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The Master Plan (Part 3): Simulating the Offseason & Final Evaluation

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

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to fix this team.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve presented my “Master Plan” to bring the Cardinals back into contention in the NL Central and the National League. I’ve pretended that I, VEB Site Editor J.P. Hill, am the Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations. I’m in the big chair. Not John Mozeliak. I wear the bow tie now. So, I get to do things my way.

Let me re-emphasize that. This article series is not about what I think the Cardinals will do. I am ignoring rumors and reports about the Cardinals’ plans and targets. I am setting aside the narratives the ballclub and media have built into us for the last decade. It’s on me to build the best club that I can.

The point of this exercise? If I can build a contender with the help of Fangraphs, our writers, and our community, then Mozeliak, Girsch, and Flores, with a full analytics department at their disposal, ought to be able to do it too. And better.

Just because I’m in charge for this exercise, it doesn’t mean that I get total control. The budget set by Bill DeWitt and the ownership group will force limitations on John Mozeliak and his front office. I’ll play by the same rules. Earlier this offseason, I proposed a $193M budget for the 2024 Cardinals. I’m going to stick with that. Based on the preliminary roster work I’ve done, that gives me about $54.7M to spend.

Let’s spend it!

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

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

Part 2: Free Agent & Trade Targets & Tiers for the Rotation & Bullpen

Last week, I scoured the free agent and trade markets. I spent the (imaginary) weeks leading up to the Winter Meetings gathering intelligence on free agent demands, possible trade scenarios, and the market for the international pitchers. My crack research team assisted me in putting together my own internal starting pitcher “Cheat Sheet”:

My goal is to sign three starters. I would prefer to get at least one pitcher from each category above: a #1, #2, and #3.

If circumstances play in my favor, I want to grab two relievers. One needs to be a late-inning impact righty. The second could be a “luxury” left-handed arm that builds to the bullpen’s length.

I want to do all of this while keeping the core of the lineup intact and sacrificing no more than one draft pick to a qualifying offer.

Keep in mind that this is a simulation. It’s fake. It’s imaginary. If I wanted everything to go perfectly, I could make it so. I won’t. This is the MLB offseason. Something… many somethings… will go wrong. For John Mozeliak. For me, too. Let’s see what happens!

Pre-Winter Meetings

The time before the Winter Meetings can be pretty quiet. Not this year! I’m going to hit the ground running and flip my plan on its head.

Yuki Matsui, the veteran lefty free agent reliever from Japan, hits the market and responds positively to my initial offers. Matsui would be a “luxury” left-handed reliever. He has dynamic stuff with the Japanese ball, but because of his size, there are concerns about how his performance will translate to the American game.

He’s my lowest priority, but I have his agent on the phone and a good idea of his market. He wants as much time as possible to get to the States and get acclimated to the MLB life. It’s an opportunity I can’t pass up.

11/30/23 Signing: Yuki Matsui, 3/$20M. First-year salary: $5M

Current Budget Availability: $49.7M

I’m feeling VERY confident as I land in Nashville and set up shop in the Cardinals’ team suite for the annual MLB auction.

The Winter Meetings

My confidence doesn’t last long. Just as we’re setting up shop in Nashville, news breaks that is a cup of cold water in my overly optimistic face.

Aaron Nola was my prime target. He was a player who could provide security in innings and production and open the door for a little more risk in the #2 and #3 rotation spots. Preliminary conversations with his agent were very positive. His salary demands were high but I think I can negotiate him down to my budget range.

My concern was the Phillies, who seemed determined to get him back.

The evening before the Meetings schedule gets underway, Philadelphia jumps the market. They re-sign Nola to a 7/$203M deal with an AAV of $29M. It’s an overpay by years and dollars. And it’s a deal that will have a ripple effect across the market.

Suddenly, the demands from the agents for every pitcher from Blake Snell down to Michael Wacha explode. Preliminary deals are wiped off the white boards. My GM comrades start downing expresso and Aleve. This is going to painful.

