The retirements of team legends Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina close a memorable chapter in franchise history, celebrating two championships and three National League pennants in their nine seasons together. John Mozeliak and his team have since been tasked with ushering in a new era of Cardinals baseball. With the contracts of Paul Goldschmidt and Adam Wainwright set to expire over the next few seasons, the club will have to replace key production in their lineup but will have ample funds to further construct a championship-caliber squad.
Free agency is always an avenue that the team could explore, although the front office has traditionally shown reluctance towards engaging in bidding wars with larger market teams. Instead, we’ve seen them pivot to in-house options, enticing younger players with more immediate financial security at the expense of future earning potential.
With plenty of rising stars on the squad, let’s break down some of the more interesting options as the season unfolds.
The reigning 2022 National League MVP needs no introduction. Coming into 2023, Goldy has two years left on his deal and will be a free agent at 37. This season is not to come without potential setbacks simply due to his age; despite a historic campaign last year, a 0.052 point difference existed between his wOBA and xwOBA, indicating Goldschmidt’s true batted ball data may be less noisy than his wOBA would suggest. This delta is likely attributed to a 2-degree drop in average launch angle from 2021 to 2022 (17 degrees to 15), and a lower average exit velocity in 2022 (90 MPH compared to 92 in 2021).
Paul Goldschmidt & Nolan Arenado received their 2022 Silver Slugger Awards! pic.twitter.com/1eRlb5ivnc— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) April 1, 2023
Goldy’s defense has also taken a hit during his tenure as a Cardinal. Throughout his career, Goldschmidt was renowned for his All-World defense at the 3, ranking in the 90th percentile or above in OAA in six out of seven seasons from 2015-2021. Last year, he ranked in the 10th percentile, attesting to his potentially hindered mobility. While this isn’t overly concerning given his stellar offensive output, it is something to note in the event of a contract renewal for 2025 and beyond.
Mozeliak and his crew are likely to wait out negotiating any new contract with the slugger until 2024 at the earliest to account for any regression that could occur this season. Even so, I believe that Paul will outlive his current contract, and likely retire as a Cardinal with a series of one-year deals in chain.
In desperate need of starting pitching amid a playoff push, the Cardinals began working the phones in search of a middle-of-the-rotation starter. That ultimately came in the form of Jordan Montgomery, who came to the Lou while Gold Glover Harrison Bader was shipped to the Bronx. Jordan went on to register a 3.08 FIP over his last 63.2 innings pitched, displaying elite command and becoming a potential key component of the Cardinals’ future.
Jordan and the team were able to avoid arbitration by agreeing on a $10 million deal for 2023, his final year of team control.
It’s still early in the year, and Jordan has the potential to add lots of value to his name with a strong 2023 campaign. Montgomery will be 31 next season; barring anything out of the ordinary, he should comfortably command an AAV of $15 million or higher in a medium-term deal. A notable comparable from the 2022 offseason is 32-year-old Martin Perez, who accepted the $19.8 million QO offered by Texas.
One gripe I have with Montgomery is a larger testament to the Cardinals’ pitching m.o.; Jordan isn’t much of a power pitcher, and while his increase in sinker usage has completely revolutionized his pitch sequencing (.433 wOBA against sinkers in 2021, .306 in 2022), I worry that in the event of command loss, he doesn’t have the stuff or the velocity to simply overwhelm hitters with power.
Given the Cardinals’ thin rotation depth, the front office should look to retain Montgomery, as he could be a key piece in the rotation for years to come. He may never overpower hitters, but I can count on him to consistently drill his spots over 150+ innings.
Aside from another name I’ll discuss, Tyler O’Neill’s case is easily the most interesting of the bunch. When healthy, he’s one of the most dynamic athletes on the diamond and a serious contender for the 30/30 club. The former, however, looms largely as he’s missed significant time as a major leaguer due to injury.
Tyler O'Neill - St. Louis Cardinals (1) pic.twitter.com/dzTHh0Zoip— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) March 30, 2023
Throughout most of his young career, Tyler has seen steady improvements in his approach and plate discipline. 2022 wasn’t exactly the best curtain call performance, but there are positives to be found in his O-Swing% and Z-Contact% compared to his career averages; his 2022 values of 29.6% and 82.4%, respectively, hovered around the league mean.
Typically, players with Tyler’s injury history do not receive extensions this early in their careers. It would take a full, healthy season from Tyler for the front office to consider an arbitration-eligible contract, though he has every tool in his belt to earn one.
MLB front offices have found value in offering their young star prospects lucrative money in exchange for buying out their first few years of free agency. Jordan is the kind of prospect who could warrant this type of extension.
These kinds of deals are typically given to more projectible, up-the-middle athletic talent, but Walker’s 80-grade raw power is easily the most exciting aspect of his game and should serve as the security blanket for any reservation(s) the front office may have in handing a 20-year-old nine figures. Still, some would argue that there isn’t enough from a bat-to-ball and defensive perspective to buoy his value should his contact ability fall through.
In an effort to leverage the $/WAR ratio that Walker could attain throughout the next six seasons, the team could look to buy out his first three to four years of free agency by rewarding him with a nine-figure deal worth around $15-$17.5 million per year. This is compared to recent notable pre-arbitration extensions, such as Julio Rodriguez ($17.4 million AAV) and Corbin Carroll ($13.9 million AAV).
Walker will be under a microscope over his first few months as a big leaguer, which could ultimately determine the short-term future of his financial stability; it didn’t take either of the aforementioned comparables more than 150 PAs to prove that they were each worth their respective investments. With a strong start to 2023, Walker could earn an early payday given his status as an elite prospect.
Each player mentioned is a prime candidate to cash in upon reaching free agency. How quickly they get paid will be a measure of both their durability and on-field talent. Montgomery is likely the first to sign given his proximity to free agency, while Jordan Walker is projected to receive the highest total value of the group. There’s plenty of value to be reaped by inking their stars early by buying out their first few years of free agency, and St. Louis would benefit given their aging superstar core.
Which player would you want to see extended first?
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