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A Tale of Two Trades (and One Signing)

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There were two major trades this past offseason, as well as one major free agent signing we Cardinal fans care deeply about. Who made the right decision, and who didn’t?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are currently playing the Boston Red Sox. I do not expect it to go well, because it never seems to go well when the Cards play the Sawx. Boston is like the American League version of the Giants when it comes to playing El Birdos in the postseason; San Fran is our NLCS kryptonite, and Boston is our World Series wall. I have no idea what kind of regular-season records the Cards might have against Boston over the past 20 years; I only remember the crushing championship losses.

But anyhow, the Red Sox are good again this year, largely because their former GM Ben Cherington did an astounding job building up the farm system, translating into one of the most exciting group of young players in all baseball (Bogaerts-Betts-Benintendi-Bradley; potentially other players whose names fail to fit the Killer B’s rubric), and also partially because the Red Sox had the strange fortune of suffering through a couple really brutal seasons that came almost out of nowhere (mostly because the pitching just self-destructed), and those two brutal seasons netted the Red Sox a pair of draft picks way above what we would usually think of them grabbing.

Their top pitching prospect, Jay Groome, fell to them at twelfth overall last year, much the same way the Nationals lucked into Anthony Rendon at sixth back in 2011 when he really shouldn’t have gone lower than second. (Seattle selected Danny Hultzen second overall in 2011, by the way, which should tell you all you need to know about why the Mariners continue to suck the vast majority of the time.) Benintendi was a gift at seventh overall the year before, a draft-eligible sophomore barely on the radar the beginning of his draft spring and a consensus top two prospect in the game less than two years later. As much as the Cardinals and Red Sox have run on parallel tracks the past decade and a half as two of the more emulated organisations in the game in terms of on-field success, the Red Sox mysteriously got sort of terrible for two seasons and took advantage of it in the draft, while the Cards haven’t drafted higher than 19th since almost a full decade ago, when they pulled Brett Wallace with pick thirteen in 2008.

But enough of all that. I didn’t mean to get distracted by a draft history lesson; I just have a hard time not falling into that hole anytime I walk by it. (Fun fact about the ‘08 draft: the Wallace pick doesn’t really look like a slam dunk, until you consider the players taken after him. Aaron Hicks went next, and Hicks was one of my personal favourites at the time of the draft, but it literally took him until this year to turn into a good major leaguer. After Hicks, though, you have to go all the way to 28th, where Gerrit Cole was taken and then not signed by the Yankees, or Jake Odorizzi at 32 to find a player who actually turned out to be really good. Andrew Cashner is in there, though, and he turned into Anthony Rizzo, so good pick, I guess, previous Cubs regime.) Rather, what I meant to make this column about today is a guy the Cardinals actually won’t face during this abbreviated two-game set in Beantown.

I’m talking, of course, about Chris Sale, whose absence is probably the best piece of news the Redbirds could hope for seeing Boston on the schedule. Why is Chris Sale not appearing in this series such a big deal? Because Chris Sale is, at this moment, the best pitcher in baseball, and if the Cardinals are going to have any chance at all of salvaging a split following Mike Leake’s continuing deflation in last night’s game, it helps a whole lot not to have to face the best pitcher in baseball.

More importantly than talking about Chris Sale himself, though, what I wanted to talk about is the way the Red Sox got Chris Sale. And also the way the Washington Nationals got Adam Eaton. And also also the way the Cardinals got Dexter Fowler.

The Red Sox acquired Sale from the Chicago White Sox in a trade this past offseason that was essentially the dictionary definition of ‘Blockbuster’, at least since the video rental chain disappeared, leaving the top dictionary spot open. Dave Dombrowski, the man who replaced Cherington in the top job of the baseball ops department for Boston after those two aforementioned terrible seasons, sent an enormous package of prospect talent to the White Sox in return for their ace.

The centerpiece of said package was Yoan Moncada, the big-ticket Cuban signing of a couple years ago who had become a top three-ish prospect overall. Remarkable athlete, big time patience at the plate, and top of the line speed all add up to one of the most intriguing prospects of this or pretty much any era. Along with Moncada was Michael Kopech, one of the hardest throwers in the minors and a pretty outstanding prospect in his own right, Luis Alexander Basabe, a toolsy switch-hitter capable of playing center field but who comes with questionable feel to hit (to the point I’m fairly low on Basabe, personally), and Victor Diaz, a raw arm strength prospect who always projected as a reliever, but potentially an intriguing one.