Nola’s signing energizes the agent for Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who rebuffs my attempts to get a sit-down. Half the league is in on him, but the young Japanese star has made it clear he prefers to play in a large city on a coast and his agent is asking for a mega deal that will exceed $30M per year. He’s tied up with the Dodgers, Red Sox, Giants, and Yankees.

I can’t wait him out. With three starters to add, I have to move. Girsch monitors Yamamoto. I spend the rest of the day making calls and meeting with agents.

I enter Tuesday of the Winter Meetings ready to make three potential offers that are above my initial estimates but will be highly competitive. I will sign a pitcher today.

Offer 1: Sonny Gray, 3/$75 + 1/$20M team option with a $5 buyout.

Offer 2: Eduardo Rodriguez, 4/$96M + 1/$25 team option with a $5M buyout.

Offer 3: Jordan Montgomery, 5/$123M + 1/$25M team option with a $5M buyout.

Of these deals, Gray is my lowest preference (and still a good option). He’s 34 now and, with Mikolas already locked up, I’m very wary of filling the core of my rotation with age 34+ arms. It comes down to Ed Rod vs. Montgomery, who are pretty even in the metrics I am considering: K’s, whiffs, expected production, and historic production. Both should be solid #2’s for a few seasons before settling in as #3s in years 3-4 or 5 for Montgomery, whose end-of-season run and higher fWAR total has him a little more in demand.

Ed Rod has focused on Detroit, who wants him back. But I know I can outprice them. I prefer the smaller commitment for the equivalent pitcher. I make a strong pitch to Rodriguez and win him over.

12/5/23 Signing: SP Eduardo Rodriguez, 4/$96M + 1/$25 team option with a $5M buyout.

2024 salary: $19M

Current Budget Availability: $30.7M

In two moves, I’ve cut a huge chunk out of my budget. I have a luxury lefty and a solid but non-dynamic #2 starter. I haven’t lost a draft pick to the qualifying offer yet. I can’t settle in yet. It’s time to get creative and try to add some upside (and risk) to the rotation!

Taking a Risk

Besides Yamamoto, who continues to sit on his high dollar demands, two higher-ceiling, higher-risk options interest me. Both have dominant stuff but have had their share of injuries.

Option 1: Blake Snell – 6/$174M

Snell managed to settle down last season and will likely get a Cy Young out of it. His demands, though, are prohibitive. Six years and $29M per is a long time to commit to a player who has only had one true ace-caliber season. What happens to his production when his stuff declines through age but his high walk rate remains? He could be an albatross at age 35. I also don’t think he’ll end up getting what he’s demanding today, but I’m not all that interested in waiting him out.

Option 2: Glasnow for Alec Burleson & Gordon Graceffo.

On the flip side is Glasnow, who can also generate whiffs and K’s in bunches. He doesn’t have the control problems that Snell has but he also hasn’t put a full season of health together. The rising cost for free agent starters has emboldened the Rays and they’re demanding an overpay of Alec Burleson + Gordon Graceffo for 1 year of Glasnow and his full $25M salary.

I counter. I’m fine giving up Burleson, knowing that he’ll likely turn into a plus hitter in Tampa. He’s just a DH for me, though. I pull Graceffo and offer the surging Bedell, hoping they will take an arm that’s further away but coming off a very good season. I also demand cash to balance the value a little and save some budget space for another addition. Even though I think this deal is still a solid “win” for the Rays, I float the offer. They accept it.

12/5/23 Trade: SP Tyler Glasnow + 3M for OF/DH Alec Burleson and SP/RP Ian Bedell.

Current Budget Availability: $8.7M

I schedule a huge press conference tomorrow and end the day watching re-runs of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I’m spending Bill DeWitt’s money like I’m Robin Leach.

