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What to Expect from the Winter Meetings

The Winter Meetings start tomorrow. Will the Cardinals be active?

Baseball’s biggest auction starts tomorrow!

The MLB Winter Meetings begin Sunday and continue through Wednesday in Nashville. It’s a brief window for a flurry of activity as the biggest names in the free agent and trade markets find their way to other teams. That could include superstar Shohei Ohtani, Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Cy Young winner Blake Snell.

Will the Cardinals be active at the Meetings?

It’s very possible. Cardinals President of Baseball Operations, John Mozeliak, jumped aggressively into both sides of the free agent pitching pool this fall. Before Thanksgiving, he warmed up in the shallow end, locking up back-end starters Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson to one-year deals with options for 2025. That secured him the innings that he felt the club needed.

He wasn’t done. After the holiday, he went straight to the high dive, bringing in All-Star starter Sonny Gray last Monday morning and inking him to a 3-year deal with a 4th-year option.

Just like that, a full week before the Winter Meetings were set to begin, Mozeliak had checked off the top three items on his winter shopping list. Shopping early did not cost him extra, either.

Lynn and Gibson’s deals are both $10M and $12M respectively. Sonny Gray’s contract is heavily backloaded, punting $15M of his expected $25M AAV kicked to 2026. Those financial manipulations leave the Cardinals with quite a bit of cash on hand.

Here’s an updated look at team’s current payroll and their expected 26-man Opening Day budget:

By my estimates, the Cardinals have locked themselves into $171M+ in guaranteed contracts for 2024. That’s still $6M less than last year’s $177M+ Opening Day number, which Mozeliak admitted was below expectations. Every indication is that the Cardinals will track back toward their original budgetary trends. By my estimates, the Cardinals have about $20.75M to spend this offseason, and that number seems likely to rise.

In-the-know reporters have consistently indicated that the Cardinals are entertaining offers for arbitration-eligible outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. That’s an “and” not an “or”. Considering the frequency with which Mozeliak talks about the benefits of playing Tommy Edman in center field, it is not a certainty that both O’Neill and Carlson will be moved this offseason, but it certainly seems like the club’s preferred plan.

Trading both players would save as much as $8M against their budget. Either could bring bullpen arms, another starter, prospects, or all of the above. (With varying levels of quality.)

Reports also surfaced this week that the team was making starting pitcher Steven Matz available in a trade. Matz has suffered injuries in the last two seasons. That’s the norm for his career. When healthy, though, his peripherals have been pretty good. With most of the league desperate for pitching and the Cardinals not locked into a specific return to fill a need, Matz should generate significant trade interest from a variety of clubs.

Mozeliak might have to send cash along with a Matz trade, but such a deal could save the Cardinals an additional $12.5M.

Add up all three moves and the Cardinals could have as much as $41.25M in budget space based on my $192M projection. That’s more than enough to fulfill their final stated goal of adding a reliever or two. It also gives them the flexibility to go big game hunting, if they so choose.

If “bulk” was the keyword to describe Mozeliak’s approach to filling out the starting rotation early this winter. “Opportunistic” better describes his position entering the Winter Meetings.

In an article posted Friday morning in the Belleville News-Democrat, team reporter and friend of Viva El Birdos, Jeff Jones, reiterated the Cardinals’ continued interest in Japanese righty Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Jones indicates that the club is a “serious suitor” for the young ace’s services and that the club would be capable and willing to reach into his “financial stratosphere” if he was interested in coming to St. Louis.

It’s more likely that the Cardinals would look to add to the top end of their starting rotation through a trade. The most-mentioned name remains White Sox starter Dylan Cease. The Sox’s GM recently affirmed that they were making everyone on their club available. Cease has ace-caliber potential, with three straight seasons of 3.7-4.5 fWAR produced. Multiple outlets, including The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, have indicated the Cardinals’ interest in acquiring Cease even after signing three starters.

Such a deal would not come cheaply for Mozeliak. With the Sox rebuilding, they are likely looking for prospects or players with significant levels of team control. That likely rules out Tyler O’Neill, who only has one year remaining before free agency. Dylan Carlson could be in play, and the Sox could use another outfielder. His injury-filled 2023 campaign likely lowers his trade value. Still, Carlson is primarily a center fielder, a position with less offensive demand than right or left. He showed improved batted ball metrics last season despite poor results. Most importantly, he has two 2.5 fWAR seasons at age 23 or under on his resume. Some Cardinals fans might be ready to kick him to the curb for nothing, but around MLB front offices, Carlson would still be a valuable and desirable player.

