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St. Louis Cardinals trade analysis: Mozeliak traded from the club's strengths to win in 2014

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General manager traded from the organization's two deepest positions in an attempt to position the team to win now and later.

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Oscar Taveras reacts to a Cardinals win by smiling and giving Matt Holliday a jumping high five—much to the veteran's chagrin.
Oscar Taveras reacts to a Cardinals win by smiling and giving Matt Holliday a jumping high five—much to the veteran's chagrin.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Before last Thursday's non-waiver trade deadline general manager John Mozeliak bolstered the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation by adding veterans Justin Masterson and John Lackey. In order to improve the club's pitching, Mozeliak traded from the club's two deepest reservoirs of young talent: starting pitching and the outfield.

The trades present a head vs. heart conflict for me. My heart remembers the dancing, the postseasons, the RBIs, and Torty. But my head looks at the trades and sees a couple of cold, calculating moves at once designed to improve the 2014 Cardinals' chances of making the postseason and clearing two positional logjams in 2015 and beyond. What's more, it's tough to argue with the logs Mozeliak got rid of to clear up the respective gluts in the outfield and rotation.

First, let's remind ourselves of the Cardinals' outfield picture in the high minors and at MLB prior to the two deals Mozeliak made last week, from oldest to youngest:

Matt Holliday (MLB)
  • Age: 34
  • DOB: January 15, 1980
Allen Craig (MLB)
  • Age: 30
  • DOB: July 18, 1984
Jon Jay (MLB)
  • Age: 29
  • DOB: March 15, 1985
Peter Bourjos (MLB)
  • Age: 27
  • DOB: March 31, 1987
James Ramsey (AA)
  • Age: 24
  • DOB: December 19, 1989

Stephen Piscotty (AAA)

  • Age: 23
  • DOB: January 14, 1991
Randal Grichuk (AAA)
  • Age: 22
  • DOB: August 13, 1991
Oscar Taveras (MLB)
  • Age: 22
  • DOB: June 19, 1992
Charlie Tilson (AA)
  • Age: 21
  • DOB: December 2, 1992

Now let's remind ourselves of the aging curve for position players, from a post Jeff Zimmerman wrote last winter at Fangraphs entitled, "Are Aging Curves Changing?" (which you should read in its entirety). The chart uses wRC+, a stat that is adjusted for home park and scaled to 100 with 100 being league average. Each point above 100 is a percentage point above average; likewise, each point below 100 is a percentage point below average.

Aging_curve_wrcp_medium

via cdn.fangraphs.com

For Holliday, Craig, Jay, and Bourjos it's likely all downhill from here. No peak; just decline. Heck, based on Zimmerman's post, James Ramsey might not have a peak. The 24-year-old outfielder likely won't make his big-league debut until next summer when he's 25. By recent MLB aging patterns, he should slip right into his decline phase. The younger, the better—so Taveras, Grichuk, Piscotty, and Tilson look like better bets to produce over the next three or four seasons than any of the veterans the Cards had on the roster last week. Mozeliak's bet on youth in the outfield is a calculated one because youth ages far better than veterans do.

Trading Ramsey to win now makes even more sense given his positioning on the Future Redbirds pecking order. 22-year-olds Taveras (in St. Louis) and Grichuk (in Memphis and St. Louis) have already surpassed him on the organizational ladder. As has the 23-year-old Piscotty. All three players are younger than Ramsey and above him on the organizational depth chart. What's more, the toolsy Charlie Tilson joined Ramsey in Double-A this year. Tilson is three years Ramsey's junior and plays the same position. Ramsey was expendable for the Cards and a fine choice to ship to Cleveland in a win-now maneuver to add Justin Masterson to the St. Louis rotation.

Then there's Craig, who celebrated his 30th birthday on July 18 (making 2014 his age 29 season). Lots of discussion about the trade—including this one-quarter-baked column from USA Today's Bob Nightengale—has been premised on the notion of Craig returning to his previous form. Such a renaissance is unlikely. If Craig followed the typical aging curve, his production was going to fall off this year no matter what. So far, it's fallen off a cliff. Craig might bounce back (and I truly hope that he does), but any rebound is going to be to heights that are beneath his 2011-13 levels of production. Mozeliak opted to ship out the aging former slugger and the $25.5 million owed him from 2015 through 2017 in order to bet on youth this year and beyond while simultaneously gambling that adding John Lackey to the 2014 and 2015 Cardinals rotations will help the team win in the near term. That's not a bad wager.

The last player Mozeliak shipped out was righthander Joe Kelly. How does trading a 26-year-old pitcher who has played an important role in the St. Louis rotation and bullpen during his three seasons in exchange for a mid-30s pitcher square with the club's long-term view of the outfield. Well, it doesn't really. Mozeliak brought in Masterson and Lackey because they're proven veterans and innings-eaters. Despite being labeled a "workhorse" by the ill-informed Nightengale in the column to which I linked above, Kelly has never made more than 16 MLB starts or notched more than 124 MLB innings in a season. The Cardinals were staring down the barrel of a starter inning gap and Kelly was as much a part of the problem as Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia, and Michael Wacha. The Cards needed innings to stabilize the rotation and bullpen alike.

Why Kelly? The bespectacled righty has accrued enough service time to be arbitration eligible before the 2016 season and free-agency eligible entering the 2019 season. Kelly strikes out opposing batters at a below-average rate and walks them at a rate above the NL starter average. Yes, he's a groundballer with a dynamite sinker who has room to blossom into a very good starter, but that's wish-casting on potential that Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha have already flashed. Plus, the Cards have Carlos Martinez waiting in the wings. Down the stretch, Mozeliak wants innings from Lackey more than Kelly and who can blame him? The GM also apparently believes that a 2015 starting rotation of Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey, and two of Miller/Wacha/Martinez better positions the club to win than having Kelly starting over Lackey. Beyond 2015: it's El Gallo's show and no Matheny spring training competition will thwart that longterm plan.

This trade deadline, Mozeliak traded away from the deepest parts of the Cardinals organization. The moves served the club's goal of winning now by improving the rotation, but also plainly position the club moving forward for still more injections of youth.