(Note: This post was written Friday morning before the Cardinals' acquisition of Jonathan Broxton.)
On Thursday, the Cardinals shocked many people, myself included, when they traded left-handed pitching prospect Rob Kaminsky to Cleveland in exchange for first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss. My immediate reaction was to think that the Cardinals gave up too much to acquire Moss, who is having what can only be described as a down year. Kaminsky was quite possibly the Cardinals' second best prospect, behind Alex Reyes, and most scouting reports that I had read labeled Kaminsky as a potential middle of the rotation starter.
The more I think about this trade, the more I understand it in the context of this year's trade market. That doesn't mean I like this trade in any way, but we have seen a pattern of teams paying a premium to get marginal wins at this year's trade deadline. On Wednesday, I wrote a piece at Beyond the Box Score examining the difference between what teams give up in trades in the offseason and at the trade deadline. I found trades where the "buying" team acquired a similar number of projected wins, and then I compared the prospects they gave up in these trades, using future value grades from Kiley McDaniel's prospect rankings over at Fangraphs. In some cases, the differences were staggering. Teams appeared to pay a much higher price to acquire players in July than they did in the offseason, even though the number of projected wins they were acquiring was identical, and this was especially true with some of the trades that have happened this month.
There are certainly good reasons why this is the case. In July, teams have a better sense of what their playoff odds are, and they will be more willing to part with prized prospects to acquire marginal wins when they know that these wins have a higher probability of making a difference, both in getting to the postseason and in going far in the postseason. Last August, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs examined the cost of a win in July from a dollars perspective, and he concluded that teams may pay close to twice as much for a marginal win in July than the would in the offseason. This may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that not all wins are created equal. The value of a win can be exponentially higher if a team is is in the right spot on the win curve, where a seemingly small acquisition could have a major impact on a team's playoff odds.
If you want a good example of the difference offseason and midseason trades, you can simply compare this Brandon Moss trade with the one that happened in the offseason, when Moss was traded from Oakland to Cleveland. At that time, Moss was coming off three consecutive seasons with 2.0-2.5 fWAR, and he had two arbitration years left, despite already being 31 years old. According to ZiPS, Moss was projected to be worth approximately 1.7 WAR in 523 plate appearances in 2015. To acquire two years of Moss, the Indians gave up second base prospect Joe Wendle. According to Kiley McDaniel, Wendle was a 40 FV grade prospect who didn't have a lot of upside but had a decent chance of being a utility infielder who didn't play shortstop.
Fast forward to the present. Moss is having a down year, posting a .217/.288/.407 batting line with a 94 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR. His rest of season projections say he will be slightly better going forward, but they are less optimistic than what they were at the beginning of the year. While ZiPS had Moss projected for a 126 wRC+ before the season started, it now projects him to have a 112 wRC+ going forward. The Cardinals are acquiring four months less of of Brandon Moss than the Indians did, and because of his 2015 performance, they are also acquiring a player who is projected to be less productive going forward.
Despite this, the Cardinals gave up a much better prospect to acquire Moss than the Indians did in the offseason. If we go by Kiley McDaniel's evaluation, Kaminsky is a 50 FV prospect with a realistic role as a #4 starter and the potential for more. There is no scenario where a team would trade last offseason's version of Joe Wendle for this July's version of Rob Kaminsky straight up, but in effect, that is the trade Cleveland was able to pull off, and that doesn't even include the four months of production they got from Moss.
Clearly, the Cardinals paid a premium to acquire Moss at the deadline, and sometimes this kind of move can be justified. For a team like the Blue Jays, who have close to a 50/50 chance of making the playoffs, giving up top prospects to improve the major league team can be worthwhile, since they are in the situation where one or two wins can be the deciding factor in whether or not they make the playoffs.
My biggest issue with the Brandon Moss trade is that the Cardinals were not in a position to drastically improve their playoff odds by making an acquisition. After Wednesday night's loss to the Reds, the Cardinals' playoff odds were 99.8 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus, with an 89.5 percent chance of winning the NL Central. Going by Fangraphs playoff odds, the Cardinals had a 99.3 percent chance of making the playoffs with a 73.2 percent chance of winning the NL Central. With playoff odds like this, the Cardinals really didn't have a lot of room for improvement. They were effectively guaranteed at least a wild card spot, and their odds of winning the division were still very high.
Perhaps this trade was a reaction to the Matt Holliday injury Wednesday night. Holliday was projected by ZiPS to produce 1.0 WAR for the rest of the season, so losing that production could certainly have an impact on the team's playoff odds going forward. While I was unable to isolate the impact of the Holliday injury on the team's playoff odds, since he went on the DL at about the same time that Moss was acquired, I figured that the loss of Holliday and his 1.0 WAR would result in a comparable shift in playoff odds as a one game shift in the standings between the Cardinals and Pirates. On Wednesday night, the Pirates cut the Cardinals' division lead from 5.5 games to 4.5 games, and this change reduced the Cardinals' chances of winning the division by 1.4 percent according to Baseball Prospectus and 3.4 percent according to Fangraphs.
Even if we assume that the loss of Holliday would cause a change in playoff odds closer to the Fangraphs estimate, I don't think that such a change necessitates trading a top prospect for a marginal improvement on offense. Standing pat in this situation might sound crazy to a lot of people, given that the Cardinals had a black hole at first base and were coming off back to back shutouts at the hand of the Reds. However, one of the reasons why John Mozeliak has been so successful in his time with the Cardinals is that he doesn't panic and make knee-jerk reaction type moves. Earlier in the month, Derrick Goold wrote about how Mozeliak was taking a disciplined approach to trades, having learned from 2010 when he panicked and traded for Pedro Feliz to solve the Cardinals' problem at third base. While it is true that Mozeliak was already searching for an option at first base before Wednesday night, the timing of the Moss trade was particularly curious, and I can't help but wonder if the back-to-back shutouts and the loss of Holliday led to Mozeliak making a trade that he may ultimately regret.
With that being said, the Cardinals are a better team in 2015 with Brandon Moss than they were before they acquired him. It remains to be seen how much he will improve the Cardinals going forward, and this will likely depend on whether he is able to hit more like he did prior to 2015. I have a high level of trust with the Cardinals' front office due to their track record of success, so I am holding out hope that they saw something in Moss that I (and many others) appear to be missing.
On the surface, though, I find it hard to be excited about this trade. Yes, the Cardinals may have filled a hole at first base and on offense, but that concern is secondary to the overall goal of making the playoffs, and the reality is that the Cardinals may have given up one of their top prospects without significantly changing their chances of winning the division and making the playoffs.