The Cardinals went into the offseason teasing a payroll spike. They came away with one of the top free agents available early. Things went quiet after the Winter Meetings, leaving the club to rely upon most of the core of last year’s division winner.

Major League Signings

2023 spending: $27.5M
Total spending: $105M

Option Decisions

Trades and Claims


Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

The Cardinals won 93 games and an NL Central title last season. Their playoff run proved painfully short, as they were quickly dispatched by the Phillies in the best-of-three wild-card series. It sent St. Louis into what had the potential to be an active offseason. Reigning MVP finalist Nolan Arenado had a chance to test free agency. The coaching staff saw some immediate turnover. Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina officially stepped away, leaving the club with a question mark behind the plate for the first time in two decades.

Most of the activity played out quickly. Arenado forewent his opt-out chance. He’ll play out the final five years and $144M (of which $31M will reportedly be paid by the Rockies) on his contract. It’s incredible value for the team considering Arenado’s continued excellence on both sides of the ball. That’s particularly true in light of the higher-than-expected free agent prices for star position players this offseason, which leaves no doubt Arenado left a significant amount of money on the table. That he did so speaks both to his desire for stability and his faith in the organization’s playoff chances over the coming seasons.

As part of the push to keep Arenado around, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak met with the star third baseman to assure him of their competitive goals. Presumably, the club’s payroll was part of those talks, as the St. Louis front office leader also publicly teased an uptick in spending this winter. Mozeliak frankly declared the team would go outside the organization for a new catcher rather than turn to Iván Herrera and Andrew Knizner behind the dish.

Those talking points would come together around six weeks later, but the Cardinals had some intervening business. First was re-signing franchise icon Adam Wainwright for a 19th season. He inked a $17.5M deal that exactly matched his 2022 salary, though this contract involved deferrals to push $10M of the money into future years. There was never any question whether Wainwright would sign with another team. The only intrigue was if he’d choose to continue playing or join Pujols and Molina in retirement. The three-time All-Star chose to run things back one more time but has already announced the 2023 campaign will be his last.

Another star of recent franchise history, Matt Holliday, also emerged in the news early in the offseason. After bench coach Skip Schumaker and hitting coach Jeff Albert departed the organization — Schumaker to become Miami’s manager, Albert to step away from the demands of being a lead hitting instructor at the MLB level — Holliday expressed some interest in joining Oli Marmol’s coaching staff. That happened in early November when the Cards tabbed Holliday as bench coach. Things took another turn when the seven-time All-Star resigned two months later, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Ultimately, Joe McEwing assumed the bench coach role. Turner Ward was brought in as hitting coach. Dusty Blake got the nod to replace pitching coach Mike Maddux, who stepped down and eventually took the same position in Texas.

While much of the coaching staff was reshuffled, continuity remains an ongoing theme in the front office. Mozeliak and general manager Michael Girsch each signed multiyear extensions, keeping one of the league’s longest-tenured executive pairings in charge. Mozeliak hinted at a succession plan being put in place over the coming seasons — presumably one that’d eventually see Girsch take over baseball operations — but there’s no publicly defined timetable for that transition.

Once Wainwright and Arenado were guaranteed to return, the Cardinals turned their attention to external possibilities. As Mozeliak indicated from the outset, catcher was the top priority. St. Louis was linked to Sean Murphy on the trade front and free agents like Willson Contreras and Christian Vázquez. Contreras, a longtime division rival as a Cub, was the clear top backstop on the open market. While the Cards juggled both trade and free-agent possibilities headed into the Winter Meetings, they ultimately pulled off a big free-agent strike.

St. Louis inked Contreras to a five-year, $87.5M guarantee that contains a club option for a sixth season. The second-largest free-agent investment in franchise history, the deal also required surrendering their second-highest pick in next year’s draft and $500K of international signing bonus space because Contreras had rejected a qualifying offer. St. Louis felt that a reasonable price to pay for one of the sport’s top offensive catchers. Contreras is coming off a .243/.349/.466, 22-homer showing and has topped the 20 longball mark on four separate occasions. He’s faced some criticism for his receiving and questions about his ability to handle a pitching staff but there are few catchers capable of providing the offensive punch he brings.

The Contreras deal proved to be St. Louis’ big offseason move. Once that was finalized, things went quiet for the bulk of the winter. The Cardinals were loosely linked to other targets. They were on the periphery of the Dansby Swanson market before the Contreras signing. The Cards were at least a speculative fit for a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, particularly since left-hander José Quintana departed in free agency. They checked in on Carlos Rodón before he signed a six-year deal with the Yankees. They were among the numerous teams tied to Miami’s rotation surplus but talks failed to gain traction when the Fish reportedly targeted Lars Nootbaar in a potential Pablo López trade.

Mozeliak said at the start of the offseason that a left-handed bat was on the wishlist but the club didn’t pull that off. At the tail end of the offseason, the Cards were among several teams linked to the free agent left-handed relief market. Barring a late signing of the still-unsigned Zack Britton, that also won’t manifest in a deal.

