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How might the St. Louis Cardinals' 'opportunistic' approach to free-agent pitchers play out?

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After Hot Stove rumors stoked the flames of excitement for fans, the Cardinals are once again articulating a familiar philosophy to signing free-agent pitching.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It seems that, during Major League Baseball's Hot Stove, the top-tier free agents set the market—at least if they aren't represented by Scott Boras, an agent who has developed a reputation for dragging his clients' free agency out. That signing has a ripple effect through the market. If Free Agent X is worth so much in salary over so many years, then Free Agent Y's contract comes into focus, or so the theory of the market goes. This offseason, according to ESPN's Buster Olney ($), the market-setting initial domino appears to be lefthander Jon Lester:

Andrew Miller has a free-agent market all to himself, in a sense, as the only elite left-handed power reliever, and in the hours ahead he will choose his next team independent of anything else that happens with other players. There are a small handful of starting pitchers looking for one-year deals to rebuild value, like Brett Anderson. Theoretically, they could sign without being affected by other dominoes.

But many other pitchers -- including those who could be traded, like Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija -- may have to wait for Jon Lester to set the price. Almost everything in the pitching market seems to be on hold until Lester makes his choice among offers from the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants (and perhaps others). Once that happens, the price ceiling will be established. "Then everything else will fall in line after that," said one agent.

The St. Louis Cardinals were rumored to be interested in signing Lester, one of the biggest names in possession of one of the longer résumés on this year's free-agent market. First, ESPN's Jim Bowden tweeted that the Cardinals had expressed interest; then, Peter Gammons reported that sources informed him of a post-Thanksgiving meeting in St. Louis between Lester's team and the Cardinals. But Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shot the Gammons report down, tweeting that there was no plan for the Cardinals to host Lester this week, and then dashed any imaginings regarding Lester that might still exist in the minds of fans by explaining away the Bowden tweet in a subsequent article as St. Louis performing nothing more than "due diligence," in the words of general manager John Mozeliak, by checking in on the southpaw.

Spending $130 million (or more) for six (or more) years of a free-agent pitcher was completely outside the Cardinals modus operandi under Mozeliak. The thought of the Cardinals being in the market for a free-agent ace was enthralling, an excitement born of risk as much as reward that signing such a pitcher brings. That high is now gone. The Cardinals are once again filling a familiar role when it comes to free-agent pitching, that of the opportunist. Instead of hunting the leader of the pack, the Cardinals will sit back and see if the market leaves a free agent behind and then pounce on the straggler.

The reason, as reported by Goold, is the free-agent market and the Cardinals are pitching rich:

"This year is different (than before) because we’re working from a much different strength, not just because of the market," Mozeliak said this past week. "I mean, our team is. Look at our rotation. We have the opportunity to go with Martinez or Gonzales and we like a lot the future they both have. You don’t stop looking for ways to improve, but as far as options go we think we have five quality starters, at least, to go with.

"I wouldn’t rule out doing something later," Mozeliak allowed, "but right now I’m confident in the starters we have."

The Cards aren't targeting a pitcher like Lester or a Max Scherzer. But what type of hurler might the Cards' patient approach yield? Goold and Chris Hrabe of KMOX engaged in a Twitter discussion on the subject back when the Lester talk was first churned out of the Hot Stove gossip mill.

Scavenging isn't as exciting as big-game hunting during the Hot Stove, so Cardinals fans must adjust their winter expectations accordingly.