The St. Louis Cardinals set out to be decisive and quick about raising the perceived floor of their major league team this offseason. They chose cheaper players who wanted to be here over going after players that could have raised the ceiling of the organization after the disaster of a 2023 season that occurred. They wanted clarity and simplicity in certain aspects of the team. That was clear in the moves that they made as well. Did the Cardinals really raise their floor this offseason? Did the Cardinals really provide themselves clarity where it looks like they're attempting to? That's what I'm planning to look at here to give my spin on the offseason.
What are the actual moves the Cardinals have made this offseason, in chronological order (as far as I can ascertain)?
Took INF Buddy Kennedy off of waivers from the Oakland Athletics
Took OF Jared Young off of waivers from the Chicago Cubs
Purchased RHP Riley O'Brien from the Seattle Mariners
Signed RHP Lance Lynn to a one year contract with a second year option
Signed RHP Kyle Gibson to a one year contract with a second year option
Signed RHP Sonny Gray to a three year contract with a 4th year option
Drafted RHP Ryan Fernandez from the Boston Red Sox in the Rule V Draft
Traded OF Tyler O'Neill to the Boston Red Sox for pitchers Nick Robertson and Victor Santos
Named Yadier Molina as a special assistant to the GM
Traded OF Richie Palacios to the Tampa Bay Rays for RHP Andrew Kittredge
Named Chaim Bloom (formerly of the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays) as a special assistant to the GM
Before the offseason really got rolling, my thought was that the Cardinals needed to go out and get a minimum of two starting pitchers who could slot in AHEAD of Miles Mikolas on the depth chart. I would have preferred them to get THREE guys who could slot in ahead of Mikolas. After those first three moves the Cardinals hadn't done that.
Knowing the information above, the 2023-24 offseason began with a lot of promise. There was seemingly a dozen pitchers or more that hit free agency that could help the club. In my coming projections, I have quite literally inputted upwards of 6 dozen pitchers' projections, within the organization and others that are free agents or rumored to be moving teams via trade this offseason. Before the Cardinals made any moves I had inputted upwards of 4 dozen pitchers' projections already.
The Cardinals started their offseason with three very good moves. They grabbed two fliers in Buddy Kennedy and Jared Young that cost them basically nothing at all. Those two represent one infielder and one corner outfielder that have been brought in for their bat - and the Cardinals have very little stake in them so that those two can be dropped easily if their bats don't work out in 2024. The purchase of Riley O'Brien as an older prospect who started with the Tampa Bay Rays (you'll notice a Chaim Bloom connection theme starting to form here), moved on to the Reds, and then moved on to the Mariners was also a good move. Last year in Seattle he became a minor league closer that was excellent - finally putting it together.
Then, the Cardinals blew my mind on back-to-back days, and not in a good way. They announced signings of two aging veteran players (Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson) coming off of somewhere between below mediocre and outright terrible seasons both to one year contracts with second year options. They were two guys I had not even bothered to project at that point because they were not seen to me to be any help for the club. To put into context how I viewed those two moves, Miles Mikolas is projected (by my THE CERUTTI projection) to give up 4.53 runs per 9 innings this season. Gibson's projection is worse than Mikolas' and Lynn's projection is MUCH worse than even Gibson's.
The thought behind these moves was obviously not to raise the ceiling of the projections for the St. Louis Cardinals. The thought from the Cardinals here had to have been two-fold. They wanted to A) raise the floor for the team while B) simultaneously giving their prospects (some of which they had just acquired at the 2023 trade deadline) time to grow at the upper level of the minors to see if some of their floors raise to the level of a Lynn or Gibson. I would argue that quite a few of their floors are already 2024 Lance Lynn and that a few of them might even be close to a 2024 Kyle Gibson - although that is less certain to me.
