Rosenthal: Pursuits of Juan Soto, Frankie Montas forcing Cardinals into uncomfortable position

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

The stunning outcome of the Castillo talks is perhaps a template for how the Juan Soto discussions might unfold. In an era when many teams slave over their projection models and recoil any time they are asked to sacrifice their precious prospects, the Padres’ AJ Preller operates as fearlessly as the Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto, if not more so. Which is why, if the Soto talks come down to the Padres vs. the Cardinals — and admittedly, no one truly knows if the perceived favorites are the actual favorites, or if the Dodgers or some other club is lurking — then it would be difficult to bet against San Diego. Assuming the Nationals even trade Soto.

The Castillo trade, though, is instructive. The Mariners’ system, before the graduations of center fielder Julio Rodríguez and right-hander George Kirby, ranked No. 1 in Baseball America’s preseason ratings and No. 2 in Keith Law’s. Seattle’s motivation stemmed from a 20-year postseason drought, the longest among all teams in the four major American sports leagues. And its ultra-aggressive GM, Dipoto, included not one but two top shortstop prospects in the four-player package he sent the Reds for Castillo.

Responding to a congratulatory text message, 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 a full season since Preller’s hiring in Aug. 2014. The Cardinals, under owner Bill DeWitt and GM John Mozeliak, take an approach that is almost the polar opposite of the Padres’. Their formula is to always walk a fine line between present and future. And it works exceedingly well.

Only the Yankees and Dodgers have won more regular-season games this century. The Cardinals have captured two World Series, four National League pennants and 11 division titles since DeWitt became owner in 1996. And though they typically draft low as a product of their success, their farm system is perhaps the strongest it has been since Mozeliak became the team’s top executive after the 2007 season.

Thus, an argument can be made that now is the time to strike for Soto, who is 23, one of the best hitters in the sport and under club control for three pennant races. For all the Cardinals’ talk of staying responsible and disciplined, their 2022 season is more vital 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 also might finish in the top five, then opt out of his contract.

The Cardinals play excellent defense, run the bases well and play in a weak division. The chance to acquire a player like Soto is one reason teams build up their farm systems. But the Cardinals’ position-player group, ranking fourth in fWAR and ninth in runs per game, is not the problem. And their outfield shouldn’t be an issue if Tyler O’Neill regains his 2021 form and Harrison Bader returns from plantar fasciitis in September.

Frankie MontasJoe Nicholson / USA Today Sports

The team’s greater need by far, because of injuries to Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz and a variety of other concerns, is starting pitching.

Frankie Montas is one of the starters the Cardinals are pursuing. The Athletics, according to sources, 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 necessary to acquire Soto for two-plus years and Montas for one-plus.

The last established hitter the Cardinals added at the deadline was Brandon Moss in 2015 (O’Neill had not yet played in the majors when he arrived from the Mariners in 2017). When they trade for big-name sluggers, it’s usually in the offseason. With Goldschmidt and Matt Holliday, a deadline rental, they had an idea they might sign those players long-term. With Arenado and Marcell Ozuna, they acquired multiple years of club control. The Ozuna move, which cost them Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen, was the only one of those trades that was damaging.

Those deals were necessary because the Cardinals needed to fill holes at positions where they mostly lacked internal solutions. Such a gap does not currently exist in their outfield. Bader is under club control through 2023, O’Neill through 2024, Dylan Carlson through 2026, super utility-man Brendan Donovan through 2028. And other outfielders are rising through their system.

Obviously, none of those players is Soto. And while the Cardinals certainly could afford Soto’s arbitration salaries in 2023 and 2024, their history suggests they would not pay the $500 million-plus that Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, is expected to seek if the outfielder hits the open market. Meanwhile, they lack swing-and-miss in both their rotation and bullpen. The addition of a starter would enable them to move Andre Pallante, who is nearing a career-high pitched in innings, to relief, strengthening their pitching as a whole.

The problem, of course, is that the trade market for starting pitchers is thin. If the acquisition cost for Montas is in the range of Castillo’s — and it likely will be, with the Yankees involved and one executive saying Montas might have both a higher ceiling than Castillo and higher floor — will the Cardinals be willing to pay that price? Would they meet it for the Marlins’ Pablo López, who comes with two additional years of control? Or would 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 those pitchers should be more reasonable. But after Castillo, they might be higher than expected, too.

Put it all together, and the best solution for the Cardinals might be to acquire Soto and try to outscore everyone, then address the rotation in the offseason. But that brings us back to Preller, who nearly signed Soto as an amateur, and might just keep raising the ante until he gets his man. “No way he gives up on Soto,” a rival executive said of Preller. “He’s the only one who will keep giving more and more.”

Preller, mind you, does not 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 believed some in the industry received too light a package for Scherzer and Turner, might not even trade Soto. If no team makes an offer Rizzo deems acceptable, he could simply hold Soto until the offseason, when the player’s value still will be quite high and the sale of the Nationals should be closer to resolution.

Whatever the Cardinals do—or don’t do—they are going to be uncomfortable. The Luis Castillo traded as much, if it wasn’t the case already.

(Top photo of Juan Soto: Geoff Burke / USA Today Sports)


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