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What We Learned at the Winter Meetings

Four things that the Winter Meetings showed us and how they impact the Cardinals.

Scott Boras speaks to the media.
NBC Sports

The Winter Meetings are officially over and what a week it was for baseball. After two quiet meetings in 2018-2019, MLB officials were pushing to make the annual gathering more of a spectacle. Several of the biggest spenders in the game complied, committing over $800 million to Scott Boras clients alone.

As expected, the Cardinals were not among the active teams. The front office made three selections in the the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, and also brought back former prospect Rob Kaminsky.

While the Winter Meetings did not result in any alterations to the Cardinals likely Opening Day roster, they did bring some clarity to the market and better expose the Cardinals desires and pursuits.

I’ve tried to gather the news and happenings that were relevant to the Cardinals as the week progressed. Here are four things that we learned at the Winter Meetings and how they impact the Cardinals:

1. Aggressive spending on free agents is back.

Pitchers Gerritt Cole, Stephen Strasburg and thirdbaseman Anthony Rendon were among the biggest names on the free agent market this offseason. Over the span of three days, each one found the massive contract they were pursuing. This fast-paced activity is a sharp contrast to the slow moving markets of the last few years. It was February before 2018’s elite free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, could consummate their mega deals.

While the Cardinals were briefly mentioned as a mystery team for Cole, the club was really not a player. The Cardinals might have decided to sit out this year’s auction, but the market’s pace and the prices spent could impact the club in years to come.

First, if aggressive spending on elite talent is back in vogue, the Cardinals might as well scratch every big name off their wish list from here forward. Under their current budget approach (right or wrong), the club simply won’t spend $35M on a single player. Of course, that also means they will continue to struggle to acquire elite talent and compete with the larger budget teams who can acquire such players. The Cardinals have managed to avoid these kinds of mega contracts by focusing on trades and in-house extensions to the talent they have developed. But, when the farm system has failed to provide elite talent, the club has struggled to remain in contention.

Second, the Cardinals need to be preemptive if they want to keep the potential elite talent they already have. Jack Flaherty is set for free agency in 2024 at age 28, a year younger than Gerrit Cole is now. Jordan Hicks will be a free agent the same year. The Cardinals would be wise to entice Flaherty to sign an extension before he hits his arbitration years. Adding option seasons beyond 2024 that approach $30M annually would be a smart baseball decision. While that seems like huge money right now, if aggressive spending continues and Flaherty continues his dominance, the young hurler could potentially demand $40M annually by the time he hits free agency. In four years, $30M for an ace-caliber talent like Flaherty could look like a steal.

2. The trade market is slow... for now.

While the big free agents secured their future, such was not the case for the big names on the trade market. The offseason began with significant trade buzz around players like Francisco Lindor of the Indians and Mookie Betts of the Red Sox. Kris Bryant, David Price, Joc Pederson, and even Joey Gallo have also been thrown out as trade candidates. A few minor deals did take place at the Meetings, but nothing that really moved the needle.

Sometimes this is the way the market works. In the 2018 offseason, while free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were still waiting on contract offers, the Cardinals sneaked in and pulled off a blockbuster trade for Paul Goldschmidt. Front offices can only seem to do one thing at a time. If the free agent market is hot, then the trades are slow to develop and vice versa.

Every team in baseball has learned the value of prospects and the need for a deep farm system. It seems that impact trades are getting harder to come by as the steep cost in prospects for elite talent like Betts or Lindor turns the stomach of most GM’s. Many of the recent blockbusters have derived from unique opportunities, such as the Marlins or Diamondbacks rebuilding. Aggressive free agent spending might remove some potential buyers from the trade market and could create movement and value later in the winter. This is where the Cardinals want to be. Expect the Cardinals be opportunistic in the trade market, though don’t expect big names to be involved.

3. The pitcher market is moving faster than the Cardinals want.

Rarely does the front office just come out and tell fans exactly what they plan to do. Small nuggets of information occasionally get released by the club through the beat writers. National talking-heads and internet rumor-mongers can get wind of the Cardinals’ activities through a variety of unique sources, usually the player agents themselves. Some of this is worthless. Some is real. Engaged fans can sort through the mess of rumor slop to find trends that provide at least a blurry picture of how the Cardinals plan to address their roster concerns.

