Some hot stoves roar to life with bursts of flame, and some smolder gently, generating a more intense heat at a more deliberate pace.
For the St. Louis Cardinals, this winter’s hot stove is thus far the sort that requires the operator to double check the stove has been ignited, with a plan in mind to flee the house in case of a strong whiff of gas.
The heat, however, is coming. Next week’s winter meetings in San Diego — and the imminent days in the run up to them — are expected to see a flurry of activity, pushed in part by one of the largest scale gatherings of the industry’s decision makers since the onset of the pandemic.
The Cardinals, who have been unwavering in their list of tasks and are primed to execute one set of plans or another, will be at the center of some of the most highly-watched markets. Their targets, clearly, are narrowing.
Despite their repeated professing that the search for a starting catcher is their most pressing need, there’s no guarantee movement behind the plate will be the first major addition of the Cardinals’ offseason. The trade market is, however, becoming better defined, with Cleveland chief among potential rivals for the services of Oakland’s Sean Murphy.
Three clear paths exist for the Cardinals in pursuit of an everyday backstop, and Murphy appears to be their preferred choice. The prospect cost, though, is likely to be steep, and certain to be unbalanced in terms of years of control exchanged.
Guardians outfielder George Valera, a lefty slugger and top-100 prospect, is broadly considered a desirable piece who could headline a deal for Murphy. For the Cardinals, Nolan Gorman would be an analogous figure, depending on Cleveland’s assessment of the two. If Oakland also sought another top prospect and perhaps pitching depth that could contribute in the majors next season, they may well be able to get it; the question would then be whose prospects they prefer, and which team says yes first.
If a trade for Murphy doesn’t materialize, the Cardinals could quickly wrap up a deal with long-time Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez. He would offer a defense-first, short term solution behind the plate, giving the organization stability as they seek to determine what contributions can be counted on from Iván Herrera.
Toronto, even as they seek to trade a catcher, is increasingly difficult to see as a trade partner. If the Blue Jays do indeed prefer to trade Danny Jansen, it’s hard to find a value proposition between the clubs. The Cardinals value Lars Nootbaar highly, and if Alejandro Kirk isn’t part of the discussions, it’s unlikely Nootbaar would be.
Should all three of those possibilities fall through, or should some foreclose while the Cardinals wait for others to settle, they could turn to second-tier options like Omar Narváez and Mike Zunino.
Perhaps the most relevant mantra for modern baseball is, “you can never have too much pitching.” The Cardinals, having suffered acutely from an innings pitfall in 2021 and successfully pre-empted one in 2022, are loath to shop valuable arms with an eye on the horizon for those tough midsummer stretches.
And yet as the free agent market hands out eight figure, one-year salaries to gambles like Mike Clevinger and Matthew Boyd, the surprisingly flush Cardinals are likely to take stock of interest around the league and examine whether the impact bat they seek is available in exchange for an impact arm.
Of the five starters currently projected in the Cardinals’ 2023 rotation, only one is under contract for 2024 — Steven Matz, who turned in ten starts of middling effectiveness in the first year of his four-year contract. And yet with Jack Flaherty and Jordan Montgomery headed into their final years of arbitration and Dakota Hudson and Jake Woodford seemingly on the outside looking in, dealing from a strength and then supplementing from the market could be the best of both worlds.
Should the Cardinals pursue that path, they’d be wise to do so before José Quintana is forced to make a decision about his own future. The lefty was a revelation following the trade deadline and is eager to return, but doesn’t currently have a clear fit on the Cardinals roster. One could easily arrive.
A Big Surprise
If the baseball world moves in predictable patterns, then the Cardinals are due. Paul Goldschmidt was acquired prior to the 2019 season and Nolan Arenado prior to 2021; which MVP finalist is available this winter?
John Mozeliak and his baseball operations department deserve even more frequent praise than they receive for those deft deals, but the game moves on, and the clock is ticking on finding another. Neither Goldschmidt or Arenado was widely considered to be truly available before the Cardinals got involved; by the time each trade was finalized, the moves seemed inevitable.
One name which stands out — Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins. The Orioles, allegedly eager to take a step into contention, might hesitate to move on from one of their top position players, but his dip in production from 2021 to 2022 comes just as he’s eligible this winter for arbitration for the first time.
In many ways, his situation is similar to Murphy’s, though the Athletics appear to be actively seeking to lose games even as the Orioles ratchet up their attempts to win them. Baltimore has been at the top of the list of teams expected to shop for free agent starters. If the Cardinals make the decision to offer Flaherty or Montgomery around, is there a fit to be had?
That log should burn for a while.