By Rob Rains
Even though the Cardinals’ brain-trust has known for a long time how this season was going to end, now that it’s officially over – it’s time for them to get to work to try to prevent another dismal performance from happening in 2024.
There’s a lot of work to do. As manager Oli Marmol told reporters before the season’s final game on Sunday – “We can’t mess it up.”
The goal is for the Cardinals to make a quick recovery from their 71-91 season, the most losses they have had in 33 years, a season that saw them spend 146 out of 180 days in last place. Marmol also said that if the team is not competing for a championship next season, “that’s a mistake.”
Before John Mozeliak and his lieutenants can think about making offers for free agent pitchers, they have to figure out what to do with their current roster.
Counting players on the 60-day injured list, and not including the retiring Adam Wainwright, the team currently has 44 players on the 40-man roster so there obviously are moves that will need to be made.
To try to simplify some of those decisions, here is a breakdown of where all of those players likely stand as the off-season begins, separated into six categories, with the sixth being the players the Cardinals will need to add to that roster in order to protect them from being claimed in the Rule 5 draft in December.
Who to keep (15):
Pitchers: Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Zack Thompson, Matthew Liberatore, Drew Rom, JoJo Romero.
Catcher: Willson Contreras.
Infielders: Nolan Arenado, Brendan Donovan, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Gorman, Masyn Winn.
Outfielders: Lars Nootbaar, Richie Palacios, Jordan Walker.
This obviously is the nucleus of the players the Cardinals hope to build a team around in 2024, especially on the position players’ side. Could there be a surprise move this winter involving one of these players? It likely depends on whether the Cardinals are able to fill their holes on the pitching staff through free agency or if they will need to make trades to accomplish that goal. Mozeliak has made a point of repeating his goal of adding three top-level starting pitchers. If he can’t do that by just spending a lot of Bill DeWitt Jr.’s money, he will have to try to swing a trade of two.
To get that top-level starter through a trade, it likely would have to include at least one of the players who would appear to be in the “keep” category. One player to watch from this group, in what admittedly might be a minority opinion, is Arenado. Yes, he is a future Hall of Famer. Yes, he has a no-trade clause. But two other factors to consider – trading Arenado likely would allow the Cardinals to acquire a premier young starting pitcher as part of the return package. The other consideration is the Cardinals have at least two proven major-league players capable of becoming their regular third baseman in Donovan or Gorman.
This would be a bold move, but if there is anybody among this group of players who might be the one to consider trading to get a top starter this winter, a case could be made that Arenado should at least be in those discussions.
Who to trade (2):
Tyler O’Neill, Alec Burleson.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that O’Neill will not be back with the Cardinals in 2024. The organization is just too tired of not being able to depend on him to stay healthy for more than a few weeks at a time.
Whether some team would be willing to take the chance that they can keep him on the field will be the question. The Cardinals basically have until the first week of December to make their move, otherwise it would not be a shock if O’Neill was not offered a contract for 2024 because of how high his salary would be through arbitration. Knowing that could happen will, of course, reduce the level of prospect any team likely would be willing to trade for O’Neill.
Burleson didn’t do anything wrong, but he is on this list simply because of the glut of outfielder-first basemen-DH candidates on the roster. The way Palacios performed in September also could make Burleson expendable especially if the Cardinals could find a match for pitching with a team looking for a young lefthanded hitter.
Who is in limbo (13):
Pitchers: Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, John King, Kyle Leahy, Andre Pallante, Wilking Rodriguez, Guillermo Zuninga.
Catchers: Ivan Herrera, Andrew Knizner.
Infielders: Tommy Edman, Jose Fermin.
Outfielders: Dylan Carlson, Mike Siani.
There are certainly some interesting names among this group of players, and a case could be made for each on why they should still be a Cardinal in 2024 or why they could be trade candidates this winter.
How the Cardinals reconfigure their bullpen this off-season will be another story to watch, in addition to their pursuit of starters. All of their pitching needs are not confined to the rotation. The trickle-down of what pitchers they bring in from outside the organization, either as starters or relievers, through free agency or trades, will have an effect on the pitchers in this group and likely a couple of the players in the ones to keep section who could be either a starter or a reliever.
The biggest uncertainty among this group of pitchers when it comes to 2024: Can Helsley stay healthy and be counted on as their closer? It’s a question the Cardinals will need to answer.
The outfield questions also will be interesting to monitor. The biggest question the Cardinals might have to answer before getting too deep into off-season discussions is if they see Edman as their starting center fielder in 2024. There has been no question about his play defensively, but is he a good enough hitter to fill that position on a full-time basis on a contending team? If the Cardinals think the answer is yes that probably leaves Carlson available to trade, but his trade value is likely less than it should be because of his recent ankle surgery.
If the Cardinals are more concerned about getting extra offense out of the center field spot, then Edman could be a trade candidate as well.
It appears the Cardinals also have a catching decision to make. Contreras has four years left on his contract. Knizner is coming off his best season. Herrera has nothing left to prove at Triple A. Would the Cardinals keep three catchers, or does one of them get shopped this winter?
Who needs a fresh start (5):
Luken Baker, Moises Gomez, Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford, Juan Yepez.
This group is made up of players, who for one reason or another, just don’t seem to be part of the Cardinals’ future plans. Gomez hit 30-plus home runs in each of the last two seasons, was on the 40-man roster, and never got a look at the big-league level this year.
Woodford and Hudson deserve a chance to see if they can find a regular role on a major-league team. Yepez is in the same position. He won’t be a regular in St. Louis, but could be somewhere else. Baker has impressive minor-league power numbers, but never got a consistent chance to really see if he could match that success at the major-league level.
Who was just filling a spot this year (9):
Pitchers: Jacob Barnes, Casey Lawrence, James Naile, Packy Naughton, Andrew Suarez, Connor Thomas, Drew VerHagen.
Infielders: Irving Lopez, Juniel Querecuto.
The Cardinals needed these players this year because of all of the injuries that forced them to go through a franchise-record 52 players during the season. VerHagen is a free agent who doesn’t figure to be back.
Some of the others could be dropped from the 40-man roster then re-signed to minor league deals if they want to stay in the organization, or they could also move on if they believe they have a better chance to stick in the majors with another organization.
Who needs protecting on 40-man roster (2):
Ian Bedell, Pedro Pages.
After going through multiple arm surgeries, Bedell was able to pitch all of this season at high A Peoria and is deserving of a promotion to Double A in 2024.
Pages was a player that scouts on other teams were watching before this year’s trade deadline as he improved both offensively and defensively while working as the regular catcher in Springfield. Especially if the Cardinals make a move involving one of the three major-league catchers, they can’t afford to lose Pages in the Rule 5 draft, expecting that he will be the primary catcher at Memphis next season.
Every decision the Cardinals make on every player will have an impact on the team in 2024. Marmol understands exactly how important this off-season will be.
“We can’t repeat what happened this year,” he said. “It’s on us to make it right … I want a clubhouse full of guys that have one thing on their mind and that’s not themselves; it’s winning a championship. Start out by weeding those out.
“We lost 90 games for a reason.”
To change that, the Cardinals need to win in the off-season, especially on the pitching side.
“We’ll see,” Marmol said. “We’ll see how it all pans out. To compete at a high level, not only win the division but actually compete for a World Series, that’s what you need.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports