When looking at the future landscape of Major League Baseball, the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros remain the class of the National and American Leagues. An arguement could be made for the Los Angeles Dodgers as well, assuming they make some big moves this offseason and always have an incredible farm system - but the Braves and Astros are unique powerhouses that just cannot be replicated over one offseason.
What teams like the St. Louis Cardinals can look at though is the contenders that have found a way to be a thorn in the side of the Braves and Rangers, specifically, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Texas Rangers, as they have shown the Cardinals and the rest of baseball that it's possible to build a team that can beat those juggernauts in October.
Having a Phillies-Rangers World Series would be further proof that spending big on the right kinds of players can propel your team
Last year, the Phillies made a surprise run to the World Series on the backs of superstars like Bryce Harper, Zach Wheeler, Aaron Nola, JT Realmuto, and Kyle Schwarber, and then followed that up this offseason by signing Trea Turner to add to that bunch as well. While they were not an incredible "regular season" team, they are clearly built for October and may make their second straight World Series as a result.
The Rangers were 69-94 in 2022, and while they already had their superstar bats, they lacked the pitching that was needed to not only make the postseason but to go deep as well. So they went out and signed Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, and Andrew Heaney to add to their rotation, and were aggressive at the deadline by adding Max Scherzer, Jordan Montgomery, and Aroldis Chapman.
Why does any of this matter? Well, both teams have shown that if you're willing to spend the money and invest in the right talent, it's possible to build a team capable of going toe to toe with the elites in baseball, not just hoping you luck into a postseason run.
For the Rangers, they have three different players making north of $30 million a year (Scherzer, deGrom, Seager), Semien who is making $25 million annually, and six players making between $10 million and $19.7 million (Perez, Eovaldi, Gray, Odorizzi, Heaney, and Montgomery). To be clear though, the Mets are eating a lot of Scherzer's contract, which made that deal possible, and they only picked up the last two months of Montgomery's salary. But those are the kinds of moves aggressive contenders are willing to make.
For the Phillies, they have six players making north of $20 million a season (Turner, Harper, Wheeler, Realmuto, Castellanos, and Schwarber), as well as four players between $10 million and $18 million per season (Walker, Nola, Kimbrel, and Hoskins). The Phillies have spent big, but they've also spent wisely in many of these deals.
Okay, so how does this apply to St. Louis? Before we even get into the spending, let's just evaluate how the Cardinals compare to each of these clubs.
The Phillies lineup features Harper, Turner, Schwarber, Realmuto, and Castellanos as their big-ticket bats, with Bohm, Stott, Marsh, and Hoskins (although he was out for the year) as their key secondary bats. The Rangers, on the other hand, rely heavily on their big ticket bats of Seager and Semien, with the likes of Garcia, Heim, Lowe, and Jung playing major roles as well.
Offensively, the Cardinals have the talent to stack up with teams like the Phillies and Rangers already. I know there is a segment of the Cardinals fanbase that is concerned about the offense, but before they "gave up" on the season, they were a top-10 unit in baseball, even with Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt having down years.
Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Willson Contreras, Nolan Gorman, Jordan Walker, Lars Nootbaar, and Brendan Donovan represent their core bats, and that's a really strong unit on its own. Continued development from names like Masyn Winn, Thomas Saggese, Alec Burleson, and Victor Scott II can increase the depth of their lineup as well.
It's pretty clear where the Cardinals lag behind the Phillies and Rangers right now - the pitching department. The Phillies have mostly spent their big bucks on building their lineup, while the Rangers have shown the model of how to build a pitching staff on the fly.
Right now, the Cardinals only have one player making over $30 million a year in Nolan Arenado, and one player making about $20 million in Paul Goldschmidt. They have three players (Contreras, Mikolas, and Matz) making between $10 million and $18 million a year. They are also in a position where many of their core bats are on pre-arbitration salaries (Walker, Nootbaar, Winn, Gorman, and Donovan) leaving them with a lot of flexibility there.
Reporting from the likes of Derrick Goold indicates that the Cardinals are ready to spend this offseason. They have to back it up with action, but this is a very different tone than we have heard from them in the past when they've declined to engage with the top of the market.
What makes the Phillies and Rangers' pitching staffs so good is their top-end talent. Both of them have at least two guys who can go toe to toe with the best in a playoff series. When the Rangers' guys went down with injuries, they went out and traded for more support.
If the Cardinals are willing, they can easily form their own "two-headed monster" at the top of their rotation. Heck, they could even get three guys if they wanted to. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery are all free agents. Tyler Glasnow and Dylan Cease could be available in trades, with teams like the Marlins and Mariners potentially shopping pitching as well.
The bullpen needs work as well to catch up with Texas and Philly, but they have some arms already that can contribute. Ryan Helsley looks back to his normal self, JoJo Romero was really good in the second half, and Giovanny Gallegos and John King represent interesting arms as well. They can surely upgrade here as well through the trade market for a few signings in addition to their starters.
Let's get back to why the Phillies and Rangers are the perfect World Series matchup for Cardinals fans. If the Braves, Astros, or even the Dodgers make the World Series, the Cardinals can look at those teams as the true outliers - teams they cannot catch up to in terms of spending or their elite team-building measures in just one offseason. If the Orioles, Twins, or Diamondbacks make it, they can point to the whole "just win and get in" concept that nobody wants to hear.
But then there are the Phillies and the Rangers, two organizations that aren't the biggest markets in the world, but they bring in a lot of revenue (like St. Louis). They both have had clear needs over the years, and they were aggressive in both free agency and the trade market to fill them. Neither team will likely have the best record in their league in any given season, but once you get to October, they are built to win.
That's the blueprint this offseason for the Cardinals. Go in and make aggressive moves to upgrade your pitching staff. Put your money where your mouth is and be the highest bidder. Don't settle for just one guy, go out and get two or three legit dudes. Be ready to be aggressive at the deadline as well. That's how they can get back to being a real contender in 2024.
What's even more encouraging to me about this is that it doesn't require the Cardinals to mortgage their future either. The Cardinals have a young core. They don't need to worry about becoming a team that will crumble due to age. Some of their best players right now are past the age of 30, but in the next year or two, the likes of Walker, Gorman, Donovan, Nootbaar, Winn, Saggese, Roby, Hence, and whoever else will be ready to step into those roles. This is an opportunity to take advantage of a core that is ready to win now, all while continuing to turn over the reigns to the next generation of Cardinals.
This is a pivotal offseason for the Cardinals. Early indications lead me to believe they are ready to deliver, but the proof will be in the pudding coming February.