First thing's first, the Cardinals record-wise are hardly in terrible shape. With just under half the season left there's still time to make a run at the division even with the disappointment of failing to capitalize on the Cubs losing 16 of their last 28. As of this morning the Cardinals sit at 43-41 which is only three games out of the race for extra baseball. FanGraphs currently has their playoff odds at 33.5%. Ideally, that last wild card spot will remain in view until the season ends because that's what it was designed to do for teams of the "little bit better than .500" ilk.
That's who the Cardinals are and that isn't necessarily unfamiliar territory. Just two years ago on this exact date they were only six games above .500 - four games behind Milwaukee in the division and a game out of the last wild card spot. The Cardinals weren't demonstrably better going forward, in fact, they had a -2 run differential the rest of the way, but Milwaukee stumbled to a 30-42 record to close out the season and it could be argued the Cardinals capitalized by merely sticking around.
Another argument is that by swapping Allen Craig and Joe Kelly for John Lackey at the '14 trade deadline, the Cardinals gained a reliable arm down the stretch to help make up for the injured Michael Wacha and the ineffective Kelly, as well as forcing a player (Craig) hitting .237/.291/.346 with a 81 wRC+ in nearly 400 plate appearances out of Mike Matheny's lineup. The Cardinals went 33-22 after that trade.
As this year's trade deadline approaches, however, this team's flaws are without an easy fix and merely sticking around won't likely get them far. According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals are the worst base running team in baseball - an oddly comforting fact in that at least our eyes aren't deceiving us. They rank near the bottom in nearly every advanced defensive metric. And they've lacked both stability and production from the center field position.
Cardinals CF this year:— viva el birdos (@vivaelbirdos) July 6, 2016
.208/.275/.385, 76 wRC+
Guy who used to be on the Cardinals that they gave away:
.276/.313/.425, 95 wRC+
This is why so many put such a premium on signing Jason Heyward in the offseason, and why it still stings a bit even as he suffers through what could very well be his worst season in MLB. He's hardly a one-person fix, especially with something as singular and ingrained to this team as reckless base running, but he sure would have checked a lot of the boxes above.
Concerning the center field problem, Charlie Blackmon and Adam Eaton have come up recently in some of Derrick Goold's chats. On Blackmon, Eric Garcia McKinley of Purple Row had this to say on Monday:
In my mind, Charlie Blackmon is the most compelling trade candidate. As Connor discussed in last week, Blackmon has all of the characteristics to make him desirable for others and just as many that should make him expendable for the Rockies. He's a good bat with a bit of pop who has been consistent over the past few years, and he can play center field. He has two more arbitration years before he hits free agency, so he isn't expensive either. He's someone who can be an immediate improvement for a contender. Aside from CarGo, Blackmon is the best player on the roster who is also expendable, and he comes much cheaper than CarGo. All of this suggests that he'd bring in a very good return in a trade.
Eaton is three years younger than Blackmon and as Goold noted comes with more years of cost control. Both have been above average hitters this year (Eaton: .277/.358/.395, 103 wRC+; Blackmon: .306/.373/.500, 116 wRC+), and Eaton is known to play the superior defense. Unfortunately, both would likely come at a steep price.
In 2015, after the first half of the season the Cardinals had the best record in baseball but ranked in the bottom half in runs scored. Add in Matt Adams's quad injury and Mark Reynolds's overall ineffectiveness, and adding some pop to the lineup, especially in the infield, certainly made sense on paper, even when considering Brandon Moss' subpar first half in Cleveland (.220/.296/.427 with a 96 wRC+). And yet I think most at the time shared Keith Law's sentiments on the trade, that giving up a potential 3-4 rotation guy in Rob Kaminsky for a year-and-a-half of a flawed slugger was entirely too much. (Because we now have the benefit of hindsight, there stands a very good chance that most of us at the time, including Law, were wrong.) Eaton, Blackmon, or a player with a comparable profile would most assuredly cost more.
The bullpen also needs to be addressed (see: last night). Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness' struggles have been well documented and Kevin Siegrist is currently on a DL stint with mononucleosis. There are elite relief pitchers possibly on the market, namely Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman of the struggling Yankees. But if reports were true that the Yankees demanded Kyle Schwarber or bust in a deal with the Cubs, it's hard to fathom any package of Cardinals that would do the trick without it being unbearable. There are plenty of ways to build a bullpen but parting with key contributors or elite prospects is not one I desire, even for an elite arm like Miller. If I had my choice I'd rather the resources be spent on position players and stabilizing center field.
Lastly, there's the issue of Matt Carpenter's oblique injury which he suffered last night in the 3rd inning. He joins the recently banged up infield camp with Jhonny Peralta and Moss. If Carpenter - who has easily been the Cardinals' most steady and valuable player in 2016 - is going to be out for a significant stretch of time, the Cardinals should be cautious around the trade deadline.
It's true that in the wild card era all you have to do is make the postseason and then anything can happen, with 2014 being the most notable example. But the 2016 Cardinals have provided little optimism that they'd be a wise team to roll the dice on in this seller's market.