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.”
BRYCE HARPER, Outfielder
In short, he is what the Cardinals lack — a left-handed-hitting, middle-of-the-lineup-altering star who could revitalize a fan base and lift a lineup for years to come. It would take a lot of money. It would take a lot of years. It would take addressing the Dexter Fowler situation in right field. It would also enhance a young, exciting core with a young, exciting star. We already know the 26-year-old Harper looks good in red. But no one, from Las Vegas oddsmakers to the writers who covered Harper for years in Washington, see the Cardinals as Harper's landing spot.
Can the Cardinals shock the baseball world? Has there ever been a better time to do just that? I think not.
MANNY MACHADO, Shortstop
Similar to Harper, there is no need to spit out the stats when it comes to 26-year-old Machado. He's a premier star also just now entering his prime years. If the Cardinals see Machado as even a somewhat realistic target, they have done a very good job of keeping it quiet. There has been zero buzz there, and that was before Machado caused an uproar during the postseason with his comments about not being a hustle guy and his actions, specifically kicking an opponent during his light jog down the first-base line.
There are teams out there that will be ready to offer Machado big money. It would be surprising if the Cardinals were one of them.
JOSH DONALDSON, Third Baseman
There should be no debate about the third baseman's ceiling. The three-time All-Star and former AL Most Valuable Player AVERAGED a .559 slugging percentage between 2015 and 2017. The question is, can Donaldson get back there, or somewhere relatively close? He's nearly 33 now. He was limited to 52 games in 2018 due to a series of health issues including a problematic right shoulder and left calf. He did slash .280/.400/.520 in his 50 regular-season at-bats with Cleveland after Toronto traded him. How teams view Donaldson is going to be one of the most fascinating story lines this offseason. His past production is amazing. His future is uncertain due to his health. The Cardinals have often been intrigued by the righthanded hitter, and there is no reason to believe that stance has changed.
He would likely be well-received as a third-base upgrade (if healthy), but is there enough certainty for him to be The Upgrade? Probably not at this point. Donaldson as the Cardinals' sole big move for the lineup would seem a bit thin.
MIKE MOUSTAKAS, Third Baseman
The 30-year-old declined a $15 million mutual option to hit the free-agent market again after he did not get the big deal he was hoping last offseason. Despite being traded from Kansas City to Milwaukee, Moustakas had a solid 2018 season that was slightly better than his career average. The left-handed hitter slashed .251/.315/.459 with 28 home runs and 95 RBIs. He slugged a solid .477 against right-handed pitching and played sound third-base defense.
I've been lukewarm on the notion of Moustakas in the past, but it's probably worth pointing out that he would have ranked second among 2018 Cardinals in home runs and led the team in RBIs.
DALLAS KEUCHEL, Starting Pitcher
The Cardinals' initial public offseason plans called for acquiring a boost for the lineup and figuring out how to fix the left side of the bullpen. So, acquiring a starter might be out of the question. But, plans can change, as evidenced by the Cardinals' move to sign Miles Mikolas last offseason. That worked out pretty well, right? If the Cardinals do look for a starter on the state-side free-agent market, a lefthanded one would make sense, considering the cast of arms jostling for spots in the rotation primarily features righties. Lefty starter Patrick Corbin is a free agent, but he might also become the most sought-after starter on the open market. Keuchel, a groundball-getter, seems more realistic. The nearly 31-year-old went 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA in 34 starts (204.2 innings) for the Astros in 2018. He turned a rough start to the season into a 3.23 ERA over his final 20 starts.
If the Cardinals decide they want to diversify their righthanded-heavy rotation along with their righthanded-heavy lineup, and also want to avoid a Corbin bidding war, a pursuit of Keuchel could make sense.
MICHAEL BRANTLEY, Outfielder
Sports Illustrated recently predicted the 31-year-old corner outfielder would land with the Cardinals when the free-agent carousel stops spinning. There are reasons it could work. There are reasons to press pause. The three-time All-Star is fresh off a very good season for Cleveland. The lefthanded hitter occupied the No. 2 spot in the lineup and made his second consecutive All-Star game. He averaged .309 with a .364 on-base percentage and a .468 slugging percentage. He hit 36 doubles and 17 home runs. The best part? He absolutely smoked righthanded pitching, slashing .321/.380/.509. The Cardinals could use some of that. Now, the concerns. Age. And health. Brantley's 143 games played this season were his most since 2014. He was limited to 11 games in 2016 and 90 in 2017. In recent years he has had two surgeries on his right shoulder and another on an ankle. This was his worst season defensively in left field, per Fielding Bible's Runs Saved, which scored him at three runs below average. Another thing: Brantley has never played right field, but he would have to with the Cardinals, unless the plan with Harrison Bader and Marcell Ozuna changes. Which leads us to another potential problem. Adding Brantley would complicate the Dexter Fowler situation.
