“What’s the plan?”
It’s a question I hear many fans asking. It’s a question I hear many fans trying to answer.
The Cardinals went 71-91 last season and finished in last place in the division. As I said in my “No More Half Measures” post a few weeks ago, they have to turn that around. 91 wins next season is the minimum goal. They must win the National League Central. They need a roster capable of threatening the juggernaut teams of the NL East and West in the playoffs.
John Mozeliak and the rest of the Cardinal’s front office staff better get to work!
The Cardinals can’t just sit on their laurels this offseason. They can’t make a middling signing before taking the winter off and kicking improvements to the trade deadline. They can’t nonchalantly face the most difficult challenge of their careers. Many of them won’t have careers with the Cardinals if they fail.
Mozeliak and the front office are likely working right now to develop a master plan to return the club to contention and challenge for the National League pennant in 2024. It’s a plan that they’ll filter through every corner of the organization – their scouts, coaches, computers, analysts, and accountants. It’s a plan that will fit the budget constraints set by ownership, analytical projections, roster resources, organizational philosophy, and cost-efficiency models.
So… what is that plan?
I don’t know. But I’m going to take my shot at figuring it out.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to present my version of the club’s master plan for 2024. I want to emphasize that: this is my version. Frequently, I try to provide information, analysis, and projections on what the Cardinals seem likely to do. I take things from their perspective so you can better understand what they are doing and why.
I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’m going to ignore what the Cardinals are telling us; what they’re leaking through the club reporters. I’m erasing the well-entrenched narratives they’ve formed in us fans through their history, tendencies, biases, and prejudices.
For this exercise, I don’t care about what the Cardinals will do. I am only concerned with what they should do to return to championship-caliber contention in 2024.
I’ll be reasonable, of course. I’m not going to say that they should sign Ohtani, trade for Trout, kidnap Bryce Harper, and reincarnate Bob Gibson. I’m not going to suggest upping payroll to $300M.
I’m going to pretend that I’m John Mozeliak. Bow tie and everything. I will try to work within the parameters and resources John Mozeliak has at his disposal. That includes the projected budget that I set for the Cardinals of $193M, give or take a little on either side.
Taking this approach will allow me to think independently from the Cardinals, while still operating under the same kind of restrictions they face. If I can build a team that should contend in the Central and challenge for the NL pennant, then they should be able to do the same.
This is my Master Plan to fix the Cardinals for the 2024 season:
Part 1: Settling the 40-Man Roster, Depth Chart, and Budget
Part 2: Free Agent & Trade Targets & Tiers for the Rotation & Bullpen
Part 3: Simulating the Offseason, Budget Review, & Evaluation
Today, you get Part 1. The Cardinals currently have 45 players on their 40-man roster. The first task of the front office will be to clear players from their roster to be under the maximum when the new league year begins five days after the World Series. The good news is that they have plenty of places they can cut. The club has pending free agents who will exit. They have arbitration-eligible players who don’t need to return. They have minor leaguers whom they can designate for assignment or outright release.
Before I start making real decisions about who the Cardinals will add to return to contention, I have to know who they have, how much space they can clear from their 40-man, where the holes are in their roster, and how much budget space they have.
To do that, I want to work backward and set a maximum roster number. I want to provide a rough framework for offseason acquisitions and players who need to be added to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. That number of anticipated additions plus the current roster number gives us our roster maximum and tells us the number of players who need to be non-tendered, DFA’ed, or released in a few weeks.
An Initial Framework for Outside Additions
Starting Rotation: If you’ve read my previous articles, you won’t be surprised by what I’ll suggest here. I’m entering this task assuming the Cardinals need to acquire three starters who are better than Miles Mikolas in terms of arm talent. I might change my mind later once I have a better concept of the club’s true depth and budget constraints. For now, though, I really like the idea of a team that has the consistent but declining Mikolas as the #4 in talent (even if he’s higher than that in seniority or rotation order) and the oft-injured but solid-when-healthy Matz bringing up the back end.
Bullpen: Do the Cardinals need to spend resources on bullpen help? I’m not certain yet; it’s always my lowest roster priority because of its volatility. The club seems to be missing a K-oriented right-handed reliever who can slide into the 7th or 8th innings. Left-handed relief might also be an area of need. One good half-season does not make JoJo Romero a sure thing. Even if I acquire three starters, lefties Liberatore and Thompson will still need to serve as the club’s primary swing arms, moving from long relief to starting spots in response to injuries. For now, I’ll commit at least 1 roster spot for an addition to the bullpen and consider anything else a luxury that I could pursue if budget and space allow.
Offense: It seems likely that I’ll have to subtract some players from the club’s current offensive depth chart to add the pitching I want. That could open holes on the roster that I will have to backfill. Depth could also become a problem, but there are always non-roster Spring Training invitees, and we could add MLB-ready prospects (like Thomas Saggese or Cesar Prieto) to the roster later as injuries and performance demand. Still, trading from the roster will only open more space and that’s our goal. So, for now, I’ll leave offense alone.
Total # of Outside Additions: +4 (3 SPs + 1 RP).
Rule 5 Additions to the 40-Man Roster
The Rule 5 draft is designed to force teams to roster or risk losing minor league players who have been in their system for 4-5 years, depending on when they originally signed. The Cardinals have until November 15th to add players who are eligible for the Rule 5 draft to their 40-man roster or other teams can steal them away.
Higher-end minor league prospects can find themselves eligible for the Rule 5 draft as they near the majors. This is the kind of player that a team will want to protect by adding them to the 40. The harder decisions come from talented but flawed prospects or MiLB veterans who could provide useful bench depth for the Major League squad.
Notable Rule 5 Eligible Players
Pedro Pages, C
Aaron Antonini, C
Chandler Redman, 1B/OF
Nick Dunn, INF
Sem Robberse, SP
Adam Kloffenstein, SP
Ian Bedell, SP
Logan Sawyer, RP
This is not a complete list, but since my goal is to construct a roster that can contend for a championship, I’m not planning to be overly protective of Rule 5 eligible players. I only want the real talents or those who might help the club next season. The rest I am willing to risk.
Too Valuable to Risk: Adam Kloffenstein, Sem Robberse, Ian Bedell
Could Keep if Space Allows: Pedro Pages, Logan Sawyer
Total Rule 5 additions: +3 (+2 more if space allows)
That gives us the roster maximum number that we want. I’m suggesting the Cardinals create space for at least 4 outside additions to the 26-man roster plus another 3-5 additions to the 40 through Rule 5. That’s +7-9 spaces that we need to add to the 45 players currently on the roster.
Current 40-Man Roster: 45
Expected Roster Additions: 7-9
Maximum Roster Number: 52-54
Number of Cuts Needed: 12-14
We know now where we want to go. You can find the Cardinals’ current 40-man roster here. This list still includes the pending MLB free agents, players currently on the 60-day IL (who will have to come off the IL after the World Series), and the likely non-tenders.
Let’s start with the easy ones. The club has two MLB pending free agents. We can erase them when they file for free agency and/or retirement.
Free Agent Cuts (2): Adam Wainwright, Drew VerHagen
The arbitration-eligible players provide another place to cut players to both gain roster space and save money. Who do we cut?
Tyler O’Neill - $5.58M
Dakota Hudson - $3.65M
Andrew Knizner - $1.85M
Jacob Barnes – $1.25M
John King - $1.25M
Jake Woodford - $1.0M
This article series is about what I would do. Not what the Cardinals are likely to do. So, I’m going to cut a player that I’m pretty certain the Cardinals will keep: Andrew Knizner. Knizner had a career year this season. He’s the “C” captain of the team. He was still a below-replacement-level player. There is every reason to believe that if Knizner stays with the club, he’ll push the more talented Herrera out of playing time and probably off the roster. Cutting him guarantees Herrera significant time and saves the club $1.85M.
