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On the evaluation of offseason trades early in the season

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Today's date is June 24th, the St. Louis Cardinals have played exceedingly well for 70 games, and it would be foolish for me to declare the "winner" and "loser" of a trade that occurred between the Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves over the offseason. Of course, the trade I am referencing took place on November 17th, 2014, with the Cardinals acquiring Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden in exchange for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Somehow, Jeff Passan, a well-respected MLB columnist for Yahoo! Sports, decided that May 15th, conveniently in line with Miller's near no-hitter, was an acceptable time to publicly consider the Braves "winners" of the November blockbuster deal:

I remember distinctly where I was when this tweet came across my timeline, and trust me, I reacted accordingly. However, I chose to hold off on writing a full article until a slightly more reasonable sample size became available. And here we are. We are all well aware of the trade's intricacies by now: Heyward's contract expires after the season (and will subsequently be due a hefty pay raise), Walden avoided arbitration and is now signed through 2016 (with a club option for 2017), Miller is cost-controlled through 2018, and Jenkins is under team control for at least six seasons.

Before taking the bold step of deciding which team won and which team lost, one must first understand the handful of reasons as to why each team agreed to the trade back in November. While none of us have access to the direct intellectual property of either team (that I know of, at least), it is pretty easy to surmise the season goals of each team based on their active roster construction and on-field performance thus far in 2015. Let's discuss this a little further.

Why the Cardinals Made the Trade

John Mozeliak and the Cardinals were faced with an unimaginable tragedy in late October 2014, as the team watched their cross-state rivals (Royals) take on their left-coast nemesis (Giants) in the fall classic. Their all-world prospect, Oscar Taveras, who projected to be the team's right fielder for many years to come, died in an alcohol-involved car accident while visiting his hometown in the Dominican Republic. With Stephen Piscotty needing more grooming in Triple-A and Randal Grichuk not yet ready to be considered an everyday player, Mozeliak was well aware of the hand he was dealt. A move had to be made, and this was not a situation where a scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel move would suffice, either.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, a 25-year-old All-Star right fielder was made available on the trade market after said player could not agree to a long-term extension with his current team. The core of the Cardinals (Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Matt Holliday) was beginning the baseball aging process, and like it or not, the organization was positioning its 25-man roster to "win now." Honestly, this could go without saying, but team executives had penciled Taveras in as an integral component to this "win now" lineup, so with his passing and the fact that no viable internal option existed, they quickly made a big splash. As with most trades, they had to "give something to get something," so they wisely pulled from an organizational depth (starting pitching) to acquire a replacement for an organizational hole.

Why the Braves Made the Trade

As seen by moves made later in the offseason (i.e. trading Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel), the Braves' front office was positioning its big-league club to compete in 2016 and beyond, with any success in 2015 being treated as a bonus. While the Braves played solid baseball at the start of this season, the lack of depth at the big-league level is apparent, leaving the team increasingly susceptible to injuries. As it so happens, the National League East has underperformed thus far, and the Braves remain in contention, but all signs point toward the Washington Nationals eventually pulling away, especially with a reportedly healthy Stephen Strasburg back in the starting rotation.

Thus, Miller, with a fresh start in a new city, represented a quality MLB starting rotation contributor right now and through 2018 at a cost-controlled rate. The addition of Jenkins strengthened the farm system by adding another starting pitcher to a top prospects list full of quality pitching prospects (Jenkins is currently the Braves' sixth best pitching prospect per MLB Pipeline). This haul, in the mind of Braves executives, was enough for the Cardinals to land Heyward (for one guaranteed season) and Walden (who was arbitration eligible at the time).

Brief Analysis

Admittedly, circumstantial, results-driven analysis is lazy, but given Holliday's quad injury and poor offensive production from the center field position thus far, it is perfectly reasonable to ask "Where would the Cardinals be (regarding National League Central standings) without Jason Heyward?" His defense (route running, glove work, throwing, etc.) and base running (1.7 BsR, highest on the team) has been as good as advertised, and he currently finds himself leading the offense in June (151 wRC+), particularly from an extra-base-hit standpoint (.197 ISO).

On the flip side, with Wainwright's Achilles injury, it probably would have been nice to still have Shelby available. However, no one could have predicted Wainwright to suffer such a serious, but fluky injury. Plus, if Shelby was in the spring training rotation, Carlos Martinez's development as a starting pitcher would still be in limbo, as the team would have likely broken camp with a Wainwright-Lynn-Wacha-Lackey-Miller rotation. Sure, as Jaime Garcia rehabbed his way back to live action, the team had to work its way through starts made by Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons, but Garcia's return limited this to a handful of starts, and in all honesty, Lyons was adequate enough in his role.

Finally, and this is largely for what it's worth given the vastly different mindsets by both teams involved in the trade, here are Heyward's and Miller's lines so far in 2015, with the bottom row of each chart including what ZiPS projects from each player for the rest of the season. As you will see, if you choose to evaluate the trade based on 2015 production alone, Heyward projects to be worth 1.3 more wins than Miller, by fWAR.

Miller's 2015 Statistics

Time Frame GS IP K/9 BB/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP fWAR
Thus Far 14 90.1 6.48 2.79 .240 80.1% 1.99 3.27 1.6
ZiPS (ROS) 17 101.0 7.84 3.20 .287 75.6% 3.40 3.82 1.2

Heyward's 2015 Statistics

Time Frame PA AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO wOBA wRC+ fWAR
Thus Far 254 .278 .319 .439 5.5% 18.1% .160 .328 109 1.6
ZiPS (ROS) 342 .271 .342 .425 9.0% 17.4% .154 .336 114 2.5

Bottom Line

Classifying the "winner" and the "loser" of offseason trades is nearly impossible in late June, let alone mid-May. The Cardinals, despite dealing with significant injuries, have managed to put together the best record in all of baseball. Their organizational eyes are set on capturing their 12th World Series title. Whether or not the addition of Heyward will allow them to do so remains to be seen. However, as we know, playoff outcomes are seemingly random. All the front office can do is put together the best 25-man roster possible and hope for some good fortune come October. Please, given how much can change in just one month of baseball, let's wait until November before deciding which team "won" the trade.