The St. Louis Cardinals took a different approach to the offseason this year - they finished most of their business early. Before Christmas, in fact. They aren’t done yet, though, or, at least, they shouldn’t be and I don’t believe they are.
So while most of the offseason is already finished for the Cardinals from a transactional perspective, there are still a few moves that can be made.
We know what they’re looking for - pitching, pitching, pitching - but I want to take a look at the roster as currently constructed to help give us an idea of the different paths the Cardinals could take to fill out the rest of the roster. Then from there I want to take a guess at how likely the Cardinals are to follow each path.
So, to kick us off, here are all the pitchers currently on the Cardinals 40-man roster:
So we can see that there are 5 clear starting pitchers with at least 2 solid depth options with MLB experience ahead of a group of prospects. It may not be the most exciting group of starters but there is a good deal of depth behind them if/when injuries do occur. The Cardinals can add here but they can also be done. If they add, then it only makes sense to add someone significantly better than Lynn and Gibson.
We know this. It’s why Cardinals fans have been discussing Tyler Glasnow, Dylan Cease, and Shane Bieber all offseason.
Regardless of your opinion on the rotation, there is clarity.
That clarity is not present in the bullpen.
I count 4 bullpen locks, leaving the other 4 spots up for grabs. There could be as many as 6 bullpen locks if the Cardinals decide they want to keep Liberatore and Thompson in the bullpen instead of sending one or both of them to Triple-A to remain stretched out.
The issue with keeping both is that it gives the Cardinals an imbalance of lefty and righty options. Romero, Liberatore, and Thompson are all lefties but Andre Pallante has also shown reverse splits throughout his career, meaning he’s been more dependable against lefties.
That would leave the Cardinals with a bit of a shortage of relievers to use against right-handed hitters.
So the Cardinals may still keep both Liberatore and Thompson in the bullpen but I’m going to assume that only one of them will make the roster.
That’s means we’re rolling with the assumption that the Cardinals have 5 relievers locked and loaded for Opening Day.
Now we’re looking at 3 spots to be filled by some combination of Ryan Fernandez, Nick Robertson, John King, Riley O’Brien, Guillermo Zuniga, Drew Rom, and James Naile.
Quite frankly, that’s not a situation that I’m comfortable with.
So, how should the Cardinals spend their remaining money? I see a few options.
Option #1 - Trade for a starter and sign a reliever (Likelihood: 15%)
This is an option that may not be particularly likely but is certainly still in play. It’s also the option that would make most fans happy. Adding a marquee starter would allow the Cardinals to bump Lance Lynn or Steven Matz to the bullpen and fortify it that way while also improving the group of starters pitching the bulk of the innings.
Push a Lynn/Matz back to the bullpen and fill the rest of the spots internally - likely with Ryan Fernandez and Nick Robertson - and we’re looking at a strong pitching staff.
Obviously this costs prospects and a trade for Glasnow might have a lighter cost attached to it because of Glasnow’s contract but it would also mean the Cardinals aren’t going to spend much, if any, on the bullpen.
That leaves the bullpen a bit light though the Cardinals have done a good job of stockpiling interesting relief arms so hopefully a few of them stick and become mainstays in the bullpen.
So, overall, this is the option that adds the most talent to the team but also has the highest cost.
Putting the likelihood at 15% feels about right. This isn’t particularly likely but it’s an option that’s still on the table.
Option #2 - Sign 2+ higher end relievers (Likelihood: 20%)
No by “higher end reliever” I don’t mean Josh Hader. The Cardinals are not going to sign Josh Hader. I’ll just say that up front.
The pitchers I consider to be in this tier are the ones who will command 3+ year deals and/or $10 million in AAV. Think Jordan Hicks here. Or Yuki Matsui. Or Hector Neris. You can fill in the blank yourself. There’s a ton of relievers on the market.
If the Cardinals take this route, they may decide that it’s best to keep all their prospects and young players and use their available money to add talent and upside to the back of the bullpen. Theoretically, this fortifies the Cardinals’ group of relievers and relies on only 1 of the previously mentioned group of internal bullpen options to make the team
Do this and the bullpen has both talent and depth but the rotation remains untouched.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing and, given what we know from the fantastic reporting of Derrick Goold, Jeff Jones, Katie Woo, and others, it’s perhaps most likely that the Cardinals focus on the bullpen and leave the rotation as is.
