The first domino in the pitching market has fallen as the Philadelphia Phillies and right-hander Aaron Nola have agreed on a seven-year, $172 million deal. The St. Louis Cardinals now have one less option to work with in order to strengthen the top end of their rotation.
Building starting pitching depth is vital to building a contender in Major League Baseball, but so is having elite talent at the front of your rotation come October. The Cardinals, if they choose not to extend themselves this offseason, have to prioritize one over the other.
Count me in the camp that the front-end pitching has to take priority.
I think most people would agree with that statement, so I'm not giving any hot takes here. But what I am saying is that I am choosing to be "okay" with the "two-and-a-half starter" approach, where the Cardinals could sign a bounce-back candidate to compete with Zack Thompson in the rotation to begin 2024 or maybe some controllable, unproven starter they acquire via trade. Heck, at this point, I'd be fine with Kyle Gibson or someone in that tier being added to the rotation if that means it allows the Cardinals to get a true number one starter and someone to slot into that number starter spot as well.
I still believe the Cardinals need to extend themselves and swing higher. That kind of aggression is long overdue in St. Louis and is the more likely path toward contention in the near future. Whether that is a trade for one of the best pitchers available this winter or signing one of the top starters available, that has to be the number one priority, with everything else falling into place later.
Who qualifies as one of those top starters? There are two paths they could go down that would qualify in my opinion, with one being a major step above the other.
The first path that I would love is if the Cardinals grabbed a tier one starter and a tier two starter. Not all tier one or tier two starters are on the same level talent-wise, but if they grab one from each level, then I think they've truly "swung higher".
Tier 1: Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Dylan Cease, Tyler Glasnow, and Logan Gilbert
Tier 2: Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez, Shota Imanaga, and Shane Bieber
The other path would be grabbing just one "tier one" arm or two of those "tier two" arms, which would give the Cardinals a much stronger rotation for 2024, but I'm not sure if they learned the lessons they needed to about what this rotation truly needs.
Here's what I really don't want to happen, and yet, is a very possible outcome. The Cardinals cannot try and convince fans that Sonny Gray, someone in the Seth Lugo tier, and a bounce-back candidate is good enough. Can it get them back to being a 90-win team and sneaking into the playoffs? Sure. But that's not the lesson the Cardinals needed to learn. St. Louis needs to raise their sights higher in order to truly compete in the National League for a World Series birth.
Over the next 30 days, we'll have a very good idea of where the Cardinals are heading with this conversation. My hope is they stick to their desire to be aggressive, going for the top of the market rather than "settling" for safe options.