While baseball boiled over Tuesday during the busiest single day of transactions outside of the winter meetings perhaps ever, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak learned the gentler arts of Memphis politics. His club's biggest moves already done, Mozeliak had switched from shopper to seller -- pitching Memphis' City Council on behalf of a plan that includes the Cardinals purchasing their Class AAA affiliate.
On the flight back to St. Louis, after waiting out discussions on waste management and other civic flotsam, Mozeliak poked his phone to life and saw the day's torrent of transactions.
"I did not know where to start," he joked.
In one day, six free agents agreed to deals worth a total of at least $218 million, a total of 16 players and two more to be named later were traded, and rosters for 15 of the majors' 30 teams had been altered by day's actions. Forget Christmas in July, this was the trade deadline in December. And the week was just getting started. By Friday afternoon, former Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano had agreed to the third-largest deal in baseball history three days after Jacoby Ellsbury and the Yankees agreed to the third-largest deal for an outfielder in baseball history.
Nearly $700 million had been committed in five-day span to free agents -- a little more than Bloomberg's $693-million estimate for the value of the Cardinals.
What, this couldn't wait a week?
Baseball's annual hot house of activity began Monday at Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. All 30 teams will have representatives descend on Disney to meet with agents and other front offices for a four-day stretch that usually is the offseason's best incubator for deals. With so many baseball people sequestered in a single hotel, the winter meetings are the Jiffy Pop of the hot stove season. The heat turned on early this year. The market wasn't just primed for the winter meetings; it was plundered on the way.
The reasons for the frenetic week of transactions are varied. The week before the winter meetings is a good time to visit suitors, as Cano did in Seattle and Carlos Beltran did in Kansas City, and sometimes deals happen.
Brian McCann's $85-million contract with the Yankees set the stage for two catchers to choose teams last Tuesday. The Yankees' move on Ellsbury and Houston's trade for Dexter Fowler further defined the outfield market for Beltran. With the Yankees investing $153 million in Ellsbury and reportedly unwilling to top $200 million for Cano, the Mariners had their chance to make a splash. When Cano agreed to a deal with Seattle, a few hours later Beltran and the Yankees agreed on a three-year, $45-million deal, bringing the Yankees one-week spending to $283 million on three free agents.
The new money flooding baseball this winter from the national broadcast rights deals has thickened every team's wallet. The money grab is out there. Houston signed Scott Feldman, a starter with two 30-start seasons, to a $30-million deal.
The calendar also played a part in all the early popping. The winter meetings will start this year on Dec. 9. They finished by Dec. 9 in each of the past three seasons and not later than Dec. 11 in the past five. The late start means a compressed time between Thursday's Rule 5 draft -- the traditional end to the meetings -- and Christmas.
Teams were getting their shopping done early.
Not including last Monday's deadline to tender contracts for players on the 40-man roster -- a process all 30 teams had to complete -- 26 teams had a trade or a free-agent agreement last week. One of the teams that didn't was the Cardinals, but not for lack of interest, just a lack of need. The Cardinals acquired center fielder Peter Bourjos and signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta before Thanksgiving. They were surprised by the accelerated timing of their moves, too.
"For us, it was limited opportunities," Mozeliak said. "Everything we looked at, everything we wanted to do, everything we found attractive was limited, and we knew that we had to move quickly to attend to those needs or perhaps miss on (the preferred targets) and have to reassess."
Those moves position the Cardinals for a quiet winter meetings.
Quiet, not inactive.
Mozeliak said he heard from a handful of teams on Friday that he'll meet with in Florida, and there are appointments set with agents. The Cardinals likely will field offers for their young pitching from the former and discuss an addition to the bench with the latter. The Cardinals are looking for a righthanded-hitting infielder, one who could provide a complement for rookie Kolten Wong at second base while backing up other positions. Mozeliak described the move as "insurance."
The free-agent market offers several candidates including Ryan Roberts, Jeff Baker, Jayson Nix, and Mark Ellis, who the Cardinals have had interest in before. Roberts, 33, hit .247 overall, but .305 against lefties last season with a .845 on-base-plus-slugging in 82 at-bats.
"It's not going to have the same sense of urgency as in the past," Mozeliak acknowledged. "... We'll certainly listen. Some things could still be attractive. But we're also not just going to sit back and if you knock on our door we'll listen. We'll seek out."
Lower Cards payroll?
The Cardinals made both of their moves this offseason without dipping too far into their resources. Neither deal cost the Cardinals one of their prized pitching prospects. And even with Peralta's four-year, $53-million deal, the Cardinals retain plenty of financial flexibility.
Mozeliak conceded that the 2014 payroll "potentially" could be less than the 2013 payroll because of the number of cost-controlled players who will be used. Peralta's deal is frontloaded with a $15.5-million salary for 2014. That gives the Cardinals' about $90 million in salary commitments right now for the 2014 season, including the money owed Ty Wigginton, who was released.
Given the raises owed arbitration-eligible players Bourjos, Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso, the Cardinals could near $100 million. The team that won the National League pennant this past season had a payroll close to $115 million.
Tabled from last week, the purchase plan of the Memphis affiliate could be approved this week and completed by the end of the month. Mozeliak said the $15 million to buy the Class AAA franchise does not change the budget for the major-league payroll.
In the past week, the Cardinals allowed reliever John Axford to reach free agency and saw former closer Edward Mujica agree to terms with Boston. The Cardinals do not expect to add to their pitching staff from outside, with the return of Jason Motte (elbow surgery) and the budding of young pitchers such as Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness and the righty who doesn't crack the rotation. That could be Carlos Martinez.
Martinez and Shelby Miller have drawn interest from other teams this winter, and that stockpile of pitchers has taking stock of the market for their young, cost-controlled arms. The question the Cardinals face is whether the best way to maximize an asset such as a young pitcher is to deal it or keep it for depth. Last year the Cardinals utilized 20 rookies.
Including Miller's 31, rookies made 52 starts for the Cardinals last season, many of them necessary because an injury to an experienced starter.
Several evaluators suggested in October that the Cardinals should move Martinez this winter when interest would be at a high and the Cardinals didn't need him to start. Mozeliak said that how to get the best return on a young pitcher -- in production or in trade -- is a fair question that the team has to answer.
"We have to assess that from a market standpoint," Mozeliak said.
The market has been moving, and fast. In an age of deals hatched by text message, the winter meetings are a bit of anachronism. The need to gather for deals to happen is less necessary. This year's meetings already have been upstaged by a wild week of spending. But some names remain -- free agent Shin-Soo Choo and trade-target David Price, for example -- and though their shopping list is short, the Cards do go south this week with something in mind.
"We can be selective," Mozeliak said. "But we should be opportunistic."
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