CARLSBAD, Calif. • With no single, glaring hole on their roster and yet at least one significant, defining need — a return to the playoffs — the Cardinals arrived at a sun-swept Southern California retreat about to embark on a holistic approach to this offseason.
In a marketplace that can fulfill many of their wishes, the Cardinals are looking across the roster for upgrades, wherever they can find them, as a way to achieve personnel growth.
“We return basically the team we had, more or less,” general manager Michael Girsch said, then listed the three departing free agents, Tyson Ross, Matt Adams and Bud Norris. “So, arguably, we’re in pretty good shape. But that didn’t get us to the playoffs or win us the division. That didn’t reach the goals we set before the start of the season. … Just like last year, if we had to start the season tomorrow we could run out a 25-man roster that would compete. But that’s not where we want to be.
“We want to be a 25-man roster that is a division-leading roster. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. That’s what we’re trying to find.”
Baseball’s annual general manager meetings open, officially, Tuesday morning at a resort about an hour north of San Diego. Girsch, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, and other members of the front office arrived Monday, and most of them will spend the next 2½ days in industry meetings, informal gatherings and face-to-face talks with agents and executives from around baseball.
There are substantive industry issues discussed at the GM meetings, and this year officials are expected to explore a unified trade deadline date that would do away with the waiver process that rules August. The commissioner’s office may also address what came up in the postseason as far as sign stealing and the technological lengths teams like Houston went to to observe other teams — regardless of the purpose.
From a free-agent and trade standpoint — what Girsch referred to as the “fun stuff” of winter — the GM meetings offer a prelude for the market ahead. It’s baseball’s speed-dating.
Rose ceremonies come later.
Girsch, Mozeliak and assistant general manager Moises Rodriguez have been in contact with almost every team in recent weeks to get a feel for trade discussions. The Cardinals are interested in what offers they could get for Jose Martinez, Jedd Gyorko and, if wowed or wooed, one of the young starting pitchers. Girsch did not discuss specific names but said the GM meetings offer a chance to get into specifics with other teams.
“That is the stuff that we figure out here,” Girsch said. “You get the lay of the land. What they’re thinking. What we’re thinking. Are they ready to engage? That’s one of the purposes of this, from our standpoint at least. What goes on from a data-gathering about possible connections starts to transition more into the, ‘OK, I know what my market is. You know what the alternatives are. Where are we?’”
Where the Cardinals are likely to spend much of the next month and beyond is exploring the galaxy of free agents available in a notably talented market, and they will find themselves often in the orbit of agent Scott Boras. At some point, if they haven’t already, the Cardinals front office and, probably, Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. will meet with Boras, who represents at least five players who could interest the Cardinals. Former NL MVP Bryce Harper does, and Boras also represents lefties Dallas Keuchel and Zach Britton, and lefthanded-hitting third baseman Mike Moustakas. Boras also reportedly has agreed to represent lefty starter Yusei Kikuchi from Japan.
With Harper and Manny Machado, two mid-20s franchise players, available as free agents this winter, a handful of teams have made decisions in past years to prepare themselves, their rosters and their budgets to bid on this market’s talent. The Philadelphia Phillies appear poised with the most to spend and a long-established eye for Machado. The Chicago White Sox have tanked, rebuilt and eyed this market as a chance to make their moves. Other teams, like the Dodgers and Yankees, cut salary to stay under baseball’s luxury tax. Cubs president Theo Epstein told Chicago reporters Monday that this is a “pivotal” year for the team, in part because of the core the club has committed to, and the rigidity of their budget this winter.
The Cardinals did not approach the previous few years with an eye on being active in this Harper-led market, and yet they are as well-positioned as any team.
It’s come to them as much as they’ve prepped for it.
“It’s unique to have young established players, major-league All-Stars, reach free agency,” Girsch sid. “That’s unique. We’ve had guys in the mid- to late 20s reach free agency. I don’t know if we’ve ever had two in one year. They’re few and far between.”
The moves that would have kept the Cardinals out of this year’s bidding — unsuccessful plays for David Price and Jason Heyward in 2015 and last year’s trade attempt for Giancarlo Stanton — reveal the level they’re willing to reach for what they’ve referred to as “unique players.” When the Cardinals calculate the “cost” of trading for a player, they assign a value to the production they expected to get from the prospects being traded. A year ago, the Cardinals were willing to take on around $255 million of Stanton’s remaining salary and send a package of prospects to Miami. The total “cost,” in the Cardinals’ calculations, would have been greater than $300 million. Peers point to the Cardinals’ willingness to make such offers as an indication of the factor they could be for Harper, at 26, and others this winter.
Agents and journalists dotted the lobby at the Carlsbad resort Monday as front offices cycled through, got their room, found their colleagues and moved on. The GM meetings, by design, draw a smaller crowd than December’s winter meetings, and that allows for the market to start moving, face to face. At a table just off the lobby, Girsch considered the team the Cardinals have – and the moves the Cardinals want. A big bat, he said. A lefty reliever, he agreed.
This week, the costs start to take shape.
“We have a competitive team that pretty much all returns, so we’re in a good position to compete again next year,” Girsch said. “The culture in the clubhouse with some of the changes we’ve made put everything going in the right direction. We ended the season strong. I suspect that guys like Yadi (Molina) and (Adam) Wainwright are great ambassadors. The fan base, the support, the full houses all speak for themselves. There’s a lot to sell.”
Now, they figure out what they can buy.