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Trades of Jordan Hicks, Jordan Montgomery signal beginning of Cardinals’ sell-off

ST. LOUIS — In what has been an event long advertised, selling season has officially kicked off in St. Louis.

In their first substantial moves before the trade deadline, the St. Louis Cardinals completed two separate trades Sunday afternoon. Reliever Jordan Hicks was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays and starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery and reliever Chris Stratton were dealt in a package to the Texas Rangers. All three pitchers are set to be free agents at the end of the season, signaling president of baseball operations John Mozeliak’s intentions to trade away talent on expiring contracts instead of parting ways with players under substantial control.

This is by design. Mozeliak has repeatedly stated his desire to field a competitive club in 2024. It’s why he’s reluctant to trade away key members of his current team’s core — Nolan Arenado, specifically. It’s also why he has repeatedly said acquiring controllable pitching is his main objective when making trades. The Cardinals are aware their pitching — at the major-league and minor-league levels — is underwhelming and under-resourced.

After his moves Sunday, which netted one major-league reliever, three pitching prospects and a minor-league infielder, Mozeliak believes he has indeed bolstered the pitching depth of the upper levels of his system.

“Both (Montgomery), Hicks, even Stratton, there was a lot of interest in them,” Mozeliak said Sunday afternoon, after the Cardinals’ 3-0 win over the Cubs. “The key was trying to really optimize our returns as best we could.

“The way I would look at it so far is what we’ve been able to get in our returns are people that are going to be pitching in our upper levels. We feel like we’ve added some depth that will have immediate impact in 2024. … I’ve been saying all along, right, pitching, pitching, pitching, and we felt we got a lot of pitching, pitching, pitching so far.”

St . Louis received a pair of minor-league right-handed pitchers, Sem Robberse and Adam Kloffenstein, in exchange for Hicks after an attempt at a multiyear extension for the 26-year-old fell through earlier in the week. Robberse, 21, began the season as the fifth-ranked Blue Jays prospect, per The Athletic’s Keith Law. He started 18 games for Toronto’s Double-A affiliate, posting a 4.06 ERA and 86 strikeouts over 88 2/3 innings. Kloffenstein, Toronto’s third-round draft selection in 2018, was unranked in the Blue Jays system, but packs a substantial amount of swing-and-miss into his profile — a trait severely lacking from pitchers in the Cardinals system. The 22-year-old has struck out 105 hitters over 89 innings, and his 3.24 ERA was the sixth lowest in the Double-A circuit.

Robberse and Kloffenstein will be assigned to Triple A and could be available as early as Tuesday.

The Cardinals acquired three players from Texas — left-handed reliever John King, minor-league pitcher Tekoah Roby and infielder Thomas Saggese. Roby is the headliner of this return, though the 21-year-old is on the injured list with a shoulder injury. Law had Roby ranked as the Rangers’ No. 9 prospect heading into the season due to a rise in fastball velocity (now up to 96 mph) and his impressive four-pitch arsenal. Roby would likely pitch for the organization in one of the upper minor-league levels before the year is over.

King, 28, has four seasons of major-league experience, all with the Rangers. He will report to St. Louis and be used out of the bullpen, where he has a career 4.27 ERA in 87 games.

Saggese, the lone position player acquired Sunday, can play third base, shortstop and second base and has the utility makeup the Cardinals covet. The 21-year-old hit .314 with 15 homers and an .894 OPS in 92 games for Double-A Frisco and was ranked as Law’s No. 18 prospect in the Texas system. He’ll be assigned to Double-A Springfield.

Though landing young pitching talent was important, Mozeliak was also looking for a certain quality of pitcher. The Cardinals lack young arms with high whiff rates, and identifying pitchers who packed swing-and-miss became a priority. Mozeliak feels they accomplished that.

“We did spend a lot of time looking at that phrase, swing-and-miss,” Mozeliak said. “And by doing so, we spent a lot of time trying to understand pitch quality and how that might play into having more success in that. The pitchers that we did identify do fall into that at some level, and that does give them some uniqueness. Now we obviously have to get them into our system and see how things work, but clearly as we sit here today, just based on our analysis and our scouting, we feel pretty good about what we were able to acquire.”

Navigating this year’s deadline has not been easy for the Cardinals, who have seldom sold in their franchise history, and are doing so during Mozeliak’s tenure for the first time. Mozeliak acknowledged as much, describing this year’s deadline as “unique” for him and the organization.

“Obviously this is a day that we were hoping would never happen in the sense of having to break up our club and having to focus on the future,” Mozeliak said. “But over the course of the last two weeks, we were really taking a hard look at what the trading deadline can do for us. You’ve heard me state in the past that we were looking to acquire pitching, and that was certainly one of our goals, but we’re also looking to find talent.

“This year has not gone as planned, so we really wanted to focus on what 2024 and beyond would look like. And we felt like as we had players that were attractive to other teams, players that were becoming free agents, and the timing … we felt like we had to do this. It’s not a happy moment, but we are certainly excited about the future opportunity we were able to acquire today.”

However, with a little less than 48 hours remaining before the deadline, Mozeliak expects more trades to take place.

“The trading deadline hasn’t come and gone,” he said. “Today was an event; we moved three key players. Do I anticipate more to come? Probably.”

If Mozeliak follows his trends so far, soon-to-be free agents Jack Flaherty and Paul DeJong are the likeliest to be moved next, though Mozeliak will not stick to only trading away players on expiring contracts if the right deal comes into place.

“There are still 48 hours left in this deadline,” Mozeliak said. “We’ll take our time, we’ll reassess where we are and we will plan accordingly. … But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think we’re done today.”

But what the Cardinals did accomplish Sunday was ignite the spark of their campaign for 2024. Mozeliak and his front office set their sights on landing controllable minor-league talent that would be ready (or close to ready) come spring training next season. They did so without parting ways with any player under team control next season. Though there is still plenty of heavy lifting to be done — and the campaign is far, far from over — the Cardinals feel optimistic about the early groundwork they have put in. Now they’ll look to build upon their foundation and continue taking advantage of a seller’s market.

(Photo of Jordan Montgomery: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

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