By Rob Rains
John Mozeliak has gone on record saying that the Cardinals’ payroll will go up in 2023. That could happen, of course, in a lot of different ways.
They could sign a top-of-the-line free agent, who will cost the most money over the greatest number of years. Current players, especially those eligible for arbitration, will be receiving raises from their 2022 salaries. Some of the team’s possible trade targets could come with a higher price tag.
The goal, no matter how it happens, is that whatever moves are made, they will make the Cardinals a better team – one that can repeat or improve on the 93 wins from this year’s regular season but also increase their chances of playing deeper into October.
Teams are allowed to begin negotiating with and signing free agents on Thursday.
Here’s an unsolicited list, one that isn’t filled with the sexiest of names, featuring four free agents the Cardinals could sign who would make them a better team:
- Kodai Senga
The 29-year-old Senga is ready to make the jump to the United States after pitching the last 10 years in his native Japan. Scouts believe the righthander has the ability to be a front-of-the-rotation starter, and he likely will sign for a shorter term and for less money than the top major-league free agent starters. Senga also is younger than most of the pitchers on that list, turning 30 in January.
Senga meets the Cardinals need for a starter with swing-and-miss stuff, having averaged more than a strikeout per inning throughout his career with a fastball that can reach triple digits to go along with a split-finger fastball. He has led the Japan league in strikeouts twice and is a three-time All-Star.
Senga’s team also won the Japan Series five times and he was a member of Japan’s Olympic Gold Medal winning team in 2020. He also is expected to be one of the team’s top pitchers in next year’s World Baseball Classic.
In 2022 Senga was 11-6 with a 1.94 ERA for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, striking out 156 batters in 144 innings.
Senga’s agent, Josh Wolfe, also represents Nolan Arenado. Among the teams expected to be interested in Senga are the Chicago Cubs, Mariners and Padres.
With only one current 2023 projected starter, Steven Matz, under contract beyond next season, the Cardinals need to add a quality starter to at least a two-year contract this winter. They have done well in signing pitchers out of the Far East in recent years, and Senga could be the latest addition to that list.
- Christian Vazquez
Mozeliak also said during his end-of-season press conference that the Cardinals will be looking to sign a starting catcher. Speculation immediately jumped to Willson Contrerars, considered the top free agent available, but Vazquez looms as a better fit for a lot of reasons.
First, he won’t cost as much as Contreras and likely would agree to a shorter contract. He also is a better defensive catcher, and succeeding Yadier Molina would be something that might appeal to the Puerto Rico native. Vazquez already is set to play for the Puerto Rico team in the World Baseball Classic which Molina will manage next spring.
Because Vazquez, 32, was traded from the Red Sox to Houston during the regular season, he is not eligible to receive a qualifying offer. If Contreras does get that offer from the Cubs, as expected, signing him would cost the Cardinals their second-round pick in next June’s amateur draft and would reduce their international bonus pool by $500,000.
Signing Vazquez to a two-year deal would give the Cardinals more time to develop Ivan Herrera into Molina’s eventual successor, as will as give them more time to monitor the progress of several other young catchers currently in the lower levels of the minors.
Combined between the Red Sox and Astros, Vazquez posted a .274 average this season with nine homers and 52 RBIs in 119 games.
There have been suggestions that the Cardinals also could acquire their new catcher through a trade, with Oakland’s Sean Murphy the most prominent name mentioned. Toronto also has enough depth to trade a catcher. Making either of those deals, however, likely would cost the Cardinals some of their top young players in exchange. Signing Vazquez would allow them to keep those players.
- Joc Pederson
His name has come up in past years when he was a free agent, but this time it makes sense for the Cardinals to sign Pederson.
The 30-year-old lefthanded hitter would give the Cardinals another DH possibility against righthanded pitching or also a candidate to split time in left field.
Playing for the Giants this season Pederson hit 23 homers and drove in 70 runs in 134 games. He has a lot of postseason experience as well, having playing for the Dodgers and Braves – a total of 79 games in which he has hit 12 home runs. Twenty-two of his postseason appearances have come in the World Series.
Signing Pederson likely would open up the possibility of trading one of the Cardinals current outfielders, perhaps Tyler O’Neill, to try to fill an additional hole or to upgrade another spot on the roster.
- Aledmys Diaz
Vazquez should not be the only free agent from the World Series champion Astros who should be on the Cardinals’ radar. A reunion with Diaz also makes sense.
Signed by the Cardinals after he fled Cuba, Diaz made the All-Star team at shortstop in 2016 before he was traded to Toronto. Diaz has spent the last four years with the Astros, becoming one of their top utility players.
That would be the role the now 32-year-old Diaz could fill on the Cardinals as well, if as expected, the team parts ways with Paul DeJong. Used at all four infield positions, plus left field, right field and as a DH in 2022, Diaz hit 12 homers in 92 games.
That versatility of the righthanded hitting Diaz would be a good compliment to Brendan Donovan and give manager Oli Marmol a lot of choices in how to deploy his bench players.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo of Kodai Senga by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports