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The Master Plan (Part 2): Free Agent & Trade Targets & Tiers for the Rotation & Bullpen

J. P. pretends he is John Mozeliak to figure out how to return this club to championship contention in this 3-part series.

MLB: NLCS-Arizona Diamondbacks at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

I’m back with the second part of my “Master Plan” series; the series where I, Viva El Birdos Site Editor J. P. Hill, put on my best John Mozeliak costume (it is Halloween, after all) and try to fix the Cardinals. Somehow I have to turn a 71-win team into at least a 91-win team that is capable of contending not just in the NL Central but challenging for the NL pennant.

It’s a tough task. The biggest task of Mozeliak’s career. And no easy task for an arm-chair GM. But, hey, I’m up for it! The bow tie is on. I tied a sweater around my shoulders. I’ve prepared my snappy one-liners for the post-signing press conferences. I’m set.

Let’s build a master plan to contend in the National League!

If you missed any of the rest of the series, you can catch up here:

Part 1: Settling the 40-Man Roster, Depth Chart, and Budget

Part 3: Simulating the Offseason, Budget Review, & Evaluation

In Part 1, I was pretty ruthless with the Cardinals’ 40-man roster. I needed to create space for outside additions, and clear as much salary as possible. That meant getting rid of Knizner, Hudson, Woodford, and a slew of other minor league and arbitration-eligible arms.

After carefully considering the roster, I’ve decided to add five players as part of my master plan:

1) Acquire 3 starting pitchers who are better than Miles Mikolas in arm talent. (Even if they don’t rank ahead of him in ’23 production or seniority.)

2) Acquire 1 impact bullpen arm, preferably from the right side, who can slide into late-inning, high-leverage situations.

3) Reserve 1 roster spot to adjust to any trades made or to acquire a “luxury” lefty relief arm.

I have to do all of that while staying within the parameters of my established budget:

Projected Budget: $193M
Total to Spend: $54.7M

With the preliminary roster work out of the way, we can go into planning and analysis mode. Let’s go ahead and click that “simulate through the GM Meetings” button on our baseball simulators! This is the information-gathering part of the offseason. The General Managers have met with each other, talked about trade frameworks, and met with player agents. My team of analysts (otherwise known as a text thread with Blake, Gabe, Adam, and Heather) have dissected the market. Players have opted out/in of their contracts. Others have denied/accepted their player/team options. Japanese and Korean teams have posted players and MLB has entered the negotiating window.

I can only pretend to have that kind of information at my disposal. Still, it’s enough for me to put together an actionable master plan that fits the expected free agent and trade markets.

It’s time to pick our targets.

Starting Pitcher Target Tiers

The first thing I want to do is get a big picture of the market that I can narrow down to a manageable cheat sheet.

I ended up looking at 40-50 pitchers, including free agent starters, arbitration-eligible starters, starters and relievers who might be available in trade, and foreign arms likely to post for MLB free agency.

I was able to immediately cut quite a few arms from the list simply because they didn’t meet the qualifications of point 1 above. If a pitcher was significantly worse than Miles Mikolas in arm talent or projected production, I scratched them out. I’ll admit to being pretty generous here (as you’ll see below), because, for now at least, I need as many viable options as possible.

For the relievers, I decided not to set specific targets. Instead, I plan to be opportunistic. I’ll have to acquire one of our starters via trade and I think I can leverage such a deal to get a reliever, too. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll wade into the relief market on the fly.

After a full week of researching, cutting, waffling, and debating, I ended up with 14 starters who (loosely) fit point one of my master plan and could fit within my established budget parameters.

As you can see from the chart, I decided the best way to organize my list of starters was by tiers based on their perceived talent or expected production. (Please note that the players are organized by tier. NOT by ranking within the tier. There is no significance to the order of the players within each tier.)

Tier 1: Tier 1 includes four players that I would classify (roughly) as #1 caliber starters. I am judging this by a variety of subjective factors, including arm talent, stuff, health, market view/cost, and performance. This is a player that I think is likely to provide 4.0 fWAR or higher if they are healthy.

Tier 2: The second tier arms sit just below the #1’s. These are very good pitchers who have the talent to perform, at times, like #1s, but not consistently. There’s a good chance that these arms will provide around 3.0 fWAR or higher annually.

Tier 3: The final tier includes solid-to-good starting pitchers who have at least one trait that might allow them to play up. These arms have a 1.5 fWAR floor but projectable upside that could take them to 3.0 fWAR. That’s the range we should expect for a typical #3 starter.

I also prepped this list the way that I would want to see it as a GM. It includes several key pieces of information:

1. TYPE. Several of these players have conditions attached to their acquisition. These factors matter.

FA-QO: Free agent starter with a qualifying offer attached. (Loss of a draft pick.)
FA-INT: Free agent international starter with a posting fee. (Paid separate from payroll.)
FA-Option: Free agent starter who is expected to decline their team option or opt out.
FA: Free agent with no status qualifier attached.
Trade: Player under contract with another team.

2. Contract Predictions. I also included three categories of contract information. Spotrac has a “Market Value” page that lists expected contracts for players based on a formula of factors. I dropped that information in for the free agents. I then made my own contract predictions based on their market value and my view of the market conditions. While I care what the market for a player should be, I’m more interested in what it will take to acquire the player. Most of my predictions are above the listed market value in both years and dollars.

Lastly, since my primary concern is next year’s budget, I also listed the player’s expected ’24 salary. There are a variety of ways to kick spending down the road, but for this, I provided a relatively conservative first-year contract total. (If the budget looks tight, I can manipulate first-year salaries to save space against DeWitt’s cap.)

3. Accessibility. Finally, I included an “Accessibility” ranking on a scale of 1-10. Some players will be easier to get than others. Since I have to get three starters, I would prefer to target players I like at contracts I can afford who are relatively easy to get. Yes, I’ll investigate every option on the cheat sheet, but I’m not waiting around for a player who has very little chance of being traded – like Tarik Skubal. Or very little chance of choosing St. Louis – like Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

Setting My Target Options

With my tiers cheat sheet in hand, the next step is to try to find combinations of players that will fit within the $54.7M budget range. First, I also have some roster/organizational guidelines that I would like to guide my choices, if possible. That includes:

1. Signing no more than 1 FA-QO player. Their record this season gives the Cardinals their first chance in decades to draft players high in each round. Signing players with a Qualifying Offer attached means sacrificing a high draft pick. This is not the year to do that. I’m willing to sacrifice one pick since the club is likely to get a competitive balance pick based on market size but anything beyond that would be unnecessarily painful.

2. Retaining the core starting lineup. The strength of this Cardinals team is the lineup. I prefer to fulfill my master plan while retaining as much of the offensive core as possible. I feel comfortable making one outfielder available – either Carlson or O’Neill but not both. I am also comfortable trading from the bench and bullpen, including Burleson or Liberatore. I plan to keep Gorman, Edman, Nootbaar, Donovan, and Helsley.

3. Prioritizing trades that could bring a reliever. Relievers are generally overpriced on the free agent market. I would like to improve the bullpen, but I don’t want to have to pay free agent money to do it. That means trades. I would rather pay a bit extra in prospects or talent to get a starter + a reliever on a league minimum salary, rather than blowing my spending budget on the pen.

Even with those parameters in place, my cheat sheet still gives me multiple options to accomplish my master plan goals. With 14 players to choose from and at least 4 in each tier, there is a wide variety of combinations that keep me under budget and dramatically improve the roster.

I know competition for pitching is fierce, but with this number of players in each tier, I enter the GM frenzy feeling very confident! So should John Mozeliak. Let’s put some options together.

Option 1 – The “Quality Build”

Acquisitions: Aaron Nola, Eduardo Rodriguez, Griffin Canning + Jose Soriano

Budget: $47.2M

Analysis: For my first option, I decided to target the arms that I liked best with good accessibility and fit the guidelines I listed above. I prefer Aaron Nola over Blake Snell. I’m also choosing Eduardo Rodriguez over Sonny Gray because he doesn’t cost a draft pick. Nola is so consistent. Rodriguez has had some health problems, but he’s 3 1/2 years younger than Gray. I think I can get him on a four-year deal.

Since those two eat up a hefty chunk of my budget, I’m looking for a cheaper #3 in a trade that includes a reliever. Griffin Canning is the solid-all-around, “quality build” option here. He has above-average stuff, generates whiffs, and his HR problem would benefit from pitching at Busch Stadium. (Angels’ Stadium is one of the best places in baseball to hit homers.) The Angels should be a willing trade partner. They could make use of Carlson, who has more production in his past than Canning and one extra year of control. That’s enough excess value to nab a reliever, too. I prefer Jose Soriano, but would take Jimmy Herget as 2024’s version of Chris Stratton.

