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St. Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals

Washington's Bryce Harper homers against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Photo by Chris Lee / Post-Dispatch

Seated at the head of the table, near the front of the room, and fielding questions about how he intends to get the Cardinals back in the postseason, John Mozeliak listed the team’s traditional selling points to free agents: the 3.4 million tickets sold, the “winning vibe,” the culture with past pennants flying, and eventually he stopped, done with the familiar embroidery.

The president of baseball operations flipped the question on the assembled media.

“The pitch isn’t all that complicated,” he sighed. “Historically, the proxy’s what?”

Money, a reporter replied.

“Money,” Mozeliak said. “Thank you. Thank you.”

The free-agent class that baseball has been waiting on and, in some cases saving for, opened officially Friday as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and a deep, rich group of talent became available to all interested teams. Or, as Mozeliak’s question implied: The highest bidders. With a stockpile of young pitching talent, a billion-dollar TV deal, and few longterm or high-dollar contracts, the Cardinals are positioned as well as any team in the majors to shoot for the stars.

Three years since their last postseason appearance and five since their last National League pennant have given the Cardinals a palpable impatience. The team and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., according to one industry source, are “sending signals they are out to be a player.” The Cardinals intend to explore Harper’s market and see how they fit, sources confirmed. They have long eyed free agent Josh Donaldson as a possible answer at third base. The improvement the Cardinals seek, especially when it goes by the name Bryce, comes at a price.

“Do I agree that we need some level of elite talent to compete at the highest level? Yeah, I’d accept that,” Mozeliak said. “In a perfect world, you’re developing that. But we have not been able to. Part of that is where we (draft). … Do I think there’s opportunity here? Yes. I’ve been referred to as the bridesmaid before. And then there are other times that I’ve been referred to as, ‘Do you regret doing it?’ So, there is sort of a Catch-22.

“We understand that there is an opportunity in this market,” he continued, “and we have to be open-minded to see where that takes us.”

Start west, young Mo.

Major League Baseball’s 2019 gold rush begins this week in Carlsbad, Calif., at the annual GM Meetings. Executives are expected to arrive Monday afternoon with the first official meetings set for Tuesday, though some will have already taken place. Officials have gatherings for arbitration rules and trends that start Sunday, and several agents intended to be present by this weekend to start talking individually with teams. The GM Meetings tend to be the opening overtures for future moves. A year ago, the Cardinals started talks with reliever Luke Gregerson’s agent at the GM Meetings, and made progress on a deal for Miles Mikolas. In 2014, it was at the GM Meetings the Cardinals and Braves engaged in negotiations that became the trade for outfielder Jason Heyward days later.

At those same meetings in Phoenix, Mozeliak referenced the Cardinals’ “payroll muscle,” and a rival, Cubs president Theo Epstein, warned how if the Cardinals “put their foot on the gas” the division should be ready because “there isn’t a player in baseball they couldn’t go get.”

The meetings can be equal parts prep and rhetoric.

This week can also be a barometer.

Last year’s chilly winter unnerved the game, especially as some players and agents sensed collusion in the air. Teams scoffed. The free-agent pool was thin and data-driven decisions gripped the game. Several teams willingly put themselves on the sidelines, preferring to “tank” now to compete later. That artificially iced the market as at least 10 teams did not intend to compete. Some big spenders, like the NL champion Dodgers and 100-win Yankees, tried to cut payroll for 2018, get under baseball’s luxury tax, and ready themselves for bidding this offseason, absent penalties. That explanation only goes as far as the zeroes and commas of this offseason, which arguably features the best free-agent group of this generation.

“The revenues in the game are at extraordinary levels, and competition is the issue,” said agent Scott Boras, who represents Harper and a handful of headline free agents. “If we want our game to succeed, we need to recognize the importance of competition at all levels. Otherwise, we will have the July 31st tyranny of the game. That’s when teams do their building at the trade deadline because so many teams are tanking. That’s causing the free agent market to move like it has. So, you have to ask yourself how many teams are going to the wedding and their ultimate goal is being a bridesmaid.”