He might not be enough to headline a deal for the very productive Cease. The Sox also need infield help, and that’s where Masyn Winn, Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, and perhaps even Ivan Herrera could come into play.

It seems unlikely that the Cardinals would be able to complete a trade for Cease without including prospects and every team wants high-quality young pitchers. I would expect the Sox to demand Tekoah Roby, Tink Hence, or Cooper Hjerpe in a deal. The Cardinals took a bulk approach to acquiring young arms at the trade deadline and have an overflowing stable of young starters in AA/AAA/MLB. Still, it seems unlikely that they would be willing to give up the best horses. They should consider it. The Cardinals can only dream that one of Roby, Hence, or Hjerpe can one day perform as well as Dylan Cease. Trading such a player would become an exchange of pitching risks for the Cardinals: there is risk in keeping young players who might never reach their upside and risk in trading one for a player who could leave after two seasons.

Personally, since this would be a pitching-for-pitching deal, trading unproven upside for two years of a legitimate ace with the chance to extend him longer is definitely worth it.

Tyler Glasnow of the Tampa Bay Rays is also likely to be traded and the Cardinals remain an interested party. Glasnow has legitimate ace production to go along with a body as brittle as glass. For the last five seasons, Glasnow has a K% of 35%. As a starting pitcher. I’m not sure the Cardinals have ever had a starter like that. His walk rate has been a very good 7.7%. He is undeniably one of the best starters in the game when he is on the mound.

During that same stretch, Glasnow has only cleared 120 innings once. He’s only thrown 100 innings one other time. To get Glasnow’s elite performance potential you have to assume significant injury risk. Balance that with a $25M salary and one year of control before he hits free agency, and Glasnow’s cost will be significantly lower than Dylan Cease’s.

The Rays, though, are notoriously difficult for the Cardinals to deal with. Whatever player they ask for in trade demands is almost certainly a player that Mozeliak won’t want to give up. The Rays can’t demand one of the top SP prospects from the system. They also shouldn’t expect a highly productive MLB player with significant control remaining – like Nolan Gorman or Brendan Donovan. An exchange of injury-risk players with upside makes some sense, with O’Neill plus a prospect going to the Rays for Glasnow. That, though, requires the Rays to do what they don’t want to do and take on salary. Alec Burleson could be an attractive option for the Rays, and he’s a player the Cardinals should be willing to move, even if they prefer to move Carlson or O’Neill.

Glasnow fits the ½ starter that the Cardinals said they were interested in early in the offseason. Exchanging ½ starter Steven Matz and average-ish upside in their rotation with ½ starter Tyler Glasnow and elite upside is the kind of plan I can get behind. The Cardinals can expect above-replacement-level production over limited starts from both Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore. Plus they have several other intriguing young arms who could be ready to step in if needed. If the Cardinals get 32 starts combined out of Glasnow and Thompson, their net production would likely be better than even Sonny Gray.

What works in the Cardinals’ favor in all of these deals is their ability to trade a market scarcity. Every team in baseball entered the offseason needing starting pitching. There was not elite production on the top of the market, but there was and remains quality starter depth for teams to pick through. What the market lacks is offense. Especially quality, young offensive talent. Cody Bellinger rebounded with the Cubs last season and has won an MVP in the past, but he’s the best hitter out there not named Shohei Ohtani. Matt Chapman is available and has a string of 3-4 fWAR seasons. Beyond them, who is the next best offensive player available for purchase? J.D. Martinez? Jorge Soler? Lourdes Gurriel Jr?

In that kind of market, players like Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Alec Burleson are extremely attractive options. The Cardinals would be wise to take advantage of the current supply/demand of the market and arbitrage some of their excess parts into the players this club needs to return contention in the NL.

This is the week to do it.

I expect the Cardinals to be active at the Winter Meetings. I would expect them to be heavy players for another upper-level starter. My money would be on Dylan Cease. I would also not be at all surprised if they go ahead and make some trades for a reliever or two to clear additional salary space. None of that has to happen this week, but if the market begins to move, Mozeliak should move with it. They’ve been aggressive. They should remain aggressive.

Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos! We’ll have coverage all week from the Winter Meetings, including a podcast on Wednesday or Saturday.