After those two shockers, the Cardinals got back to a move that at least made an inkling of sense to me a few days later. They grabbed Sonny Gray off of the free agent list on a three year deal with a fourth year option. Now, they are completely buying high on Sonny Gray's best season of his career at age 33 last year. They will have him for his age 34-36 seasons and maybe his age 37 season. However, he was 2nd in the voting for the AL Cy Young Award last year. I don't know that you can project elite, Cy Young pitching moving forward but at least his very recent past is phenomenal.
I always believe taking flyers on the bullpen is a great idea. Grab as many guys as you possibly can and see what sticks. If it's super cheap, then you can go ahead and cut anyone you need to. Get as many of them as possible with options remaining so that they can be on the Memphis shuttle whenever you need them to be, as well.
The Cardinals did just that by grabbing Riley O'Brien, a move I already said I liked. They also grabbed Ryan Fernandez in the Rule V draft from Boston (there's another Chaim Bloom connection) after signing the three starters. Another good move. It costs you basically nothing to grab a guy who could strike out the world in your pen this year! If it doesn't work out, send him packing back to Boston - or to Memphis if they let you keep him. Then the Cardinals added more to the bullpen in two very similar but very different ways.
The Cardinals sold low on Tyler O'Neil - a move that they telegraphed all offseason. They were going to get rid of TON for anything they could possibly get and made that well known. That absolutely means you are selling as low on a guy as humanly possible and you don't even care if they know it. They got a promising raw stuff arm in Nick Robertson and they got another flyer in the minors who is more of a control arm - both from Boston (again, that Chaim Bloom connection) - even after tanking O'Neill's value more than his injury history already had.
The Cardinals then sold high on Richie Palacios - a move they hope doesn't come back to give them the same regrets as moving on from Randy Arozarena (and to a lesser extent Adolis Garcia and Lane Thomas) have given them. In return for Palacios, the Cardinals got a former All-Star reliever named Andrew Kittredge (another Chaim Bloom connection). That's the good. He was truly excellent one season in 2021. However, he has since had Tommy John surgery and has since shown that his arm is not exactly what it was in 2021 - at least not yet.
Kittredge is entering his age 34 season and his contract is up at the end of the season. They got a flyer rental reliever for a guy who showed very small sample size promise with the bat and went to Driveline this offseason showing off some gains on Twitter reels. This is selling high for sure (that's something the Cardinals rarely do) - unless it turns out that it isn't selling high and it's a steal for Tampa. The Cardinals are hoping it works out the exact opposite, that it turns out to be a steal for them, a la Edward Mujica for Zack Cox back in 2012. Instead of getting the Muj-Bog-Mot back end of the bullpen to shut down opponents in the playoffs, the Cardinals are hoping for Kittredge+Gallegos+Romero+Helsley to be elite.
Does all of this really up the floor for the Cardinals?
The signs that point to yes?
Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and Sonny Gray combined for 559 2/3 innings last year. That is a whole lot of innings for those three in today's day and age, when starters are basically expected to take 5 innings an outing. If you give those three guys 96 starts, you'd expect most starters in today's game to grab up 480 innings. That's 17% more innings.
The signs that point to no?
Now...were all those innings we talked about earlier "good innings" last year? Even with Gray's 2.79 ERA over 184 innings, those three combined for a 4.42 ERA last year. That's two percent worse than league average, despite Gray's ERA+ of 154 (54% better than league average). Does it really add to your team's floor to grab as many as innings as possible if those innings are terrible? That's the question.
The other question to me is the durability of guys who will be 34, 35, and 37 next year. You can look at least year's innings to say yes! However, Gray averaged 128 innings in 2021 and 2022 while Lynn averaged 139 innings and Gibson 175 innings in those two prior years. So while those three combined for 559 2/3 innings in 2023, they averaged a combined 442 innings in 2021 and 2022. Remember how I said that you'd think three guys in a rotation in today's day and age should grab you around 480 innings? Gray, Lynn, and Gibson would not have averaged that for you in 2021 and 2022 despite beating that mark quite easily in 2023.
The rotation will again be under intense scrutiny. Are the players the Cardinals jumped the market to get any better than what they threw out last year? Will the Cardinals still be looking not just for innings but for actual quality innings at the trade deadline again?
