At some point this past offseason (I don't honestly recall when, nor what the title of the column was, which makes searching for it much harder), I took a gander at what the Cardinals would look like as sellers. At least, I think I did; I'm really hoping this wasn't one of those columns I wrote in my head, or had the podcast conversation in my head, or whatever, and then never got around to actually writing down. I've done that before.
Anyhow, the idea at the time was a purely academic one; the notion of the Cardinals getting off to a slow start and potentially finding themselves out of contention was certainly one which had occurred to me, as I'm sure it had to many others around these parts, and the idea of the Redbirds as sellers was simply to gauge what kinds of assets they had to potentially put out onto the market. And, of course, what kinds of returns we might hope to bring back from those assets.
Well, now here we are in mid-May, and the idea of the Cardinals getting off to a slow start and falling out of contention is, um, still not exactly a reality, but not exactly a far-fetched flight of fancy, either. My typical check-in date for who a baseball really is usually falls after 54 games, whenever that might be. I divide the season into trimesters, essentially; those first 54 are for figuring out who you are, what you have, what you need, and what sort of plan you should be working with for the particular season in which you find yourself. The 15th of May is a little too early to decide for sure one way or the other under this rubric, but 37 games isn't exactly nothing, either. And in those 37 games -- comprising approximately 23% of the season -- the Cardinals are exactly one game over .500, having pitched appallingly badly so far, and trying to chase down an historically great team from up North, or even just hang in the wild card picture with an up-and-down Pittsburgh club and whoever doesn't win the kind of the mountain battle in the NL East. (Not to mention the Giants and Dodgers both scuffling along out West.)
With all that in mind, it seems obvious that this year's Cardinal team is going to be a little bit different experience to follow than most of the recent iterations. And that knowledge should probably inform how we think about this club.
There are other factors that should inform how we think about this club, as well; we know much more now about the relative strengths and weaknesses of this Cardinal club than we did before the season began. For instance, we know that this particular version of the Cardinals features an offense that is intriguingly deep, and surprisingly powerful. It still seems to be missing...something, but I have a hard time figuring out what that is. Perhaps it's the simple fact the offense is lacking a true centerpiece player of the Albert Pujols variety; as solid as Matt Holliday has been in his tenure with the Cardinals, he's not quite the 600 lb gorilla in the middle of the order you're hoping for at this point in his career. The fact the team's other best hitter is hitting leadoff should be a good thing, and usually is, but it's hard to keep that in mind sometimes. Personally, I think the bipolar nature of the offense is more down to a few players struggling badly, and some very poor sequencing so far this year. I could be wrong, of course, but this feels like a very, very potent offense most nights. (Except for when it doesn't.)
We also know the bullpen the Cards are bringing to the battlefield with them this year is extraordinarily potent, minus the terribly scuffling Seth Maness. Seung-Hwan Oh has been nothing short of a revelation so far, Kevin Siegrist looks again to be one of the better setup men in all baseball, Matt Bowman looks like a perfectly fine replacement groundball guy, and while Trevor Rosenthal has been shakier than maybe we would like, particularly in terms of his control, he's also been used very erratically this season, owing in large part to that weirdly unpredictable offense we just talked about. He's still struck out eighteen in just eleven innings.
We further know the bullpen isn't just potent; it's remarkably deep. Even Jonathan Broxton has looked quite good this season, apart from an elevated walk rate that feels at least as much about approach and tactics as true control issues. Beyond the guys already in the major league 'pen, Sam Tuivailala is continuing to hone his craft in Memphis, and Miguel Socolovich offers further depth. We've also seen Dean Kiekhefer called up already as more of a lefty specialist than either Tyler Lyons or Siegrist represent.
The overall point is this: the Cardinals have a lot of relief options, and aside from the now-DL'd Maness, all are of relatively high quality. In addition to Tuivailala potentially offering another premium arm in the near future, it's not out of the question that Alex Reyes could come to the majors in a relief role, at least to begin his big league career. I'm not saying Reyes is going to be ready for the show the moment he comes off his suspension, but the raw stuff could be intriguing in short bursts before the season is over.
