The Cardinals came into 2023 with hopes of contending, as they generally always do. The club has finished below .500 just once this century, back in 2007, and has qualified for the playoff in each of the past four seasons. Unfortunately, things haven’t been trending their way this year, with the Cards currently 38-52 and in last place in the National League Central.
A few weeks ago, the club’s president of baseball operations John Mozeliak spoke about how the club hadn’t yet made any concrete decisions about how to approach the deadline. But those plans seem to have firmed up recently, with Mozeliak speaking with Martin Kilcoyne of The Kilcoyne Conversation at Scoops with Danny Mac, discussing how the club is planning to make moves aimed at improving the 2024 roster.
Mozeliak says that the club won’t be “waving the white flag” but admits that “all decisions or all moves we do really will try to set us up for next year.” He goes on to say that they won’t just give players away but that they “want to get some return that’s going to help us for 2024 and that’s going to be, really, our focus as we enter the trading period.” He also admitted that there’s not really such a thing as a player who’s “untouchable” because anything can happen, but also states that “The fact is we hope we can keep our core together and then, you know, supplement it properly.”
To hear him take such a stance is hardly surprising, given their current place in the standings. They are 11.5 games out in the division and 11 back of the final Wild Card spot right now. FanGraphs currently pegs their playoff odds at just 6.3%. A hot streak between the All-Star break and the deadline could change those odds, but it seems the club is accepting that their best path forward is to make decisions with their eyes set on a fresh start next year.
The club could have also considered committing to a more significant rebuild with their sights set even further into the future, but there are reasons why it makes sense to take a more measured approach. The club came into this year with a strong roster than many predicted to win the division and that could easily be true of 2024 as well, especially since every position player on the club is still under club control for next year. The pitching staff is a different story, but some modest selling could still leave the club with a solid core for next year.
There’s also the fact that this year’s deadline seems to be lining up to be a seller’s market, with so many clubs still hovering near contention thanks to the expanded postseason and some weaker divisions. By staking out some space in the seller column, the Cards could quickly add some controllable talent to the system and then figure out how to proceed in the offseason.
In terms of impending free agents, the club will have plenty of players to shop around. Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty are each slated to reach free agency this winter and should garner plenty of interest, especially with pitching always in demand around the league. Montgomery has a long track record of solid production and is having arguably his best season to date, with a 3.23 ERA that would be a personal best. Flaherty’s 4.27 ERA isn’t quite as impressive but he’s shown better upside in the past, including his 2.75 ERA in 2019. Relievers Chris Stratton and Jordan Hicks are each having nice seasons and could also be flipped before they reach free agency in a few months’ time.
Since those aforementioned players are all rentals, moving them wouldn’t hurt the 2024 club in any way. The Cards could potentially hang onto to them and issue them qualifying offers in order to receive compensatory draft picks, though Mozeliak admitted that “Our hope is we can get more than just the pick, and so that will be what we try to do.” That also tracks with the club’s aims of continuing to compete in 2024, as they could recoup players close to helping at the major league level, whereas a draft pick wouldn’t be likely to help the club until years down the line.
There’s also an argument to be made that the Cards could trade some controllable position players in a way that helps the 2024 club. They have plenty of outfielders in the mix, including Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, Jordan Walker, Tyler O’Neill and Alec Burleson, while infielders like Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan have also been pushed into the outfield of late as Paul DeJong and Nolan Gorman have regularly taken the middle infield spots. One of the club’s top prospects, shortstop Masyn Winn, is in Triple-A this year and should be due for a major league audition at some point. Other depth options on the 40-man include Juan Yepez, Moises Gomez and Richie Palacios. The club also has Iván Herrera, a valuable catching prospect, who is currently blocked by Willson Contreras.
That’s quite the crowded picture and the Cards could perhaps decide which players they like best while moving a few others while still having a solid group overall. However, those kinds of decisions aren’t always easy to make, as the club has seen in recent years. Mozeliak admitted that the club made mistakes in letting go of players like Randy Arozarena and Adolis García while sticking with guys like O’Neill and Harrison Bader.
It’s easy to make those kinds of calls with the benefit of hindsight, but the Cards may have to make some tough decisions again, especially in order to improve the pitching staff. With Montgomery, Flaherty, Hicks and Stratton on their way to free agency and Adam Wainwright set to retire, there are plenty of holes to fill on the pitching side of things. Some of the remaining options are also questionable, with Mozeliak admitting the club didn’t get what they expected from pitchers like Dakota Hudson and Matthew Liberatore this year.
As for the coaching, Mozeliak doesn’t lay any blame at the foot of second-year manager Oli Marmol. “I don’t think the coaches have any fault in this,” Mozeliak said. “They are handed the players. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. But I think Oli and his group do a really good job. They work really hard. And, you know, they continue to do that. But their level of frustration is probably as real as the fan base.” Marmol’s first season at the helm resulted in a 93-69 record and a division title. The results haven’t been there this season but it seems like he’s likely to get another shot with a different roster next year.
Exactly how the Cards navigate the deadline will undoubtedly be influenced by what kind of conversations they have with other clubs in the weeks to come, but it seems like they have settled on a broad plan of making whatever decisions will help the club next year. That likely means impending free agents will be available and perhaps other players as well. This year’s trade deadline is August 1, now less than three weeks away.