Rosenthal: Juan Soto, Frankie Montas pursuits put Cardinals in uncomfortable position


In Seattle, a city famous for rainy winters, Luis Castillo’s takeover required a perfect storm. A stacked farm system, intense motivation and an ultra-aggressive general manager were all necessary for the Mariners to outbid the Dodgers, Yankees and other clubs for the most valuable starting pitcher in this year’s trade market.

The startling outcome of the Castillo talks may provide a blueprint for how the Juan Soto talks might unfold. At a time when many teams struggle over their projection models and flinch every time they’re asked to sacrifice their precious prospects, the Padres’ AJ Preller acts as fearlessly as the Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto, if not more. If the Soto talks boil down to the Padres versus the Cardinals – and admittedly nobody really knows if the perceived favorites are the actual favorites or whether the Dodgers or another club are lurking – then it would be difficult to bet against San Diego. Suppose the Nationals even trade Soto.

However, the Castillo trade is instructive. The Mariners system ranked first in Baseball America’s preseason ratings and second to Keith Law, prior to the degrees of midfielder Julio Rodríguez and right-hander George Kirby. Seattle’s motivation stemmed from a 20-year postseason drought, the longest among any team in America’s four major sports leagues. And his ultra-aggressive GM, Dipoto, included not one but two top shortstop prospects in the four-player package he sent the Reds for Castillo.

In response to a congratulatory SMS, Dipoto said: “It’s time for us to take a step forward!”

Preller runs his club with similar urgency but, like Dipoto, has yet to truly succeed; The Padres have not made the playoffs in an entire season since Preller’s hiring in August 2014. The Cardinals, owned by Bill DeWitt and GM John Mozeliak, are taking an approach almost opposite to that of the Padres. Her formula is to always walk a fine line between the present and the future. And it works exceptionally well.

Only the Yankees and Dodgers have won more regular-season games this century. Since DeWitt became owner in 1996, the Cardinals have won two World Series, four National League pennants, and 11 division titles, making them the team’s top manager after the 2007 season.

It can therefore be argued that now is the time to bat for Soto, who is 23, one of the sport’s top batsmen and has been under the club’s control for three pennant races. For all the Cardinals’ talk of staying responsible and disciplined, their 2022 season is more important than most. This is the last year for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and possibly Adam Wainwright. Paul Goldschmidt is having an MVP-type season, and Nolan Arenado could also finish in the top five and then get out of contract.

The Cardinals play great defense, run bases well, and play in a weak division. The chance of getting a player like Soto is one of the reasons teams build their farming systems. But the Cardinals’ positional player group, which ranks fourth in fWAR and ninth in runs per game, isn’t the problem. And their outfield shouldn’t be a problem if Tyler O’Neill regains his 2021 form and Harrison Bader returns from plantar fasciitis in September.

Frankie MontasJoe Nicholson / USA Today Sports

With Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz’s injuries and a host of other concerns, it’s far more important for the team to start pitching.

Frankie Montas is one of the starters chasing the Cardinals. According to sources, the track and field athletes want some of the same prospects for Montas that the Nationals want for Soto. And it would be completely out of character for the Cardinals to part with the number of players required to acquire Soto for more than two years and Montas for more than one year.

The last established hitter the Cardinals added as of the reporting date was Brandon Moss in 2015 (O’Neill hadn’t played in the majors when he left the Mariners in 2017). When they trade for well-known clubs, it’s usually in the off-season. With Goldschmidt and Matt Holliday, a term rental, they came up with the idea of ​​signing these players long-term. With Arenado and Marcell Ozuna, they acquired club control for several years. The move to Ozuna, which cost her Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen, was the only one of those trades that did damage.

These deals were necessary because the Cardinals needed to fill vacancies in positions where they largely lacked internal solutions. There is currently no such gap in their outfield. Bader is under the club’s control until 2023, O’Neill until 2024, Dylan Carlson until 2026, super utility man Brendan Donovan until 2028. And other outfielders are rising through their system.

Obviously none of these players are Soto. And while the Cardinals could certainly afford Soto’s arbitration salaries in 2023 and 2024, their history suggests they wouldn’t pay the $500 million-plus Soto’s agent Scott Boras is expected to demand if the outfielder came on comes to the free market. Meanwhile, they lack swing-and-miss in both their rotation and their bullpen. The addition of a starter would allow them to move Andre Pallante, who is nearing a career-high innings, to relief and bolster their pitching as a whole.

The problem, of course, is that the trading market for starting pitchers is thin. If the cost of acquiring Montas is on the order of Castillo’s – and it likely will be given that the Yankees are involved and one executive says Montas could have both a higher ceiling than Castillo and a higher floor – the Cardinals will be ready to to pay that price? Would they fulfill it for the Marlins’ Pablo López, who comes with two extra years in power? Or do they prefer the rental market, which includes the Angels’ Noah Syndergaard, Pirates’ José Quintana, and possibly the Red Sox’s Nathan Eovaldi and Giants’ Carlos Rodón? The prices for these mugs should be more reasonable. But according to Castillo, they could also be higher than expected.

Put it all together, and the best solution for the Cardinals might be to acquire Soto and try to outdo everyone, and then tackle the off-season rotation. But that brings us back to Preller, who nearly signed Soto as an amateur and may continue to up the ante until he gets his man. “There’s no way he’s giving up on Soto,” a rival manager said of Preller. “He’s the only one who will always give more.”

Mind you, Preller doesn’t always get what he wants — the Dodgers outbid him at last year’s deadline for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who some in the industry believe was given a too-light package for Scherzer and Turner, may not even trade Soto. If no team comes up with an offer Rizzo thinks is acceptable, he could just keep Soto until the offseason when the player’s value will still be pretty high and Nationals sales should be closer to being resolved.

Whatever the cardinals do — or don’t do — they will be uncomfortable. The Luis Castillo trade made sure of that, if it wasn’t already.

(Top Photo by Juan Soto: Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)


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