Clearing Budget Space & Finding a #3 Starter

The Winter Meetings come and go. I have my #1 and my #2. I have a major budget issue. I have $8.7M left to spend with another starter to get and I would still like to add a reliever. I sit on the market for a bit, looking for value if I can find it.

It won’t come via trade. I check in on both Canning and Pivetta. Both the Red Sox and the Angels would take Carlson in a deal, but they’re not willing to give me a reliever back unless I throw in some pitching. It looks like I’m not going to be able to get what I consider to be fair value for Carlson’s years of control and 1.5-2.5 fWAR projections as a center fielder.

If Carlson stays, though, I have an excess outfielder. I need to clear salary space and one of my outfielders is going to make over $5M next season. I start calling around fielding offers for Tyler O’Neill in exchange for a reliever.

The deal I like best would send O’Neill back to Canada in an exchange of arbitration-eligible contracts.

12/14/23 Trade: OF Tyler O’Neill for RHP Eric Swanson

Current Budget Availability: $11.5M

That move simplifies things quite a bit. I have just under $12M to spend. I have one more spot left to fill – the #3 starter role. Thankfully, there are still two pitchers on my cheat sheet in that production range for that cost: Seth Lugo and Shota Imanaga.

Option 1: SP Seth Lugo, 3/$40M

Seth Lugo is a reliever turned starter who put together a nice 2.8 fWAR season. He might have a little mileage left on his arm because of his lower innings totals but that’s not usually how aging works. He’s more of the traditional Cardinals, lower K, lower walk, high ground ball type. That doesn’t excite me, but he should be productive.

Option 2: SP Shota Imanaga, 5/$75 + 1/$15M team option with a $5M buyout.

Imanaga has more upside than Lugo. He’s more likely to generate K’s and whiffs but there is always a risk when translating performance in the Japanese league to America. The main concern for him is home runs but Busch Stadium will help him there. He requires a longer term of commitment and wants to beat the contract given to Kodai Senga. I will have to return to my strategy of adding an option year with a higher buyout to build more money into the contract if I want to lock him up.

Who do I choose? Younger is better. K’s and whiffs are better. I adjust by bowtie, brush up on my Japanese, and call up Imanaga’s agent.

12/18/23 Signing: SP Shota Imanaga, 5/$75 + 1/$15M team option with $5 buyout.

2024 salary: $11.5M

Current Budget Availability: $0M

With the “Master Plan” completed, I have Girsch keeping tabs on potential non-roster invitees and I head to Tahiti for a long winter’s nap.

Evaluation – You Decide!

How did I do? I’ll give you the chance to evaluate my performance in the comments. For me, this was a very educational process. Here are a few takeaways from the experience.

1. It’s still hard to get Ks and whiffs. This was an imaginary exercise. It’s all fake. Still, I had a hard time finding the kinds of players I wanted to find. Ks and whiffs are expensive. And while they are not particularly rare, it is surprisingly unusual for that kind of player to reach the market without some significant warts. This is one of the reasons I liked Griffin Canning (72nd percentile in whiffs, and 67nd percentile in Ks last season) and Nick Pivetta. Sonny Gray is only about average in those categories. Eduardo Rodriguez and Jordan Montgomery are below average. They’re #2’s by production. For now. Will they be in 4 years when their stuff deteriorates? 5 years? This is the primary reason I targeted Glasnow and Imanaga after locking in Ed Rod and stayed away from Lugo.

2. I hope Glasnow will re-sign him if he succeeds but I get his salary slot if he doesn’t. That Glasnow trade is a risk but I don’t see it becoming a mistake. I hope Glasnow finally puts things together and I’m able to lock him up to an extension. If he doesn’t, though, I’ll clear $25M next season and that’s a great start to signing a #1 caliber starter for 2025. Or I can give his spot to Roby, who should be ready then. I would like to see the Cardinals make a short-term, high-upside move like this.

