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Hot Stove ignites with return of MLB Winter Meetings; Cardinals seek their first spark

SAN DIEGO — Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, like so many of his industry peers, often remarks how deadlines spur action. Trade talks can idle or yo-yo, simmer or dwindle, and then right around July 31st the trade deadline arrives, the market buzzes like a startled hive, and deals get done.

The offseason is more chill as neither the trade winds nor free agent bidding has any rigid deadline other than the start of a season several months away. As close as the winter gets to that summer boil is something Major League Baseball has not convened in three years. Almost 12 months to the week since baseball froze and the owners’ lockout began, front offices and agents will gather in San Diego for the first Winter Meetings since 2019 and try to take the Zoom off the laptop and put it back in the market.

Will absence make the moves go faster?

The MLB Winter Meetings open Sunday in San Diego at a harborside hotel, the same city as the last time the game gathered in December for what had been an annual hothouse for the Hot Stove. Those meetings ignited with three free agent deals in three consecutive days, each worth at least $245 million. This year’s got sparked early with the Texas Rangers announcing Friday night a five-year, $185-million deal for ace Jacob deGrom, plucking him out of Queens. Milwaukee traded former Cardinal infielder Kolten Wong to Seattle earlier Friday for a return that included outfielder Jesse Winker. Free-agent outfielder Aaron Judge, fresh off a 62-homer season, has the chance to be next week’s blockbuster with all eyes on the New York Yankees’ attempt to keep him from heading west, possibly to the San Francisco Giants.

The Cardinals arrive without a box checked atop their shopping list.

But their day planner is crowded.

They have plans to meet with representatives for free agent catchers Willson Contreras and Christian Vazquez, according to sources, and have other conversations to continue with teams like Toronto and Oakland, both of whom are entertaining trade offers for a catcher.

The pace of their offseason thus far for the Cardinals indicates they’re searching for an everyday catcher on parallel tracks — looking at the competitive cost of an appealing trade, such as one for the A’s Sean Murphy, while discussing the length of contracts desired by free agents. There are other teams, such as Cleveland, engaged with catcher talks, and the Winter Meetings could give the market a needed nudge.

The Cardinals have also had discussions this winter about fits with free-agent catchers Omar Narvaez and Mike Zunino. Contreras, the longtime Cub and three-time All-Star, is the standout of this free agent class because of his offense and career .808 OPS. He reached out to lefty Jose Quintana during the season to ask about the Cardinals’ clubhouse and culture — and Quintana said he gave a strong review. The other catchers lean toward defense and guiding pitching staffs. As one team’s executive said, the list of available everyday catchers is “well-known and short,” so pursuits aren’t secret.

Cardinals officials do not discuss specific targets.

“When you look at potential trades, it’s going to cost you ‘X’ players, and when you look at the free-agent market, yes, it’s probably just cash, but what is how much cash?” Mozeliak said in the opening days of his search. “when you talk about time — it’s not necessarily where you have to go out and sign someone for the next six years, because we do have some catching coming. How do we sort of work through that? Most of the trades would be shorter term.”

Mozeliak said after two decades of entering the catchers’ market to sign a backup, not a starter, how eager free agents are for the Cardinals’ interest has changed.

“Now people clearly understand we really do have opportunity,” he said.

The Cardinals have also expressed an interest in adding a bat for the lineup — though have not been active with the higher-cost free agents. The Cardinals have remained on the outskirts of the shortstop discussions, staying aware but not plunging in, according to a source. Mozeliak said at the GM Meetings that he did not expect to shop for a starter. Quintana, the Cardinals’ Game 1 starter in the postseason, expressed interest in returning, and the Cardinals remain open to the possibility.

Where the Cardinals have spent some time in talks with agents is about pitchers who would add depth and strikeout-rate to the staff that had the lowest in the majors. The price for such relievers revealed itself Friday. Arizona signed Miguel Castro, a reliever who fit some of the Cardinals’ preferences, to a reported $3.5-million deal. That is more than the $2.85 million Cardinals could have paid to retain right-hander Alex Reyes, who is returning from shoulder surgery. Boston signed Chris Martin and his 11.9 strikeouts-per-nine to a two-year, $17.5-million deal.

There are other options still available ranging from former Cardinals’ first-round pick Adam Ottavino, who has eight consecutive years with at least a 10.0 strikeouts-per-nine rate, to Tommy Kahnle, who had a season shortened by injury but has 11.1 career strikeouts-per-nine. David Robertson had 81 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings in 2022 and has a career 11.9 strikeouts-per-nine. Milwaukee turned down a $3-million option on right-hander Brad Boxberger, and he’s coming off a season with a 2.95 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 70 appearances (64 innings). In past years, the Cardinals have found their swingman move by signing a pitcher from Asia’s top leagues and have looked there again this winter.

Mozeliak said multiple times that the Cardinals’ payroll will increase for 2023, in part because of the ticket sales generated by this past year’s team and the farewell seasons for Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina.

The Cardinals currently have around $160 million committed to 24 players on the presumptive 26-man opening day roster. That’s up from the $154 million last year, but the Cardinals can get closer to or beyond their budgets plotted before the shortened season of 2020 changed baseball’s mathematics. That would be around $180 million to $185 million. They offered a peek into their financial views and spending space this past summer by considering a trade for Juan Soto, who is owed around $20 million in 2023.

A windfall for MLB owners happened this past week when Disney purchased the remainder of BAMTech, originally known as MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), for a reported $900 million. That will be shared by member clubs, and the jackpot has the union’s attention for how or if it spills into player acquisition.

While there will be a lot familiar about the Winter Meetings as they resume, the three years and new Collective Bargaining Agreement will introduce new wrinkles:

• The Rule 5 Draft, which permits teams to claim unprotected minor-league players from other organizations, will shift from the final morning of the meetings to Wednesday afternoon.

• On Tuesday, MLB will hold the first draft lottery, a gizmo introduced in the new CBA to complicate the strategy of tanking to rebuild. The lottery will determine what team that did not make the playoffs has the first overall pick in the 2023 draft.

The opening day of the meetings, as officials arrive, will feature the announcement Sunday afternoon on whether the Hall of Fame’s Contemporary Baseball Era Committee has elected anyone to Cooperstown’s Class of 2023. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Fred McGriff, and Dale Murphy are all up for consideration by the committee.

That committee meets Sunday to debate, discuss candidates like Bonds and Clemens who failed to be elected by the baseball writers due to their ties to the Steroid Era.

By Monday, the teams will be nestled all snug in their suites while visions of metrics dance on their computers. Some meetings will happen in person. Some trade talks will range from phone calls to exchanges of text messages. Deals discussed can be sealed with an emoji. And there will be so much talk.

Talk, after all, is cheap.

The goal is actions that pay off.

St. Louis Cardinals' John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, speaks at an end-of-season news conference at Busch Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Photo by Robert Cohen,

St. Louis Cardinals’ John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, speaks at an end-of-season news conference at Busch Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Photo by Robert Cohen,

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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