After the St. Louis Cardinals shipped away several notable players at the MLB trade deadline this week, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak talked about the timing of such moves being unique for the organization.
“Obviously, we were hoping that this was a day that would never happen in the sense of having to break up our club, having to focus on the future,” Mozeliak said via Bally Sports Midwest.
While the New York Mets have dominated the headlines as the featured team to dramatically tear down its 2023 roster, the Cardinals have greatly disappointed their fan base, too. Last season, St. Louis won 93 games and the National League Central title and had qualified for the playoffs in four consecutive seasons.
The Cards were favored to win the NL Central again, at (-130) on Caesars Sportsbook in the preseason. Instead, heading into play on Thursday, they had spent 87 of 123 days in last place in the division, the team’s poorest run from the beginning of the season since they went 44-64 in 1995.
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Now, St. Louis is in the very unfamiliar territory of having to play out the rest of the year and look ahead to 2024. The front office will hope that the returned prospects from their multiple deals will show progress in the minors while other young players will audition to be part of the 2024 core.
With 53 games remaining, the Cardinals will need to win 33 to finish at .500. While the team’s fans won’t see such an achievement as a significant accomplishment, manager Oliver Marmol said that his players aren’t looking at the rest of the schedule as futile exercises.
“These guys aren’t built to just give in or just go through the season,” Marmol said. “No one’s going to show up and just play a game to check the box. They’re built to be extremely competitive.”
Starting pitcher Miles Mikolas agreed, giving further insight into the mental makeup of the athletes who are left behind to finish out the year after some of their key teammates are sent away.
“Whether it’s foolish or not, the strategy is to be super optimistic,” Mikolas said. “We start putting things together and get on a roll here; things can change.”
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For this season, the apparent goal for the Cardinals is to finish with a respectable record and gather some shreds of positivity heading into next year. Despite his stance on remaining upbeat for the rest of the season, Mikolas does know that the organizational focus is now on the 2024 campaign, as he and Steven Matz may be anchors of a revamped pitching staff.
“We’re going to be two of the older guys on the staff next year,” Mikolas said. He added that a journey to get back into contention will begin in spring training with, “building the culture, kind of a philosophy and a work ethic as a group. Whoever’s here next year, we’ll just be feeding off each other.”
The team’s deadline deals included trading starting pitchers Jack Flaherty and Jordan Montgomery while also dealing prime relievers Jordan Hicks and Chris Stratton. The emphasis was on moving players with expiring contracts and acquiring promising pitching prospects.
St. Louis resisted any perceived attempts to trade signature superstars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, signaling that the front office does not fully intend to punt on the 2024 season. Yet the trade returns clearly pointed to improving the longer-term outlook through pitching.
“You’ve heard me state in the past that we were looking to acquire pitching, and that was certainly one of our goals,” Mozeliak said. “We did spend a lot of time looking at that phrase, ‘swing and miss.’ The pitchers that we did identify do fall into that at some level.”
When the Cardinals finished making moves this week, six new pitching prospects had joined the organization in return. Among them are Tekoah Roby (11.0 K/9 rate as a minor leaguer), now ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the Cardinals’ system, Sem Robberse (No. 6), Zack Showalter (No. 23), Adam Kloffenstein (No. 24), and Drew Rom (No. 26).
Rom, who has a 10.4 K/9 rate in the minors this season, is marked with an MLB ETA of 2023, while all the others — sans Showalter — come in at 2024. Marmol noted that while it wasn’t easy to part with proven performers, he aligns with the front office’s vision.
“It’s a decent amount of talent that just walked out,” Marmol said. “We’re setting ourselves up for having immediate success next year.”
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While Marmol and his staff wait out the eventual arrival of the new acquisitions, other younger performers will see their opportunities to prove that they will indeed be significant contributors to the 2024 Cardinals.
Jordan Walker has endured ups and downs. Heading into play on Thursday, he was hitting .270 with a .769 OPS. He is considered an integral part of the future plans, as is No. 1 prospect Masyn Winn, who may be called up later this month.
Matthew Liberatore, who carried a 5.97 ERA and 1.73 WHIP into Thursday’s start, was recalled from the minors after Flaherty and Montgomery were traded. The 23-year-old will get his chance to demonstrate that he can fix his issues and be a key part of the rotation next season.
The manager added that despite the disappointments that led to the franchise dismantling a team that was supposed to contend, the remaining staff and players are already putting the transactions behind them.
“It’s a tough day when you see your boys go to a different team for sure,” Marmol said. “You move on pretty quickly just because of the nature of what we’re called to do every day.”
Mikolas agreed with the skipper again.
“It’s kind of sad, but that’s the game. Life goes on, man.”