3. I wonder if the expected cost for pitching and relative market values is one of the reasons the Cardinals seem more likely to keep Carlson and move O’Neill. Logic tells me that three seasons of Dylan Carlson, with his 2.5 fWAR history and current 2.4 fWAR projection (see Steamer), should be worth more than two years of Griffin Canning, a starter with #3 caliber stuff who hasn’t surpassed 1.8 fWAR in a season. Logic also tells me that O’Neill should be worth more than a contract exchange reliever. My gut doesn’t believe it will play out that way. Returns for both could be light. If the Cardinals are going to sell low on one of them, it’s better to clear more salary and sacrifice fewer years. I kept Carlson and moved O’Neill. Despite my arguments in the past, I now think the Cardinals should do the same.

4. This would be a lot easier with another $10M. I had to play with the money to make this work. That’s typical for the Cardinals, who are masters of moving dollars around to meet the budget. I expect them to do that again. Still, it would be easier if the Cardinals had more money to work with. A $200M Opening Day budget makes this a pretty easy exercise. $205M makes it a breeze. Even if the market explodes. We pretty much know now, based on Mozeliak’s comments, that won’t be the case.

The key for the Cardinals is not to drop significant funds on a relief arm or two. I know I added Matsui early. I would recommend that the Cardinals push their relief adds until after they sign a few starters. They need to prioritize the budget for the rotation and find cheap, quality relievers some other way.

5. The Cardinals won’t do as well as I did. I proved this can work. While I feel that what I did was relatively reasonable, if imaginary, it would represent one of the largest off-seasons the Cardinals have ever had. I committed to spending $250M of DeWitt’s money over the next five+ years and cost him $50M+ this year alone. I traded away players with a better-than-decent chance of going Adolis Garcia or Randy Arozarena for the Rays. I traded them for a player who has a better-than-decent chance of missing half the season and then leaving.

Does that sound like something Mozeliak would do? For players that aren’t named Nolan Arenado?

I also accomplished this by making risk-free moves that I still believe the Cardinals won’t make. The budget reporting is trending in the range of my projections. If they don’t clear fringe-roster fillers like Knizner, Hudson, and King, they’re going to run out of cash too fast. Keeping $6M+ in the budget for those players and/or dropping back from a $193M budget would remove a 3rd starter from the equation or drop a #1/#2 down a slot or two. The most likely way to retain the quality I acquired at that point would be to trade from the core lineup – Donovan or Gorman. They don’t have to do that. They shouldn’t do that. Odds are strong they will.

6. I think my team can compete. Lastly, while I made sure this “master plan” didn’t go quite as well as I hoped (Nola, EdRod, Canning), I still feel like I did well. Consider these Steamer projections for the starting rotation:

Tyler Glasnow – 4.1 fWAR
Eduardo Rodriguez – 2.8 fWAR
Shota Imanaga – let’s say 2.5 fWAR
Miles Mikolas – 2.1 fWAR
Steven Matz – 2.3 fWAR
Zack Thompson – 1.0 fWAR

The rotation won’t play out that cleanly, but that’s a 14.8 fWAR projection compared to the 9.8 fWAR produced last year. Several things could go wrong for that group and they would still be well ahead. That gives the lineup the chance to shine if they can play up to their potential at the plate and in the field.

The team I’ve proposed here is a team that can win the Central It’s a team that’s not better than the Braves or Dodgers, but it would be capable of competing in the playoffs.

That’s my evaluation. What’s yours?

Would you, the wise fans of Viva El Birdos, be happy with such an offseason?

Would this team contend in the NL?

What do you think about the moves I made?

Did I overspend on Glasnow?

Should I have gone with a Carlson trade instead?

What will the Cardinals do compared to what I did?

Let me hear about it in the comments!

Thank you all for the help, positive feedback, and for the way you shared and brought attention to this “Master Plan” series. It was quite a bit of work but I think it was well worth it!