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ST. LOUIS — Back on the first day of the MLB Winter Meetings in early December, just before exorbitant, eye-popping financial transactions started flying around like baseballs in batting practice, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak predicted that his franchise’s typically conservative approach to spending in free agency would be tested like never before.
Now, slightly more than a month removed from that pronouncement and with the dust and dollars having settled on a free-wheeling free-agency period, the Cardinals have the necessary time to pore over their hits (landing catcher Willson Contreras) and misses (inability to add left-handed pop or a veteran presence for depth) because of the volatility of the market and new price of doing business in baseball.
It wasn’t that the Cardinals were unwilling to spend, Mozeliak said on Saturday at the team’s three-day Winter Warm-Up festivities. Instead, it was the organization vowing to only open the purse strings for the greatest of difference-making players — something it ultimately passed on doing. When it came to stacked positions, such as the star-studded shortstop class, Mozeliak refused to dabble there because the team is already comfortable with Tommy Edman. Much the same thinking went into starting pitching, where the club felt it has more than enough talent and depth with six starters already rostered.
As a result, the Cardinals’ payroll will rise only incrementally in 2023, and the financial gulf between the Cardinals and the NL’s big spenders — including the Mets, Padres, Phillies, Dodgers and Braves — will continue to widen. Yes, St. Louis emerged from the offseason having added only Contreras to try and end its three-year run of losing in the first round of the playoffs, but that’s partly by design, Mozeliak said.
“It doesn’t mean we weren’t looking to invest in other things, but we didn’t achieve that,” Mozeliak said. “Is the market something that had an adverse effect to us spending? Of course. The way we operate is, we’re going to invest in what we think are smart investments and prudent. … We’re not going to just do something to do something. You’re not going to just spend to spend.
“I would say this to our fans: We like our team. If we didn’t, we’d be making adjustments, because that’s how we do things. But resources [to potentially add talent] that are available today, and resources moving forward, are more than they were in 2021, 2020 and 2019.”
A Cardinals franchise that won 93 games and the NL Central crown in 2022 was shocked in the playoffs by the upstart Phillies, who swept the NL Wild Card Series. St. Louis feels there is plenty of room for growth by adding Contreras — the most proven catcher on this winter’s market — and trusting that players such as Tyler O’Neill, Jack Flaherty, Steven Matz and Dakota Hudson can have major bounce-back seasons. O’Neill, whose ’22 was marred by injuries and was a far cry from his top-eight NL MVP finish in ’21, stayed in St. Louis throughout the offseason to try and better prepare his body for the rigors of a long baseball season.
“I’ve been proactive as much as I could with my training this offseason, spending the majority of it here in St. Louis working with the staff,” said O’Neill, who celebrated the birth of his first child last week. “We’ve taken it to a whole new level and I’m a lot more dynamic in my workouts. … I started my hitting and throwing programs much earlier and I’m really believing in what I’m doing again.”
Mozeliak said he can live with the barbs from cynical fans upset that the Cardinals sat idle throughout the free-agent frenzy in December. The franchise did so, he stressed, because it has strong belief in the roster already assembled and the potential talent on the way in the form of 20-year-old slugger, Jordan Walker.
“The key to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2023, if you really think about it is, ‘Who are we?'” said Mozeliak. “What I mean by that is, ‘What is Tyler O’Neill? What is Dylan Carlson? What are we going to get out of Jack Flaherty?’
“If these guys perform to the expectations that we believe they are capable of, we think we’re going to be a very talented, competitive and compelling team to watch. These are the bets we’ve made.”