With the Thanksgiving holiday behind us, it’s time to heat up the baseball hot stove. The Winter Meetings begin on December 8 in sunny San Diego. Baseball officials, front office personnel, and player agents will gather for a week of seminars and sit-downs. Though the off-season is off to a slow start, conversations begun at the GM Meetings in November will surely begin to bear fruit as proximity provides opportunity and urgency. MLB wants more activity at the Winter Meetings. Will the Cardinals oblige?
Cardinals officials and in-the-know reporters continue to maintain that the club plans to be active. Mo and Girsch are aware of their offensive inconsistencies. They know they have questions in the rotation and bullpen. There are names out there who could fill both needs. Newly crowned World Champions Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg, along with ace Gerrit Cole, are all free agents. Any one of these – or better, all three of them! – would place the Cardinals roster among the best in the game.
Fans can forget about it. Recent extensions – some of them ill-advised – have teetered the ‘Birds’ budget balance. Counting arbitration estimates and league minimums, the Cardinals already have around $160 million committed to payroll for 2020. Last year’s opening day payroll was $162M and at the end-of-season media day, Bill DeWitt indicated – with typical vagueness and deflection – that the Cards were unlikely to raise payroll significantly.
Cardinal fans would be wise to look beyond the free agent names and focus on trades. Recent history suggests that the Cardinals trade approach is guided by two key desires: moving blocked prospects and removing prospect blockers.
In 2018 and 2019, the acquisitions of Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt filled areas of offensive need at the cost of several highly regarded cost-controlled players and prospects, almost all of which were blocked at the major league level. Likewise, players who were perceived as disappointments at the MLB level, like Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham, were auctioned off to clear space for rising players and intriguing non-roster prospects.
How did the Cardinals do on these recent deals? Let’s take a look at examples of these trade types since 2017. We will focus today on offensive players and try to identify comparable trade possibilities on the current roster. A future article will do the same for pitchers.
Carson Kelly, age 25
2019 ARI: .245/.348/.478, 108 wRC+, 1.9 WAR
A highly regarded prospect for the Cardinals, Kelly was blocked in the majors by a future Hall of Famer and flanked by another well-regarded catching prospect in Andrew Knizner. That made him an attractive but potentially expendable trade asset. Kelly was moved along with Luke Weaver and Andy Young for perennial All-Star Paul Goldschmidt. While Goldschmidt had a disappointing season with the Cardinals (2.9 WAR), Kelly quickly found himself as a regular starter in Arizona and put together a striking first half. Kelly had a .360 wOBA before the break in nearly 200 PA’s. Little of that seemed sustainable, and Kelly slipped in the second half to a .313 wOBA. His final season line looks good for a young catcher, and Kelly continued to display the quality defense that he was known for in the minors. Do the Cards regret moving Kelly? Probably not. Goldschmidt should improve in 2020. Knizner hasn’t done anything to hurt his stock. Meanwhile, Molina is going to retire as a Cardinal and will probably get to dictate when that retirement happens.
Similar player on current roster: Andrew Knizner. With Molina talking extension and Ivan Herrera (see Ben’s article) advancing quickly, Knizner might be a movable asset. It would be a surprise if such a move happened this winter, but catchers of Knizner’s talent aren’t easy to find and he could theoretically provide more value to the club on the trade block than as Molina’s backup. Still, it’s likely that Knizner remains a Cardinal until Molina’s future is clarified.
Luke Voit, age 28
2019 NYY: .263/.378/.464, 126 wRC+, 1.7 WAR
Voit was supposed to be the kind of player that every organization already had: an offense-first player at a non-premium position who was always a little old for his level. Voit did maintain a wRC+ between 135-150 throughout the minors but could only translate that to 124 part-time PA’s in 2017. The next year Voit couldn’t break into the roster, and with the club needing relief depth, the Cards shipped him to the Yankees for LHP Chasen Shreve and RHP Giovanny Gallegos. Finally given real playing time in New York, Voit’s final line on the 2018 season was an unreal .322/.398/.671. Secured as the starter for 2019, Voit wasn’t quite so spectacular, but his .360 wOBA is solid for an AL first baseman, and his overall production was hindered by sub-par defense. While Shreve is no longer with the Cards, Gallegos looks like a nice find. If Voit settles in as a 2-WAR player for NYY and Gallegos remains a high-end bullpen arm, this deal will look pretty even.
Similar players on current roster: Jose Martinez, Rangel Ravelo. Martinez was another older prospect with a solid offensive profile but limited defensive skill. The Cards extended him after attempting to move him last winter. His name could come up in rumors again, but with a 26-man roster coming, Martinez is a valuable bench player who has limited trade options. Ravelo doesn’t have the same kind of minor league history as Voit, but he could easily end up as the casualty of a roster crunch. A return like Gallegos for Ravelo would be a steal.
Oscar Mercado, age 24
2019 CLE: .269/.318/.443, 95 wRC+, 1.7 WAR
An intriguing, athletic prospect, Mercado was added to the 40-man roster in November of 2017 to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. In many ways, he was the victim of unfortunate timing. The Cardinals liked his potential, but he was trapped behind a wealth of outfield talent, including Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill. To clear roster space, the Cardinals moved Mercado to the Indians for two non-roster OF’ers in Conner Capel and Jhon Torres. In Cleveland, Mercado displayed the same skills that carried him through the minors. He’s a plus defender in center, with decent speed and power, but limited by a low walk rate and an average at best hit tool. Do the Cardinals miss Mercado? Not really. While Bader was disappointing in his sophomore season, his WAR was actually a bit higher than Mercado’s. The Cards still have several intriguing options who can handle center, including the aforementioned O’Neill, Randy Arozarena, Lane Thomas, and top prospect Dylan Carlson. Torres might be a real prize as well. The 19-year-old has impressed in rookie ball.
