The trade deadline gives playoff-bound clubs the chance to improve now, while offering worse-off teams the chance to improve in the future. So why didn’t the Cardinals take advantage of either option?

The MLB trade deadline is a fork in the road of baseball’s extensive regular season. It is a time where winners become buyers and losers become sellers. Those in contention for the playoffs will sell off prospects for rental pieces to boost their case for October. On the other hand, those who will be watching the playoffs at home sell off their current assets to stockpile their farm system. Buyers will improve now; sellers will improve in the future. And those who choose to not partake in the beautiful chaos that is the week leading up to August 1st will stay in limbo: not good enough to compete, but not bad enough to rebuild. This limbo is where the Cardinals found themselves at this year’s trade deadline.

On July 25th, the Cardinals trailed the Cubs by 7 games for the division lead, and trailed the Dodgers, Mets, and Marlins with the Pirates right behind them for the two wild card spots. With only a week to bolster their lineup and pitching staff to push for a 6th consecutive playoff appearance, John Mozeliak made just one underwhelming move.

Mozeliak, the Cards’ general manager, traded for Zach Duke, a relief pitcher from the White Sox. In return, the Cardinals gave up minor leaguer Charlie Tilson—a top 12 prospect in the Cards’ organization according to Unfortunately, Tilson tore his hamstring in the 5th inning of his MLB debut— ending his season immediately, but this isn’t an article about the 2016 White Sox’ misfortunes. This is about the Cardinals lack of success at turning themselves into a playoff team.

Although the Duke trade has been successful for the Cardinals, one late-inning relief pitcher is not going to make a club stuck in a 5-team playoff race magically shine. Granted, Zach Duke has put together a nice second half of his season with the Cards, posting a 1.31 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 20.2 innings while striking out 22— good enough to credit him with a WAR of 1.0 in just 22 appearances, the holes in the Cardinals lineup and rotation were still glaring.

Between July 4th and July 17th The Cardinals lost 3 starting players to the DL: Brandon Moss, Matt Carpenter, and Jhonny Peralta.  Moss, the Cards’ middle-of-the-order threat who has led the team with 27 homers, sprained his ankle. Carpenter, the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter who has led the team in OPS at .894 on the year, strained his right oblique. And Peralta, the starting third baseman, re-injured his left thumb (which kept him sidelined for the first half of the season).

Losing even one of these starters would negatively impact the team’s performance, but losing all three at once could have ruined the entire season. The Cardinals still managed to stay afloat amidst the 5-team wildcard battle by the time all three players returned in early August, but the trade deadline had passed, eliminating the possibility of a big move to push them ahead of the Dodgers, Mets, Marlins, and Pirates.

One big trade can make a season, and the lack of one can break a season. A good trade can turn a team stuck in baseball’s limbo into a serious contender overnight. Yoenis Cespedes transformed the Mets in the blink of an eye when he was acquired during the 2015 trade deadline, propelling the Mets to a World Series appearance. Although Yo’s case was an exception, there were a number of big name bats and arms who would have strengthened the Cards’ case for a spot in October baseball. But no big trade was made, while many of the other teams in contention for the wild card made big moves.

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A big inning fueled by a Yadier Molina error…don’t say that too often – Ray Woodson (@RayWoodson680) September 17, 2016 We all knew this day would come. There are three things that are certain in this world: death, taxes and the slow decline of catchers after serving in the big leagues for more than 10 years.

The Marlins improved their starting rotation by acquiring Andrew Cashner from the Padres. The Dodgers improved both their rotation and their lineup by acquiring Rich Hill and Josh Reddick from the A’s. And the Mets improved their offense by acquiring Jay Bruce, who was leading the NL is RBI’s at the time, from the Reds. These contenders made moves to push themselves ahead of the pack. These contenders filled their holes and addressed their problems. They viewed themselves as a team worthy of losing a few prospects to gain a few more wins in the hunt for October. They made moves to escape limbo. Meanwhile, the Cardinals near-silently let the trade deadline pass.

Although, as explained before, the trade for Zach Duke has been successful, here is the trade that I would have liked to have seen:

Acquiring Eduardo Núñez: Núñez was sent from the Twins to the Giants in exchange for Adalberto Mejia, a pitching prospect who had spent most of this year between AA and AAA. At AA he excelled, but AAA was a little shakier- he posted a 4.20 ERA over 7 starts with the Giants AAA affiliate. Núñez, on the other hand, was voted into his first All Star Game this season. As a Twin in 2016, Núñez hit .296 with 12 home runs, 15 doubles, and 27 stolen bases in 96 games.

One of Núñez’s greatest assets is his versatility, having the ability to play shortstop, third, or second base. With the Cardinals musical-chair style infield this season between Carpenter, Wong, Diaz, Peralta, Gyorko, Garcia, and Moss, Núñez could have taken over third base for the Cards. Between Peralta’s injury-plagued and underperforming season, an All-Star player in Núñez would have been perfect to lock down the infield. Although 2016 is his last year on his current rookie contract, he doesn’t hit free agency until 2018 and can be resigned by the Cardinals through arbitration for the 2017 season.

Making the playoffs after being a buyer at the trade deadline shows how by making a few moves you can make a winning team. Missing the playoffs while being a seller shows how you can capitalize on a failed season to poise a team for a better run the following year. But barely missing the playoffs without making moves leaves you filled with regret, and this is a very real possibility for the Cardinals in 2016. If the Cardinals had pursued Eduardo Núñez, they would have went from hanging-on to leading the pack of those hungry for a wild card birth. I hope that they can still clinch a spot in the playoffs, but don’t be surprised if next season the Cardinals learn from this years mistake and make some bigger moves at the trade deadline.

Photo Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports