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A Cardinals Trade Season Primer

Cardinals frequent trade partners, roster needs, potential acquisitions, and some harsh realities about the coming month

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The non-waiver trade deadline is just over a month away, which means trade season is about to ramp up. The Royals have kicked off the very beginning of trade season this month with trades of Kelvin Herrera and Jon Jay. Just a few weeks ago, MLB Trade Rumors released their Top 50 Trade Candidates. The Cardinals aren’t active just yet, and recent comments from John Mozeliak indicate that the franchise will exhibit patience for the immediate future. At some point in the next few weeks, that’s going to change. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about the Cardinals as we enter baseball’s mid-season rumor frenzy.

Most Frequent Trading Partners

Before we dig too deep into names, needs, and the type of value exchanged, let’s first take a look at the teams the Cardinals trade with the most. Specifically, we’ll look at the John Mozeliak years (2008 to present). Unsurprisingly, Cleveland leads the way with six Cardinal trades in that time frame. After that, five teams are tied with four- the Dodgers, Braves, Padres, Mariners, and Blue Jays. The Marlins and A’s each come in with three trades, and then everyone else is under that threshold.

Of the five teams tied with four trades, several of them have been random noise- trades executed with multiple sets of front office personnel. The Braves have had a great deal of turnover, the Dodgers are almost completely revamped from when three of those four deals happened (2010-2012), and the four Padres trades have happened with three different General Managers. Technically, the M’s and Jays have had a lot of turnover during this run but I’m not going to exclude them yet.

What about trades between individuals? Are there General Managers or Presidents who work with Mozeliak and the Cardinals more than others? Now you know why I’ve left in the Mariners and Blue Jays. Mark Shapiro was the GM in Cleveland for a long time, and then departed for Toronto towards the end of 2015. It’s no accident that the Cardinals dealt with the Jays twice last off-season. Eight trades out of Mozeliak’s 42 have involved Mark Shapiro’s employer. Clearly, there’s a relationship there and it makes the Jays an obvious potential target. Similarly, Jerry Dipoto has worked out three trades with the Cardinals (two just last season) while serving as GM for the Angels (2012-2015) and the Mariners (off-season 2015-present).

The Marlins and A’s are worth keeping here, as well, since last off-season’s deals surely led the Cardinals to give higher scrutiny to their players. The Cleveland pipeline appears to have run dry since Shapiro left town, but you can’t completely exclude them. Purely on the basis of frequent trade partners, our initial list of likely trades would begin with Cleveland, Oakland, Seattle, Toronto, and Miami.

Areas of Need

You don’t need me to tell you which areas the Cardinals need to fortify. Still, it’s worth going through the effort. Here are team ranks in bWAR (Baseball Reference WAR) through Tuesday:

Catcher seems a little alarming, but it’s obviously a byproduct of Yadier Molina’s missed time. I also gathered this info before his two homerun outburst on Wednesday. Similarly, shortstop is a little below average but should- hopefully- correct once Paul DeJong returns in the coming weeks. Once you’ve moved past those two positions, there are only two left staring you right in the face- relief pitching and rightfield. In other words, the exact two areas you would have assumed would be problem areas. Those are obvious areas of need.

Generally speaking, the offense has been a problem area as well. They’re currently a reasonable 13th in MLB in non-pitcher wRC+, but they’re also a below average 19th in runs scored, 17th in BB/K, and- bizarrely- dead last in both doubles and triples, despite a homerun total flirting with the NL lead. It’s feast or famine with an offense capable of so much more, but also prone to long stretches of ineptitude. They’ve been seemingly incapable of having more than one or two hitters performing well at the same time. Pham started great with Ozuna, Carpenter, and Fowler in a tailspin. Carpenter started to figure it out, but Ozuna and Fowler continued to struggle and injuries necessitated a lot of at-bats for Francisco Pena and Yairo Munoz. Finally, Ozuna got going to pair with Carpenter just in time for Pham to go into a tailspin (one, thankfully, that he appears to have solved recently). Ultimately, they could use a steady performer in the lineup. Fowler was supposed to be that guy, but it hasn’t worked out and he’s running out of time to fix it this year before he loses even more playing time.

