When your team is below .500 with little prospect for improvement, the trade deadline is one of the few exciting moments where you might see a flicker of hope - even if it's a year or two down the road. Instead, the Cardinals hung a sign from the stadium entrance which reads "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
On the one hand, it's hard to be critical of any one deadline period from the outside. We deal in the abstract: The Cardinals should be looking to acquire talent for 2018 and beyond, they should trade their pending free agents. But the front office has to match those intentions with actual players that teams are actually willing to trade.
Still, this trade deadline continues a disturbing trend of treading water. It's been clear since the ascendent Cubs eliminated St. Louis in the 2015 NLDS that the Cardinals would need to improve to compete, and their moves since then have been more about chasing average than chasing excellent.
But rather than wallow in the current bummer, I thought I'd look back at three times the Cardinals did go big at the deadline, and the results were very, very good.
July 31, 1997: The Cardinals acquire Mark McGwire from the Oakland A's for T.J. Mathews, Eric Ludwick and Blake Stein.
The Cardinals had a unique - even exclusive - advantage when negotiating this deal. McGwire was a 10 and 5 player with full no-trade rights, but he was willing to wave his no-trade deal to go to St. Louis, where he would be reunited with Tony LaRussa.
Walt Jocketty used that to his advantage. A's GM Sandy Alderson reportedly asked for Matt Morris, Alan Benes or Eli Marrero. Jocketty refused to budge on those, and Anderson - facing the prospect of McGwire departing at the end of the season for only draft pick compensation - eventually settled for the package of pitchers.
Big Mac was already hitting home runs at a historic pace in Oakland, but he somehow increased that pace once he reached St. Louis. He hit 24 homers in his 51 games as a Cardinal that season, leaving him just three shy of Roger Maris' record. His Isolated Power was a perverse .431.
The three pitchers the Cardinals gave up would combine to amass negative WAR during their time in Oakland. McGwire was worth 2.0 WAR in just his 51 games in St. Louis that season.
Even more importantly, on Sept. 17, McGwire agreed to a contract extension with the Cardinals before even reaching free agency. His 3-year, $28.5 million deal was seen as below market value.
"I'm going to do what's right for me. If it's not the going rate, so be it," McGwire told the New York Times.
The middling Cardinals would finish that season in 4th place, following that up with 3rd and 4th place finishes the next two seasons. But McGwire's historic home run chase would prove as memorable as a pennant run, and by the last year of his original 3-year extension, the Cardinals would ascend to Division Champs.
July 29, 2002: The Cardinals acquire Scott Rolen and Doug Nickle from the Philadelphia Phillies for Placido Polanco, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin.
Now this... this here is the kind of major leaguers for major leaguers trade you just don't see anymore.
Following that 2000 NL Central crown, the Cardinals had finished 2nd in 2001 despite winning 93 games. They were clearly in an Arms Race with the Killer B era Houston Astros.
If that wasn't enough, the tragic June 22 death of Daryl Kile further complicated the Cardinals season.
Eight days prior to the Rolen deal, Jocketty had acquired Chuck Finley from the Indians for a minor leaguer and a player to be named... who turned out to be Coco Crisp. Finley was steady if unspectacular in the final half-season of his long career (though in hindsight, Crisp was a lot to give up.) But Rolen was the real impact trade.
Rolen, who was reportedly sulking through the end of his tenure in Philadelphia, upped his OPS nearly 100 points once he reached St. Louis. The Cardinals stomped the accelerator with the additions of Rolen and Finley, finishing 13 games ahead of the Astros.
Like McGwire, Rolen was a pending free agent at the end of the season. Like McGwire, he also signed an extension - his a 10-year one - before the season even ended. That's where he provided his greatest value, as part of the iconic MV3 along with Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds. Rolen's 2004 season ranks the 11th all-time season for a Cardinal by WAR, better than any Edmonds season and all but one Pujols season.
But it's worth noting the Cardinals gave up a hell of a lot to only guarantee themselves that half-season of Rolen. Bud Smith never again reached the major leagues, his career primarily a trivia answer for his fluke no-hitter. Timlin kept on being an old reliever. But Polanco - clearly the most valuable piece of the puzzle - would be a productive player for many years to come for both the Phillies and later the Tigers.
July 24, 2009: The Cardinals acquire Matt Holliday from the Oakland A's for Clayton Mortensen, Shane Peterson and Brett Wallace.
The Cardinals and the A's got together for another blockbuster deadline deal 12-years after the McGwire affair. This time, it was Billy Beane and John Mozeliak facing off. But the results were another clear win for the Cardinals.
Unlike in the McGwire deal, however, this one looked to be a little more painful for St. Louis. Brett Wallace, the 13th overall pick just a season before, was already demolishing the high minors and looking like the Cardinals first real impact position player prospect since Albert Pujols.
In fact, if you search through old VEB posts around the time of this trade, you'll find a young commenter named Ben Godar who thought the Cardinals were giving up too much for just a two-month rental of Matt Holliday. I was wrong.
As with the others on this list, Holliday upped his game once he reached St. Louis, posting an OPS above 1.000 and nearly 200 points higher than what it was in Oakland.
But whereas McGwire and Rolen signed extensions before the season ended, Holliday did indeed become a free agent and asked the Cardinals to show him the money. They did, signing him to a 7-year, $120 million contract, the largest the club had ever offered and the biggest contract of that offseason.