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Atlanta Braves vs St. Louis Cardinals, Game 4 NLDS in St. Louis

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel pitches in the first inning during Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. Photo by David Carson,

Our earlier story:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In several recent offseasons the Cardinals have started with a clear, obvious opening as their north star and wandered through conversations with other teams and agents to find their man.

They sought a shortstop one year, a right fielder another year, a center fielder later, a middle-order hitter one winter, and a middle-order hitter the next, too. This year is less linear, more side roads than thoroughfares, with no glaring opening they see to guide them.

That could leave them sticking to the rivers and the lakes that they’re used to, watching a market that the never moves too fast, looking to upgrade the team not by filling a need, but fortifying a strength.

“Just because we have good run prevention does not mean we can’t make it better,” general manager Michael Girsch said Monday after finding shade on the entry patio of the Omni Resort Montelucia. “I don’t think our plan is to double-down. Our plan is to try and improve, not to pursue only one avenue of improvement. That seems like it’s just cutting off options – and why would you ever cut off options?”

Major League Baseball’s annual November summit of front offices remains the General Manager Meetings, avoiding the title inflation so en vogue these days that the gathering should really be the Baseball Operations Executive Meetings. They opened Monday with cocktail hour for executives and will begin formally Tuesday with a series of meetings that range from rules discussions to commissioner updates. Agents, like the representative for outfielder Marcell Ozuna, arrived Monday, and baseball’s meetings will be flecked by face-to-face talks between agents about free agents and other execs about trades.

Ozuna has until Thursday to accept a one-year, $17.8-million contract from the Cardinals, and entering the week he was likely to reject the qualifying offer. The two sides expect to meet Tuesday or Wednesday to discuss if a multi-year deal makes sense.

The Cardinals continue to negotiate with Adam Wainwright on a one-year contract to return for the 2020 season. Wainwright intends to pitch next season somewhere. If he hasn’t already, he’ll receive interest from other teams for the first time since Atlanta traded him to the Cardinals at the 2003 winter meetings.

Exploring a deal with Wainwright and monitoring the offseason workouts of Carlos Martinez gives the Cardinals a sketched-in rotation, not a finalized one. And that means their offseason shopping list will evolve.

That is where market meets opportunity.

The richest vein of this year’s free-agent class is starting pitching with an arm at almost every price point, at a variety of ages, ranging from established stars to undervalued starters with upside. The Cardinals do not expect to chase the aces in the class, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, but the available starters also include Dallas Keuchel, Madison Bumgarner, Rick Porcello and Julio Teheran. Two other appealing free agents, righthanders Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi, had qualifying offers attached to them which will shape their market.

“There are players that we like,” Girsch allowed without discussing specifics. “Whether or not they’re a fit – we still have internal options.”

The Cardinals won the National League Central for the first time since 2015 in a similar fashion to 2015: They were one of the best run prevention teams in the majors. While their offense sputtered and wheezed and conked out at times, the Cardinals leaned on the league’s most efficient defense and a rotation that had two pitchers, Jack Flaherty and rookie Dakota Hudson, with top-11 ERAs. The rotation’s 3.78 ERA was the fifth-lowest in baseball; only the Dodgers had a better staff ERA than the Cardinals in the National League. Teams chase run differential as a measurement of their ability to contend, and the Cardinals created theirs by limiting runs, not launching them.

The past two Cardinals teams that reached the playoffs excelled at run prevention. That’s the style that thrives at pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium and it can carry a club consistently, unlike a temperamental offense that runs hot then cold, colder, coldest. Whether they sign Wainwright or receive positive reviews on Martinez’s work back to starting will determine whether the Cardinals need to add a starter from outside.

Until then it’s a want – to augment their best asset.

“The way I would think about it is more like how in any transaction that you do, you have an alternative on your roster for that role, that position, and so is the acquisition better than the alternative?” Girsch said. “And/or how can you reassign the alternative? In some cases, guys move from starter to utility role, from rotation to the bullpen. In other cases, that’s not really an option. They’re in the lineup, or they’re not. It’s less about run prevention, park factors, and all of that and it’s about who are the options and where do they improve us.”

A year ago,  the Cardinals came to the General Manager Meetings hunting for a middle-order hitter and left with clear sense Arizona was going to trade Paul Goldschmidt and he was their target. Two years ago, the Cardinals hounded Miami for the outfielder they wanted. The Cardinals laid the groundwork for an offer to Miami for NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins accepted that deal, but when Stanton exercised his veto power, the offer shifted slightly to land Ozuna. Back in 2014, the Cardinals needed a right fielder, and it was at the GM Meetings that momentum gathered for the Jason Heyward trade, and it was at the GM Meetings in 2013 that the Cardinals met face-to-face with shortstop Jhonny Peralta about being the hitter they coveted at that position.

In each case, they came to the GM Meetings with a specific role in mind and a handful of teams or players who could fill that wish. They just had to narrow the field to the best deal. This year, they intend to play the field.

Offense is the obvious area to bolster, but not the only way to improve. The options are there to add muscle to their biggest strength.

“Last year we were very much in the ‘try to find an opportunity to consolidate assets into a big move’ mode,” Girsch said. “Turned out to be Goldschmidt. The year before we’d done something similar with Ozuna. I don’t think we have the same focus in terms of we need to go find out whether ‘X’ is what we’re going to do via trade or free agency. We’re more open to creativity. I don’t think this year is like last year – where we have teams with players on their roster that fit who we want and we need to figure out what they’re thinking. This year, it’s 29 teams and we should figure out what everyone is thinking.

“This is more challenging in some ways, more exciting in other ways,” Girsch concluded. “There are no limits on what we can do, and there are no limits on what we need to do. It’s really more of trying to identify what the options are that make sense.”