How much relief pitching do they need? Greg Holland’s week has been shockingly positive. If he were to return even to 2017 form (let alone 2014-2015), it would give the Cardinals three big arms to use in high leverage spots. John Brebbia and Sam Tuivailala have proven decent enough to handle medium-leverage innings. In the very least, a good Holland removes the need for one arm in the bullpen. Thankfully, we have a few weeks to see if that sorts itself out before action is required. Color me pleasantly surprised but still very cautious.

The left-handed relief situation is similar, without two great outings providing hope. Gomber has been fine, but his peripherals are a red flag (in fairness, Joe Schwarz recently wrote a great piece at The Athletic that allayed some of my fears). Lyons and Cecil have been disasters, and the best you can do is hope that time off helps Lyons fix his issues.

I haven’t mentioned the rotation yet, which suddenly has become a concern due to Michael Wacha’s injury, combined with the injuries to Alex Reyes and Adam Wainwright. It’s a testament to their depth that it isn’t a screaming concern just yet, but we’ll have to revisit this over the next few weeks as we see how adequately John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon, or Dakota Hudson can fill in, and if Carlos Martinez can regain his form. It’s also not helping the bullpen that the rotation has performed so poorly the past few weeks.

They clearly need to improve, in some way, in the bullpen, in rightfield, and the offense in general. Is there any chance those roles could be filled from within?

Internal Options

The rightfield question is settled for now, with Harrison Bader inching his way into more and more playing time. At least a Bader/Fowler platoon provides a reasonable alternative for now, with Tyler O’Neill waiting in the wings. Rightfield is not their concern.

Both John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have made comments this week about remaining patient and waiting for players to return from injury, particularly as it pertains to the bullpen. It’s frustrating to fans, but it’s also an understandable position- especially with the possible returns of so many pitchers (Lyons, Gregerson, Leone, or any combination thereof). In the meantime, they can fill in with the runners-up in the Wacha Replacement Sweepstakes. Gant especially deserves more of a shot in the bullpen if he isn’t needed in the rotation, and he could be a fine shortcut to an enhanced bullpen. Ryan Helsley also looms large, pending his return from his current DL stint. Many articles here have lamented the notion of creatively building a ‘pen with big arms in short bursts, and the Cardinals have plenty of depth in that regard from the right side.

From the left side, it’s a little murkier. Lyons and Cecil haven’t offered much hope thus far, and Gomber is the mixed bag that I mentioned earlier. If any two of those three falter (or all three- hardly a stretch to think it might happen), they have nothing from the left side. Some help there would do wonders.

As for the inconsistent offense, the internal option is getting Paul DeJong healthy, carrying Tyler O’Neill as depth, and playing the hot hand in rightfield. That formula helped them to a 20-12 start to the season even as Ozuna, Fowler, and Carpenter stumbled out of the gate. But it’s easy to gloss over the fact that several of those 20 wins were of the walk-off variety. They’re fun, but sometimes they can mask deeper issues. It’s a razor thin edge between winning and losing a one-run game or a game decided in the final at-bat. In other words, going with internal options isn’t a terrible idea, but the ceiling on that option is limited.

After looking at internal options, left-handed relief is a definite need. Another reliever wouldn’t hurt, but may not be worth the effort, particularly since they have so many options from the right side. Starting pitching isn’t a need... yet. The wild card is whether or not they want to address the offense. Thankfully, they have flexibility. Carpenter can move to second base or first base if needed. Jose Martinez can play rightfield if needed. Paul DeJong and Jedd Gyorko can handle everything on the infield outside of first base. If a bat were to become available in the form of an infielder, there’s no doubt the Cardinals could make it work.

Who fills the Cardinals’ needs?

Let’s start with the MLBTR top 50, and eliminate the obvious. For now, we can remove starting pitchers, catchers, first basemen, centerfielders, and leftfielders. Given how rarely the Cardinals deal within the division (hell, given how rarely ANY team in baseball deals within the division), we can also eliminate those players.

We can remove just about any hitter that isn’t an impact bat (eg Jose Iglesias and Freddy Galvis, as prime examples). There are a whole host of players having decent seasons on the list, but who fall well below the threshold for impact bats. I’m going to remove them. That includes Leonys Martin, Yangervis Solarte, and Whit Merrifield. And Nicholas Castellanos has plenty of pop, but gives a lot of it away with the glove. Adrian Beltre is another safe omission.