Brantley's sweet lefthanded swing would look good in the Cardinals' lineup — if he stays healthy and adjusts to a new position. That seems like an awful lot to ask.
JOE KELLY, Relief Pitcher
The righthanded former Cardinals reliever is 30 now. He just dominated on the World Series stage despite an up-and-down regular season that produced an undesirable 4.39 ERA in 73 appearances (65.2 innings). He's still got nasty stuff, and he's throwing HARD. Kelly's four-seamer AVERAGED 98.7 mph this season. Compare that to a changeup that averages 88 mph and a curveball that averages 85 mph. When he's on, he's wicked hard to hit. When he's off, he walks too many batters. But here's something worth considering about Kelly, beyond his familiarity with the Cardinals. He was very effective against lefthanded hitters this season. Southpaws slashed .211/.286/.325 against him.
Who would be against a Kelly reunion? Plus, he would not be a bad backup closer candidate if young Jordan Hicks encounters turbulence.
ZACH BRITTON, Relief Pitcher
The 30-year-old lefty reliever finished the season with a 3.10 ERA in 41 games (40.2 innings) while converting seven of his 10 save opportunities. The sinkerballer was better with the Yankees to end the season (2.88 ERA) than he was with the Orioles (3.45) at the beginning, and his experience in pinstripes seemed to influence his priorities moving forward. Britton told Big Apple media members that he would be willing to be a non-closer if it increased his chances of being signed by a winning team.
The Cardinals have a closer in the making in Jordan Hicks, but some backup would be nice, and acquiring upgraded lefthanded relief is a must.
JUSTIN WILSON, Relief Pitcher
The 31-year-old lefty fastballer has a 3.43 ERA in 136 relief appearances (112.2 innings) since the start of the 2017 season. More importantly, he limited lefthanded hitters to a slash line of .190/.301/.342 in 2018. Southpaws knocked 15 hits against him, only six of which were non-singles. Compare that to 32 strikeouts of lefthanded hitters in 93 batters faced.
Wilson's next landing spot will mark his fourth team since he broke into the majors in 2012. The Cardinals' need for lefthanded bullpen assistance makes this one worth watching.
TONY SIPP, Relief Pitcher
The 35-year-old's 10th season in the majors was arguably his best. The southpaw with a three-pitch mix (four-seam, slider and split) posted a 1.86 ERA through 54 appearances and 38.2 innings. Lefthanded hitters slashed .191/.263/.294 against him, and righthanded hitters did not hammer him, slashing .209/.280/.328. He did hit the disabled list once for back soreness, but was not down for long as he rebounded quite well for a guy who had a 5.79 ERA in 2017.
His name might not move the needle much, but the Cardinals need effective lefthanded relief more than they need name recognition in the bullpen, and Sipp had a strong contract season.
JOSE IGLESIAS, Shortstop
The 28-year-old shortstop is one of the slicker-fielding shortstops on the free-agent market, which could be of interest to the Cardinals if they decide to pivot toward prioritizing run suppression through sharpened defense and pitching. The bad news for the argument is the bat. I mentioned Iglesias ahead of fellow free-agent web-gem producer Adeiny Hechavarria because Iglesias is a better hitter than Hechavarria, but that's a brutal battle to watch. The righthanded hitting Iglesias averaged .269 with a .310 on-base percentage and a .389 slugging percentage in 2018, and it was his best OPS (.699) since 2015.
Acquiring a glove-first shortstop sounds great in theory but it likely means an even weaker offense, considering shortstop Paul DeJong would shift to third base. That's not much proven power or production from the left side of an infield, especially when you consider Kolten Wong's offensive ups and downs at second base. I understand the argument, but don't love it.
JED LOWRIE, Infielder
The 34-year-old infielder has captured the Cardinals' interest in the past, first as a draft prospect and later as a trade candidate. He's a switch-hitter who can play every infield position. He made his first All-Star team in 2018 and has had nearly identical batting lines the past two seasons, averaging .272 with a .356 on-base percentage and a .448 slugging percentage since 2017. He set career-highs in home runs (23) RBIs (99) and Wins Above Replacement (4.8) this season. His power against right-handed pitching has never looked better than it looked in 2018; he slugged .477 against it.
Lowrie is often described as a second baseman, but could he make sense as a third-base upgrade for the Cardinals? There have been crazier ideas.