Similar players on current roster: Randy Arozarena, Lane Thomas, Elehuris Montero. Arozarena fits the model presented by Mercado well enough and the Cardinals could choose to capitalize on his outstanding 2019 minor league performance by moving him for either proven MLB talent or non-roster prospects. The Cardinals are more intrigued by Thomas and seem likely to keep him. Montero was recently added to the 40-Man to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Since he and Nolan Gorman could end up in a playing time conflict this summer, the Cardinals could move Montero. Such a move would be more likely during the season.
Looking for more? See also Magnerius Sierra and Andy Young as players who were blocked and then traded. Justin Williams and Adolis Garcia are 40-man roster players who are blocked and could potentially find themselves on the move.
Tommy Pham, age 31
2019 TB: .273/.369/.450, 121 wRC+, 3.3 WAR
The Tommy Pham trade is still a bur in many fans’ saddles. Pham’s 2017 season was among the best ever produced by a Cardinal in his first year as a starter. He provided 6.2 WAR in just 128 games. He was solid in CF, was a 20/20 player in HR’s and SB’s, and walked in 13.4% of his PA’s. It was somewhat shocking in 2018 when the Cardinals shipped him to the Rays for OF Justin Williams, LHP Genesis Cabrera, and RHP Roel Ramirez. Pham was struggling at the time (.248/.331/.399) and Harrison Bader was diving around the OF searching for a defined role, but there does seem to be more to this trade than stats and playing time. Do the Cardinals regret this move? Let’s be frank here: the club got this one wrong. While Pham appears to be in a steady, age-related decline from his peak,the Cardinals would have been better in ’18 and ’19 with Pham, and considering the club’s current questions in the OF, I would welcome his stabilizing presence in 2020. Justin Williams did have a 152 wRC+ playing around injury at Memphis last year. Genesis Cabrera has tantalizing stuff as a southpaw. Roel Ramirez is somewhere at the bottom of the bullpen depth chart, and is a long shot to see the majors next season. The return is not ignorable, but the loss of production is certainly lamentable.
Similar player on current roster: Dexter Fowler. It’s a real stretch to consider Fowler a comparable to Pham. My sketchy basis for doing so is that both Pham and Fowler are older players who had a reasonably similar offensive profile. While Pham was heading toward arbitration, Fowler is locked in for another two seasons at $16.5M and a no-trade clause. With Pham, the Cardinals were willing to take a hit on the return to move a productive older player in favor of a potentially productive younger one. If the Cardinals feel like Fowler could block Carlson’s emergence, or if they are really as high as they appear to be on Lane Thomas, it’s possible that Fowler gets Pham’ed. The club would have to eat some salary and convince Fowler to waive his NTC, but it’s a possibility and something the Cardinals have done before (see Mike Leake).
Randal Grichuk, age 28
2018 TOR: .245/.301/.502, 115 wRC+, 2.1 WAR
2019 TOR: .232/.280/.457, 90 wRC+, .5 WAR
Did you know that Grichuk was drafted BEFORE Mike Trout? Grichuk’s athletic profile and impressive power out of CF earned him significant playing time with the Cardinals over four seasons. Grichuk was wildly inconsistent, even being demoted several times, but was overall a decent producer. The Cardinals, though, had multiple prospects ready for playing time – including Tommy Pham, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill. When Grichuk hit arbitration, the Cardinals shipped him out for a solid relief pitcher (Dominic Leone) and a project arm (Conner Greene). While Grichuk’s power is benefiting from Toronto’s playing environment, the rest of his game is still marred by inconsistency. While Leone and Greene did not provide the Cardinals with much of a return, this does not seem like a move the club really regrets.
Similar players on current roster: Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill. Bader and O’Neill are the closest comparables to Grichuk. Both players have intriguing talent and power, but they have not proven capable of locking down starting spots or providing consistent production. The Cardinals gave Grichuk parts of four years to prove himself before giving up on him. Bader is entering his fourth season with the club in 2020. This will be O’Neill’s third. It’s possible that one or both of these players could be moved in the right deal this winter, especially with the club anxious to give Dylan Carlson a legitimate shot at the MLB club. The Cards might be wise to move Bader or O’Neill earlier than they did Grichuk, before their value is firmly established. If they do so, the return could be quite high.
Stephen Piscotty, age 28
2018 OAK: .267/.331/.491, 126 wRC+, 3.1 WAR
2019 OAK: .249/.309/.412, 93 wRC+, .6 WAR
Though I am including him here, it’s probably disingenuous to re-cast the Stephen Piscotty trade as a way to remove a struggling player who was blocking other talent. While Piscotty did struggle the season before his trade and the club did have prospects waiting below him, this trade seems to be motivated primarily by compassion. Piscotty’s mother was suffering from a terminal illness and the Cards traded a former first round pick and talented major league player to the Athletics so he could be closer to home. Marcell Ozuna had come over from the Marlins to take Piscotty’s role in the lineup, so it was possible for the Cardinals to do the right thing by the young outfielder’s family without doing too much damage to the organization. Player acquisition can be cutthroat business at the GM level, and the Cardinals brass were universally lauded by their peers for their willingness to make such a move.
Similar player on current roster: So, we’re looking for a highly regarded prospect and capable outfield starter who has a family member with a terminal illness? I think not. The Piscotty situation is totally unique and hopefully not one that we see again.
Looking for more? While this article was limited to the most recent deals, in the last decade, the club has routinely moved veteran players who struggled or blocked other talent. David Freese and Allen Craig are names to consider here. Matt Carpenter’s presence is a potential block for Tommy Edman, but like Dexter Fowler, there are contract concerns that make him a difficult player to move.