The good news is that the Cardinals have been linked to some of the higher end relievers.
In fact, Katie Woo reported that the Cardinals met with Jordan Hicks during the winter meetings and actually came close to extending him prior to trading him at the deadline. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him back in St. Louis.
Derrick Goold has also reported on the Cardinals interest in Matsui. Perhaps the Cardinals have enough money left in the budget to sign both Hicks and Matsui. Or, perhaps more likely, the Cardinals have interest in one or the other and have been keeping both avenues open.
Option #3 - Sign 1 higher end reliever and 1+ middle reliever (Likelihood: 40%)
This is simple. Take one of Jordan Hicks, Yuki Matsui, Hector Neris, or any of the other non-Hader higher end names on the market and then add someone like Woo-Suk Go or Phil Maton. This seems most likely to me. The Cardinals will get another talented late inning arm and then add a middle reliever with strikeout upside.
I want to clarify here too. When I say middle reliever, I’m not referring to a reliever that get a 1-year, $2 million contract to see if he sticks. I’m talking about someone making at least $4ish million per year who will be expected to hold down a bullpen spot and be able to pitch effectively in the middle innings.
Think of Chris Stratton here. He has already signed with the Royals but that’s the kind of pitcher that we’re talking about.
So, if I were a betting man, I might bet on a duo like Jordan Hicks and Woo-Suk Go. Or perhaps Yuki Matsui and Phil Maton. Maybe the Cardinals take one of Hicks/Matusi and then signs both Maton and Go. Who knows? You can choose your own adventure here.
Option #4 - Sign 2+ middle relievers (Likelihood: 20%)
Some may call this the path of least resistance and be disappointed by it and that’s okay. It’s an option, admittedly not my favorite one, that can still improve the team and add upside to the bullpen if done right.
Take out the higher end guys and there are still some arms worth betting on. They may not pan out, but, hey, that’s the reliever market. Phil Maton and Woo-Suk Go would be an interesting pair of arms to fortify the bullpen and both bring the promise of swing-and-miss.
Maybe the Cardinals want to sign a couple of guys to 1-year deals and be done with the bullpen. That’s certainly a possibility given how volatile relievers tend to be.
This may be the least impressive option of all the ones we’ve talked about but, personally, I won’t blame the Cardinals if they want to shy away from risk in the reliever market and shoot for some swing-and-miss upside.
The reason why I don’t see this as particularly likely is because the Cardinals still have money to spend.
Option #5 - Anything else (Likelihood: 5%)
Maybe the Cardinals are done. Maybe they sign Yamamoto or Montgomery. Maybe they trade for a few relievers. Maybe they trade for a starter then sign Hicks and Matsui. Maybe they want to take a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks approach to the bullpen and sign a bunch of unproven relievers for an open competition in the spring.
None of these options are likely but you get my point here. There are plenty of other things the Cardinals can do. Personally, I would be shocked if the Cardinals took option #5 but it’s still worth mentioning.
The Cardinals want to be opportunistic in the market. They’ve talked about it openly this winter. That requires patience. The problem with patience is that the reliever market has started to move and the Cardinals may not want to miss out.
So I wouldn’t be shocked if we see a reliever or two join the Cardinals prior to Christmas. Maton, Matsui, Hicks, and Go are guys that I have my eye on but, really, the Cardinals could sign anyone.
At this point, though, I’m not expecting a big trade for a key starter. It could still happen but that simply seems less likely than the team signing a pair of relievers and calling it an offseason.
I simply don’t think the Cardinals want to take on the salary and injury history of Tyler Glasnow nor do I think they want to give up what it takes to get Dylan Cease. And then there’s Shane Bieber who has plenty of risk himself (I won’t get into that now but maybe in a future article if the Cardinals are showing interest)
One thing is for sure, though. They need to bring in some form of bullpen help, whether from a displaced starter like Lynn or Matz or from a reliever, and they likely need more than one arm to bolster the ‘pen.
It’s been a busy offseason for the Cardinals already but they have more moves to make and I’m excited to see what they are.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Wednesday.