Does all of this really provide the clarity and simplicity the Cardinals were looking for this offseason?
The signs that point to yes?
In the outfield, the Cardinals traded away two of their 7 outfielders that they had on the roster that they were going to be needing to give playing time to were they to have stuck around. The Cardinals will now start the season with (assuming no more trades involving outfielders nor any injuries prior to March 28th) Lars Nootbaar in left field, Tommy Edman in center field, and Jordan Walker in right field. They will start with Masyn Winn as the opening day shortstop. They will start with one of Nolan Gorman and Brenden Donovan at second base and the other at DH. They will have outfield depth of Dylan Carlson and Alec Burleson, most likely.
Carlson can play center field defense that the Cardinals like and Burleson is supposed to offer hitting off of the bench, no matter what the results said last year. His underlying stats are better than that, as were the minor league stats that preceded 2023. Tommy Edman can also then become the backup shortstop along with Brenden Donovan, allowing the Cardinals that particular luxury. This clears the way for those above to be the starters and bench on a near every day basis with the bench only filling in at places when necessary.
This simplifies the roster for players that were brought up in 2022 and 2023 to a team lauded for it's ability to improvise and play matchups. The manager did that quite effectively in 2022, giving the Cardinals their winningest regular season since 2015. Then, 2023 happened and the Cardinals apparently decided to neuter this ability of their chosen manager they've brought up through their system to do just this.
However, Willson Contreras, Nolan Arenado, `Paul Goldschmidt, Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman, and Brenden Donovan are going to have to hit and hit well. They're all going to need 50th percentile outcomes or better to ensure that the defense of Masyn Winn and Tommy Edman can be utilized otherwise they're going to come across another Kolten Wong or Harrison Bader situation where the best defenders on the club are going to be scrutinized for their offense because the players who have more of an offensive skill set can't get it done. This has been a constant problem for the Cardinals ever since LaRussa left, to be honest. It's baffling to me.
The signs that point to no?
The bullpen is now more cluttered than ever. As of now, the locks in the bullpen, as I see it, are:
Ryan Fernandez (Rule V, so he has to be in the majors all year)
That leaves them with four righties, one lefty, and three available spots which can be occupied by any of the following on the 40-man roster:
John King, lefty who ended the year on the active roster
Adam Kloffenstein, brought over from the Blue Jays in the Jordan Hicks deal
Matthew Liberatore, lefty who ended the year on the active roster
James Naile, who has struggled at the MLB level in short stints
Riley O'Brien, previously discussed above
Andre Pallante, who ended the year on the active roster
Sem Robberse, the other player in the Jordan Hicks deal
Nick Robertson, acquired this offseason
Drew Rom, who ended the year on the active roster
Zack Thompson, who ended the year on the active roster
Guillermo Zuniga, who got a brief look last year
Out of all of these, Gallegos, Romero, and Kittredge are the only three without any options remaining. This allows the Cardinals a lot of movement this year on what they want to do but with a lot of decisions to make as well. Are any or all of Kloffenstein, Liberatore, Pallante, Robberse, Rom, and Thompson looked at as starters in AAA instead of on the MLB roster?
How does that vibe with minor leaguers like Gordon Graceffo (ended the year at AAA), Michael McGreevy (AAA), Logan Gragg (AAA), Tekoah Roby (AA), Tink Hence (AA), Cooper Hjerpe (A+), Inohan Paniagua (A+), Max Rajcic (A+), and Pete Hansen (A, but 3 batters faced in AAA to end his year) needing to get playing time at the upper levels to see if they have the floor of Gibson and Lynn but higher ceilings (as we discussed at the beginning of this piece)?
So did the Cardinals provide that clarity and floor that they were so desperately craving, so much so that they basically got the huge chunk of their moves down prior to the end of November and have basically completed a month prior to pitchers and catchers reporting on Valentine's Day?
That is up for you, the reader, to decide. I am not so sure that the club did.