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Trading Starters & Acquiring Relievers

Revisiting Recent Cardinals Trades Can Provide Insight on Future Trades, part 2.

The Winter Meetings start Sunday in San Diego. It’s not too late to jet out there and catch the action yourself! Believe me, there have been times during this dreary end-of-autumn season when that seemed like just the thing to do. Sadly, when I submitted my request for press credentials for the event, MLB’s response was, “Uh, who are you?” So, you’ll get no on-sight scoops from me. I’ll be scouring Twitter feeds and madly refreshing my browser just like the rest of you. Shameless plug, but if you want to talk trades and activity in real time, give my new baseball-only Twitter feed a follow! I look forward to the conversation on the moves the Cardinals and the rest of baseball will make next week.

Though the off-season is starting to heat up for teams like the Reds, all is quiet on the Cardinals front. In truth, there has been little indication that the Cards plan to make any significant acquisitions at the Winter Meetings. While the club, through its normal channels, has tried to assure fans that they don’t plan to sit idle this winter, a packed 40-man roster and options for nearly every role on the active roster implies that the moves they do make will be small.

The Cardinals seem likely to make moves that free space on the field for prospects they like or remove 40-man players who have value but are lower on our internal depth charts. I explored this in detail in an article on Sunday, focusing on the offensive side of recent Cardinals trades.

This article will look at pitchers. What kinds of pitchers do the Cardinals trade away and trade for? Are there clear trends that can help fans understand how the Cardinals approach pitcher trades?

Since the Jaime Garcia trade in November of 2017, 20 pitchers have moved from or to the Cardinals. Many of these moves are forgettable, like the utterly pointless Tony Cingrani trade. Others have involved “who’s that again?” arms like Chris Ellis. Around the greater muck of roster churn and non-roster acquisitions are a handful of more significant moves that provide some insight into how the Cardinals approach pitcher trades that impact the major league club. When the Cardinals trade significant young pitchers and prospects, they typically do so to acquire impact offensive players. When they trade for major league quality pitchers, they typically target MLB-caliber relievers.

Significant Pitchers Traded Away
Luke Weaver
Sandy Alcantara
Zac Gallen
Marco Gonzales
Mike Leake
Jaime Garcia

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Who the Cardinals Trade: Young Pitchers for Impact Offensive Players
Examples: Luke Weaver, Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen, Marco Gonzales

Luke Weaver had 3.1 fWAR across 43 starts with the Cardinals before he was traded to the Diamondbacks along with C Carson Kelly after the 2018 season. Weaver’s K rate had plummeted and his BB rate climbed, landing him with only 25 disappointing starts and a demotion from the rotation. Had he not been moved, Weaver would have entered 2019 in a battle for a rotation spot with Adam Wainwright and Alex Reyes. Needing an infusion of offense, the Cardinals used Weaver to entice Paul Goldschmidt away from the DBacks. Weaver was trending downward and did not have a clearly defined club. The Cardinals were successfully able to translate his years of remaining control and obvious upside into the impact bat they had long coveted.

The Goldschmidt trade came a year after a comparable deal for Marcell Ozuna. Sandy Alcantara had electric velocity but questionable control. The Cardinals saw him as a potential impact starter or, at worse, a high leverage reliever. So did the Marlins, who asked the Cardinals for Alcantara in exchange for the slugging Ozuna. The consistent Zac Gallen was a pot-sweetener in the deal who showed excellent control and the ability to generate a few K’s as he progressed to AAA. This deal happened because the Cardinals needed better production from their outfield and had depth to offer from their rotation. The rebuilding Marlins needed plug-and-play arms and had pricey outfielders. With Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty all racing through the system, Alcantara and Gallen were somewhat expendable.

Marco Gonzales probably does not need to be discussed in detail here. The former first round pick was recovering from injury and did not have much of a role on the Cardinals when he was moved to the Mariners for a top 100 outfield prospect in Tyler O’Neill. Again, the Cardinals showed a willingness to use a surplus young starting pitcher to acquire a potential impact offensive player.

See also: Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward.

Comparable Players on Current Roster: Dakota Hudson, Ryan Helsley, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes. By aggressively moving starters such as Weaver, Alcantara, and Gallen over the past few winters, the Cardinals used up whatever pitching excess they had accumulated. Their lack of intriguing but expendable pitching prospects hurt the Cardinals at the trade deadline, and likely will affect them this offseason. It is unlikely that the club will trade more promising young pitchers for another offensive improvement this offseason. If such a move were to occur, the names above are the likely offerings. Odds of a Dakota Hudson trade seem close to zero. Even though Ryan Helsley does not have a clear shot at the rotation, the Cards are expecting high-leverage bullpen innings out of him this season. Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber do not have a clearly defined role and could have some trade value, though less than Weaver or Alcantara. As I discussed in an earlier piece, there are some comparables between Alex Reyes and Marco Gonzales, so it’s possible – though not likely – that he could be moved in a prospect-for-prospect deal. History would tell us that even though the Cardinals do have pitchers with trade value and uncertain roles, they will almost certainly hang on to those pitchers until they can get an impact return.

