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Did the St. Louis Cardinals win the division in spite of or because of their trade deadline deals?

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Process vs. results when the achieved result is the goal that drove the process.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The tension between process and results is something that comes up regularly when discussing baseball. The topic most likely to conjure up the point that process needs to be separated from results is the judging of a manager's in-game decision-making. The concept is pretty commonsensical: just because a reliever gave up a hit that blew a lead in the bottom of the eighth doesn't necessarily mean the manager was wrong to bring it that reliever; likewise, just because a batter rapped a game-winning single doesn't mean the manager should've allowed the batter to hit. The ends don't justify the means and it's not fair to judge a manager with 20/20 hindsight when conducting a postmortem of the decisions made the night before. It's the parable of the dick in a toaster.

Separating process from results is sort of perpetual first-guessing that typically relies on probabilities. Based on the information available at the time the decision was made, did the decision-maker make the best possible decision for the team? Consequently, it isn't just limited to field manager in-game decisions or lineup construction. We can also look at the front office's decision-making in such a way.

Before doing so, we must admit that we as fans typically are much more limited in making such judgments about front office decisions. They often hinge on the supposition that a better deal could've been had—via trade or free agency—than the one to which the front office agree. Pitting the baseball transactions of one's imagination against the one that took place in real life on this dimensional plane can be as unrealistic as it is unfair. So comparing the front office's process to the outcome of the decisions that resulted from it should be done cautiously, with this reality in mind.

At the 2011 trade deadline, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus, Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, and P.J. Walters to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, and Corey Patterson. At the time, the Wainwright-less Cardinals were just one-half game behind the Brewers in the Central standings and 5.5 games behind the Braves in the wild-card standings, Wainwright replacement Kyle McClellan was showing signs of wearing down, the bullpen needed bolstering, and Rasmus was hitting 246/.332/.420. The Cardinals agreed to the trade in the hopes it would give them the pitching needed to pull away from the Brewers and win the Central division.

The Brewers went 21-7 in August. St. Louis finished the month 15-13. On September 1, the Brewers' Central division lead had swollen from 1/2 to 7 1/2 games. Milwaukee wound up winning the division by six games. So the trade, meant to reinforce the St. Louis ranks for a division title run, failed. Except the Cardinals won the World Series after a miraculous wild-card run that was aided and abetted by a historic Braves collapse. And during the run, the newest Cardinals contributed with performances that range from horrendous to excellent (depending on how much stock one puts in defense independent metrics as opposed to runs allowed).

  • Jackson: 78 IP, 3.58 ERA (97 ERA-), 4.01 FIP (108 FIP-)
  • Dotel: 24 2/3 IP, 3.28 ERA (89 ERA-), 1.57 FIP (41 FIP-)
  • Rzepczynski: 22 2/3 IP, 3.97 ERA (107 ERA-), 2.72 FIP (73 FIP-)
  • Patterson: 56 PA, .157 BA, .189 OBP, .235 SLG, .189 wOBA, 14 wRC+

As a Blue Jay, Rasmus batted .173/.201/.316. Playing almost daily as the Cards' primary center fielder, Jon Jay hit .291/.336/.415.

So the trade worked in that every team's ultimate goal in every season is to win the World Series, and the Cardinals did just that. But how does one weigh the fact that the trade was a failure in its stated goal of winning the division? You really can't because making a trade in the midst of a neck-and-neck division race is a reasonable thing to do. What happened afterwards shouldn't calculate much into the assessment. In fact, it seems fair to say that the Cardinals likely wouldn't have been made if the club were as many games back in the Central standings on July 28 as they were the wild card. Yet they won the wild card. Sometimes things don't go according to plans, but they nonetheless work out.

This brings us to the 2014 trade deadline deals the Cardinals made. It would strain credulity to attempt to spin the trades as a success, even though the Cardinals won the division—the goal in pursuit of which the deals were struck.

