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The Paralysis of Success

The Cardinals have, so far, completely abstained from a very active trading market. Is that good or bad?

St Louis Cardinals v New York Mets
The faces of celebration, apparently.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Trade deadline season is in more or less full swing now; the Cubs have traded for a new ace, the Nationals have traded for most of a bullpen, and the Marlins’ annual outfielder striptease is proceeding with aplomb.

The Brewers are apparently serious about going after a pitcher. The Yankees just added a big bat and some bullpen help, in the process sending one of the best bats in all the minors to the White Sox. (Which is beginning to sound like a broken record at this point, the Southsiders getting one of the best hitting prospects in baseball every couple months.) The Red Sox aren’t moving Rafael Devers, but still really, really want an offensive upgrade at third. The Diamondbacks got the top slugger on the market for a pretty middling price.

That last one is an interesting point to note; Arizona didn’t really have to pay through the nose for J.D. Martinez, which should perhaps not come as a huge surprise, given Martinez is a) purely a rental, and b) so limited in non-hitting aspects of the game he actually does give a fair amount of value back. Still, Martinez is a serious offensive weapon, and the fact he didn’t require the DBacks to completely empty their system is good news for them.

The only other really reasonable package changing hands, even to the point of feeling slightly unfair, was the talent haul the Oakland Athletics got back in return for trading Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. I say unfair because it seems like teams the last handful of years have been falling all over themselves to give the Washington Nationals whatever they want, such as the time the Nats ended up with Trea Turner, the best player in the whole trade, in a deal that was barely even about them. This time, they dealt for one of the very best relievers in the game — seriously, go and look up Sean Doolittle’s numbers, because the fact he’s pitched in Oakland makes him easy to ignore, but holy shit — who is potentially signed for three more seasons after this for just under $17 million (and both 2019 and ‘20 are club options, so you can also cut bait if he’s bad or gets hurt), along with Madson, who is on pace for a 2 win season as a reliever, and gave up only Blake Treinen, who is like an even more underachieving version of Joe Kelly, and two prospects, neither of whom would appear in the Cards’ top 20, I don’t believe. (Sheldon Neuse might sneak in between 15 and 20; I haven’t really sat down and tried to fit him in, for obvious reasons.)

Now, in fairness, Doolittle’s medical history is the reason we invented the word checkered, and probably depressed his value quite a bit. All the same, the Nationals got exactly what they wanted, a really good version of exactly what they wanted, and gave up nothing they’re likely to miss anytime soon, if ever. It’s frustrating to see other organisations making those sorts of moves when your own is so conservative as to be in perpetual wait and see mode.

And speaking of wait and see mode, we have the Cardinals waiting to see if the Marlins are going to really give in and trade one or more of their outfielders, or if the sale of the team essentially means no transfers, no deals for the foreseeable future. They’re reportedly waiting to see if the Blue Jays want to move Josh Donaldson. They’re also reportedly waiting to see if the prices come down on any of the other stuff they want.

The Cardinals, as constructed right now, are a pretty decent baseball team. If you go up and down the lineup on a given night, you’ll find mostly above-average hitters, if admittedly probably no great ones. The pitching staff has been the strength of the club pretty much the whole year, at least on the starting side. All five of the Cards’ starters have had their down moments this year, but they’re fourth in all of baseball in starter’s ERA, and that’s a hell of a foundation upon which to build. The bullpen has been much, much shakier this season, losing an ungodly number of leads along the way, but the club possesses one of the more valuable relief trading chips in the game in Trevor Rosenthal, who could fetch a huge haul, although seeing what Oakland got back for Doolittle is a bit of a bucket of cold water. (Then again, we’re talking about the A’s, who literally never get what looks to anyone but them like a really good return when they trade, but is usually about a coin flip as to whether or not it’s actually good, so they may not be totally representative of anything.)

So here’s the thing: the Cardinals right now are a pretty solid baseball team. They’re also a team which will attempt tonight at Citi Field in New York, to beat Jacob DeGrom to get back to .500. Which means, as of right now, the Cardinals are a below .500 club. We can argue about how they got there, and whether that’s a completely accurate representation of who they really are. (For the record, the Cards are in a dead heat with the Cubs right now for the NL Central Baseruns championship.) But what cannot be argued is the fact that clubs sitting below the break-even mark should, the vast majority of the time, be looking to cash in some chips and look toward the future where things may be brighter.

Except, of course, that’s not where the Cardinals are. The Cardinals are in wait and see mode, because the NL Central stubbornly refuses to get away from them, and the organisation stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that, even with a chance to make the playoffs, this club is just not that good, and probably isn’t going anywhere this season. In any other division in baseball, the Redbirds would be dead and buried, and able to make hard decisions about how to move forward, I believe. Instead, they play in the new Comedy Central, and are holding on to Lance Lynn and Trevor Rosenthal.

You look at the haul the White Sox got in return for Todd Frazier, and the Cardinals have a more valuable third base chip than that. They have Matt Carpenter, a superior bat, they could have sent to the Yankees as well. A few days ago, I posted a comment in which I drunkenly started hitting on and then trading with both the Red Sox and Yankees for my corner infielders. I was joking, but I also wasn’t. I’m not suggesting the Cards should move Carpenter because he’s disappointing, or because Luke Voit is a superior player. Both of those sentiments are really, really dumb. But Matt Carpenter is going on 32, still extremely good, still on a team-friendly deal, and could provide an enormous boost to the system if the Cardinals decided they needed to take a step back and retool.

But they can’t do that, of course. They’re too close. They’ve been playing too well lately. Never mind that you look at the market, with basically three or four sellers and everyone else trying to buy, and you salivate at the thought of what a club could get should they decide to cash in and take the long view on a season where they aren’t really going anywhere. The Cardinals are almost .500, and .500 in this division gets you a silver medal.

A Cardinal team dead and buried could move forward with an eye to remaking the roster and setting themselves up for 2018, maybe 2019, but for a long while after that. Instead, we get the wait and see on the Marlins’ outfield, and probably moves that will add up to trading away one left-handed reliever, bringing in one Jonathan Broxton or Steve Cishek, and maybe a fourth outfielder with some pop to replace Randal Grichuk, who I get the feeling has very much worn out his welcome within the organisation.

The market, I fear, is passing the Cardinals by. I don’t see them being able to make a big enough move to make them the actual favourite in the division at this point, but they aren’t going to sell. They aren’t going to look long-term and invest in the future; not when the present is still so close to .500. The Redbirds have already missed out on a couple of chances to sell pieces to teams willing to pay exorbitant prices, and the fact those prices have been mostly exorbitant would seem to suggest the likelihood of the Cards landing a big fish is remarkably close to nil. There are only so many chances one gets to make franchise-altering moves. The Cardinals are waiting and seeing.

I understand why, of course. It’s hard to plow under a field when you’re close to turning a profit. But all the same, this was a market in which the Cardinals could have pushed themselves ahead of where they are by leaps and bounds, at least in terms of the long-term outlook. Those chances are rapidly disappearing, as other clubs try to get their trade deadline business done early. And maybe you’re one of those people who doesn’t believe the Cardinals need to go in a different direction. I understand why one would think that; I just personally believe the club’s overall issues are structural, and need addressing, rather than tweaking.

Let’s just hope we aren’t looking back at this month a year from now and wondering how the Cards missed out on their chance to change course. Maybe we won’t. But make no mistake; there were opportunities in this market for a club to clean up. There still are. Will the Cardinals take advantage of any of those opportunities? Or will they skip the selling because they’re too good, pass on the big acquisitions because it’s too expensive, and then miss the playoffs because they aren’t quite good enough?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.