Accessibility Rating: 6.7 out of 10. Solid-to-good accessibility.

Option 2 – “Whiffs & K’s”

Starters: Blake Snell, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Nick Pivetta + Garrett Whitlock

Budget Cost: $43.6M

Analysis: For my second option, I’m taking significantly more risk with the possibility of a significant payoff. The Cardinals have talked about changing their models to pursue more whiffs and K’s. Well, this selection of starters would do it! Snell’s career K rate is nearly 30%, and, somehow, he comes with a lower contract projection than Nola. I don’t necessarily believe that, but I did drop him down a million per season in AAV. Yamamoto has a ton of upside potential. I’m confident he will generate K’s and whiffs. I’m not certain he will be a #1 starter, but the stuff is there. I’m also pretty certain he’ll pitch on a large-market coastal team, but I’ll take a shot at him anyway.

Lastly, I went with Nick Pivetta to stick with the K theme. He also had a homerun problem that Busch could help. I’m less confident that the Red Sox could trade him than I am Canning and the Angels, and I would not trade for him unless I could get a reliever. Add it up and I think this option has low odds of happening.

Reliever options: Garrett Whitlock, Brennan Bernardino

Accessibility Rating: 5. Low accessibility relative to the other alternatives.

Option 3 – The “FA Market Goes Crazy”

Starters: Tyler Glasnow, Shane Bieber + Enyel De Los Santos, Shota Imanaga

Budget Cost: $47.2M

Analysis: What if the free agent market goes sideways on me? That’s a possibility that the Cardinals have faced before. If it happens again, I will jump quickly to high accessibility alternatives in the trade market and on the back end of the quality-starter FA pool. In this scenario, Tyler Glasnow becomes my only viable top option, with his dynamic arm and lengthy injury history. Glasnow has one year of control left at a $25M salary. His contract is at probably value-neutral and the Rays will want to shed salary and convert that into younger talent. That should make him relatively easy to get for a talented starter. I would like to use pre-arb MLB players (like Burleson) plus prospects and hope convince the Rays to eat $3M of the deal to balance out the relative cost. I can still afford his contract if they won’t.

Beiber would be my choice for a #2 and I’ll use Carlson to get him and his remaining year of control plus a reliever. Imanaga is my third arm as a mid-level talent whose contract value is very well established by Senga’s deal in ‘23. I don’t expect a large bidding war for him and might even be able to snag him while other teams are focused on Yamamoto.

Reliever options: Sam Hentges, Enyel De Los Santos, Trevor Stephan

Accessibility Rating: 8.7. Very high accessibility.

The Final Roster Spot

The three options I outline above allow me to fill the first four parts of my master plan. In each case, I add three starters and one reliever. In each option, two of those starters would clearly rank ahead of Miles Mikolas in arm talent. The third starters are at worst in line with him with reasons to think they could step forward.

Every option nets me a reliever without sacrificing the core lineup and I never lose more than one draft pick to a qualifying offer.

In short, I’ve checked all my boxes.

Except one. There’s still a roster spot remaining.

With 3 starters and 1 reliever in-house, we can turn to our “luxury” lefty in the bullpen and there we find the only player that we know that the Cardinals are directly targeting at this point in the offseason: Yuki Matsui.

Matsui is a pure free agent. He won’t come with a posting fee. He has some pretty exceptional stats over in Japan, but comes with some size and productive concerns in the American game. I have no real idea what kind of salary he’ll command, but I don’t think it will be all that high. I can add him to any of the options above and still stay under budget.

Final Roster Spot: Yuki Matsui, 3/$20M. First-year salary: $5M

What Will Happen? (Now It’s Your Turn!)

With my cheat sheet of starter tiers, my three distinct options, and a target for the final roster spot in hand, it’s time to start signing players! And we will do just that… in part three of this “Master Plan” series.

Next week we’ll simulate the offseason and see how things played out for me on the market. I imagine that nothing will go to plan! Yes, even in my completely fake simulations a baseball offseason just can’t go perfectly right for the Cardinals.

In the meantime, you also have my cheat sheet. You have my pitcher tiers. You have my contract predictions, market values, and accessibility.

I have given you loads of information to critique, challenge, question, dump on, or, for a few of you at least, run with! Thank you to everyone who has contributed thoughts and opinions so far. You’ll probably see some of your suggestions above. You’ve got a week to play with it, change my mind, or adjust my thinking. Give me your options in the comments!