First, it's fair to say that the Justin Masterson trade was an abject disaster. On the disabled list when the Cards traded for him, Masterson never looked remotely able while pitching with "STL" on his cap. His strikeout rate sagged further, his walk rate decreased a bit but was still unacceptably high, and he often looked like he had no idea where the ball was going upon hurling it homeward. The end result over 30 2/3 innings was a 7.04 ERA (196 ERA-) and 5.84 FIP (162 FIP-). The Cleveland front office is probably still laughing over how they fleeced the Cardinals for a perfectly useful outfield prospect.

For his part, Mozeliak discussed the Masterson deal, however briefly, with MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch:

Clearly, (Justin) Masterson, we had higher hopes for. It just didn't end up working for him, and that's too bad. But that's the part about doing deals. Sometimes you're going to get it right and sometimes you're not. I always feel like if you do nothing, you're going to get in trouble. And sometimes if you do something that doesn't work, you're going to get in trouble. The best thing to do is remain disciplined in the process, which we felt we were doing, and how we end up looking back on these deals, time will ultimately be the judge of that. But we feel like we put our best foot forward in the decision-making.

So Mozeliak appears to feel confident in the Cardinals' process that concluded with the decision to trade James Ramsey for the injured and struggling veteran right-hander, which I found interesting. Oh to have been a fly in the wall during those deliberations. But, alas, all we can do is speculate at the feedback Mozeliak received from the coaching staff and scouts regarding the organization's ability to reclaim Masterson's former effectiveness. It seems as if the organization may have overestimated where Masterson was and how helpful they might be to him.

Then there's John Lackey, whom the Cards acquired in exchange for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig. First, this deal must be viewed through the addition-by-subtraction prism. Mozeliak improved the Cardinals by dumping Craig, who amazingly hit worse with Boston (.128/.234/.191) than he had as a Cardinal (.237/.291/.346). Yes, there are still three guaranteed years on Craig's contract and he might turn things around and find his lost slugger form (hopefully he will), but it's clear that removing Craig from the lineup if not the clubhouse improved the Cardinals by untethering Matheny from his sentimental deference to veteran proveyness and allowing him to get creative with the outfield and leverage Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, and Oscar Taveras is ways that help the club win. Matheny wasn't doing this while Craig was on the club—he simply refused to do so because, in his mind, Craig gave the club the best chance to win.

Kelly was pretty lackluster for Boston down the stretch: 61 1/3 IP, 4.11 ERA (103 ERA-), 4.37 FIP (117 FIP-). But he's just 26 and under club control for another four seasons and might develop into the pitcher his stuff indicates he might become, so the jury is still out.

Despite his saltiness, Lackey was actually worse than Kelly down the stretch: 60 2/3 IP, 4.30 ERA (120 ERA-), 4.27 (188 FIP-). The veteran was downright bad. Throw in shoulder tightness/dead arm and he's gone from reliable veteran answer to postseason question mark. This is the opposite of what Mozeliak and his lieutenants hoped Lackey would be as a Cardinal.

In the same Langosch MLB.com Q&A (which you should read in its entirety), Mozeliak touched on Lackey. Not surprisingly, the general manager focused on fuzzy intangibles more than on-field performance as measured by stats.

I think the biggest thing was we started playing better baseball (afterward). For whatever reason, things started to click as a team. Maybe adding a little bit of a shakeup in there did help, though that wasn't necessarily the main focus of that deal. (John) Lackey was just someone that we thought down the stretch would be a big help to us in the rotation and also for next year. And we also had to figure out a way to manage out playing time (in right field) with players. In the end, it allowed us to accomplish those things.

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I do feel Lackey is getting undervalued a little bit with what he's brought to this team. There really is a competitive edge to him that, I think, others saw and kind of liked to see. I know that pure performance stands as a gauge, but I just think his personality was something this clubhouse needed as well. I think all of that in an aggregate sense was a benefit to the club.

And here we are, left evaluating a trade through the process-versus-results prism. Something was plainly faulty in the Masterson assessment pre-trade. On the other hand, the Lackey trade makes sense on paper, if we time travel back to late July. The trades are a decidedly mixed bag regardless of the fact that the Cardinals achieved their ultimate goal of winning the division and qualifying for the postseason.