Buffa: John Mozeliak and Cardinals doubling down on pitching youth

The Cardinals have money, but are picky in how they spend it. You don't have to love it, but you should respect and understand it. I would have liked Lynn and Reed, but the Cardinals are banking on Weaver, Flaherty, and Hicks.

John Mozeliak has a dream. He dreams the youth of the St. Louis Cardinals will fill up his roster one day. Maybe the rotation, at least.

Since the first day he stepped into the General Manager's office, the current President of Baseball Operations in St. Louis has built a farm system that isn't just comprised of temporary patches and organizational band-aids, but vital parts to win baseball games.

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It's the reason why the late Oscar Taveras and current ace of the starting rotation Carlos Martinez were untouchable as they rose through the ranks of the minor league system. It's the same reason why aging sluggers like Albert Pujols weren't given astronomically insane money and why Matt Holliday was allowed to walk after the 2016 season. Mozeliak prefers youth.

Over the past offseason, Mozeliak and new General Manager Michael Girsch (the yes man) didn't throw their money on the poker table and gamble with the likes of Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta. They burned their bridge with Lance Lynn long before the 2017 season ended, never engaging in contract extension talks with the starting pitcher who still lurks on the free agent market as spring training switches into March clothing. Alex Cobb doesn't interest them.

With Trevor Rosenthal down for the count with Tommy John surgery and the subsequent recovery, the Cardinals could have invested some money in proven closers like Wade Davis, Greg Holland or Addison Reed. Those were guys you could sign and lock in 30-35 saves. Instead, Mozeliak signed Luke Gregerson, who is kind of a setup guy, and traded for Dominic Leone, a reliever with closer type stuff but very few saves. Gregerson and Leone are patch-work pieces until the youth arrives.

It isn't like Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. are banking on a bunch of Pedro Borbon and Allen Watson type arms to come save the day in 2018 and beyond. Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks haven't even thrown a pitch for the Cardinals, and they are set to debut this year or next.

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Alex Reyes is at the tail end of Tommy John recovery and sits on a throne carrying a familiar title: The Untouchable Arm. Luke Weaver is being counted on for 160-175 innings in 2018 after a few cameo appearances in the rotation in 2016 and 2017. Jack Flaherty can make a baseball do whatever he commands and sits as the next man up in the rotation when Adam Wainwright's age barks or Michael Wacha's shoulder needs a rest.

Let's look at the ages of these young guns:

Gomber: 24

Hudson: 23

Helsley: 23

Hicks: 21

Reyes: 23

Weaver: 24

Flaherty: 22

Translation: these kids are just now learning to appreciate a glass of bourbon, much less discuss their 401K plan with their bank. Potential is the name of the game for the Cardinals. Mozeliak isn't just thinking about injecting youth into his weapons of mass destruction. He is doubling down on the young pitchers turning into key players.

Back in the day, Walt Jocketty looked at young players as potential trade chips. Mozeliak, who worked under Jocketty for years, nodded and understood, but more than likely quietly disagreed with the practice. One guy is digging a Cincinnati organization out of a six-foot ditch while the other is retooling after of top ten finishes that didn't include the playoffs.

That's right, Cardinals fans. The Cardinals won 80+ games in each of the past two seasons, which would be surprising to someone who was on social media. According to #STLCards twitter, the team wasn't much better than a Little Caesars pizza left out all night the past two seasons. When you are the Cardinals, a time-honored franchise built to win championships instead of collecting participation trophies, 83 wins is cheap dice at a hot table.

Mozeliak could have felt the heat in the kitchen and changed his ways this winter. He could have traded Reyes or Flaherty for Chris Archer (a very fine asset but turning 30 soon) and Alex Colome (29), but he did not. He could have given six years to Darvish or Arrieta, but he's actually sane, so he said no thanks. He could go back to the table and negotiate with Lynn, but I don't see that happening. Wade Davis (turning 33 in September) got the largest reliever contract on a per-year basis in December from Colorado, but yeah sure, Mozeliak could have done that. Nope.

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The Cardinals have money to spend. This much is clear. It isn't like Mozeliak hasn't played high stakes poker before. He offered Jason Heyward more guaranteed money than the Chicago Cubs and reportedly offered Pujols $200 million. He gave Dexter Fowler more money than any other team and handed a rich contract to non-closer Brett Cecil. He was all the way in on the David Price sweepstakes until Boston got loony. If Giancarlo Stanton didn't prefer big apples and no-trade clauses, he'd be taking cuts in Cardinal red right now.

The Cardinals have money, but are picky in how they spend it. You don't have to love it, but you should respect and understand it. I would have liked Lynn and Reed, but the Cardinals are banking on Weaver, Flaherty and Hicks. Instead of investing in aging barrels, the Birds are securing inexperienced sharper shooters. It may work or it may fail, but the Cardinals do have a plan with their pitching.

Remember, they are paying the Seattle Mariners to let Mike Leake pitch for them.

The rotation is in transition. Wainwright is entering the final year as a Cardinal and Wacha doesn't have a long-term contract. Next year, you can expect Reyes and Flaherty to fill those spots.

If so, here is your 2019 rotation:

Carlos Martinez, the elder.

Luke Weaver.

Alex Reyes.

Jack Flaherty.

Miles Mikolas (unless Gomber is ready).

Patience is the name of the game for Mozeliak and the Cardinals. 2018 isn't a year where they are phoning it in. If so, they wouldn't have traded for only two years of Marcell Ozuna or acquired Fowler for five years the previous season. They are waiting for their pitching youth to come into fruition while keeping their eyes on the wildcard spot.

Did they do enough to yank the division away from the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers? Not this offseason, but they did just enough to stay within striking distance while their younger players prepare for the show.

It's OM to be frustrated that the Cardinals didn't respond to the Darvish signing by grabbing Arrieta, but do you really want six years of Jake? He reportedly turned down a similar offer from the Cubs that Davish got. Be mad, but stay reasonable.

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For the time being, I can wait and see how it plays out. This free agent market was subpar and overpriced, like a pizza place using canned sauce while promoting fresh ingredients from Italy. Next winter will be different.

Cardinal baseball is back in full swing. While the present looks decent, the future could be gorgeous. At least the Cardinals front office is hoping it is.

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