Chris Sale in 2017 has been....unreal. He is, in fact, putting together an all-time great season, with a 2.51 ERA, 1.92 (!) FIP, a 36.9% (!!) strikeout rate, and just a 4.7% walk rate. He’s the prohibitive favourite to win the AL Cy Young award this year, and is going to come very close to breaking 10 wins above replacement by the FanGraphs model of the stat. So...yeah.

Consider, though, what Boston gave up to get that amazing performance. Kopech is striking out almost 32% of the hitters he’s faced this year at Double A, and is one of the top pitching prospects in all baseball. His control is still an issue, though, and there are some who believe he ends up in the bullpen. (Count me as a ‘pen moderate on Kopech, for the record.) Moncada is in the big leagues, striking out almost 40% of the time and putting up an 86 wRC+. Obviously, he’s still only 22 and has all the athletic gifts that made him such a highly-touted prospect in the first place, but the swing and miss concerns are very real. Basabe has struggled this year at High A, posting an 83 wRC+ and showing very little power, though his patience at the plate is still a very good sign. Diaz was okay at Low A, has been terrible at High A, and doesn’t look like much of a factor at this point. He was always mostly a throw-in, though, so it’s not as if losing out on that particular lottery ticket hugely sways how this deal will be looked at.

So what did the Red Sox really give up for Sale? Moncada is still potentially a star, and maybe the command comes together enough for Kopech to join him. On the other hand, players who strike out 35+ percent of the time had better hit for ungodly power (for instance, Joey Gallo, who is striking out 37% of the time this season but is still a 127 wRC+ hitter because he’s hit 34 home runs in 389 plate appearances, and yes I checked that a couple times to make sure I wasn’t misreading something), and Moncada has never really shown that kind of thump. Above-average raw power, sure, but not elite, scary power. Kopech has actually gotten better as the year has gone on in terms of walks, but he’s still running a 12.3% BB rate for the season. Ubaldo Jimenez doesn’t seem like a terrible comp for Kopech to me, and while Ubaldo has certainly had his moments, there are also a lot of downs to go with those ups. Basabe is a bit of a wild card, but still possesses a pretty high upside and is almost certainly a better bet than I give him credit for.

On the one hand, you have the best pitcher in baseball, sure to win a Cy Young, pitching your club into the postseason almost single-handedly (seriously, the rest of the Boston rotation has been appalling this year), and on the other you have some potential star power, yes, but also some serious questions. Sale is also under contract for two more seasons after this one at pretty much bargain-basement prices, considering the level of performance of the player.

Dave Dombrowski might very well end up running the Red Sox into the same ground in which he planted the Detroit Tigers, but for now the Chris Sale deal looks absolutely brilliant. The Red Sox traded for a top five pitcher in baseball, and he then took another step forward to claim the top spot all for himself.

Now let us move over to the other huge trade the White Sox made this offseason, which saw them move Adam Eaton, their debatable-but-almost-certainly-really-good right fielder, to the Washington Nationals. The Nationals wanted Eaton for the top of their already-imposing lineup, and to man center field. The center field thing is really the interesting bit in this case; Eaton had, throughout his career, been a pretty bad center fielder. Then, in 2016, the White Sox moved him to right field, and the defensive metrics (as well as the people watching games, for the most part), saw him as an outstanding right fielder. Now, that’s a weird thing; you would expect a bad center fielder to be a pretty good corner outfielder, probably, but not a world-beater. There just shouldn’t be that much difference moving from spot to spot in the outfield. For Eaton, though, it seemed there was. (Part of that, admittedly, may have simply been his arm being healthier and stronger in ‘16 than it had been previously.)

So the Nats decided that, hey, this guy figured something out, and we’re going to move him back to center field, and he’ll be fine. He’s going to get one base a ton and play just fine defense in center. So let’s make a trade.

And what a trade it was. The Nationals sent two of the best right-handed pitching prospects in baseball to the White Sox, along with their first round pick from 2016. Lucas Giolito had been the top RHP prospect in baseball a couple years ago, but his stock has fallen a little. Reynaldo Lopez, on the other hand, was a fast-rising elite arm at the time of the deal, cut from the Carlos Martinez/Yordano Ventura mold of short right-handed pitchers with unbelievable stuff. Dane Dunning, the Nats’ first-rounder last year, is a big-bodied sinker/slider guy with an iffy arm action who throws in the low 90s but has excellent movement.

