The Cardinals are in need of an offseason capstone. Most notably, they've already swung a deal for outfielder Marcell Ozuna, and that gives them a middle-of-the-order bat at what look like bargain trade prices. As well, the "repatriation" of Miles Mikolas fortifies the rotation, and new Cardinal Luke Gregerson has bounceback potential in the bullpen. All that said, the Cardinals likely need something else if they're going to press the Cubs, who right now still look like the superior team on paper. That's the capstone of which we speak, and the Cardinals front office has been working to that end. 

The most tantalizing rumor surrounds Orioles infielder Manny Machado, who, despite some inconsistency last season, remains a premium performer with the bat and the glove. Still just 25 years of age, Machado may also be pre-peak. When it comes to the Cardinals' pursuit of the Baltimore cornerstone, however, it's a complicated balancing act. On the one hand, you're chasing a valuable piece for the upcoming season in Machado, but you must pay the freight on him without compromising your 2018 hopes elsewhere on the roster. Considering how the Orioles' desires and the Cardinals' potential vulnerabilities line up, that's a difficult balance to strike from the St. Louis standpoint. Consider all the, um, considerations ... 

Machado is a pending free agent

The 2018 season will be Machado's walk year. If he comes up big this upcoming season, then he's potentially in line for a $400 million payday next winter. That's what happens when free agency inflation meets a toolsy star who's absurdly young as free agents go. As such, Machado almost certainly isn't going to sign an extension with his new team, so the club that trades for him gets him 2018 and 2018 alone. That likely reality will be reflected in the trade price for Machado -- i.e., Baltimore could've gotten much more for him if they'd dealt him last winter -- but it's still something that should and will give interested teams pause. 

Machado probably isn't going to talk extension before a trade is completed

Orioles GM Dan Duquette has made multiple public comments suggesting that Machado isn't open to any sort of sign-and-trade arrangement. That happens every so often when a pending free agent is dealt, but Machado doesn't appear to be open to it, which is fully understandable. Sure, the team that trades for him gets an exclusive negotiating window, but again Machado, who reportedly wants to return to shortstop in part to enhance his value on the open market, seems bound headlong for free agency. Maybe if the team acquiring him makes a bold offer unfettered of any hint of the "hometown discount," then Machado changes tack. Just as easily, though, Machado could recalibrate upward his assumptions of what the market will bear. As such, teams should pursue Machado assuming they'll have him for 2018 and 2018 only. 

That said, the Cardinals have taken this kind of chance before

As for the Cardinals, back in November of 2014 they swung a major trade for a young, bat-and-glove, walk-year star in the person of Jason Heyward. In acquiring Heyward from Atlanta (along with reliever Jordan Walden), the Cardinals shipped off right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrelle Jenkins. Heyward helped the Cardinals to a 100-win season, but he wound up turning down the Cardinals' higher offer in order to sign with the Cubs. Heyward hasn't produced in line with expectations since then, but the point for this discussion is that the Cardinals didn't shy away from pulling the trigger on a star player they risked having for only one season. There's a history here, insofar as a player like 2018 Machado is concerned. 

Machado fits nicely with the Cardinals

St. Louis needs to bolster the left side of the infield. Dealing for Machado and slotting him in at shortstop upgrades the defense, in that Paul DeJong can shift to third. As well, it allows Jedd Gyorko to be the heavily used utility infielder. That's important in terms of depth because Kolten Wong needs an occasional spell against tough lefties, and there's also no guarantee that DeJong is able to repeat his successes of 2017. Machado's presence not only improves the lineup with his power potential, but he also makes the entire infield work better in terms of moving parts and match-up flexibility. In those vital ways, he's an ideal fit. 

But what about the cost in trade?

In terms of what the Orioles would want from the Cardinals, here's this nugget from MASN's Roch Kubatko

I wrote a few days ago that the Orioles liked young right-hander Jordan Hicks in trade talks with the Cardinals, and catcher Carson Kelly also has been discussed. I also should have included pitchers Jack Flaherty and Luke Weaver as additional names that have come up. 

That's a wish-list on Baltimore's part, and they're not going to get all of those pieces. The right-handed Hicks -- a third-rounder in 2015 -- is an obvious inclusion, since he's not likely to contribute to the Cardinals in 2018 even in the absence of a trade. As for Carson Kelly, on one level he's an obvious guy to build a package around since he's a well regarded young catcher who's blocked by Yadier Molina in St. Louis. On the other hand, Molina is going into his age-35 season and has caught more than 14,000 innings for his career. At some point, he's going to break down and go into deep decline at the plate, and the Cardinals have long had trouble finding a reliable backup. Still, Kelly is a coveted guy you can part with if need be. 

The real issue is trading away either Jack Flaherty or Luke Weaver. Weaver is going to open the season in the rotation, and Flaherty is likely the first man up once there's a need. Speaking of which, depth is probably going to be an issue. Lance Lynn is almost certainly headed elsewhere via free agency, and it seems doubtful that Adam Wainwright is an adequate major-league starter on a contending team at this stage of his career. Mikolas, while he projects well after he resurgence in Japan, is an unknown quantity, and Alex Reyes may be ticketed for relief once his post-Tommy John season begins in early May. Elsewhere, Michael Wacha's past shoulder issues will always be part of his story. 

Last season, the Cardinals gave starts to nine different pitchers, and in 2015 -- the last time they made the playoffs -- they also used nine starters. That's standard for any team, even contenders, which means the 2018 Cardinals are going to need their depth. So can they afford to part with a Weaver or a Flaherty even if it means Machado? And will the effort to try to extend Machado, however futile, create enough uncertainty in the budget that the Cardinals are unable/unwilling to replace Weaver or Flaherty with a quality free agent? Those questions aren't easily answered. If the Cardinals can ply the O's with names other than Weaver and Flaherty then that's another matter, but Machado probably won't come that cheaply. 

All of this is why the Cardinals may be better off chasing Evan Longoria and an arm from the Rays. Longoria's contract (he's still owed more than $85 million) means he'll exact less of a cost in trade, and Chris Archer and or Alex Colome have also been linked to St. Louis. A package deal with the Rays -- one that addresses the infield situation and rotation needs -- makes more sense when it comes to trying to topple the Cubs in 2018. The Machado scuttle is certainly more eye-grabbing, but it's a more difficult fit for St. Louis. That's why the Cards front office right now would be better off advancing discussions with Tampa Bay.