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What the Cardinals Did — And Didn’t Do — At the Trade Deadline

Taking the long view on all the moves the Cardinals made at the deadline this year.

St Louis Cardinals Victory Parade Photo by Ed Szczepanski/Getty Images

The trade deadline passed yesterday, and the Cardinals did some things. In fact, counting the things they did over the weekend, and the things they did yesterday, they’ve done more things than I think they’ve done in the last couple years combined. It’s just been thing after thing after thing.

So let me say right off the bat that I’m not doing full prospect writeups for everyone acquired here. My colleague Lance Brozdowski will be digging into the players in depth later on, and anything he doesn’t get to I’ll clean up later in a Sunday post. Rather, I want to take an overall look at what the two trades made yesterday did to the organisation, and what it was the Cardinals were trying to accomplish.

But, I also put in the title of this column what the Cardinals didn’t do, didn’t I? So let’s start there, shall we? What did the Cardinals not do yesterday in trading away Tommy Pham and Oscar Mercado?

Well, let’s start with what I’m most irritated by: Bud Norris is still a Cardinal. Now, let me state up front that I don’t think the Cards’ front office should have simply traded Norris to trade him; you obviously want to get a good deal, whatever that may consist of. But a team that is out of contention has no need for a free agent to be closer, and if there’s one thing that all the rest of these moves have signaled, it’s that the Cardinals are not really in contention any longer this year. Holding on to a one-year contracted late-inning reliever in a case like this is borderline irresponsible, and it’s a trend with this front office. They didn’t move Trevor Rosenthal when they could have, when they probably should have, and thus never did recoup any value there.

Look at what the Orioles received in return for Zach Britton. And yes, we should all take note of the fact I’m using the Baltimore Orioles as a model of responsible front office work, which should tell you just how bad I consider holding on to Bud Norris to be. The O’s sent their long-time closer to the New York Yankees in exchange for a package of three prospects, including Dillon Tate, a very good starting pitching prospect in Double A. Even if you’re only going to get the one player, rather than one plus a couple lottery tickets, you have to make that deal to send out a player who is closing games for a club not making the playoffs. I don’t understand why this front office cannot bring itself to part with this kind of asset, and it’s maddening.

Oh, and if the reason you’re holding onto 33 year old Bud Norris at the deadline is because you want to keep him around long term? Fucking. Don’t. Do not sign relief pitchers heading into their age 34 seasons to long term contracts. Move the player, get the value. shake his hand on the way out and tell him you’re really glad to have had him as part of your organisation. Do exactly that, and nothing else.

Now, perhaps prices on relievers were depressed. There seems to be a fairly good argument to be made that late-inning relievers were not fetching quite what they have in years past. Okay, fair enough.

Still doesn’t matter. You know what’s worse than less? Nothing.

Second thing the Cardinals did not do: they did not move Jose Martinez.

This one...I’m a little less upset by. I firmly believe that Jose Martinez badly needs to be moved to an American League team, where his bat can do what his bat do, without his glove mucking the whole thing up by necessity. However, while pitching tends to see a multiplicative effect in terms of value at the deadline — relief pitching in particular — position players don’t see that same kind of bump. And dealing Martinez, even as badly as it needs to be done, is complicated. I actually don’t mind if the front office decided it was better to wait for the offseason to try and figure out all the moving parts and particulars of moving Jose.

Now, that’s not to say I wouldn’t have preferred to see Cafecito moved yesterday; I would have. I think there would have been real value in combing through some other hitters in the upper minors to see if someone like Rangel Ravelo could give you a similar kind of performance in a bench bat/platoon first base role the rest of the way. But there was much less impetus to deal Martinez, and I can’t say I’m appalled that it didn’t happen.

So that’s the biggest part of what the Cardinals didn’t do at the deadline. There were some other, more minor, moves they probably could have made, maybe should have made, but Norris and Martinez were the two really big pieces that stand out as important moves to make, one to help rationalise the roster, and the other to try and squeeze some future value out of the only bullpen move that actually went your way this year.

Now, let’s move on to what the Cardinals did do. Because they did a lot of things.

The Sam Tuivailala Trade

Cardinals traded Sam Tuivailala to Seattle for RHP Seth Elledge

What did the Cardinals do here?

This one is relatively simple. The essentially exchanged Sam Tuivailala, a very talented but not all that consistent setup reliever who was out of minor league options, for a very similar pitcher, only younger and not yet on the 40 man roster. It’s the simplest deal they made, really; a present asset for a future asset, at exactly the same position. It pushes the future hypothetical window of contention open slightly further.

The Luke Voit Trade

Cardinals trade Luke Voit and $1 million in international bonus pool space for LHP Chasen Shreve and RHP Giovanny Gallegos

What did the Cardinals do here?

This one is easy as well. The Cardinals traded a blocked asset in Luke Voit, a right-handed hitting first baseman in a system choked with right-handed hitting first basemen in the upper levels, in exchange for relief help, both present (Shreve), and future (Gallegos). This trade was an investment in 2019 and beyond, with two dynamic relief arms hopefully aiding the next couple years’ worth of Cardinal teams.