So how has Eaton done for the Nationals this year? Well, offensively, Eaton began the year looking like everything Washington could have hoped for. He posted a 13.1% walk rate, a .393 on-base percentage, and a 125 wRC+ over the first 107 plate appearances he made in 2017. That’s about as good as it gets from a leadoff man, and they had to be thrilled with those 107 plate appearances.

The problem, of course, is that Eaton will likely not make more than 107 plate appearances in 2017, as he suffered what is almost certainly a season-ending knee injury at the end of April. Eaton is actually under club control all the way through 2021, but this first year at least is mostly a lost season.

There’s also the fact that Eaton’s defensive numbers in center this year were horrible. Now, the sample size is miniscule, but he essentially looked like just as bad a center fielder as he had always been before, which is not at all the outcome the Nationals were hoping for. Did they get fooled by a flukily good fielding year in right in 2016? Too early to say, but signs point to a definite ‘maybe’.

So if the Sale trade appears to be almost the best case scenario for trading to acquire a star-level player, where the star suddenly goes supernova the moment you pick him up and essentially makes everyone forget you gave up an enormous amount of future potential for present production, then the Eaton trade is an interesting counterpoint, a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when you put so many of your eggs into a single basket.

On the other hand, the players the Nats sent away in return for Eaton have been a bit of a mixed bag themselves. Lopez has been mostly what the White Sox hoped he would be, making it to the big leagues after a solid if unspectacular turn through Triple A, but has had some issues with both walks and home runs. He looks like a good future bet, but not a slam dunk. Giolito, however, who I’ve personally always been pretty lukewarm on, has been downright mediocre in Triple A this year. He’s striking out a very solid 24.2% of hitters, but also walking over 11% and allowing too many homers. He’s gone backward as a prospect in a big way, and is beginning to have a bit of a Thomas Diamond feel to him. (Blast from the prospect past alert, everybody.)

Dunning has arguably had the best season of the three, having beaten up Low A to the tune of a 1.35 FIP, then moving up to High A and continuing to have success. He’s 22, so not extremely young for the High A level, but he’s still putting up solid numbers overall. Then again, he’s not putting up ace-level numbers or anything, and looks more like a future #3 type than a frontline starter. Thus, in spite of Eaton’s 2017 being an injury bust and a frightening glimpse of how bad a bet his defensive breakout of 2016 might have been, it’s not as if the Nationals appear to have given up the equivalent of Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Cliff Lee.

Now let’s take a look at what the Cardinals gave up for their own bad defensive center fielder with the breakout bat. Dexter Fowler was signed this offseason to a five-year deal worth north of $80 million dollars. He also cost the Cardinals their first round draft pick and the associated bonus money. Now, admittedly, they were always going to lose their first round pick in the hacking thing; they likely just lost their second and third round selections instead of their first due to signing Fowler. Regardless, the fact is Fowler came with a bit of an extra tax, but only in the form of a hypothetical player and some flexibility with signing bonuses.

It’s been a bit of a weird first season for Fowler here in St. Louis. He’s been hurt multiple times, and has looked downright terrible in center field, but is also hitting for the most power of his career, is putting up a 118 wRC+ in spite of still-low BABIP, and is generally doing everything he can to look like a lineup force for the near future. Should he be playing left field with Tommy Pham taking over in center? Yes. Yes he should. Should he also be hitting somewhere in the middle of a suddenly-potent lineup? Also yes. So kind of a mixed bag. You’ve got asshole columnists and bloggers such as yours truly wondering if the Fowler contract was a mistake less than 20% of the way through, but he’s also been worth almost two wins above replacement in just over half a season’s worth of playing time.

So if we look at all three situations, we see that the Nationals got something like what they wanted, until he got hurt, proving that consolidation of talent does have risks, even if we think it’s necessary. The Red Sox hit the home run of all home runs, pulling the best pitcher in baseball for a package of talent that could turn out special, but also could fall short due to entirely foreseeable issues. And the Cardinals pulled a very solid lineup presence who should probably move to a less demanding position for a truckload of money and a lost draft pick. If we take Eaton’s knee injury out of the equation as essentially an unknowable unknown, we probably have to conclude the Redbirds got the least of the three players, particularly considering age. But when we consider what they had to give up to get that player, the balance shifts around in a hurry.

