Mapping out the rest of the season, the Cardinals have little in the way of on-field weaknesses. The rotation has a league-leading ERA of 3.00 with solid peripherals to back their early season run prevention. The lineup has yet to meet expectations, but it is full of good hitters expected to perform well the rest of the season. There are no holes and one of their best hitters might be in Memphis right now. The bullpen has had its struggles here and there, but is solid with reinforcements available on the disabled list for later in the season. With little over a month to go, any needs the Cardinals have should crystallize by the end of July, but rumors have already begun swirling about the biggest name that could be moved during the season, David Price.
Before getting to the details of how a trade could be formed, clarifying a few issues on the Cardinals' front is probably necessary. The first issue is one of priority. The Cardinals rotation has been excellent, but the offense has been lacking. It is fair to wonder if the Cardinals would not be better served upgrading the offense. However, despite the offense's lackluster performance thus far, it would be very difficult to upgrade.
Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, and Matt Adams are all above average hitters, and every one of those players but Holliday is at least an average defender for their position. The hitting will improve. Holliday is historically an elite bat, has a long term contract he has more than lived up to, and a no trade clause. Even if Allen Craig is the hitter his year long statistics suggest and not the good hitter he has been over the past two months and the two previous years before that, the Cardinals have Oscar Taveras waiting in the wings just in case Mike Matheny wants to platoon Adams and Craig at first base. Despite his demotion, Kolten Wong has proved adequate at second base and is making the major league minimum.
That leaves just center field. I may disagree from time to time with how playing time has been given between Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, but between Jay's above average bat and average range and Bourjos' superlative fielding they have produced 1.4 fWAR this season. Here is the list of centerfielders who are not making either the minimum or on long-term extensions that have outproduced the Cardinals centerfield tandem this season:
Not bad for under five million dollars. It might be possible to upgrade from Jon Jay. It might be possible to upgrade from Peter Bourjos, but it is nearly impossible to upgrade on both of those players in one trade. Two hitters who would be an upgrade over what the Cardinals have are Giancarlo Stanton and Troy Tulowitzki. Those players are likely unavailable. The Marlins are one game out of first and have absolutely no reason to trade one of the best hitters in baseball at this point. Even so, with Holliday in the fold and Taveras on the way, there is no room for Stanton without giving up Taveras, which makes little sense given their respective service time and future salaries. The Rockies have not made Tulowitzki available, and while moving Peralta to third, Carpenter back to second and putting Wong in a trade to Colorado might make some sense, the Rockies do not appear to have any interest in moving their franchise player, especially given the way he has started the year.
Briefly touching on the bullpen before getting to Price, the Cardinals have a stable of young arms able to pitch out of the bullpen. Between Trevor Rosenthal, Jason Motte, Pat Neshek, the emergence of Sam Freeman along with Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez, and Joe Kelly, the Cardinals are not likely to find any clear upgrades for the bullpen via trade.
At 17 games under .500 and more than ten games out of the second wild card spot, the Rays are likely ready to listen on Price. He does not become a free agent until after next year, but after making $14 million this year in arbitration, and potentially commanding close to $20 million next season, the small-market Rays may find it in their best interest to move him now as opposed to the winter when Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields will all be on the market. Dave Cameron recently wrote he would not be surprised if David Price were traded twice, once during the season, and then again in the offseason if a smaller market team traded for him this season. The Oakland A's pulled off a similar move with Matt Holliday when they traded Carlos Gonzalez for him one offseason, and then unloaded him to the Cardinals for a package headlined by Brett Wallace the following trade deadline.
Whether the Cardinals would have interest in Price remains somewhat more speculative. In his chat from more than a week ago, Derrick Goold thought the Cardinals would have interest (full chat here):
Q: Hi Derrick, Should the Rays decide to make David Price available, do you see the Cardinals having a high interest in acquiring him?
DG: They will make a phone call -- perhaps even several.
Aside from Price, there are few difference-making options for the Cardinals. James Shields, who may have been an interesting option a week ago, is likely unavailable as the Royals have surged forward in the standings. The difficulty of trading within the division will likely prevent a trade for Jeff Samardzija. The Red Sox are just four games out of the wild card and might not be willing to deal Jon Lester. Regardless, after Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, it is not clear the latter three players are a clear upgrade over Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Jaime Garcia, or potentially Carlos Martinez. David Price is the only difference-maker likely to be available, a player the Cardinals would start knowing he is better than the opposing team's starter.
The Cardinals do not need David Price, and even getting David Price is no guarantee of success. In the last 25 years, two teams have had starting rotations with an ERA under the Cardinals current mark of 3.00. The 1992 Atlanta Braves, who fell to Toronto in the World Series that season, and the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, who failed to make it out of the Division Series when Cliff Lee blew a lead to let the Cardinals back into the series and Roy Halladay was out-dueled by Chris Carpenter in an epic Game Five. The playoffs afford no guarantees, but David Price appears to be the only option to increase the Cardinals' chances for success this season. The Cardinals are not often mentioned as a serious suitor for Price, but are one of a few teams that possess the prospects the Rays will be looking for.
The Cardinals can meet the demands of the Rays (for an interesting look at past pitcher trades, click here for a comment from stlfan). Jim Bowden over at ESPN recently took a look at five teams who might be interested in Price and potential packages (subscription required). Without delving too deeply into the packages, none of them involved more than one of Keith Law's top 100 prospects ($). Only Atlanta's package involved a current major leaguer (Alex Wood) and a top 100 prospect (Lucas Sims). Another article mentions the Rangers and Dodgers. The Dodgers are another team without a glaring need for Price, but given their recent spending and prosepcts are also the one team that can outbid the Cardinals likely offer for Price.
The Cardinals have graduated multiple top prospects recently. Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez, and Oscar Taveras have all made it to the majors. In any trade for Price, Taveras is likely out of the question. Wacha will be asked about but denied while Miller and Martinez will likely be involved in any discussions with the Rays. After some early season struggles, Miller's trade value is not clear, nor is it clear which member of the rotation would move to the bullpen if one is not traded. Lance Lynn has been the Cardinals third best pitcher. Miller has still shown flashes of his ace potential, and it is not clear that Garcia could pitch out of the bullpen, physically. Any trade of this magnitude will involve many moving parts greatly affecting the major league roster.
A trade of Matt Adams would clear up the outfield logjam, but giving up Adams and a top pitcher off of the current major league roster is likely too high a cost. Stephen Piscotty, Marco Gonzales, Alex Reyes, and Rob Kaminsky will also likely be in play as well as slightly lesser prospects like James Ramsey and Randall Grichuk. The Rays will likely not settle for less than three players going to Tampa.
The cost will be high, and the right decision for the Cardinals could be to move forward without making the big move. A year and a half of David Price will not come cheaply in players or money. Giving up three relatively cheap, controlled players with 4-6 years of control when the Cardinals spent considerable resources to draft and develop them is an incredibly difficult choice. The Cardinals are fortunate to have the resources to be able to put themselves in a position where they can make this choice.