On Monday, John Mozeliak held a lengthy press conference, fielding questions from a large pool of reporters about the Cardinals’ approach to the trade deadline, their commitment to winning in the short and long term, and what has gone wrong this season. It’s filled with great content and worth taking a rather lengthy look at what he said.
Even though I am going to pull quotes from what he said, I would still encourage you to listen to the whole thing. Friend of the site, and upcoming VEB Podcast guest, Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat captured the audio and Charlie Marlow posted it on his YouTube.
Here’s a huge thank you to both of them!
Here’s the video:
Please note that some quotes have been edited for clarity, but not for content. I have put Mo’s quotes in italics so it’s easy to tell what he said, what are questions/comments made by reporters, and what are my ramblings. Here are 9 subjects that I think are worth discussing.
1. The Cardinals are Going to Make Trades
“As we start looking at this week, we know the season hasn’t gone as planned. [We are] certainly going to look at how we can take some of the players we have on this team and turn them into future talent. As we try to explore that, it can take many different turns but obviously, my staff is going to be very busy over the next few weeks to try to improve this team as we try to look to the future.”
There are two things to note from Mozeliak’s opening statement.
First Mozeliak was asked if the club’s performance over the two weeks will have any impact on their approach at the trade deadline. The club has been winning. The NL Central is not exactly a murderer’s row. Theoretically, the team is within striking distance of either the expanded Wild Card or even the division crown if things fall their way over the second half of the season.
Mozeliek made it clear that their approach to deadline is fairly set and winning or losing isn’t likely to change that at this point. It would take something dramatic – like “8 straight wins”, he mused – to even consider a different path.
That means there will be trades! The club intends to move players from their current roster to improve the team for 2024 and beyond, where they expect to be contenders.
When questioned about the team’s competitive history, Mozeliak bristled a little at the suggestion that they aren’t trying to compete even now. Yes, players will be moved out around the deadline but that only creates opportunities for other players to move in. They hope that the players they acquire will be key parts of a return to contention next season.
2. Ryan Tepera and Genesis Cabrera
The conversation then shifted to the immediate news of the day. On Monday, the Cardinals added free agent relief pitcher Ryan Tepera and designated lefty Genesis Cabrera for assignment. Mo noted that Cabrera was dissatisfied with the role that he had on the club, preferring to be used in high-leverage situations. He countered that the club hasn’t had many of those lately. I would suggest that his performance hasn’t justified such a role. The club did pursue trade options for him, but those didn’t work out.
That triggered his release and the club brought in 35-year-old Tepera to help fill innings. Tepera only has 9 innings on the season with an era over 7, but he’s been a solid right-handed bullpen arm over the last several years.
3. Cards Want Talent That Can Help “Sooner Rather Than Later”
Mozeliak was asked about how far into the future he was looking in his approach to acquiring talent. His response: “Hopefully sooner rather than later. We’re not looking just for…A ball depth. If we can find talent that we think can help emerge in 2024, that would be great. 2025 – I wouldn’t rule that out either but 2026 seems a long way away.”
This is probably one of the more revealing answers that Mo provided. The Cardinals are not interested in committing to a long rebuild. Their preference is to add MLB-ready talent that can help them compete in the NL Central as soon as next season.
That tells us more than it might seem about their intentions and the players they will consider moving. Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty are both candidates for a Qualifying Offer as they head to free agency. Montgomery will certainly earn a multi-year deal and will deny the offer without question. Letting him go to free agency would net them a high draft pick. Flaherty is a tighter case, but considering his age, health, performance this season, and historic approach toward contracts, he seems likely to prefer a multi-year deal over a one-season payout.
2024 draft picks would fit in the “2026 is a long way away” comment. Expect both to be moved, provided the return for these players isn’t weaker than expected. What they hope to do and prefer to do is not often what they choose to do.
4. Masyn Winn’s Fit
When asked about whether or not he was close to bringing Masyn Winn here, Mozeliak chuckled. “I love what we’re seeing out of him right now, but in terms of playing time, it would be very difficult at this point. Maybe in early August that might be revisited but right now, I would say that would be difficult.”
Masyn Winn has had a solid but unspectacular season at AAA in 2023. His overall stat line is very similar to last season, with a .273/.345/.420 slash line and a 91 wRC+. He has 11 homers on the season, 16 steals, and an 8.7% walk rate. That’s not very encouraging for an outfielder or corner infielder. But as a speedy, 21-year-old defensive-oriented shortstop, it’s not shabby at all.
It’s not a line that necessitates a promotion. Winn still has some offensive development to show. Maybe he’s showing it lately. Winn started to heat up heading into May and has only built on that as the summer has gone on. He’s getting more comfortable against AAA hitters. But the sample size is still small.
Patience is always a good idea with prospects and for now, there’s no space for Winn. Early August – aka after the trade deadline, though? That’s when a hole could open. It seems very likely that the club could trade Paul DeJong. It also seems likely that they could move an outfielder – specifically Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson. Either or both of those moves could create space for Winn to play the infield regularly.
5. What Went Wrong?
Mo was asked if he could identify specific factors that contributed to the Cardinals’ collapse this season. He gave a long answer, one that I would recommend that you listen to. Start at around the 8:30 mark. Here’s part of his answer:
“I think it’s a combination of lots of things. When you look back at our Spring Training, we had 18 people participating in the WBC. I don’t think that we ever really gelled that way. I think from a starting pitching standpoint, Waino got hurt. That could have happened in Spring so I’m not blaming that. I think Miles Mikolas didn’t get the innings to truly prepare, so there was a slow start there. I think having 2/3rds of your outfield not working together had an effect. And I think 3/4s of your infield had an effect… And then, I think the expectations were so high for this team, like normal, but when we got off to that slow start, I just really feel like a lot of people started pressing… that just compounded some of our issues. Then, of course, not having the depth when you lose 2/5s of your rotation right away – not producing as you thought – has an adverse effect.”
We talked about this issue extensively during the latest VEB podcast. Yes, there are a lot of factors that play into the team’s struggles this season. You can’t pin it on one thing. But a change in approach, particularly on the pitching side, would help mitigate that going forward.
6. Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
Here’s the money line. When Mo was asked about their approach to fixing a rotation with at least three openings next season, Mo answered, “I definitely think we are going to treat the trading deadline as pitching, pitching, pitching. That’s not to say that we’re going to ignore a position player that’s uber-great. But the goal would be to address as much pitching as possible.”
Mo indicated that they had enough money coming off the books that they won’t have to free up any salary to make the moves they want to make both now and in the offseason. Mo did agree that it would be impossible for them to fill their ’24 rotation without some free agent additions.
We can read between the lines here. The Cardinals are looking to add as much pitching as possible. That’s obvious. But don’t expect them to be able to finalize a competitive rotation next season over the next few weeks. Talent like that just doesn’t get moved in large quantities at the trade deadline. Certainly not for players like Flaherty or Montgomery who are pending free agents. They would have to move down into their cost-controlled players – like O’Neill, Carlson, Noot, Gorman, Edman, or Ivan Herrera – to consummate those kinds of deals. While there is no reason to rule those out over the next few weeks, it seems just as likely that those deals could happen in the offseason.
7. Goldschmidt and Arenado, Contreras and the Catcher Position
The Cardinals have no intention to trade Goldy and Arendao but Mo is not willing to speak in absolutes. Nothing is ruled out. And both players understand the situation the club is in. At the same time, both players have complete no trade clauses so they have control over their destinies.
When asked about other positional redundancies – like catcher, for example – Mo indicated that not all of those situations have to be addressed in the next two weeks. The offseason could bring change. And the deals the club makes now could impact what they do this offseason.
For the catcher situation specifically and Contreras’s future, Mo’s answer was surprisingly vague, and that vagueness has some intriguing implications. “I think we’ll table that to the offseason,” Mo said. “Obviously when we look back, I think in the short term now, there are some things that need to change… What we’re seeing out of Ivan Herrera right now is good. Ultimately, when we start thinking about 2024 some of those things will have to be more addressed in the offseason.”
What’s Contreras’ future? Mo was vague. And his endorsement of Ivan Herrera is noteworthy. While it seemed that Herrera was a likely – at one point nearly certain – trade candidate, that’s changed. It seems possible, if not likely, that Herrera could be in line to get more playing time this season and going forward while Contreras sees more time at DH. Knizner, despite his captaincy, is due for an arbitration raise that his performance doesn’t warrant. Catchers don’t often get traded at the deadline; he seems more likely to be non-tendered next fall.
8. Tyler O’Neill and the Outfield
Mozeliek stated in his interview that O’Neill would be the everyday left fielder. That was backed up by Oliver Marmol. And from an emotional post-game interview with Dylan Carlson.
The club also wants to secure playing time for Noot and Walker. That leaves the club trying to “figure out” what to do with Carlson. This situation, he references, is similar to the challenge the club faced in late April.
All indications are that Carlson – despite a 107 wRC+ while playing through injury, and a +3 OAA in center field this season while dealing with sporadic playing time – will remain the odd man out again. This return to the bench comes at a time when he’s been at his best. From the first of May through Tuesday morning, his slash line was .237/.374/.404. That’s a 123 wRC+ with plus defense.
Tyler O’Neill during that same period? -45 wRC+ in just 9 plate appearances. O’Neill has had just one season in his last five where his wRC+ was better than Carlson’s current 107 wRC+ and career 104.
That one season was A LOT better for O’Neill. And quite possibly the club desires to show off his health before moving him at the deadline. But the club also preferred Edman in center over Carlson, so this feels like more than just a deadline prep issue. They’ve consistently minimized Carlson’s role on the team since early in the offseason.
It’s a situation that the club seems certain to resolve via trade. I would expect O’Neill or DC to be moved. Maybe both. I’ll have a lot of things to say about this situation in the weeks to come.
9. Pitching Development & Pitching Model
When asked about pitching development, with Liberatore and Hudson cited in the question, Mo answered, “I am still bullish. I still think McGreevey is throwing well. It’s good to see that Graceffo is back. And Tink (Tink Hence) is an exciting arm… You say ‘Liberatore stalls’. We need a hard look at how we think about his curriculum. Clearly, the curriculum we are going with right now is not working. So, something has to change.” He also asserted that the player has to recognize that what he’s doing needs to adapt as well.
About the pitching model as a whole, Mozeliak said “How we evaluate pitchers is something that we are taking a hard look at upstairs. More swing and miss vs. ground ball type of thought would certainly be baked into that.”
Mo was questioned about that approach, noting that the players they have drafted, acquired, and developed over the last few years haven’t fit into a swing-and-miss model. What do you do to change that considering who they currently have? Ground ball pitchers throughout the organization can’t suddenly become K arms. Mo answered, “You are who you are. We recognize how we are.” Katie Woo goes on to capture the rest of his quote, which is too long for me to copy here, so I’ll credit her:
It’s worth noting that the Cardinals knew this was coming. The shift. The loss of defense through their own moves – i.e. trading away Bader, committing space to Walker, displacing Carlson. They could have planned for this. When I pointed this out in response to Woo’s tweet, she responded that the club did not think they would have as big of an impact as they have.
It seemed pretty obvious to most of us that it would. If they sincerely believed that losing defense and the shift wouldn’t the performance of contact-oriented pitchers, then maybe they need to revamp their analytics department, too.
Most likely they knew some regression would happen, but a) didn’t care because they were stuck with this model and it was too expensive to change on the fly. They just don’t want to say that. And b) didn’t think it would matter much since they were building primarily around their offense.
What many of us who had high expectations for this club counted on that hasn’t happened was the retention of performance from some – like Mikolas or Hellsley – and some progress from others – Thompson, Pallante, and even Matz. That hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons, which Mozeliak tries to list above.
What’s noteworthy is his rather intentional statement now that the overall approach has to change. The game has changed. They’re behind. It’s caught up and bit them. Now they have to remake their entire staff, from the bottom of the organization up.
Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.
We’ll see if that starts to happen over the next few weeks.