There’s fertile territory for right-handed relief should the Cardinals decide they need to make that move, especially in the non-closer roles. There are options ranging from long-term control to short-term rentals. The O’s guys- Brad Brach and Mychal Givens- both get the most attention, and Givens would make a great addition. Moving beyond them, Kirby Yates has been dynamite for the Padres this season, and Shane Greene would provide another high K-rate arm, with both representing several years of cost control.

Here’s a table with the full list left:

Possible Fits on MLBTR Top 50

Rk Player Pos Tm
Rk Player Pos Tm
1 Manny Machado SS Orioles
5 Mike Moustakas 3B Royals
8 Brad Hand LHRP Padres
11 Brad Brach RHRP Orioles
12 Joakim Soria RHRP White Sox
13 Craig Stammen RHRP Padres
21 Kirby Yates RHRP Padres
22 Nate Jones RHRP White Sox
23 Kyle Barraclough RHRP Marlins
24 Shane Greene RHRP Tigers
25 Mychal Givens RHRP Orioles
26 Keone Kela RHRP Rangers
31 Tyler Clippard RHRP Blue Jays
32 Seunghwan Oh RHRP Blue Jays
33 John Axford RHRP Blue Jays
34 Jesse Chavez RHRP Rangers
35 Aaron Loup LHRP Blue Jays
36 Luis Avilan LHRP White Sox
37 Jake Diekman LHRP Rangers

Off of that list, Aaron Loup makes a lot of sense. His sticker price isn’t going to be on par with the other relievers on this list, he fills the lefty relief need the Cardinals have, and he plays for one of the Cardinals’ frequent trade partners (Mark Shapiro’s Blue Jays). Since he’s a free agent after the season, it should drive his price down considerably, although that may also push him away from the Cardinals. Luis Avilan also makes a lot of sense, and he’s under contract for one more season.

Brad Hand would be a tremendous acquisition in a vacuum. He’s left-handed, he’s a high-leverage monster, and he’s under contract for two more years plus an option for a third. That’s also why he’s likely to cost too much via trade, especially in a seller’s market.

Moustakas would at least inject some consistency into the lineup. He’s also a rental, which will tamp down his asking price. He’s not a transformative bat by any means but he’d be a reasonable gamble for 2 months.

And finally, there’s the elephant in the room- Manny Machado (Bohchado in the parlance of Bawlmer locals). He is easily the most transformative bat to hit the mid-season trade market in years. He’s being sold in a weird market where players like J.D. Martinez, just last season, netted a very uninspiring return. And the O’s front office is swimming in turmoil. Something very weird is going to happen with Manny Machado in the next month. That said, I don’t find him a likely acquisition in St. Louis. And that’s because...

The Icy Fingers of Reality

There are two colossal factors working against the Cardinals making a giant trade in the coming weeks (or in other words, trading for Manny Machado and a soft shell crab sandwich to be named later). 538’s research in recent years, with the Doyle Number, indicates that the more likely a team is to make the playoffs, the more they should buy to enhance their World Series odds. You may have noticed that the Cardinals odds are trending in the wrong direction. Prior to Thursday’s games, they stood at a 42.5% chance of making the playoffs via Fangraphs’ odds, and just 8.8% to win the division. The playoffs are still very doable, but everything about this team right now screams that it’s heading away from that scenario.

Then there’s the actual assets the Cardinals have to trade. Looking at Fangraphs’ Board, the Cardinals have four players in the top 100- Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, Tyler O’Neill, and Carson Kelly. Reyes isn’t going anywhere for obvious reasons. Flaherty is too valuable in St. Louis at this point, and Kelly’s value has trended negatively to the point that he’s not going to be a centerpiece for a major acquisition. Jordan Hicks is a possibility, but it flies in the face of conventional wisdom to give him up in a deal for 2.5 months of Manny Machado. It might be different if he was an ancillary arm in a well-equipped pen, but that’s not the case. He’s been one of their best relievers and he’s improving, with peripherals that finally match his nuclear queso.

Even the pieces from the MLB roster that could be traded have been damaged. Dealing Wong would be selling low, and wouldn’t get you much in return anyway. Wacha, even if he ever truly was going to be on the market, won’t be now that he has to deal with the injury. Gyorko is a fine trade chip but he’s no centerpiece.

Add this all up and it’s going to be very hard for the Cardinals to do anything significant at the deadline, and it doesn’t make much sense for them to do so anyway- not with playoff odds like this and a team trending the way they have.

Brace yourself now. It’s probably going to be another generic reliever acquisition this July.