montgomery, in the final year of arbitration, is set to command a salary around $10 million-$11 million, while Walker will average $18 million over the next four years. That’s the range Montgomery could reach, with Mikolas ahead of him in average value if not length of contract.
At 34, Mikolas had a 116 ERA+ and a 6.8 strikeout rate.
Set to be one of the youngest free agents available next year, Flaherty, who just turned 27, is harder to fit into the marketplace after three seasons eroded by injuries. He is having a healthy and unimpeded offseason, the Cardinals said, and expectations are high — and then so would be the cost to extend him.
“Montgomery and Flaherty have top of the rotation talent, and Mikolas does as well,” Mozeliak said. “A healthy Matz and Waino back — the rotation can be pretty impressive. Dakota is definitely going to get a look. We’re excited about what we think we have. The bigger thing is I hope we have really hard decisions at the end of camp.”
A year ago, the Cardinals were set to announce Drew VerHagen as their fifth starter before the early signs of an injury emerged, and that cost him the season. He returns for 2023, as do aspiring starters Jake Woodford, Zack Thompson, Andre Pallante, and Matthew Liberatore. Prospects Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy are warming for their closeups. The Cardinals experimented with both Jordan Hicks and Pallante by building their stamina on the job this past year. Neither held the starting job for long and by the end of July, the Cardinals traded for two starters, Montgomery and Quintana.
Test-driving young pitchers Thompson or Pallante as starters at some point this season would also give the Cardinals a clearer view of the holes to fill in the 2024 rotation.
“We needed to find out if it was real or not,” manager Oliver Marmol said of trying Hicks and Pallante as starters. “Our rotation is what it is, and we’re going to figure (it) out. I hope all those guys make it really difficult on us. I hope they come in and wow us with what they’re doing in spring. The reality is they’ve had an opportunity to show us what they’re capable of doing.”
Which brings the conversation back to the list Mozeliak said atop this article.
Where do the Cardinals find the starting pitching they’ll soon need?
They either develop it, and show that this season.
Or they trade for it (again).
Or they extend the pitchers they have.
Or, as Mozeliak said, “you go sign it.”
Some compelling options could yet surface in this market of heightened-spending and uncertain starters. Sean Manaea, a lefty last with the Padres, is looking for a contract that allows him to build into a bigger bite at free agency. Chris Bassitt, a steady right-hander entering his mid-30s, declined a $19 million option for 2023 with the Mets to pursue a multi-year deal. Only eight starters in the majors have more than 500 innings like him and an ERA better than his 3.31 since 2019. Miami right-hander Pablo Lopez, under control through 2024, has attracted the Cardinals as a trade target before.
The free-agent class of pitchers next season could feature the trio of Cardinals and then standouts like Phillies’ Aaron Nola and the Dodgers’ Julio Urias. Nola finished fourth in the voting for the NL Cy Young Award this past season; Urias finished third. Shohei Ohtani, who led the Angels in ERA, innings, and RBIs to go with 34 homers, will be the headliner of the class. It also includes Blake Snell, Flaherty’s high school teammate Lucas Giolito, and Yu Darvish.
St. Louis-area native Max Scherzer, who the Cardinals have thrice passed on pursuing, can opt out of his deal with the Mets for another crack at free agency at age 39.
He’s due to make $43 million in 2024 if he stays in Queens.
Such is the price of premium pitching, and it’s only going up.
Internally, the Cardinals recognize the mushrooming payrolls of their rivals for the National League pennant and the challenge that is to their model, their budgets. Their need for pitching could push them beyond their conform because whether it’s measured in abandoned innings or acquired starters, not addressing the oncoming openings in the rotation will be costly.
“It’s something that we’re aware of, right?” Mozeliak said. “We have some young starters coming. I think there is going to be some time to understand. There are things that we’ll certainly have to explore.”