That word — bridesmaid — has become a charged word, like “runnerup,” around the Cardinals. Mozeliak said it, unprompted, in mid-October as a nod to the position the Cardinals have found themselves the past few years.

In recent, highest-dollar pursuits for free agents or superstars, the Cardinals have finished like they have in October: outside, looking in. That was true in December 2015 when they fell short of the highest offer (David Price) and had the highest guarantee (Heyward). A year ago, the Cardinals had a deal in place with the Marlins for NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton only to see Stanton veto the trade and strong-arm one to the Yankees. These experiences have stung the Cardinals — and inspired external questions and internal discussions about how to update and improve their sales pitch.

“The reality is free agents by and large will take the highest bid, and our success historically has been retaining players. I don’t see that changing,” DeWitt said. “When you’re trying to convince someone what it’s like to come to the Cardinals, that’s different than experiencing it firsthand. We will get players if they’re with us to stay and sign extensions. No doubt about that. Free agents — a number of them become free agents because they’re looking to maximize their value. I don’t see any issue in that regard attracting talent to the St. Louis Cardinals.”

In the wake of their pursuit of Stanton, sources made it clear that the Cardinals were willing to cover around $255 million of the remaining contract — the biggest in baseball history. The Cardinals called it “a unique situation” and how it took “a unique player” for them to spend prospects and commit money like that.

This winter offers two such players.

Harper turned 26 in October and is one of the youngest free agents ever, alongside Alex Rodriguez and Adrian Beltre. Machado, three months older, plays premium positions and is an elite hitter. Both are entering their peak seasons with the ability to command decadelong, $350-million deals through their most productive seasons. As Mozeliak said about Stanton, it’s “not often that type of assets (are) on the market.”

The Phillies have overtly positioned themselves and their payroll to lead the Machado sweepstakes. The Giants and Nationals are well-situated to chase Harper, while the Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees will inevitably be drawn in to discussions on either player.

DeWitt said the Cardinals are “open for business this year on premium players.”

He and Mozeliak offered the same caveat.

Like many teams, they are leery of longterm commitments. Since signing Matt Holliday in January 2010 — the Cardinals’ first and so far only $100-million deal with a free agent — there have been 36 $100-million men. A fifth of them did not have an at-bat in 2018. At least a third were either injured for most of the season, ineffective, or already retired. The Cardinals “don’t want to bury the future to try to get a short-term fix today,” DeWitt said.

But changing the franchise’s trajectory — and perception — through the addition of a franchise player for years to come is appealing to the Cardinals.

This past week, the Cardinals pruned their 40-man roster, losing Greg Garcia and Matt Bowman on waivers and Bud Norris, Tyson Ross, Francisco Pena, and Matt Adams to free agency. The Cardinals, whose revenues ranked between eighth and 10th in baseball this past season, have close to $115 million in commitments for 2019 with another $25 million, or thereabouts, in arbitration salaries due. The roster pruning also underscored a hole on the left.

Of the 38 players on the roster, two — Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter — and switch-hitter Dexter Fowler bat lefthanded and have experience in the majors. Only four pitchers are lefthanded.

The strength of this market is not just at the top, but in its variety. For the Cardinals’ needs, there are pitchers like Zach Britton, a lefty who could close and fill their opening, or like Tony Sipp, a specialist. There’s Donaldson, who has been hounded by injuries, but when healthy has been a middle-order hitter and former MVP the Cardinals crave. If the Cardinals pivot to add a starter, the options range from lefties Dallas Keuchel and Patrick Corbin to Japan’s Yusei Kikuchi, a lefty the Cardinals have scouted in preparation for his availability. This market offers a bounty, for big spenders, rebuilders, and even “bridesmaids.”

Improvements are on hand, no proxy needed.

“It’s a very competitive world out there,” Mozeliak said, describing baseball’s industry. “That world is something where the moment you get too comfortable, we have a problem.”