The Tommy Pham Trade

Cardinals trade Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay in exchange for OF Justin Williams, LHP Genesis Cabrera, and RHP Roel Ramirez

What did the Cardinals do here?

This more complicated. I’ll actually start here by saying what I don’t think the Cardinals did, and that’s move an outspoken malcontent. There’s been a lot of speculation since the Pham deal went down that the Cardinals were just getting rid of a guy who spoke his mind too much, and made management too uncomfortable.

To which I say: bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong; I know there have been moments in the Tommy Pham/Cardinals relationship where there seemed to be some friction. But that’s not why this move was made. This move was made because Tommy Pham was, by far, the most movable outfield piece the Cardinals had, and they needed to move an outfield piece.

Now, let me say this: I’m not going to go deep into scouting reports here, but I don’t love the return package the Cards received for what should have been a very valuable asset. I’m a big fan of Genesis Cabrera, who has Jack Flaherty-level upside as a lefty starter (not a guarantee he tightens up his command enough to get there, admittedly), but Justin Williams is an outfielder who’s built like Bryce Harper but hits like Jon Jay, and I’m just not into another overly aggressive slappy groundball hitter at this point. Ramirez looks intriguing, as another high-strikeout relief arm, but he’s not a huge part of the deal, honestly. A nice addition, but not a game-changer.

So I’m not in love with what the Cards got back in exchange for Pham. In fact, I’m mildly disappointed. However, it’s worth remembering that for as much as many of us love Tommy Pham — and I’ve been a huge phan since about 2008 or ‘09 — he is not a player without real signs of risk. Big, flashing risk signs with alarms and warnings, in fact. He’s a superb athlete, but he’s also now 30 years old, still has a chronic eye condition, and has seen his value go nowhere but down over the past three months. Tommy’s OPS this year is a full 200 points lower than in 2017. And actually, the falloff has been even more dramatic than that.

On the 20th of May, the Cards wrapped up a four-game set at home against the Phillies. At the end of that day, Tommy’s batting line was .312/.419/.532. It actually wasn’t even the high point of his season; ten days before that his OPS had been over 1.000. But, a .951 OPS nearly two months into the season as a full-time center fielder is where I want us to look at Tommy Pham. That’s an MVP candidate, maybe an MVP winner. That’s everything we thought Tommy Pham could be.

Since that time, a span which covers 58 games and 229 plate appearances, Tommy’s batting triple-slash is .205/.266/.310. That’s a .576 OPS, and roughly a Pete Kozma-level hitter. I don’t want to trot out the eye thing every time something goes wrong with Tommy Pham, but if it’s not the vision again, then it’s a slump of truly epic proportions. Like, Dexter Fowler-level slumping.

So what we have is a 30 year old outfielder with chronic eye problems who has seen his OPS drop by 230 points since late May. That combination of things is scary enough, and risky enough, that we really shouldn’t be surprised the Cardinals ultimately had to deal Tommy for what felt like 60 cents on the dollar.

Now, you might be asking yourself, then why did the Cardinals have to trade him at all? Which is a good question, and certainly worth asking. The answer is that even at 60 cents on the dollar, moving Tommy Pham was easier than moving either of the other two outfielders the Cardinals could have shipped out.

Everyone wants to see Harrison Bader play more in center field. Everyone wants to see Tyler O’Neill get his chance to be a star. Well, they want to see those things until it forced the team to deal an immensely popular player to make it happen, that is. This is how retooling works, folks. It hurts. It’s not always fun. It’s necessary, but it still doesn’t feel good a lot of the time when hard decisions have to be made.

Dexter Fowler at this point is essentially untradeable on his contract. The only hope you really have is to play him regularly the rest of the season and hope he rebuilds enough of his value you can move him this offseason by paying down some of his contract and accepting very little, or even nothing, in return. Marcell Ozuna is more tradeable, but you’re still talking about a hugely depreciated asset right now. You’re also, it must be pointed out, not talking about a player over 30 with chronic eye problems that may or may not be affecting his game again.

If I had my druthers, I would have preferred to see Ozuna moved, and Pham slide over to left field, for an outfield alignment of Pham/Bader/O’Neill going forward. Or even better, for a team to have decided they wanted to bet on a Dexter Fowler renaissance. But those things were just not all that realistic. So the Cardinals bit the bullet and made a very painful trade to open things up for the future. Again, a change of direction that everyone wants isn’t always pain free.

And what did the Cardinals receive in return? A probable fourth outfielder, a very exiting left-handed pitching prospect, and a seventh-inning relief arm. Plus the space to finally get Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader that playing time that so many have been clamouring for.

The Oscar Mercado Trade

Cardinals trade OF Oscar Mercado to Cleveland for OF Conner Capel and OF Jhon Torres

What did the Cardinals do here?

This, to me, is maybe the most interesting trade the Cardinals made, not because it’s the biggest or most impactful or even most complex and exciting to explore, but because it’s such a specific, targeted kind of move. Basically, what we have here is the Sam Tuivailala deal all over again, but with a player a couple years earlier in his career.

