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Imagining the 2017 Cardinals as sellers

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It’s not fun to think about, but there could be some great consolation prizes.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are one of the most competitive teams of the 21st century. The team goes into each year looking to contend, and 2017 is no different. OK, so competing for the division might not look so great. The Cubs clearly have the advantage. Games aren’t played on paper though, and anything can happen. Despite being a heavy underdog for the division, the Cards do have a good chance at one of the two Wild Cards.

Their main competition will come from the Mets and Giants (or, if they can upset their division rivals, the Nationals and/or the Dodgers), who project similarly to the Cardinals. The Marlins, Pirates and Rockies also have legitimate shots. The still rebuilding Braves, Phillies, Reds, Padres, and Brewers would need a lot to go right just to hang around the fringes of the race. The Diamondbacks will probably end up joining the last five as explicit sellers by mid-season, under new management.

Steamer sees the Cardinals as a 84 win team, though Zips has a considerably better opinion. Let’s say the average of the two gives us a 86 win projection. The problem is, that means the team has as much chance of winning 91 games (which may end up necessary to win a spot) as they do of winning 81 games (which will almost certainly not be enough). This is a good team, but the players don’t have to fall too short of expectations to again miss the playoffs in 2017.

Last year, the Cardinals were too close in the Wild Card race to end up selling. Not only did they miss out on the playoffs, they missed out on a very seller friendly market. Tonight, we’ll imagine that the Cardinals have a rough first half, enough so that it does make sense to sell at the deadline. Who would they trade?

Lance Lynn

Lynn is one of three players that is not controlled past 2017 (not counting Jonathon Broxton, who has a no-trade clause and little trade value), and thus is tied with two others for the most likely player to be traded in this hypothetical. Lynn was the 20th best pitcher in the game by fWAR from 2012 to 2015, and while he missed all of 2016, chances are in 2017 Lynn will be pretty close to as effective as he was last time we saw him.

With an extraordinarily weak free agent pitching market this winter, there was only two notable deadline deals for starting pitchers in their walk year. Andrew Cashner was traded for 1B/COF prospect Josh Nayer, ranked 100th on Baseball America’s list and not ranked on MLB’s list at the time.

The other, Rich Hill, was dealt along with Josh Reddick for three pitching prospects. One made Baseball America’s top 100, another made MLB.com’s Top 100, and the other made neither but wasn’t exactly considered a fringe prospect either. Hill was on the D.L. at the time but was still the better performer of the two at the time. His injury concerns probably brought his price down. Between these two deals, it seems reasonable to believe Lance Lynn could net the team a prospect in the back of the top 100.

Seung Hwan Oh

Oh is also a free agent following this season. He was recently ranked the seventh best reliever in the game, but the truth is that our expectations shouldn’t be quite that high after just one excellent season. If he can keep up the pace he set in 2016 though, he’d probably be the Cardinals’ best trade chip.

Even if he’s lights out the first half of the year, Oh’s return still shouldn’t approach the return the Yankees received for half a season of Aroldis Chapman. The Cubs parted with Gleybar Torres, who Baseball America and MLB.com both saw as one of the 20-30 best prospects in the game at the time.

Perhaps the deal for Will Smith is more instructive, though the Giants received three years of additional control after 2016. The Brewers netted pitching prospect Phil Bickford, who was 50th on Baseball America’s list, and 65th on MLB.com’s list. They also received Andrew Susac, who at the least is a non-zero backup catcher with several years of cheap control left. With the two being comparable, though different handed pitchers but Smith offering three more years at the time, maybe you bring the package down to another back of the top 100 prospect, but a bit better of one than the one they get for Lynn.

Jhonny Peralta

Peralta is the last obvious sell, also a free agent at the end of the season. I think a bounce-back is pretty likely on both the offensive side and the defensive side. If that happens, he’d be worth some value at the deadline. It’s hard to estimate at any great deal though. Peralta is most likely seen as just a third baseman at this point in his career. At the deadline, there’s always teams that need pitching. It’s a little harder to know what the demand for a specific position will be.

You can point to Brian Dozier and Todd Frazier as reasons to believe that demand for infielders has been weak recently. Both began the winter on a team with little likelihood of competing in 2017, and both remain on those teams. Both will probably be on the market in July, and will make it tougher to extract a good prospect for the man that rescued us all from the tragedy that was Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso battling it out for a starting spot.

Perhaps you could look to the Eduardo Nunez deal as a good comparison for Peralta, though he was dealt with an extra year of control. For Nunez, the Twins received a Top 100 prospect in Adalberto Mejia. With a strong bounce-back, maybe Peralta could net a Top 100 talent, but it’s more likely the Cardinals would have to settle with something worse than that.

Matt Adams

With Matt Carpenter shifting to first base, the fact that Carpenter and Adams hit from the same side of the plate, as well as the continued infield logjam, Adams is probably on the MLB roster he’s least needed on at the moment. While his low arbitration salary and non-horribleness offer value, there were too many similar players to Adams freely available this winter to extract anything better than decent pinch-hitter, which figures to be his role going into 2017. Maybe, with no free agent market to draw from, the Cardinals can extract a lottery ticket or two for Adams at the deadline.

Michael Wacha

I am very strongly in favor of Alex Reyes beginning the year in the rotation. The team may begin the year with Michael Wacha in the rotation instead though. With Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver ready to go, and a big wave of pitching prospects to hit St. Louis very soon, Wacha is expendable in the long-term. If he gets through the first half the year healthy and effective, the 2017 trade deadline could be the best time to cash in on Michael Wacha.

Randal Grichuk?

With the obvious trade candidates out of the way, let’s do some speculating. Let’s say Harrison Bader takes a big step forward, even though it seems unlikely. At the same time, Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are both playing well. Let’s say that the Cardinals decide to deal from strength. Grichuk would have the least team control remaining, and if he was hitting well he could be quite the trade chip. No outfielder with several years of cheap control remaining was traded at last year’s trade deadline. He’s been an above-average performer in his short MLB career and projects to be going forward, so three and a half years of control should bring in a good haul. Again though, it’s unlikely the Cardinals are in a position to trade him.

Any other effective reliever

Strong relief performances are fleeting, and relief pitching is always in demand at the deadline. Kevin Siegrist just entered arbitration this winter, and has had issues staying healthy and pitching effectively in the recent past. If he can be effective the first half of the season, the team should want to get what they can from Siegrist at that point. That goes double for Trevor Rosenthal, who is more expensive and has one less year of control remaining. Brett Cecil and Jonathan Broxton have no-trade clauses, but anyone else that is pitching effectively in relief should be shopped in this scenario.

Hopefully, this article ends up being irrelevant, because the Cardinals return to the playoffs in 2017. Maybe we’re not quite so lucky though, and St. Louis misses out on playoff baseball for a second consecutive year. If that’s the case, hopefully it’s not like last year where the Cardinals are too close to making it to benefit from being a selling team. They could end up adding quite the boost to the farm system, one that would more than make up for missing out on the first two rounds of the upcoming draft. It would be pretty lame in the short-term, but would make the long-term picture much more interesting.