"To begin I just want to start off by saying from ownership, front office, to our major staff, this is not how we envisioned it."
John Mozeliak, often mocked for what can rub off as an evasive nature during press conferences, spoke with a blunt candidness that reflected urgency. An urgency seldom displayed by the 11 time world champions and the club that entered 2017 as the winningest in this decade. The GM's (soon to be given the formal title of President of Baseball Operations) message rang loud and clear: we have 4-6 weeks to turn things around or more significant changes will be made.
That press conference was held nearly eight weeks ago.
That doesn't mean the Cardinals didn't make the right decision to stay put at the trade deadline. Here’s why:
The Cardinals were realistic about their playoff chances this season, choosing to place an emphasis on 2018 and beyond at this year's trade deadline.
FanGraphs' playoff odds currently give the Cardinals just a 21.0% chance of reaching the postseason, 5.6% lower than their odds on the day of the "4-6 weeks" speech. Despite needing to make up more ground in the wild card hunt, the Cardinals' odds of securing a wild card spot are greater than those of reclaiming the Central crown.
Granted, the team has underperformed its expected Base Runs and Pythagorean records and their projected win percentage the rest of the way is actually fourth highest in the National League (behind most importantly the Cubs they already trail by 5.5 games). But banked wins will permanently reside in the bank, and barring any sort of statistical anomaly (i.e the Cardinals noticeably overachieving and/or the teams they chase noticeably underachieving), St. Louis will be void of playoff baseball for the second consecutive season, a sentence that hasn't been spoken in nine years.
So that takes us to the great debate of our time: to buy or to sell? And while we can't be absolutely certain, it seems the Cardinals were trying to both buy and sell.
You've probably heard people make the argument (some right here at Viva El Birdos) that given the Cardinals' situation at the deadline, buying and selling weren't mutually exclusive. The Cardinals would be "buying" in the sense that they would go after cost controllable players to help the team make a run in 2018 and beyond, while "selling" by recouping value for impending free agents and pulling the trigger if a strong enough market formed for players who are still under team control beyond this season.
The front office recognized what they were willing to pay for in an impact bat or frontline starting pitcher, and it would have been necessary to exceed those limits in order to complete a blockbuster trade right now (in the situations where a potential deal was actually feasible).
Let's start with the buying portion of the equation. It's no secret that the Cardinals and Marlins made sense as trade partners, with the Marlins sending scouts to witness Cardinals prospects play in person.
Though no deal was reached, I think it's unfair to entirely pin this one on the Cardinals front office. With the Marlins' ownership situation in limbo and Giancarlo Stanton's reported unwillingness to live in the midwest even if the Marlins were seriously open for business, crossing the t's and dotting the i's with Miami was always going to be an uphill battle for the Cardinals brass. Lets stop talking about franchise-altering trades for a moment, the Marlins didn't even move Dan Straily or Dee Gordon. Teams like the Blue Jays (aka the one with Josh Donaldson) were also reluctant to blow up their rosters, opting instead for a more conservative sell at the deadline.
Enter Sonny Gray. Buried in Ken Rosenthal's trade deadline roundup was this nugget.
"One other note on the Gray saga: The Cardinals entered the discussions late, floating the idea of a package that would have included outfielder Stephen Piscotty and a right-handed pitcher, either Luke Weaver or Jack Flaherty. The discussions did not advance; the A’s wanted the Yankees’ prospects instead."
Whoa, that is one intriguing package. But Oakland was more enamored with a return of Dustin Fowler, Jorge Mateo, and James Kaprielian. Per MLB Pipeline, those three immediately slot in as the A's third, fifth, and eleventh best prospects, respectively.
So the Cardinals needed to top that trio in the eyes of the A's. What does that entail? Swapping out Weaver or Flaherty for Alex Reyes? Throwing Carson Kelly into the mix? Selling low on Delvin Perez? Does that even put the Cardinals' offer ahead of the Yankees'? More importantly, how much is too much to surrender for Gray, an oft-injured starter who would fail to address the team's more glaring weaknesses? (Per fWAR, the Cardinals' rotation has been the 7th most valuable in baseball.)
Pursuing an arm like Sonny Gray isn't the calling of someone who is complacent with where things currently stand. But is St. Louis in a position where you could justify paying an excessive premium to better the major league roster for the immediate future?
Not only is the cost to acquire a player like Gray at the deadline estimated to be roughly twice that of the same move in the offseason, an overwhelming proportion of the value for the "buying" team comes in the stretch run of that season, even for non-rentals. And as far as 2017, the playoff spots the Cardinals covet are the Cubs', Diamondbacks', and Rockies' to lose.