Here’s what I mean: Oscar Mercado was a right-handed hitting outfielder, a converted shortstop, in a system where players with his skill set are extremely prevalent. Now, he had probably the best basestealing speed of any player in the high minors for the Redbirds, but he was essentially Harrison Bader, only a year or two behind. Center fielder, exciting defensive potential due to his speed, averageish sort of bat. Mercado was an exactly league-average hitter this year in Triple A at age 23. He was already on the 40 man roster, taking up a spot. And he was blocked, pretty hard.

Harrison Bader is a comparable player already in the big leagues, proving himself. Tyler O’Neill needs playing time. Adolis Garcia is doing his Randal Grichuk 2.0 thing in Memphis, and plays outstanding defense in all three outfield spots. Randy Arozarena is officially becoming ‘enigmatic’ at this point, but is still hugely talented, is actually two months younger than Mercado, and does very similar things with greater power upside. In other words, even if you really like Oscar Mercado — and I’ve actually come around on him quite a lot since his outfield conversion — he’s as redundant a piece in this organisation as one can imagine.

The Indians are desperate for outfield help, and for medium- to long-term outfield pieces. Mercado for them is a great piece to have. For the Cardinals, he’s much less useful, simply due to his profile and where he slots in to the organisation. So what did they do? They exchanged him to Cleveland for a younger version of the same player in Conner Capel (only a left-handed hitter, and actually with better plate discipline), and a rookie ball physical specimen in Jhon Torres, who could very well be nothing, but could also look like Tyler O’Neill in a few years.

Neither Capel nor Torres are in need of 40 man roster protection. Capel’s window should start about 2020, as he’s currently in High A ball as a young 21 year old. Torres is still just eighteen, so you’re talking about a 2022-’23 sort of window of arrival, if he does in fact arrive.

This was basically a kicking-the-can-down-the-road trade, a deal designed to take a near-term asset and turn it into longer-term promise, and hopefully milk extra value from that exchange because you don’t need your ten dollars today; you can afford to wait for twelve or fifteen down the road. It’s essentially the definition of arbitrage, with time representing the market force you’re attempting to exploit. The Indians need outfield help now, the Cardinals do not. Thus, you try to get the Indians to pay you two dollars for a hamburger on Tuesday because the assets they’re sending you won’t pay off until later.

In the end, here’s what the Cardinals did with all this: they added a very large amount of future value to the organisation, and didn’t really gut the thing in order to do so. Now, taking farm system rankings as gospel is silly, but we can use them to get an idea of roughly how players are valued at a moment in time, and if we look at the MLB Pipeline rankings right now we see the Cardinals’ number nine, ten, fourteen, twenty-two, and twenty-three ranked prospects came out of these deals. That doesn’t include a guy like Torres, who has legitimate star-level upside, or Roel Ramirez, who maybe isn’t all that exciting but has a pretty good chance of taking Matt Bowman’s spot in the bullpen next year.

No, Really, What Did the Cardinals Do Here?

I’ll be honest: I’m not in love with the moves the Cards made this trading season. I feel like they held onto at least one asset they really should have moved, couldn’t work out a Jose Martinez deal to help clean up the roster a little, and the two most disappointing players on the 2018 Cardinals are still on the 2018 Cardinals. My favourite Redbird of the past several years was shipped out for an underwhelming return, and I’m not all that much more convinced there’s a star somewhere in the system than I was three days ago. Genesis Cabrera is the closest thing to a star upside I see, outside of maybe Torres if things go well in his development, and there’s still plenty of downside risk on Cabrera even. So none of this feels like a slam dunk.

However, what the Cardinals did do was open up playing time for two promising young outfielders who are likely going to be a big part of the club’s immediate future, either for good or for ill. They added a volume of potential relief arms that’s kind of amazing to see, hopefully avoiding this year’s expensive bullpen disaster in the near future. They moved present value for future value, helping make the next window to look a little more stable.

In other words, what the Cardinals did was exactly what they needed to do. They didn’t get everything done, but then, it was unrealistic to think everything would get done in just one trade deadline. They also didn’t come away with any slam dunk fleecings of any other clubs, but it’s probably not realistic to expect that, either, in an era of nothing but smart front offices.

What the Cardinals did was start to clear the deck for the next great Cardinal team. The farm system is much, much deeper today than it was a week ago, an opportunity has been opened up, and the club still isn’t tanking in order to try and get there. On the other hand, hanging on to Bud Norris feels like exactly the same kind of half-assed half-measures we’ve seen the Cards employ too often these past few years, unwilling to commit fully to one course of action and always straddling the line between two directions.

So in other words, it was a bit of a mixed bag this year in terms of trading season. There was some good stuff, some bad stuff, some really painful stuff, and some frustrating, why-can’t-you-see-this-is-wrong stuff. But even if we don’t love all the moves — and I don’t, and I certainly don’t blame you if you don’t — they were almost certainly the moves that needed to be made.

Now we wait for the offseason, to see if the rest of the work gets done.