All was quiet on the Cardinals front until free agent starting pitchers started to sign. Almost immediately, rumors rose that the club was meeting with agents for starting pitchers.

Coincidence? Definitely not. The Cardinals desire is for Carlos Martinez to return to the rotation. However, Martinez’s status won’t fully be known until later in the offseason. In ‘18 and ‘19, quality starters over the age of 30 were still on the market as late as spring training. Many of these players were forced to settle for one or two-year discounted deals. It isn’t hard to see what the Cardinals hope to do: they plan to wait until they have a clearer picture of Martinez’s health and then react accordingly, expecting a few older starters to be left unsigned on the eve of Spring Training.

However, with the pitching market moving faster than previous years, the Cardinals are feeling pressure to accelerate their plans. They met first with Bumgarner, who still seems likely to command a multi-year deal. As pitchers started signing, the club met formally with agents for Keuchel and Ryu. Wade Miley is also in the mix.

There is a clear pattern here. Sure, all of these pitchers are left-handed. More significantly, they’re all over the age 30. So far, movement in the pitching market has been largely limited to younger arms, even ones with significant question marks (see the Mets and Michael Wacha). There is still no indication that starters over age 30 will be able to command the long-term deals denied them in previous offseasons.

Here the Cardinals sit. They’ve done their research, talked with agents, and are now ready to make their move when the market demands it. The club would prefer to wait as long as possible, hoping for shorter terms and less money, but look for Mozeliak to move more aggressively if that changes.

4. The Cardinals will clear space to add versatility and depth to the offense.

In 2019, the Cardinals made a great deal of noise about the desire to add a left-handed bat to the lineup. Fans immediately connected the dots to Bryce Harper. The front office killed that dream early in December when right-handed hitting Paul Goldschmidt was acquired from the Diamondbacks.

However, the Cardinals did indeed add a lefty bat to the roster. Drew Robinson came over from Texas for Patrick Wisdom in an exchange of unwanted parts.

A year later, the Cardinals are still expressing a desire to add a left-handed bat to their lineup. Cardinal fans, myself included, are again connecting dots. I’ve argued for Joc Pederson. Others have pointed toward Corey Dickerson.

It’s likely that interest in those players — particularly Dickerson — is real. At the same time, fans should remember last year’s lessons and look a bit lower down the impact scale.

Incidentally, it’s Shogo Ak-i-yama and he’s been a real star in Japan. Akiyama does just about everything well. He started his pro career as a prototypical slash & dash player (not unlike So Taguchi). He was an excellent defender in center. The now 31-year-old has allowed his game to evolve as he’s aged. He has transformed into a power hitter, with an OPS over 900 in 3 of the last five seasons. He walks at a high rate. He is still an acceptable defender in center and should be an asset in a corner spot. He hits for a high average. Here’s a look at his high leg-kick swing:

Akiyama probably does not fit fan’s desire for an impact left-handed bat. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t find a place in the Cardinals outfield mix. The Cardinals seem likely to use their outfield depth in trades to shore up other areas, including the rotation or bullpen, and create depth that is more versatile.

The Cardinals have been aggressive with such moves in the past. Wisdom, a right-handed corner infielder, was moved for Robinson, a left-handed utility tool. Oscar Mercado, buried on the center field depth chart, was traded for non-roster players to clear space on the 40-man. Incremental moves such as these don’t dramatically change the direction of a team, but they could enable the club to improve on the margins. Moving redundant or depth players — like Adolis Garcia or Justin Williams — for pitchers or prospects and then adding a well-rounded player like Akiyama would make for a boring offseason, but it would produce a net gain for the roster.

That seems to be the focus for the Cardinals: improving on the margins to field a more consistent and versatile 40-man roster.

Put it all together and the Winter Meetings, though quiet for the Cardinals, have brought some needed clarity to their plans. Expect the club to pursue a 30-year old starter, but to wait as long as they can to do so. Expect them to clear roster space in order to add this starter pitcher and also a left-handed OF’er. Expect the price point of any offensive addition to be somewhere between Corey Dickerson and Shogo Akiyama. Mostly, despite the fast moving free agent market, don’t expect anything to happen soon. The club will continue to be patient, waiting for values to fall to them.