Who the Cardinals Trade: Chopping Block Veterans
Examples: Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia

The second type of pitcher the Cardinals move are pricey veterans who are replaceable through cheaper, internal options. The Cards exercised Garcia’s $12M option in the 2016 offseason, hoping they could then move the often injured starter. The Cardinals were able to turn a candidate for release into three middling prospects, including Luke Dykstra and John Gant.

Mike Leake signed the richest deal the Cardinals have ever offered to a free agent starting pitcher but only managed to last a season and a half with the club. The Cardinals essentially paid the Mariners to take Leake away in 2017. Ironically, that season is statistically the best of Leake’s career at 2.9 fWAR. Why they signed him in the first place is still a bit baffling to me.

Comparable Players on Current Roster: Miles Mikolas. Look, don’t misunderstand me here. There is no one on the current roster who really fits the model presented by Leake or Garcia. It’s possible – though highly unlikely – that the Cardinals could sour on Mikolas and move him to clear space for a rising starter. Such a move would not happen this offseason, but it is something to consider down the road. The Cards have the reliable Mikolas inked through 2023 at about $16M per.

Significant Pitchers Acquired
Dominic Leone
Giovanny Gallegos
Chasen Shreve
John Gant
Juan Nicasio
Genesis Cabrera

MLB: SEP 04 Giants at Cardinals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who the Cardinals Target: Bullpen and Versatile Arms
Examples: Dominic Leone, Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera

It was a bit startling to see the list of pitchers traded next to the list of pitchers acquired. There’s a clear and obvious delineation: the Cardinals trade away starters and they trade for relievers. Cardinal trade partners want to pick from the club’s wealth of right-handed starters that they develop with seeming ease, and the Cardinals have made use of their talent in developing pitchers to make needed offensive improvements. This talent has also enabled them to fill their rotation through mostly internal options. Still, it’s a bit much to ask one organization to not only develop usable starters and tradable starters, but also a bullpen’s worth of relievers. Injuries, trades and ineffectiveness have forced the Cardinals to look to the free agent and trade markets for multiple bullpen arms in the last few seasons.

Dominic Leone came to the Cardinals in the Randal Grichuk trade, and pitched some quality innings in 2018 before injuries and ineffectiveness derailed him. Leone was recently let go. Giovanny Gallegos arrived for Luke Voit, and after busting onto the roster in the 2019 Mexico series, quickly carved out a high-leverage role for himself with his dynamic but well-controlled arsenal.

Genesis Cabrera is the wildcard name in the list above. Cabrera came to the Cardinals in the Tommy Pham trade. The hard-throwing lefty profiles as a starter but there are some questions about whether he will be able to survive in a MLB rotation. If not, the bullpen seems to be a place where Cabrera could thrive.

Along with Shreve, Gant, and Nicasio, the Cardinals have not been shy at targeting arms who they believe can help in relief. The Cardinals enter 2020 with questions in their bullpen and no clearly defined closer, assuming Carlos Martinez returns to the rotation. While the Cardinals like their depth, it seems likely that the club will move some positional depth for bullpen help, possibly even securing an experienced closer to take pressure away from Jordan Hicks’ rehab and return. The Cardinals are bursting at the seams with OF’ers that they want to play. Excess could again meet opportunity. While Mo and Girsch are not shipping Dylan Carlson out for a middle reliever, such could be the case for Randy Arozarena, Adolis Garcia, or Justin Williams. These kinds of deals won’t make headlines at the Winter Meetings, but they can be key to finishing off a contending roster. A move like this could happen as late as spring training, as the playing time begins to sort itself out.

Cardinal fans want the club to make a big splash at the Winter Meetings. My advice? Look small. After having traded away young arms for offensive talent in a series of moves that trace back to Jason Heyward, the Cardinals simply don’t have the depth (or budget room) needed to consider another such move this winter. While I believe the Cardinals will be active, that activity is going to come from OF depth being trimmed down and a bullpen arm or two added in return. If the Cardinals can turn some of their depth into intriguing non-roster players like Genesis Cabrera, they would be wise to do so and rebuild the talent that they’ve lost in previous trades.