Why are they so reluctant to pursue superstar talents in their prime?
Set aside Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt for a moment. Those were excellent trades. Those are superstars. But there is a reason the Rockies and Diamondbacks were open to moving them - they were aging talents. Of course, St. Louis should always explore deals for those kinds of players.
But what about the Bryce Harper's of the world? He hit free agency after his age-25 season, already an MVP winner, and was sorely undervalued on the free agent market.
What about Corey Seager? The shortstop hit free agency after his age-27 season and gave St. Louis the opportunity to add an MVP-caliber bat to their lineup at their weakest position.
The Cardinals believed in their internal options, and frankly, that's not good enough when there are transcendent talents available to you. It's odd to me that the organization would be willing to acquire Arenado going into his age-30 season, as a guy making $35 million a year, but not want to touch players hitting free agency in their mid-20s. Sure, they can money from Colorado, which plays a role in that, but you're still choosing to pay players in their 30s but waffle at young stars.
Fixing the club's pitching issues will help them get back into contention immediately in 2024, but rethinking how they approach superstar position players will help them get back to being a true World Series contender.
After the 2024 season, Juan Soto is set to hit the market, who like Harper, will be coming off his age-25 season. Unfortunately, the market won't be as cheap on him. The Cardinals engaged in trade talks for him but balked at the price to acquire him. What about when all it will cost is money instead?
The Cardinals are not desperate for another elite bat. Goldschmidt, Arenado, Contreras, Gorman, Walker, Nootbaar, and Donovan form one of the best offensive cores in all of baseball, especially if we expect steps forward from the youngsters in the near future. But as we saw with Goldschmidt and Arenado this year - time is ticking. Goldschmidt was still one of the top hitters in baseball this year, but he wasn't close to his 2022 form. Arenado regressed a ton offensively this year, and while his back was a major part of that, there has to be at least some level of concern about him staying healthy for the remainder of his Cardinals' tenure.
I am very high on Walker, Nootbaar, Gorman, and Donovan, but expecting them to step into the shoes of Goldschmidt and Arenado seamlessly are lofty expectations. I believe the talent is there to form the next offensive core for St. Louis, but that should not stop the Cardinals from being aggressive if opportunities present themselves.
The Dodgers already had an elite core, but saw an opportunity with Freddie Freeman in free agency and pounced on it. The Phillies had already made the World Series on the backs of their bats but saw an elite talent in Trea Turner and went all-in on him. This offseason is not the time for that kind of move, but this Cardinals' front office has to be more aggressive in the coming years.
The first step in that aggression could be tested this offseason though, and I'm not referring to the starting pitching. This winter, the Cardinals have an opportunity to set themselves up for big moves in the future or hinder their ability to be aggressive as well. First, Paul Goldschmidt is set to hit free agency following the 2024 season. What I expect the Cardinals to do is look to extend him soon. What might be the most aggressive thing to do though is to wait and see on Goldschmidt, potentially leaving over $20 million in salary free to be aggressive if there is a different opportunity this offseason. I love Goldschmidt and would like to see him return, but if it hinders them from a bigger move like Soto or someone else, maybe they rethink that.
The second option, and probably the one they'll most likely pursue and I am all on board with, is to begin handing out extensions to the likes of Walker, Gorman, Nootbaar, and Donovan. On the surface, you'd think this would hurt their ability to make bigger moves, but in all honesty, it actually helps them to do that both now and in the future.
These early extensions tend to be more team-friendly in nature on the back end, giving the Cardinals extra flexibility five to six years down the line. That may seem like a long time from now, but this current Cardinals team is feeling the effects of decisions made five to six years ago - so it matters. On the front end, those guys would receive incremental bumps in salary in the early years of the deal, enough that it benefits the player but it does not penalize the team. This also would give the Cardinals payroll certainty, helping them plan bigger moves in the future. Instead of guessing what their guys will make in arbitration and having to pick and choose who they keep when they hit free agency, they have them under contract and can attack future offseasons with more clarity.
Full circle here, Bryce Harper, specifically, was a unique opportunity that all 30 clubs in baseball had to get a future Hall of Fame talent at a bargain price. Those chances just don't happen all that often, so the next stars hitting free agency just are not going to end up being that much of a slam-dunk move. But regardless, Harper, and a guy like Corey Seager, are doing this postseason, and frankly, over the length of their contracts so far, shows why it's wise to invest in those generational talents when they hit free agency at such a young age. Hopefully, the Cardinals are willing to capitalize in the future.