So what we have is a team of middling quality, struggling to find consistency, needing to reload certain parts of the roster, with very solid depth in terms of bullpen arms. Given those facts, it seems like it would be time to perhaps revisit at least one trade chip relatively soon. And that potential trade chip is, as I'm sure you figured out by the title of this column, the club's closer, Trevor Rosenthal.
Of course, I'm also aware of the fact many of you here are probably already on board with the idea of moving Rosenthal, since the club seems completely uninterested in trying him out as a starting pitcher and closers are not just an overrated (and overpriced), commodity in the game, they are doubly overvalued when they team for which they pitch is not a legitimate contender for glory.
Which, yes, we admittedly don't know about the Cardinals yet for certain. As I said, my typical rubric for judging a team is 54 games, which generally puts the time frame right around Memorial Day or a little after. So we're not there yet. We're also not that far away, either.
One of the biggest considerations in terms of why trading Rosenthal might be an attractive option is, of course, the return, which is always high for elite relievers, and even higher of late for elite closers. Three such pitchers were traded this offseason -- Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Ken Giles -- and with the exception of Chapman, who brought baggage to the table that ultimately hampered Walt Jocketty's ability to extract maximum value in exchange for the fireballing Cuban, the returns in those deals were huge.
For instance, the Ken Giles deal, between the Phillies and Astros, brought four players to Philadelphia. Brett Oberholtzer, a left-handed starter (now working out of the 'pen for the Phils), is nothing really to write home about, but isn't exactly chopped liver, either. A useful piece, one could say. Derek Fisher, an outfielder I loved coming out of college, was originally supposed to be in the trade, but was changed out at the last minute for Mark Appel, the former number one overall pick (you know, the dude who isn't Kris Bryant), and hard-throwing righty. Personally, I would have preferred to have Fisher, but Appel has upside still, perhaps in short relief where he can simply rely on velocity and one good breaking ball.
Thomas Eshelman is another starting pitcher; he's a low-velocity control artist (the 'Stros kind of have a thing for those type of guys, it seems), and could slot in as a #4/5 starter in the big leagues before too long. And then, of course, you have Vincent Velasquez, the crown jewel of the package, he of the near-30% strikeout rate and 2.69 FIP in the majors this season.
So that's one very good starting pitching prospect, one back-end potential guy, one lottery ticket likely slated for relief work at some point (my opinion), and one guy who's just a guy, but isn't without value all the same. All that for one very good hard-throwing reliever. Important to remember Giles has been awesome, obviously, but he's also still a short reliever for all that.
There were two other prospects involved, one going to the Phillies and one going to the Astros, but they don't change the calculus much. Strictly marginal maneuvering, you understand.
The Craig Kimbrel deal brought back perhaps even a more impressive package, considering Kimbrel is very expensive, while Ken Giles is still pitching for relative peanuts. Like the Phillies, the Padres received four players in return for Kimbrel's services, with Manny Margot being the biggest name. He's a speedy outfield prospect, currently playing at AAA while still just 21, and putting up a 104 wRC+. His is an all-around sort of game, with speed, contact, and defensive acumen being his biggest strengths. Javier Guerra is a shortstop, still just 20, off to a slow start in High A, but with an intriguing combination of power in the bat and defensive chops. I'm skeptical of the contact rate, but he's a shorstop with pop. Those tend to get plenty of chances.
Carlos Asajue is maybe the least exciting of the bunch, being a middle infielder who is 24, cannot play short, and is on the small side, but even he offers above-average contact ability and excellent plate discipline numbers. Think of Greg Garcia, only a little more promising defensively.
Logan Allen is the real wild card of the bunch, being still shy of his nineteenth birthday and drafted only last June. That being said, he's been absolutely dominant so far in pro ball, already pitching in full-season Low A and more than holding his own this year. He's striking out a batter per inning and currently carrying a 2.55 FIP in the Midwest League, and again, doing so having yet to turn nineteen.
