The Cardinals approach the trade deadline in an unfamiliar position as sellers. Sitting 12 games under .500 and in last place in the NL Central, St. Louis joins the Rockies, Nationals and Pirates as the only National League clubs at least 10 games out of a playoff spot.
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak admitted last week the Cards were turning their attention towards 2024. He expanded upon that in a wide-ranging conversation with the St. Louis beat this afternoon (YouTube link via Charlie Marlow of 590 The Fan). Cards’ fans will want to check out the complete media session.
Mozeliak conceded there wasn’t much hope of avoiding a sell-off of short-term pieces at this stage of the season. “Does performance (over the next two weeks) change our direction? Probably not at this point. Where we are in the standings, it’s going to make it very difficult to change that.” He left open the possibility of something like an eight-game win streak altering the equation but it’s clear the front office anticipates parting with a number of veteran players over the next couple weeks.
The front office leader restated they’re prioritizing trade targets who could help the big league team in the near future. Mozeliak indicated they’d look for players who’d be MLB factors by 2024-25 and was rather blunt about their positional desires.
“We’re going to treat the trading deadline as ’pitching, pitching, pitching,'” he said. “That’s not to say we’re going to ignore a position player that may be uber-great … but the goal would be to address as much pitching as possible.”
It isn’t hard to understand why. The rotation has been St. Louis’ biggest problem area. Cardinals’ starters entered play Monday ranked 25th in MLB with a 4.64 ERA. That’s obviously insufficient to begin with and it’s only likely to thin out over the next few weeks. Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty are impending free agents who both seem likely to change uniforms by August 1. Adam Wainwright isn’t a trade candidate but he’s retiring at season’s end.
That’s three vacancies arising before 2024. Only Miles Mikolas seems a lock for next year’s season-opening rotation. Steven Matz is under contract for two more seasons but has bounced between the starting staff and the bullpen this year. Matthew Liberatore has been tagged for a 6.39 ERA over eight MLB starts. Righty Jake Woodford wasn’t much more effective in an early-season rotation look. Former first round draftee Zack Thompson could compete for a ’24 rotation spot but has one MLB start to his name.
While St. Louis will scour the trade market for upper level starting pitching, they’ll also have to dip into free agency next winter. Mozeliak conceded it’d be nearly impossible to envision the Cards not adding a free agent starter and indicated the organization should have enough financial flexibility to attack the open market.
Interestingly, he indicated the organization’s approach to pitching acquisition could be a little different moving forward. St. Louis has prioritized ground-ball pitchers in recent seasons, relying on an excellent infield defense to support a pitch-to-contact staff. That hasn’t worked this year. St. Louis has allowed an MLB-worst .324 batting average on grounders. That’s a huge change from seasons past, one Mozeliak admitted could impact the way the front office approaches things.
The team is likely to prioritize “more swing-and-miss versus ground-ball types,” he said. Only the Rockies and Royals have gotten a lower strikeout rate out of their rotation than St. Louis’ 18.4% clip. The bullpen has been more effective, ranking 12th with a 24.5% strikeout percentage.
A few members of the relief corps are also likely to be on the way out. The Cards already designated lefty Génesis Cabrera for assignment this morning. Mozeliak called that a “change of scenery” decision, noting that Cabrera is hopeful of landing a higher-leverage role than the one he’d received in St. Louis. Jordan Hicks and Chris Stratton seem likely to be dealt strictly because of their contractual situations. Both are impending free agents and having quality seasons, with the flamethrowing Hicks standing out as a particularly desirable rental trade chip.
There aren’t any true rentals on the position player side, although the Cards seem likely to opt for a $1MM buyout over a $12.5MM club option on shortstop Paul DeJong. A middle infield logjam also comprising Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman and eventually top prospect Masyn Winn makes a DeJong trade seem likely.
Left fielder Tyler O’Neill has seemed a potential trade candidate amidst a season decimated by back issues. Mozeliak didn’t expressly rule that out but seemed to cast some doubt on that possibility today, saying the Cardinals anticipated playing O’Neill as their everyday left fielder. He has been on the injured list since May 4 but could be reinstated before tomorrow’s game against Miami.
O’Neill is playing this season on a $4.95MM salary. The club can retain him for one more season via arbitration. St. Louis has enough outfield depth that O’Neill could be a non-tender candidate next winter, though it’s also possible they deal another outfielder to clear space. Star rookie Jordan Walker isn’t going anywhere, and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote last week the Cards were telling other clubs they had no intention of moving Lars Nootbaar.
That arguably leaves Dylan Carlson as an odd man out. The former top prospect is hitting .243/.350/.376 over 203 trips to the plate. He reaches arbitration for the first time next winter and isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2026 campaign. Mark Feinsand of MLB.com indicated this evening (on Twitter) the Yankees could have some interest in Carlson as they search for outfield help.
Of course, there are no bigger names the Cardinals could put on the trade market than their star corner infield tandem of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Mozeliak declined to declare either player categorically untouchable but strongly downplayed the possibility of moving either. “I don’t have any intentions of trading anybody like them,” he said. “If you’re willing to listen on anything, you have to understand (anything’s possible), but I doubt that would happen.” As he subsequently noted, both players have full no-trade rights, and it seems very unlikely a St. Louis team gearing back up for 2024 would want to part with either of its top two position players regardless.