The closest equivalent the Cardinals could probably have come up with to the Red Sox package for Sale would be something like Alex Reyes, Carson Kelly, Nick Plummer or Magneuris Sierra (I’m talking about Plummer this past offseason, not Plummer with another several months of striking out 30% of the time in Low A, which is...less than ideal), and a lotto ticket arm. I don’t know who; let’s say Rowan Wick. Raw, plenty of questions, good strikeout ability. The issue with the overall package is that Reyes doesn’t match up that well with Moncada, being a pitcher vs. an infield prospect, but that group isn’t a terrible comparison. Actually, the Sierra/Plummer comp for Basabes is probably a little light. Maybe make Wick somebody like Connor Jones or even Zac Gallen to even things out.

If we look at the Nationals’s package for Eaton, it’s an easier comp, since we’re talking all pitchers, and if there’s one thing you can find in the Cards’ system it’s pitching prospects. Giolito and Reyes are good equivalents. Lopez and Jack Flaherty at the time of the deal were not as close in value as they are now, actually, but close enough for government work and all. Dunning, as a late first round type, we can swap out for Dakota Hudson. They’re even similar pitchers. So Reyes, Flaherty, and Hudson for five years of Adam Eaton, on-base machine and poor center fielder, at a very reasonable price.

So the ultimate question we have to ask, really, is whether the Cardinals would be better off with Adam Eaton or Dexter Fowler plus Reyes/Flaherty/Hudson. Now, to be fair, Eaton is three years younger than Fowler, 28 vs 31, and will make something like $39 million through 2021 (and a couple of those are options, so you aren’t tied to him 100% if he falls apart), while Dexter is making $82 million with full no-trade protection. That’s a sizable difference, but could that difference in money buy more value than we’re going to see from Reyes/Flaherty/Hudson?

Or, we could posit that the Cardinals, rather than trying to directly fill their most glaring need of 2016, should have bolstered the pitching to an unbelievable degree with Sale. They would have had to send away Reyes, and Carson Kelly, and an outfield prospect, and another arm, but they would have the best pitcher in baseball taking starts instead of, well, that’s a tough question. They probably would have had to deal a Michael Wacha or Lance Lynn even before the season started, and likely taken a haircut on the value. (And no, before you suggest it, they weren’t moving Adam Wainwright anywhere. Period.) But what would a rotation of Sale/Martinez/Leake/Lynn/Wainwright accomplish? That’s quite a counterfactual to consider.

In the end, I don’t really know that we can conclude anything concrete about what direction the Cardinals should have gone. All things being equal, I’m almost always going to err on the side of spending money, rather than talent, because there’s plenty of revenue coming through the gate and talent is precious. But that’s not always the only way forward, either. And we should absolutely take note that basically none of the prospects dealt in either of these massive trades covered today have turned into stars just yet. There’s no guarantee they will, either. When weighing potential stars against actual stars, never, ever forget to consider the risk in that word ‘potential’.

We have the Red Sox getting more than they could have hoped for, the Nationals seeing their big investment play well and then go up in smoke, and the Cardinals getting solid production in return for a big salary and holding onto all the dry powder they have.

I really don’t know who got the best deal. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about these big philosophical question of how rosters are constructed, because this season has been so much about how the Cards’ roster was built, and where it potentially went wrong. (And right, I suppose, though that’s been a tougher conversation to have in 2017.) And considering that the Cardinals are pretty much guaranteed to have to make some serious moves and alterations to the roster this offseason, even if they continue to play well the rest of the way, I think these big questions are worth pondering. The recent run of good baseball here hasn’t really changed the underlying issues with the roster and the organisation. There’s still a logjam of comparable, average or slightly above players, and not enough elite talent. The worst thing the club could do would be sneak into the playoffs and then convince themselves they don’t need to seriously overhaul sections of the roster.

It’s almost necessary, really, that big changes are coming for the Cardinals. And in that context, looking at how some of these franchise-altering decisions have been made, and how they worked out, seems like exactly the sort of thing we should be pondering.