Even after revamping their rotation with a rapid-fire trio of free agent signings, the Cardinals are still in the mix for White Sox righty Dylan Cease, reports Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said at the press conference to introduce Sonny Gray that he “doubted” his next move would be to add more starting pitching but conceded that he remains “open-minded” to further rotation additions (link via Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).
The Cardinals, of course, signed Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn in just over a week’s time, adding a trio of arms who combined for 97 starts in 2023. The addition of Gray added a front-end presence to the St. Louis rotation, while Lynn and Gibson at the very least provided some reliable bulk innings on the back end. It seems clear that the Cards prioritized some stability after years of injury-related starting pitching crunches at Busch Stadium, and Cease would be a fourth addition in that vein.
In terms of pure results, the 27-year-old Cease (28 next month) has been on both ends of the spectrum recently. In 2022, he finished runner-up to Justin Verlander in AL Cy Young voting, while his 2023 campaign saw his ERA more than double from 2.20 to 4.58. Cease’s velocity dipped by a mile per hour, his strikeout rate fell three percentage points, and he yielded far more hard contact than he did during that elite 2022 campaign. What remained constant, however, was the righty’s availability. Cease made 33 starts this past season — his fourth straight year with a full slate of starts. Since 2020, Cease leads all MLB pitchers with 109 games started.
As things stand, the Cardinals project for a five-man rotation of Gray, Miles Mikolas, Lynn, Gibson and Steven Matz. Mikolas and Matz are both signed through 2025 — Mikolas at a total of $32MM and Matz at $24MM. There’s been some speculation about the possibility of an eventual Matz trade, but the Cardinals are also surely reluctant to thin out their depth too much after being burned by a lack of depth in multiple seasons recently.
Cease would give the Cardinals even more bulk innings but do so while carrying more upside than perhaps any member of their current staff. He’d surely benefit from a move out of the White Sox’ homer-happy stadium and away from their poorly ranked defense. With two years of club control remaining, a projected $8.8MM salary in arbitration (courtesy of MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz) and clear Cy Young-caliber upside on the mound, bidding for Cease’s services will be fierce.
Already this winter, he’s been connected to the Braves, Dodgers, Reds and Orioles. That’s surely just a fraction of the teams who’ve at least reached out to the ChiSox to gauge the asking price. The Cardinals’ recent free-agent activity might lessen their urgency relative to some of those other suitors, but it’s nevertheless of note that they remain in the mix at all.
From a payroll perspective, they can likely make a Cease acquisition work without even dramatically raising their spending from last year’s levels. The Cards backloaded Gray’s three-year, $75MM contract such that he’ll be paid just $10MM in 2024. Roster Resource projects a $180MM payroll right now, which is only narrowly higher than last year’s Opening Day mark. And the Cards could yet trade arbitration-eligible names like Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson, which would impact that payroll projection.
Someone like O’Neill — a free agent at season’s end — isn’t likely to hold much appeal to the White Sox, who’ll be looking for controllable talent to build around in the near future. But generally speaking, the Cardinals have a bevy of young, MLB-ready talent that could interest Chicago. Names like Carlson, Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Alec Burleson, Luken Baker and Matthew Liberatore all have at least three seasons of club control remaining, and that’s not even counting some interesting upper-minors prospects who’ve yet to debut but are relatively close to the Majors (e.g. Gordon Graceffo, Tink Hence).
As for the timing of a potential Cease trade, reports on the matter are conflicting in nature; MLB.com’s Jon Morosi suggested just yesterday that Cease’s market was heating up and a trade could come together by Sunday evening. Not 18 hours later, Rosenthal reported nearly the opposite — that Sox GM Chris Getz has been indicating to teams he prefers to wait until after the top free-agent names have come off the board.