Due to factors mainly out of the team's control, one of the primary ones being the buyers' market that formed this summer, the potential return for pieces the club explored selling off was diminished. Fortunately, the Cardinals still have different ways to get the most value out of their assets as possible through compensation picks, offseason trades, or simply choosing to retain players under control past 2017.
Now let's turn to the selling side. The same Ken Rosenthal report linked the Rays to Trevor Rosenthal. Audrey Stark wrote about the possibility of a deal that would send Rosenthal (the pitcher) to Washington this weekend. But asides from those two teams, there weren't suitors lining up for Rosenthal like you might have imagined. (In fact, the aforementioned roundup calls into question just how interested the Rays were in Trevor Rosenthal, with one team official texting Ken Rosenthal, "We’re probably closer to acquiring you to write for the unofficial blog draysbay.") Despite a flurry of movement surrounding numerous quality relievers, none produced great returns for the selling team.
The problem lies in the way the trade market developed this year. There are some absolute juggernauts that alone have taken close to half the league out of postseason contention this season. What resulted was a "buyers' market". In essence, there was a great supply of pitchers available in trades, but a limited demand as few teams are going for it in 2017. And what happens when supply increases while demand decreases? As any economics student will tell you, prices will inevitably plummet. There were more teams in need of bullpen help last season, subsequently generating a greater demand for bullpen help.
Because a worthy return for Trevor Rosenthal didn't emerge, it makes more sense to enter the offseason with him as closer or a more valuable trade asset. There will once again be a greater demand for relievers this offseason (amidst a thin free agent class as well). And for every team that flips from the win-later column to the go-for-it column this winter (think injury-ravaged Mets, who were forced to sell this deadline), the supply will shrink to compound a regrown demand.
Hanging on to Trevor Rosenthal makes sense, assuming the right deal didn't come along this July, which was likely the case. The same principle also applies to Michael Wacha, Randal Grichuk, and Tommy Pham, especially for the latter two when considering that the demand for outfield bats was even less than the demand for relief pitchers this deadline. (Just look at how little the Tigers got back for J.D. Martinez.)
That left one major chip at the Cardinals' expenditure: Lance Lynn. I should begin by noting that Lynn's value was in actuality lower than it appeared on the surface. Take a look at his 2017 season through the perspective of various ERA estimators.
Troubling Peripherals with Lance Lynn
Every single one of these metrics is more predictive of future performance than ERA itself, and each one calls for regression from Lynn down the stretch. His strikeout rate in 2017 has dipped below his career average while his walk rate has crept above. His left-on-base percentage of 81.9% is well above both his career average and the league as a whole, suggesting that Lynn has been the beneficiary of fortunate hit sequencing this year. His BABIP of .225 is 73 points below his lifetime mark and he has also outperformed his expected wOBA by nine points. The Cardinals experienced the struggle of trying to deal Lynn in the modern age of baseball, when every front office can easily see through the smokescreen his low ERA has created.
The Cardinals found themselves trapped in a buyers' market at virtually every position, starting pitching included. Case in point: the Dodgers yielded a haul for Yu Darvish far weaker in talent than what it would have been in other years. All of a sudden it becomes much more plausible that the Cardinals' best offer for Lynn could have been a few C prospects, maybe a B guy.
However, the Cardinals weren't in a situation where they needed to take the best available offer for Lynn regardless of how good it was. Mozeliak can ensure that Lynn doesn't walk in free agency for nothing by extending him a qualifying offer. This batch of free agents is Awful with a capital a, so Lynn would almost definitely decline the one year, $18 million or so offer and test the free agency waters where he could (and likely would) receive a more lucrative deal. In the event that Lynn signed elsewhere, the new CBA would give a team in the Cardinals' financial state a compensatory draft pick directly after the Competitive Balance Round B, which is sandwiched between the second and third rounds.
This forced the Cardinals to make an either-or decision. Which is more valuable? The best offer on the table for Lynn or two months of his services (plus, hopefully, a playoff run) and a compensation pick when he presumably departs this winter? The latter option is not only defensible, it might be preferable.
Was it frustrating in the moment to watch the Cardinals do nothing on deadline day? Absolutely. Will changes need to be made in order to bring another championship home to St. Louis? Most definitely. Am I giving the Cardinals front office a free pass? Let me be clear, no I am not. I expect moves to be made in the future, starting with this offseason, but especially during the 2018-19 free agency cycle. Was the timing right to make those moves at this trade deadline? That's for you to decide. You might very well say yes.
That's where I would disagree.