Every team kicks around possible moves that don’t come to fruition. Regardless, it’d be fair for the fanbase to have anticipated more activity after Mozeliak’s early-offseason comments about a payroll spike. St. Louis enters the 2023 season with a player payroll projected in the $179M – $180M range by Roster Resource and Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That’s a franchise record and around $25M north of last year’s Opening Day mark. The Cardinals did increase spending but didn’t alter their mid-tier expenditures in comparison to the rest of the league. According to Cot’s, they entered 2022 with the 13th-highest payroll in the majors; they’re projected at 14th this season.

Mozeliak himself expressed some amount of frustration with the way things played out, even as he struck an optimistic tone overall. 

“When we reflect back on the offseason, there were certainly some things we were hoping to do that we weren’t able to accomplish,” he told reporters in January. “A lot of things sort of unfolded or transpired that necessarily didn’t break the way we had hoped. … Do we have the bandwidth to still add to this club throughout the year?  Yes, we do.  Is the market something that had an adverse effect [on] us spending? The answer is of course. The way we operate is that we’re going to invest in what we think are smart investments, prudent, but also investments that we understand could have a backside of negativity or loss.  Having said that, you’re still not going to do something just to do something, and you’re not going to spend just to spend.  We like our team.  If we didn’t like our team, we’d be making adjustments to our team.”

Ultimately, the offseason was defined by one transaction. Aside from Contreras stepping into Molina’s shoes, St. Louis more or less brings back the same roster that ended 2022. Quintana and Corey Dickerson signed elsewhere. Pujols retired. Former top prospect and closer Alex Reyes was non-tendered after losing the entire season to a shoulder injury that required surgery.

Aside from Contreras, the only external additions come at the back of the roster. Minor league infielder José Fermín was acquired from the Guardians for cash. Former Dodgers’ farmhand Guillermo Zuniga secured a 40-man spot in free agency as a hard-throwing reliever who hasn’t topped Double-A. Veteran utilityman Taylor Motter signed a minor league deal and will break camp with the team in a bench role. The Cards brought in southpaw Anthony Misiewicz as bullpen depth after he was designated for assignment by the Royals while taking a flier on Wilking Rodríguez in the Rule 5 draft. Former Nationals catcher Tres Barrera signed a non-roster deal over the winter and might surpass Knizner for the backup job.

Despite the lack of other significant transactions, there remains reason for optimism about the upcoming season. The Cardinals have been a model of consistency over the past decade and a half. They’ve shown a knack for churning out quality players through the farm system to continually compete while only occasionally making big free-agent moves. Much of the group that won the division will be back.

Paul Goldschmidt pairs with Arenado as perhaps the league’s top corner infield duo. Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman should get the bulk of playing time up the middle, with former top prospect Nolan Gorman an option at second base. The outfield brings back a high-upside trio of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Nootbaar and welcomes one of the game’s best minor-league talents. Jordan Walker will break camp after a .306/.388/.510 showing as a 20-year-old in Double-A. It’s not without risk, considering the former first-rounder hasn’t played a single inning at the Triple-A level. Yet Walker has torn the cover off the ball in the minors and is credited by evaluators with arguably the best hit/power combination of any current prospect. He’ll surely get everyday reps now that he’s on the MLB club, mostly in the outfield corners and at designated hitter considering his natural third base position is already filled.

Gorman, Alec Burleson and prospects like Masyn Winn and Matthew Liberatore aren’t counted on to play huge roles from the outset. They’re all well-regarded to varying degrees, though, and the organizational depth could position St. Louis to make a midseason strike on the trade market if they’re battling for the division as expected.

The starting staff is probably the area of the roster that could stand to see the biggest upgrade. St. Louis has a decent collection of quality arms but doesn’t have the top-of-the-rotation hurler that most other contenders do. Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz are the top five on the depth chart. Wainwright will begin the year on the injured list after suffering a groin strain during a workout, pushing Jake Woodford into the season-opening rotation. It’s a stable but not especially high-impact group, illustrated by Quintana getting the nod for Game One of the Cards’ playoff series last year.

Acquiring a starting pitcher at the deadline could come with the bonus of deepening the 2024 staff. As recently as last week, Matz represented the only established starter under club control beyond this season. The Cards took a step towards solidifying the long-term group by extending Mikolas on what amounts to a two-year, $40M investment. The deal tacks on some immediate money for the veteran in the form of a $5M signing bonus and a bump in 2023 salary from $15.75M to $18.75M. In exchange, the Cards will keep him around for two extra seasons at $16M annually.

There’s room for another extension and/or trade for a controllable pitcher. Wainwright isn’t coming back in 2024; Montgomery and Flaherty are on track to hit free agency. Perhaps Liberatore, Woodford or a prospect like Tink Hence takes a step forward this year. As of now, only Matz and Mikolas can confidently be penciled into next year’s rotation.

How to balance that long-term outlook with the club’s more immediate needs will be determined over the coming months. As they do seemingly every year, the Cardinals enter 2023 with one of the game’s deeper rosters. They’re well-positioned to compete for another division title in what should again be a fairly weak NL Central. The Pirates and Reds aren’t playoff competitive. The Cubs have improved but have a significant gap to get to the top of the division. St. Louis and the Brewers seem the two best teams, offering a clear path for the Cardinals to claim a fifth consecutive postseason berth.

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