Now that the baseball draft has taken place, teams are shifting their focus to the July 31st trade deadline. Going into Friday, the Cardinals had a 43-23 record, easily the best in the majors. Like most contenders, though the Cardinals certainly have areas that they will look to improve upon at the trade deadline.
The Cardinals are probably in a better spot than most contenders. Their pitching staff has been preventing runs at a historic pace this year, and they have a solid group of position players, most of whom have done little to deserve being replaced. They also have reinforcements coming, in the form of players returning from the disabled list. Lance Lynn, Jordan Walden, and Matt Holliday will (hopefully) all return before the trade deadline and play key roles for the team in their run to the playoffs. At the same time, the Cardinals will likely not see Matt Adams or Adam Wainwright for the rest of the year (despite what Wainwright may optimistically say to the Post-Dispatch). While the team has managed to put together a good win-loss record without them, it is fair to wonder how long this can continue.
The Cardinals will almost certainly solidify their status as favorites in the NL Central by making a move (or multiple moves) before the trade deadline. Here is a look at the areas they should prioritize.
1. First Base
Going into the season, the Cardinals looked solid at first base, with Matt Adams as the primary starter and Mark Reynolds as a very capable backup and possible platoon partner. Adams' season-ending injury leaves the Cardinals exposed at first, as Reynolds has been forced into the role of full-time starter. As Ben pointed out Thursday, Reynolds has taken a new approach at the plate this season, sacrificing power for a higher average and on-base percentage. While Reynolds' 107 wRC+ is an improvement over his last two seasons, it is mostly driven by his .356 BABIP. ZiPS projects Reynolds for a 101 wRC+ for the rest of the season, and while this is slightly above league average, it is not an adequate level of production for a position like first base, where the average wRC+ is 117.
With Matt Adams set to return next season, my guess is that the Cardinals will look for a short-term option at first base, perhaps even a platoon partner for Mark Reynolds. With that being said, I don't think the team should only look at players who will be free agents after this season. Matt Adams had a solid, but somewhat underwhelming 2014 season, and this season, he looked even worse, hitting .243/.281/.375 with an 80 wRC+ in 153 plate appearances before his injury. Adams has not completely proven that he's an everyday first baseman, especially against left-handed pitching. The team should keep all their options open and not let Matt Adams' future status prevent them from acquiring a good first baseman for this year and beyond.
2. Starting Pitching
Ever since Adam Wainwright went down for the year with an Achilles tear, the Cardinals have been a team that was likely to explore the trade market for starting pitchers. With Jaime Garcia returning from injury and pitching better than anyone could have expected, the Cardinals' rotation looks to be in better shape than we initially thought when Wainwright went down. Among all thirty teams, the Cardinals' rotation ranks second in ERA, second in FIP, and third in fWAR.
Even so, a trade for a starting pitcher is still likely to occur. With his injury history, Jaime Garcia cannot be counted on, no matter how well he is pitching. Lance Lynn is also a concern at this point, even though the team expects him to return after his minimum fifteen days on the DL. The Cardinals will also be cautious Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, as they are reaching uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched in a season. All of this seems to indicate that the team will be looking for a starter who can fill in and eat some innings, most likely a rental player.
The only reason I put starting pitching second on this list is because it is possible (if unlikely) that the Cardinals could make it to the trade deadline without being in dire need of a starting pitcher. Assuming Lance Lynn's forearm issue isn't a major concern (Lynn says he probably could have pitched through it), the Cardinals rotation will have five very capable starters, with no clear candidate to be replaced. Tyler Lyons could give breathers to Wacha and Martinez, and perhaps even Marco Gonzales could become a factor later in the season. Of course, this scenario is foolishly optimistic, as starting pitcher injuries are very common occurrences, and the Cardinals' starters seem to be particularly injury prone. For now, though, the Cardinals can continue to be patient in looking for a starting pitcher.
The Cardinals' bench management this year has been one of the most puzzling aspects of an otherwise excellent season. When the team was required to use a DH on Wednesday and Thursday in Minnesota, the Cardinals' bench consisted of Tony Cruz, Ed Easley, Pete Kozma, and whichever outfielder wasn't starting. Having Easley, a catcher, on the bench allowed the Cardinals to use Cruz as a pinch-hitter, but I'm not sure why they would want to do this, since Cruz owns a career .224/.270/.305 line and a 59 wRC+. Since being called up in late May, Easley appeared in two games and made three plate appearances, which is why yesterday's announcement that he was being sent down was not the least bit surprising. Perhaps the scariest part of all of this is that before Greg Garcia was called up yesterday, Pete Kozma was basically the backup infielder at three positions. With Kozma's career .223/.286/.300 batting line and 59 wRC+, it is fair to wonder why he is still on this team.
With the additions of Greg Garcia and Xavier Scruggs, the Cardinals' bench looks a little better, and it will improve further when Matt Holliday returns, as the team will have two outfielders on the bench every game. Trading for a first baseman could help as well, as Mark Reynolds would once again become a part-time player. Still, the backup infielder spot needs to be addressed, as the Pete Kozma experiment has lasted long enough. My dream scenario would be trading for someone like Ben Zobrist, who could be a backup at multiple positions and provide above average offense. His price tag will probably be too high, though, especially if he's only going to be a bench player.
(Side note: I have no idea why the Cardinals insisted on carrying an extra reliever for as long as they did, especially when playing in an American League park with an already weak bench. Before Thursday, Carlos Villanueva hadn't pitched since June 8th and had only four appearances in the last thirty days. Going into Friday's game, Miguel Socolovich hadn't pitched since being called up again on June 9th. Mitch Harris hadn't pitched since June 8th. Thankfully, they have addressed this issue with yesterday's move. Let's just hope that Matheny doesn't bury Garcia and Scruggs like he did with Easley. They can't be any worse than Pete Kozma, right?)
Given the current state of the Cardinals, these three areas are probably the most likely to be addressed via trade in the next six weeks. With that being said, a lot can change in that amount of time, as a key injury could seriously alter the team's plans at the trade deadline. Whatever the case may be, John Mozeliak has shown a willingness to make deals at the deadline when necessary, and I don't think that this year will be any different.