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BenFred: Some of Cardinals’ payroll should go to star starter who can spearhead rotation

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Athletics Angels Baseball

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws to the plate during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Anaheim, Calif.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss recent comments made by Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said it multiple times this week while forecasting what needs to be an exciting offseason.

Yes, the Cardinals will add a catcher, but you can never have enough pitching.

Sure, the lineup does need more protection for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, but you can never have enough pitching.

Did he mention you can never have enough pitching?

He’s right, and a front office that has been forced to supplement the rotation from the outside in the midst of the past two regular seasons has learned how a little too much spring-training optimism can turn sinister once injuries and under-performance combine.

The good news in this department moving forward into 2023 is that the Cardinals again, on paper, seem to have a good amount of pitching depth.

And what they seem to lack parallels nicely with what they are broadcasting as a significant step forward in payroll.

Strikeout-gathering pitchers who can fulfill the role of spearheading a rotation don’t come cheap, but the Cardinals, their coffers filled thanks to Pujols-Palooza, say they are ready to spend more.

With veteran right-hander Adam Wainwright back, the rotation without any changes could consist of any combination of Wainwright along with Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, Steven Matz, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Andre Pallante, Jake Woodford and Matthew Liberatore.

Some teams dream of having so many options.

But a look at the teams that tend to make more noise in the postseason than the Cardinals have in a while shows what is missing.

Just go back to the Cardinals’ most recent here-and-gone postseason for an example.

There was considerable conversation about who manager Oli Marmol could and should pick to start Game 1 of the National League Wild Card.

Meanwhile the world knew the Phillies were coming with Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola.

Good luck.

The Philadelphia duo entered the World Series with 43 postseason strikeouts in just less than 43 combined innings.

The Astros rotation now pitching in the World Series, for those wondering, produced an MLB high 949 strikeouts by starters during the regular season.

The top-five strikeout-gathering rotations were all heavyweight teams: The Astros, the Braves (924), the Mets (919), the Padres (918) and the Yankees (897)

The Cardinals?

Their rotation produced 670 regular-season strikeouts, which ranked 21st in the majors and trailed all other postseason clubs.

Marmol often pined for more swing-and-miss stuff this season. With the job of pitching coach open, it will become even more of an emphasis moving forward. Keeping the ball on the ground and maximizing a strong defense is not going to be abandoned. There’s nothing wrong with a blend. But it’s been clear for a while Marmol wants a finger on the strikeout scale. Hoping Steven Matz and Jack Flaherty stay healthy is not enough. The Cardinals need a punch-out artist, and a good one.

Justin Verlander could be up for grabs, if you can trust an Astros export. Carlos Rodon, who stirred interest at the last trade deadline, is a free agent as well if he opts out. It’s also worth remembering the Cardinals have made their biggest recent acquisitions — Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado — via trades, striking in situations where they were comfortable with the contract they were taking on, not jostling with a crowd of free-agent competition. One of those contracts was expiring, and the Cardinals moved quickly to extend Goldschmidt. Another included not one but two opt-outs, and the Cardinals convinced Arenado to drop one and are hoping he does it again. So, don’t just assume it has to be a free-agent addition that sharpens the top of this rotation.

Maybe it’s impossible, and maybe the Angels are content to just keep him as long as he will stay, but how can the Cardinals not at least attempt to see what a trade for two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani would look like?

The Cardinals need lineup protection. Ohtani hit .273 with 34 homers and 95 RBIs while producing an on-base plus slugging percentage of .875.

The Cardinals need an ace-level arm with strikeout sizzle. Ohtani went 15-9 with a 2.33 ERA and 219 strikeouts. Opponents averaged. 203 against him. (Mikolas led the Cardinals in strikeouts in 2022. He had 153.)

The Angels are up for sale. Ohtani, 28, will make a whopping $30 million next season but is a free agent after it, limiting significantly what the Angels would have to accept for him in a trade after holding on to him at last season’s trade deadline. Remember, the Padres get two more postseason shots with Juan Soto after this one because of their trade-deadline deal with the up-for-sale Nationals. If Ohtani moves this offseason, the acquiring team is guaranteed just one if they can’t extend him. That would be have to be reflected in the trade cost.

How much of that $30 million would be paid back by Cardinals fans who flocked to see one of baseball’s greatest talents? How much of an impact could the Cardinals make in one season on a superstar who has said multiple times that his free-agent outcome will be influenced by his desire to win big? I wonder if ex-Angel Albert Pujols could tell Ohtani anything about playing the role of superhero in STL?

OK, back to reality.

Whether the rotation-advancing move comes via free agency or trade, the Cardinals need to add the kind of starter they don’t currently have.

No offense to Jose Quintana, who pitched splendidly as a Cardinal, but someone bigger and better – unless the Cardinals are willing to ship someone else out from the group to make room for Quintana and a bigger splash.

The Cardinals should go forward boldly and confidently on this quest.

In 2021, they supplemented their sinking rotation with unheralded but effective in-season additions in Wade LeBlanc, J.A. Happ and Jon Lester.

Jokes about low-hanging fruit rotted as those guys helped the team find traction and later the postseason.

In 2022, the Cardinals went bigger at the trade deadline, adding two starters who were not hopeful projects, but proven producers that season. Montgomery, who has one season left on his deal, and Quintana, who was pitching on an expiring contract before free agency arrives, became two of the Cardinals’ most effective and trusted starters down the stretch.

Now the challenge is to, among other necessary moves, add a starter who is better than all of these recent additions, one who makes it a lot less likely that in-season rotation additions will be required.

One who is not debatable when the next Game 1 arrives.

One who the Cardinals can’t wait to announce.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss recent comments made by Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.

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