Column: As outfielders fall off the board, Mozeliak remains steady

In the week leading up to the winter meetings, the media was all in on the idea that the Cardinals were prepared to be one of the league’s most active teams. Multiple sources suggested that baseball execs backed up those theories, expecting the Cardinals to land both a free agent and make a trade. Here we are with three days in the books and still nothing. Yesterday evening John Mozeliak tempered expectations for the first time, saying that they might not even get anything done before the holidays.

Carlos Gomez, Ian Desmond, and Adam Eaton are officially off the board. The former two signing pretty fair deals with Texas and Colorado respectively. The latter going for a big prospect haul to Washington. The Cardinals and the Blue Jays have similar offers out there to Dexter Fowler, with the Cardinals likely in the lead due to the tax advantages. But there is a pesky rumor that Fowler doesn’t want to play in St. Louis and would prefer a larger market.

The deal for Eaton establishes that pretty much any attempt to acquire a center fielder by trade involves Alex Reyes, something the Cardinals are obviously unwilling to do after the way he wrapped up the 2016 season. That means attempts to trade for Charlie Blackmon and Lorenzo Cain likely do too.

So as the market moves around him, John Mozeliak sits and waits. He is no longer the master of the Cardinals’ offseason timeline. Dexter Fowler is.

When teams have options, they have the leverage. With pretty much every option for the Cardinals off the board, Fowler is now in the driver’s seat. There is little danger of the Cardinals walking away, and he isn’t in a rush to sign anything. And I wouldn’t be either.

He is rumored to have a pair of 4 year, $60 million offers on the table from both the Blue Jays and the Cardinals.

The hope of holding out is two fold. Either that someone new will put a better offer on the table or that one of his two offers will be improved to move things along.

And I think it’s time to move things along.

Unsaid, but widely reported by the reporters who cover the team closely this week, is that the Cardinals’ goal this winter was to take a step forward and contend with the Cubs next year.

That’s a goal that we are all onboard with. Even as some will question whether it’s possible to make up 17.5 games in one offseason, I believe you can. More than half of those can be made up purely by cleaning up the defense and improving fundamentals. Add in a few targeted acquisitions, and you’re right there with them.

But you have to swing, right?

The Cubs have been unafraid to swing. They spent big to acquire Aroldis Chapman last summer and Chapman was a big reason why the Cubs made it to and won the World Series. This morning, they acquired Wade Davis for Jorge Soler. They are swinging to repeat.

The Cardinals? Still playing three years down the road.

Now, a few years ago, with no clear rival in the division, that strategy could work. It did. We saw the results first hand. Now the Cubs have a core that is set to contend for at least the next five years and they’ve already got a World Series title under their belts.

If your rival is playing for this year, and you’re playing for three years from now, you’re not going to win now and you might not win later either.

The Cardinals need to do a better job of keeping up with the Jones’. The Red Sox acquired Chris Sale. The Nationals acquired Eaton. The Cubs acquired Davis. They stepped outside of their comfort zone to improve their team today (and some years down the road in the cases of Sale and Eaton).

To keep up, Mozeliak will likely need to figure out how to step outside of his comfort zone.

If he’s unwilling to do that, it’s time to pull the plug and rebuild. Aim to return to the top of the division in 2022 after every member of the Cubs’ core has hit free agency. As we’ve seen this winter, the returns could be tremendous. Do something. Anything. Anything other than sit on our hands.

And that’s where it’s time to move things along.

Fowler wants $18 million per year? Give it to him. Call his agent and offer that 4 year, $72 million deal. The price is likely going to get up there anyway, so get it done. The longer you wait before trying to close the deal, the bigger the chance that he goes somewhere else. Someone whose GM is a better closer.

The Red Sox, Nationals, and Cubs had prospects they were willing to part with in order to improve their team. The Cardinals may not have that, but they do have money to spend. We’ve heard it from them for over a year now. So it’s time to spend it. They’re paying Brayan Pena $2.5 million this year to not play for them. They can pay Fowler an extra $3 million a year without blinking.

One of the reasons that Mozeliak was so successful early in his career is because the Cardinals created a system under him that identified and exploited market inefficiencies in prospect development. Now everyone has identified those and prospects are the new gold standard. The irony of it all is that free agency for position players might be the biggest market inefficiency in baseball right now and it’s staring Mo in the face.

The prices were projected to be outrageous this winter because of the thin free agent market and teams scrambling over themselves to sign the available players. If anything I feel like they have been pretty normal, if not a little discounted, compared to some of the prices on the board last winter and the price in prospects being paid in trade.

It’s time to take advantage. Strike now, Mo.

If Fowler is your guy, go get him. If someone else is who you want, go get him. We all know that this roster, as currently constructed, isn’t going to win much of anything next year. And if we know it, I’m pretty sure their agents know it too.