Tier 1: Ace-level starting pitching
Free agents: Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto
Trade: Dylan Cease and Tyler Glasnow
Unlikely: Julio Urias, Logan Gilbert, and Shohei Ohtani
If the Cardinals had to prioritize one this offseason, it's gotta be getting an ace-level starter. If they strike out on this market, it's really hard to imagine them having a strong offseason in general.
Here's something I found really interesting the more I started digging. Assuming Shohei Ohtani goes to the Dodgers, I kind of doubt they sign any of these guys (outside of maybe Julio Urias). The Mets seem unlikely as well outside of a run at Yamamoto since their eyes are on 2025 or 2026 to compete. The Astros, Braves, and Rays typically don't spend huge money in free agency, and the Yankees and Rangers can't really afford another top-end starter on a mega deal.
So who are the teams the Cardinals will have to compete with to get someone like Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, or Yoshinobu Yamamoto? It's likely some combination of the Phillies, Cubs, Padres, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Giants, Angels, and the Orioles.
Why is this important? Well, most offseasons, the Cardinals would need to hope that a team like the Dodgers, Mets, Yankees, or Rangers don't just come in and offer insane amounts of money that no one else can outbid. I'm not saying the teams who I identified won't do something like that, but I think it's a lot easier to compete with that list for free agents than it is with the big dogs. Of that list I just identified, only the Orioles have less salary already commited to their 2024 roster than the Cardinals.
This leads me to believe that the Cardinals should be one of the front-runners for each of the free agents on this list. If I had to bet now, I actually really like the Cardinals' chances of getting Aaron Nola to come to St. Louis, and I really like the fit for what St. Louis needs. Snell and Yamamoto would also be excellent fits for what the Cardinals need at the top of their rotation.
Even if they strike out in getting Nola, Snell, or Yamamoto, I think they are among the front runners for Dylan Cease or Tyler Glasnow as well. Cease would require a haul in return, with likely one of Nolan Gorman or Brendan Donovan as the headliner and then 2-3 other valuable pieces as well...and even then that may not get it done. Glasnow comes with a huge injury risk, but since he makes $25 million next year as well, I think he would not require nearly as much talent in return.
Logan Gilbert feels extremely unlikely to me, as he would likely cost even more than Cease on the market, believe it or not. The Mariners also seem highly unlikely to move him anyways. Julio Urias comes with off-the-field baggage that I just do not see the Cardinals being interested in. And as much as we'd love to see Shohei Ohtani in St. Louis, I'd put the chances of that happening at virtually zero.