Here we are, two weeks away from the deadline and debates still rage over what the Cardinals should do. I understand those that want to sell: the team is not competing for the division this year, and is currently not holding a Wild Card spot. However, the Cardinals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. In my humble opinion, and after thinking about both sides a lot, I have come to the conclusion that the 2016 Cardinals should go for it. The following is an explanation of the three main reasons for doing so:
The players the Cardinals would be trading are not performing
Since joining the esteemed writers here at VEB back in November, I wrote on the possibility of the Cardinals selling at this year's deadline twice: the first came just a month into my tenure here, the other near the end of May at a low point for the club. So I absolutely see the value in selling, and have considered it a very interesting option. However, the players that I've seen as potential trade options have almost all had issues. In my orginal post on selling, I mentioned Rosenthal, Peralta, Moss, and Garcia as the trade chips that made the most sense, and with Jhonny injured to start the year, I replaced him with Adams in the second post.
Trevor Rosenthal was probably the trade chip that could have fetched the most, at least going into the season, but his continued command issues and the demotion that came as a result have crushed a lot of that value. With two weeks to the deadline, it's too late for Rosenthal to realistically turn it around in time to get his stock back up to where it was going into the season.
Jhonny Peralta's trade deadline value was likely ruined by his Spring Training injury. He was hitting the ball hard when he returned, and there was a bit of a window where if he kept it going, maybe a team would want to add him down the stretch. Some issues keeping him out of the lineup and a current wRC+ of 81 is probably enough to stop any team from offering a decent value for the infielder.
Brandon Moss had an incredible first half, pushing his way into the lineup as much as Mike Matheny could make possible, to the point of playing Stephen Piscotty out of position in center-field. Matheny has been prevented from doing that lately though, as he has been on the disabled list with a sprained ankle since the fifth of this month. The results were great while he was playing, as he's at a 139 wRC+, but the injury will surely make any potential buyers cautious.
Against all odds, Jaime Garcia is still healthy, at least reportedly. It seemed like that should have been all that was required of Jaime to be considered an excellent trade chip, but after a great start to the year, things have cooled off for Garcia. Here's a rolling 15-game average of his K% and BB%, from 2015 to now, provided by Fangraphs:
Last year, Jaime was typical Jaime: Not fantastic strike out numbers but very few walks and a lot of grounders. Early on in 2016 he was striking out way more hitters than usual, and walking a few more than usual. Since, the strike outs have trended down and the walks have trended up. On the year, Jaime has an above-average FIP at 3.93, but it's trended up to that point. He was going to have to be lights-out in order to make a team forget about his ridiculously injury plagued past, and that hasn't happened.
Matt Adams had a hot start to the year as well. Again, we'll let a graph do the talking. Here's Adams' 15-game rolling wRC+ for 2016:
Wow is that a rough fall. Honestly, I've been low on Adams for a long time, but I was really hoping he could keep up the hot streak long enough for the Cards to cash in. He's back to earth now though, and whatever your opinion of Adams, now doesn't seem like the right time to sell.
None of these players are broken, mind you. It's just that none of these players, at the moment, have a high enough stock that you could see another team parting with a great prospect for them. In my original article in December, I mentioned that selling could reap some great consolation prizes, but these pieces are just not going to bring back the impact talent that should convince a team to shy away from a play-off run.
Farm systems and play-off caliber teams are precarious things
I know, we're Cardinals fans; the playoffs are kind of normal for us. Maybe it's possible we take for granted. They call extra innings "bonus baseball" but it never really feels like it to me. I think the real bonus baseball is getting to see your team play in October (or after October 3rd or whatever now that the regular season extends into early October).
The Red Baron wrote a great piece last week, explaining his reasoning for believing the team should sell at the deadline. I do, however, think there was an unintended lesson in his article. In said post, he breaks down how the Cardinals' number one ranked farm progressed from 2013 on. Many players worked out, but mostly not in the way expected. Of course, there was the tragedy of Oscar Taveras' death and the resulting trade of Shelby Miller. Those two related events cost the team ten years of team control.
