The Cardinals have spent their offseason focused on adding pitching, having already signed Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn to fill out the club’s rotation while trading for Andrew Kittredge, Nick Robertson and Victor Santos to bolster their bullpen depth. In a recent mailbag, The Athletic’s Katie Woo discussed St. Louis’s plans for the remainder of the offseason.
Regarding the bullpen, Woo notes that while the Cardinals have been active in the free agent relief market this offseason, the club doesn’t appear to be interested in a major addition like relief ace Josh Hader, instead preferring to shop in the lower tiers of the market. Woo relays that the club hopes to add another reliever to their bullpen with a contract in the range of around $5MM annually. She also notes that the club had interest in a reunion with right-hander Chris Stratton, who the club landed alongside Jose Quintana in a deal with the Pirates at the 2022 trade deadline before flipping him to the Rangers alongside Jordan Montgomery last summer, before the veteran inked a two-year, $8MM deal with the Royals.
Of course, it’s important to note that this report from Woo was published before the Cardinals and Rays got together on a trade to send veteran righty Andrew Kittredge to St. Louis yesterday afternoon. Kittredge is projected for a salary of just $2.3MM in 2024 by MLBTR’s Matt Swartz. Given the righty’s modest projected salary, it’s possible that his addition wouldn’t necessarily preclude the Cardinals from making another relief addition, whether by free agency or trade. At the same time, Woo indicates that the club is “high” on its internal relief corps and could look to make only one more addition, which the Kittredge deal would account for. If St. Louis does dip into the free agent relief market, Woo indicates that lefty Matt Moore and right-hander Phil Maton could be in the club’s price range this winter.
Each of Stratton, Moore, and Maton have been valuable bullpen pieces for contending clubs in recent years, though neither Stratton nor Maton have posted the sort of elite numbers that would make them clear back-end arms like Hader or former Cardinal Jordan Hicks; Maton has a 3.67 ERA since joining the Astros midway through the 2021 season, while Stratton has posted a 3.92 ERA over the past three seasons. Moore, by contrast, has posted a fantastic 2.20 ERA and respectable 3.29 FIP in 126 2/3 innings the past two seasons, making him one of the more effective set-up options on the market. With that being said, the lefty is entering his age-35 campaign in 2024 and seems unlikely to land a longer-term commitment from interested clubs. The Cardinals have also reportedly expressed interest in Ryan Brasier, who struggled badly (7.29 ERA) with the Red Sox earlier in the 2023 campaign before dominating (0.70 ERA) down the stretch with the Dodgers last season.
While it’s not entirely clear what the Cardinals’ bullpen plans are following the addition of Kittredge, Woo indicates that the club is likely done adding to its rotation this winter. She writes that a reunion with Montgomery or a deal for another top free agent starter like Shota Imanaga or Blake Snell is “incredibly unlikely” as the club doesn’t have interest in offering a nine-figure contract this winter, a benchmark each of the aforementioned southpaws appears likely to surpass. While Woo acknowledges that the club’s front office could explore trades for starting pitching, she describes the pursuits as “neither a high priority nor highly likely” to result in an addition this winter. Right-handers Dylan Cease and Shane Bieber have both been seen as likely trade candidates this offseason, while the likes of Corbin Burnes and Jesus Luzardo have occasionally seen their names floated in the rumor mill as well. The Cards have been loosely connected to Cease recently but otherwise haven’t come up often as a potential suitor for a starter in the rumor mill this winter.
It would be something of a surprise if Kittredge proved to be the club’s final pitching addition this winter. After all, the Cardinals noted that they planned to add “at least two” relievers this offseason in addition to their goal of adding three starters, which they completed by adding Gray, Gibson, and Lynn. By contrast, Kittredge is the only relief arm they’ve added to this point with a substantial track record in the majors. While the likes of Robertson, minor league signing Wilking Rodriguez and Rule 5 draftee Ryan Fernandez all provide depth, none of them figure to be the sort of reliable source of quality production the Cardinals lacked in 2023.
If the Cardinals do come up short in their goal of adding multiple relievers to their bullpen mix, it’s fair to wonder if they’ll have done enough to put themselves back into contention in the NL Central after finishing fifth in their division with a 91-loss campaign in 2023. While the club is surely hoping for rebound seasons from veteran stars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt to lift the offense, the club’s pitching staff was primarily the cause of St. Louis’s difficult season last year. Cardinals starters posted a 5.08 ERA in the rotation last year that ranked fifth-worst in the majors, while their bullpen was the eighth-worst by that same metric.
The addition of Gray to the club’s rotation figures to provide a significant boost, but both Gibson and Lynn are coming off down seasons of their own while internal options like Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, and Matthew Liberatore all come with their own question marks, though internal youngsters like Sem Robberse could impact the club in 2024 and provide depth behind the established arms. As for the bullpen, both Kittredge and internal southpaw JoJo Romero have flashed tantalizing upside in the past but offer little certainty headed into 2024. That goes for most of the club’s relief corps with the exceptions of Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos, though even they dealt with injury and under-performance issues respectively last season. Signing an arm like Moore or Maton to bolster the bullpen could go a long way to helping St. Louis return to form next season, particularly given the relative inaction of the rest of the division aside from Cincinnati this winter.