Non-tendering Knizner does create a roster problem. Ideally, the team needs three catchers on their 40-man roster. Non-tendering Knizner clears space for Herrera to play but I’ll have to find another backstop to hold at AAA on the 40. An easy solution is provided by the Rule 5 list above. I could just add Pages to the 40-man to protect him from Rule 5 and then let him compete in the spring with a non-roster veteran for the AAA reserve catcher role.
I’m keeping Tyler O’Neill for now. I might decide to trade him later, but I’m certainly not non-tendering a talent like him for nothing but salary relief and a roster spot.
What about Dakota Hudson and Jake Woodford? The club needs depth starters but neither player will help the team return to contention. Fortunately, I have to add three starters to the 40-man to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. We can non-tender Hudson and Woodford, gain $4.65M in budget space, and open two roster spots for Robberse and Kloffenstein. They’ll probably have the same near replacement level projection as Hudson and Woodford and can slide in behind Thompson, Liberatore, and Rom in the rotation and bullpen pecking order.
Lastly, King was useful this season but he doesn’t add upside to the bullpen. I would cut him to gain the budget space. Jacob Barnes is an obvious non-tender.
Non-Tenders (5): Andrew Knizner, Jacob Barnes, John King, Jake Woodford, Dakota Hudson
Total Budget Saved: $9M
After trading away a good chunk of their roster and then seeing a bunch of players land on the IL, the Cardinals dug deep into their minor league depth and the minor league free agent pool. Many of these players don’t need to return and will either become minor league free agents or could clear waivers and return to the Cardinals’ system.
There are two tough choices that I’m going to make: Moises Gomez and Wilking Rodriguez. After an excellent season in ’21, Gomez fell back this year, providing Memphis with just a 79 wRC+. He never saw action with the MLB club. Why keep a player the club can’t find use for? Rodriguez is a 33-year-old pitcher that the Cardinals selected in last year’s Rule 5 draft. He missed the season with shoulder surgery. I’m pretty sure the Cards have to keep him on their active roster for at least part of the 2024 season to retain his rights. I have no desire to do that with an unproven 33-year-old. So, I’ll try to buy him away from the Yankees and assign him back to Memphis.
Here are the rest of the names that I would cut:
Minor League Cuts (7): Querecuto, Lopez, Fermin, Suarez, Lawrence, Gomez, and Rodriguez
Add it up.
Current 40-Man Roster: 45
Free Agent Cuts: 2
Minor League Cuts: 7
Total Roster Spots Gained: 14
Rule 5 additions: +3 (+2)
Outside additions: +4
Projected 40-Man Roster: 38
Our initial framework of signings plus the Rule 5 additions required a 33-man roster with the potential for two extra spots for Rule 5 adds or the bullpen. After making the cuts above, we have reached our roster goal with the two extra spots remaining. It wasn’t even a difficult task. We could probably make more cuts if needed.
That leaves us with two extra spots. What do we do with them? We add talent, of course! I want a full roster of players who can help this club win.
I’ll add Pages as our AAA reserve catcher and leave Logan Sawyer, who likely can’t make this club in 2024, exposed. That gives us 5 open roster spots on the 26-man roster as we enter the free agent and trade window: 3 starters, 1 righty reliever, 1 luxury RP if something falls our way.
That leaves us with this as our projected Master Plan 40-Man Roster (Projected additions are in red italics):
Setting the Budget
With free agents gone and non-tenders readied, I can return now to my previously posted budget document. This time, though, I’m going to revise it based on what I want to do and not what I expect the Cardinals to do. I am more aggressive than I think the Cardinals will be with my non-tenders and that gives me a bit more space to work with:
Projected Master Plan Budget: $193M
Projected Master Plan Budget Space: $54.7M
Is $54.7M and 5 roster spots enough to acquire three starters who have more arm talent than Miles Mikolas through trade or free agency? Does it leave space to find a quality reliever and maybe a luxury lefty? I think it is!
We’ll plan that out next week in Part 2 of this series.