It wasn’t a huge surprise, but the Cardinals did nothing at yesterday’s trade deadline. Meanwhile, the rest of the division was active.
As the trade deadline approached, the Cardinals were in no position to make any major moves. The rumor mill said nothing about the Cardinals big names. The Cardinals trade targets were likely nonexistent. Fans who were hoping for a big name to make a playoff push didn’t get their wish. Even more surprisingly, the team didn’t sell some rentals and make some minor moves.
The Cardinals were in no position to do anything big this year, but doing nothing is still a little strange. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that doing nothing was a bad thing. The Cardinals didn’t have many guys that they could both afford to lose and get a good return for. Their desire to compete next season prevented a rebuild, and their distance from the Cubs prevented a playoff push.
Who they could have sold
The obvious guys for the Cardinals to trade were Lance Lynn and Seung-hwan Oh. Both players are in the last year of their contracts, and neither one is a reason the team still has an outside chance at the playoffs this year.
On the other hand, if the Cardinals had offers for those two, they would have made a deal. The Cardinals were certainly talking to teams about Lance Lynn. Some teams were interested in Lynn, including the Royals and Dodgers. The Royals didn’t have the prospects to trade, and the Dodgers traded for a different rental. Ultimately, the market wasn’t there for Lynn, so he stayed in St. Louis.
I don’t know if the Cardinals were really shopping Oh, but they might not have gotten much for him. Oh is now 35 years old, and he throws with the wrong arm. The market favored left-handed relief pitchers more than right-handed ones this year, so Oh didn’t have many suitors. Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, and Tony Cingrani fetched better returns than Brandon Kintzler, David Hernandez, and Joe Smith, considering the talent level of the pitchers. Perhaps a left-handed Oh ends up in Los Angeles for a mid-level prospect or two, but not the right-handed one.
Take a look at the rest of the roster, and you won’t find guys the Cardinals wanted to trade. Perhaps they could have tried to dump Mike Leake’s contract on another team while he was pitching well. But since he is pitching well, why not keep him for three more seasons? Maybe other teams wanted Tommy Pham, but the Cardinals might need him to compete next season, even with the injury risk.
The Cardinals could have made things interesting with a full rebuild, but they have enough talent where that wasn’t necessary. They may not be ready to contend, but they also didn’t have to blow it all up. I also don’t know if a full rebuild would have returned enough value. Teams held onto their top prospects very well this year. Only Jose Quintana returned an upper echelon prospect (Eloy Jimenez).
The Cardinals didn’t trade away anyone, which might be a little boring, but it might have also been the best strategy.
Who they could have bought
Despite the up-and-down season, the Cardinals are only 4.5 games out of first place. They could have tried to make a run at the postseason. The road to October is very difficult, but it isn’t impossible. You can make a case that the team should have chased a playoff berth, but they would have needed something big.
I don’t think Marcell Ozuna was really available. The Marlins don’t need to trade him, and would much rather dump Giancarlo Stanton’s salary. Perhaps the Blue Jays would have sold Josh Donaldson at the right price, but they didn’t even swing deals for Marco Estrada or J.A. Happ.
The easiest big name to get would have been Darvish, but the Cardinals would have struggled to contend in 2018 after going for him. Ultimately, the Cardinals could not afford to go for it this year at the expense of future years. John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch knew that, and that’s why they chose not to make any big splashes.
This is again the boring decision, but also the right one. Suppose the Cardinals did make a big move and considered Alex Reyes off limits. The first player to go would be Carson Kelly. Kelly is widely regarded as the second best catching prospect in baseball (behind Francisco Mejia), and might be the best backstop in the Cardinals organization right now. If he isn’t now, then he likely will be by Opening Day 2018. The question is no longer if Kelly will take over for Molina when Molina is done, but rather when he will.
After Kelly, the Cardinals would need to throw in at least one of Luke Weaver or Jack Flaherty. Some bullish teams might even demand both. The Cardinals would then need to throw in at least one more of their top 10 prospects to get a big name player that isn’t a rental. In other words, the pitching pipeline would be empty, and the catcher of the future gone.
I don’t see any way in which the Cardinals could have made a playoff push, become one of the NL’s best this year, and not struggle in 2018.
The Cubs get stronger
The Cardinals chances still got slimmer at the deadline because the Cubs made some moves. Unlike the Red Birds, the Cubs are in a playoff spot and have multiple superstars on their roster. The Cubs were likely already the best team in the NL Central, but they solidified their standing at the deadline.
After trading for front-end starter Jose Quintana, the Cubs added backup catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson. Avila can replace what Miguel Montero used to give them (minus the fights with Jake Arrieta). Wilson makes an already solid bullpen stronger. Neither player is great, but both represent improvements.
The Reds and Pirates also made moves that brought them closer to contention in future years. The Cardinals tried to do the same with Lynn, but couldn’t get enough to do it. Three of the five teams in the NL Central moved closer to their goals at the trade deadline. The Cardinals and Brewers are wondering how they can still make improvements through waiver trades.
As the year goes on, less time remains for rentals like Lynn and Oh to make an impact. I doubt the Cardinals are happy with returns on either one if they are able to clear waivers. In the end, the Cardinals weren’t wrong to stand pat, but it’s tough to watch the Cubs improve while you’re doing nothing.
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