The feeling I came away with from that though, is the uncertainty of the future. It's all too easy to dream on the future. Prospects, and baseball players in general, are not the most stable assets. My heart of hearts knows that Harrison Bader, Alex Reyes, Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Paul Dejong, and now Delvin Perez will all in the future help keep the Cardinals perennial contenders. My brain, however, likes each of those prospects for their own reasons, but also knows that nothing is certain, that each of those players have some obvious weaknesses that could keep them from being successful, and that prospects will break your heart.
The same is true at the big league level: Carlos Martinez, as a pitcher, is always at risk. That goes double for Michael Wacha and his rare forearm injury. Matt Carpenter could age badly, descending as quickly as he ascended. Stephen Piscotty could tear an ACL in 2017, and never be the same player again. There's so much uncertainly involved in building a roster for the long term.
By contrast, we're a little more than half-way into a season in which we know that the team is good. That 55-33 BaseRuns record strongly suggests it. The projections back it up. There's some injuries, but the return times are workable. Over the half way point, the Cardinals have the third best non-pitcher wRC+ in all of the MLB, second only to the Cubs in the NL. The rotation is currently 8th in fWAR, and that's after placing 15th in April. The bullpen has had its issues, but at the very least it still projects to be the 6th best by FIP going forward.
The Cardinals have won nine less games than their BaseRuns records suggests they should have. Going into the season you'd think if that happened the Cards would be way out of it. The fact that they're nevertheless right in the thick of things is a testament to this team's strength. When a team's rotation and lineup is performing, but the bullpen is blowing it, the front office doesn't sell. They improve the bullpen. Let's bet on a very good team, while it's performing.
The Cardinals are simply too close to sell
I really hoped the standings would make this an easy decision for the Cardinals. My number one preference was for them to start out really well, and hold onto a play-off spot. If that couldn't happen, I hoped that they would be out of the race enough that the Cardinals' front office saw selling as the only realistic choice, Instead, we're dealing with being in the middle: too close to sell, but too far away to feel all that confident in going for it.
The teams the Cardinals are competing with are not without flaws. The Mets' are currently dealing with the bad side of having a team built on pitching: Matt Harvey is already out for the season after having Thoracic Outlet Surgery performed. Noah Syndergaard, the team's MVP and already worth 4 fWAR this season, is now dealing with dead arm. They're counting on Zack Wheeler returning from Tommy John Surgery. On the positional side of things, David Wright is likely done for the season.
The other team the Cardinals will likely have to leapfrog is the Marlins. The Marlins, guys. I know, they have Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton but...well, I take that back. They are a good team. They're also not frightening. The non-Jose Fernandez portion of the rotation is projected for less than three and a half wins above replacement going forward. The outfield is nice, but they have two holes on the infield, at short and first. The team has already traded for two relievers to improve the pen, and maybe they add a low-end starting pitcher. The team is searching for rotation help, but a lack of quality prospects and financial muscle will make acquiring someone at the top of the market rather difficult.
The Cardinals' BaseRuns record is nine games better than the Marlins' so far. To pass them, they likely only need to continue outplaying them. Baseball will be baseball, so the Marlins could win more games than the Cardinals going forward, but I doubt anyone could make a reasonable argument that the Marlins are the better team. This doesn't feel quite as inevitable as chasing down the Brewers in 2014, but picking up two games on this team is not an insurmountable task. In fact, it's plain surmountable!
So, should they buy then?
In a very limited sense, yes. With a lot of depth and an extreme seller's market, the position player side of things is set, I think. The rotation also still has no openings. Obviously the bullpen is a weak point, but there's a lot to like still in house: promoting Reyes could add a late-inning force. Rosenthal or Siegrist could bounce-back. Tyler Lyons will likely stop giving up homers at an insane rate. However, there is a feeling that something needs to happen: the bullpen is simply costing the team too many games.
I only expect the Cardinals to bargain shop though. I still very much like my idea to acquire Jorge de la Rosa and move him to the bullpen. If not him, some starting pitcher who the market leaves behind could do just as well. In terms of FIP, on average, pitchers are 65 points better in the bullpen than they are out of the rotation.
This isn't a comfortable decision. The last thing I want is for the Cardinals to finish third in the Wild Card race, and that is a somewhat likely scenario. However, the team's likely trade chips haven't performed, and the benefit of selling doesn't appear to be as valuable as I was hoping for. With a strong team in place, there's only one thing to do: go for that sixth straight play-off berth!