So in return for Kimbrel and Kimbrel's big contract, the Padres received one top 50 prospect, one top 100-ish prospect in Guerra (maybe more like top 120) one useful utility piece, and a lottery ticket in the form of an eighth-round high school pick who currently looks to have been hugely overlooked before the draft.
Here's the thing: Rosenthal has not been as dominant in his time as a closer as either Giles or Kimbrel, but he's been pretty damned dominant all the same. There is also the consideration that, when trading pitchers (and even moreso, it seems, when trading closers), there seems to be an inflation of the value in-season. Hitters bring more in the offseason, pitchers bring more during the season, is the commonly accepted wisdom. (Which I can't guarantee is true; I haven't researched it fully.) Given that Rosenthal is a top, say, seven or ten closer in the game (I think he's closer to seven, but I could see arguments to the contrary), and is still currently quite affordable, the package he could bring back would likely be somewhere in the neighbourhood of the two I went over here. Maybe not quite as rich, but not appreciably less so, I don't believe.
The question, of course, is whether we believe, after less than one-third of the 2016 season, that the Cardinals are a meaningfully worse team than we thought coming in. And perhaps more importantly, do the Cardinals themselves believe themselves worse? Perhaps most importantly of all, if they are worse than we thought, and the front office sees the issues and opportunities, how willing would they be to take a step backward this season by weakening arguable the strongest area of the club by trading away a huge bullpen piece, to potentially take a big step forward in the near future based on the return for that bullpen piece.
I'm hoping we see a deal sending Rosenthal out sometime this season. And I say that not because I believe Trevor Rosenthal is not a good closer -- I happen to think he's a very good closer most of the time -- or because I think the team would be better off without him. But looking at where the Cardinals are, and what they have, it seems clear to me this is a team that could use some reloading, even a soft reset, and Rosenthal is probably the biggest piece you have to move who isn't so vital to the club's future successes that the thought of dealing him is almost anathema.
So if it were up to me, I would be shopping Rosie, and in the relatively near future. I don't think it would be a terrible idea to begin even before the trade market fully heats up, in an attempt to beat some of the other sellers on to the market with your best piece. The rationale being that, if a club could deal for an elite closer or a high-powered reliever who's maybe...80% of that elite closer for a much more reasonable package, maybe the 80% guy is more attractive. If the elite closer is out there early on, though, when teams are aware of their needs but the market hasn't fully coalesced yet, then maybe some club with high aspirations takes the bait, rather than waiting to try and get the best deal.
Personally, I'd be looking at the Texas Rangers, who seem to have a whole lot of things going well for them, and a loaded farm system, but lack any sort of shut-down relief presence to lean on when the game is on the line. They look to be in a dog fight for a very winnable AL West with the Mariners, and are exactly the sort of team for whom an elite closer could be just what the doctor ordered. What would I be looking for in return? Well, some sort of package centered around Dillon Tate, who happens to be one of my two or three favourite pitching prospects in the minors right now is what I would be shooting for, or even just Tate himself. It would be a steep price to pay for Texas, certainly, but the immediate improvement to their bullpen, at a very reasonable contractual rate, could be huge. They also seem to have no issue dealing with Scott Boras clients, while I admit the Boras factor makes me wonder if Rosenthal won't try to break some team's bank, thus making himself completely overpriced relative to the value of a short reliever.
Is it too early to make such a move? Absolutely. Do we know, on the 15th of May, that the Cardinals are the sort of club on whom an elite closer is somewhat wasted? Absolutely not. In fact, if you believe they will be in a dog fight of their own for a wild card spot this season, then perhaps Rosenthal is entirely too valuable to the team to move, based on the fact one or two games could determine October baseball or no in 2016. However, when we look at the relative quality of the club, the strengths and weaknesses, needs and opportunities, I can't help but think that playing their biggest card in the trade market makes an awful lot of sense as the Redbirds try to transition and reload.
What about you?