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Looking back at what a disaster the 2018 trade deadline was

Whether the Cardinals decide to buy or sell, here’s hoping they can do better than this.

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs
We still ❤️ you, Tommy.
Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

At this time last year, the Cardinals sat at 48-46, in 3rd place in the division, 5 games out of 1st. Their run differential was around +7.

This year, the Cardinals are 47-46, in 3rd place in the division, 3 games out of first. Their run differential is +10.

For all the talk of going “all-in,” the results as we approach the trade deadline are virtually identical. In public comments, John Mozeliak has hedged as to whether he expects the team to buy or sell, suggesting their performance in the next week or so might tip the scales. So I thought I’d look back at what they did last year, in exactly the same situation.

I feel like we didn’t exactly talk about the team as sellers last year, and they weren’t in full-on sales mode, but the overall theme of their moves was trading away major league or near major league pieces who they didn’t have a place for in exchange for longterm assets.

So how did that go? (Spoiler alert: It did not go well.)

July 27

Sam Tuivailala traded to the Seattle Mariners for Seth Elledge

A pretty minor move that remains so. Tui was out of options and the club wanted to make room in the bullpen. Tui tore his achilles soon after arriving in Seattle and was just reinstated on the MLB roster July 15. Elledge has a 4.43 ERA across time with Springfield and Memphis this season. The 23-year-old is walking 4 per 9, but striking out a healthy 10+.

July 29

Traded Luke Voit and international bonus slot money to the New York Yankees. Received Giovanny Gallegos and Chasen Shreve.

Now it starts to hurt a little. At the time, I think few of us were sour on the move. Voit, while a local boy and fan favorite, seemed to be stuck floating in the Quad-A abyss. So if the Cardinals could turn that into some relief pitching, why not?

Of course, Voit immediately went off in New York, where their short right-field porch perfectly complements his opposite field power stroke. He crushed a 194 wRC+ in the 2nd half of 2018, and has maintained a healthy 134 wRC+ this season.

Chasen Shreve - the major league component of the trade - was eventually released and then resigned by the Cardinals. Gallegos has turned out to be the real bullpen asset. Thus far this season, he has posted a 38% K rate and only a 4% walk rate.

TRIGGER WARNING: We will soon be discussing the Tommy Pham trade. Read-on at your own risk.

July 31, 2018

Traded Oscar Mercado to the Cleveland Indians. Received Conner Capel (minors) and Jhon Torres (minors).

So here we go with the Cardinals two “deadline day” deals of 2018. The first looks a lot like the Tuivailala or Voit trades. The Cardinals had what they believed to be a surplus of outfielders, and from the group, they decided Mercado was the piece that they would deal.

Now, I’m not a Prospects Expert or anything like that, but I had seen Mercado play and was a big fan. In fact, I even wrote this piece where I speculated he could turn into a player very much like Tommy Pham.

Since being traded to Cleveland and cracking the big leagues this season... Oscar Mercado looks a lot like Tommy Pham. We’re obviously still in very small-sample-size territory, but through almost 200 PAs, Mercado is slashing .286/.340/.470. His 0.9 fWAR is equal to Bader, better than O’Neill, Martinez, Lane Thomas, or any of the other outfielders the Cardinals held onto instead of Mercado.

But the Cardinals knew they were trading away an advanced prospect for some younger prospects. How did that work out?

Conner Capel is slashing .240/.295/.423 this season, mostly at AA. Jhon Torres is hitting .207/.309/.336 between Johnson City and Peoria.

Traded Tommy Pham and international bonus slot money to the Tampa Bay Rays. Received Roel Ramirez (minors), Genesis Cabrera and Justin Williams.

I feel like we’ve never gotten the full story of what on earth the Cardinals were thinking with this trade. One popular theory is that the team was motived to move Pham because he dared to speak his mind. It’s also true that Pham slumped quite a bit through early 2018, and given his medical issues, I can at least imagine a scenario where the team worried his value was headed off the cliff.

Whatever their reasons, they sold Tommy Pham at the absolute nadir of his value, and what they got in return looked paltry then and does not look much better now.

Tommy Pham has continued to be TOMMY PHAM. He followed up his 6 WAR breakout season with the Cardinals with a 4 WAR season, split between the Cardinals and Rays. He currently sits at 2.6 WAR, which would lead the Cardinals.

Cabrera and Williams were the two big pieces in the deal, and their stories are similar: Big Tools but a struggle to turn those tools into consistent results.

Cabrera made an ill-advised debut in the majors this season, but has spent the bulk of the year at AAA. He’s a 22-year-old lefty who throws in the upper 90s, so the potential is still sky high. But his AAA FIP this season is 6.29.

Williams likewise is extremely TOOLSY just by the eye-test. But he’s been slowed by a variety of injuries, including punching a television in December. I happened to see him in one of his few games at AAA this season, on the 4th of July, when he hit two home runs. The power was easy and the strength of his throws were impressive.

But that was also the last game he played this season before heading to the injured list again for a reason I can’t find.

The Big Picture

These 2018 moves could maybe be grouped together as something more like “roster grooming” rather than buying/selling... were it not for the Tommy Pham deal. That was a Seller’s move - or at least it should have been. The middling return the team got and their continued insistence that they were in the hunt make that one a head-scratcher all-the-way-around.

It’s hard to look at these moves and not be struck by how poor the Cardinals talent evaluation has become. In Pham, Voit and Mercado, the team gave away talent that was clearly beyond where they believed it was internally. And as for the players they got in return, while many of them remain young for their level and posses tools, Gallegos is the only one who has manifest as any kind of an MLB asset.

For many years, even when the Cardinals gave up a highly-touted prospect, like a Brett Wallace, it soon became clear that the team acquired much more than it gave up. For the last 2-3 years, it seems like other organizations know more about the value of these players than the Cardinals do.

What will the Cardinals do this trade deadline? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they will sell in any substantial way, because what on earth do they have to sell? Ozuna was a prime asset, but with his injury expected to keep him off the field past July 31, I can’t see that happen.

If selling is not an option, and given it was their stated goal from the get-go, one option for the Cardinals is go really go all-in. That could mean letting go of even a prospect in the Dylan Carlson tier to acquire a substantial upgrade, like a Marcus Stroman.

It would be reasonable and fun for the Cardinals to go this route, but I’m doubtful they actually will. For one, they are overly cautious to an almost religious degree. But I also think it’s justifiable if they believe they just don’t have what it will take to make the playoffs, even with some big additions. The win totals in the division and wild card are within range, but the run differential and other underlying numbers still suggest the Cardinals are not contender material unless they get some major turnarounds from some underperforming players.

If I had to guess, I would wager we are in for another year of roster grooming at the trade deadline. I would not expect every outfielder that is in the upper levels of the organization now to still be there Aug. 1, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some mid-level prospects sent off for some bullpen arms.

A day of reckoning is coming for this organization, when they either go REALLY all-in or they unload a lot of their middling talent and rebuild. But I don’t see that reckoning happening at the 2019 trade deadline.