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Mozeliak Era Trade Deadlines, Part II: 2014-2018

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Lackey, Moss, some strategy leaks emerge, some Leakes disappear

Washington Nationals v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Rovak/St. Louis Cardinals/Getty Images

Yesterday, we began a two part retrospective of the trade deadline during the John Mozeliak era. Previously on the VEB Network’s hit show Mozark, our protagonist had deftly shifted his strategies at the trade deadline based on team needs and place in the standings. His most controversial deadline, 2011, happened to lead to a World Series. One of his quietest deadlines, 2013, also brought a World Series appearance. He lacked the penchant for the blockbuster that his predecessor possessed, but he also was developing a flair for successfully identifying internal solutions. With the trade deadline looming on Wednesday, here is your action-packed conclusion. If you’d like a recap, you can visit part one here.

2014

Standings on July 24

54-47; 52-49 pythag; 3.0 GB in NL Central, tied for second; 0.5 GB for second Wild Card; 56.3% chance of making the playoffs

What did they do? Did it work?

By late July, the Cardinals had a rotation problem. Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia were injured. Carlos Martinez had yet to establish himself as a starter. Joe Kelly, Tyler Lyons, and Marco Gonzalez had auditioned but failed to hold down a spot. Shelby Miller was healthy but struggling in his sophomore campaign.

The offense was scuffling with a 99 non-pitcher wRC+. Two of the biggest problems were in the outfield. Allen Craig had a 52 wRC+ in June and July and Peter Bourjos had been a disappointment with an 81 wRC+ on the season. Top prospect Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk were officially ready as internal solutions.

Mozeliak shipped Craig and Kelly to Boston for John Lackey. Through a quirk in his contract, Lackey was due the remainder of his $10.25M salary in 2014 plus just $507k in 2015. Trading Craig freed playing time for Grichuk and Taveras, while Lackey addressed the hole in the rotation. Craig was playing under a reasonable extension through 2017 and Kelly was pre-arbitration. Mozeliak had dealt multiple years of control of two very popular players, but received an innings-eating red ass who shook up the clubhouse.

In a lesser move, the Cardinals traded outfield prospect James Ramsey to Cleveland for pitcher Justin Masterson. Ramsey never reached MLB, while Masterson was dreadful down the stretch- a 5.84 FIP/7.04 ERA in 9 appearances.

The Lackey deal worked even if Masterson was a $1 scratcher full of lemons. Lackey provided 4.0 fWAR for rock bottom prices over his season and a half in St. Louis. His addition and the boost from Grichuk helped spur the Redbirds on to a division title and another NLCS berth. Craig unfortunately disappeared into the Springfield Mystery Spot. Kelly had mixed results bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen before finally finding his footing as a reliever in 2017 and 2018. Opening playing time for Grichuk and Taveras, much like 2013, was another case of Mozeliak identifying internal options and trusting them with key late season playing time.

2015

Standings on July 24

62-34; 62-34 pythag; 6.0 game lead in the NL Central; 99.6% chance of making the playoffs

What did they do? Did it work?

By late July, the Cardinals were all but a lock for the playoffs. That meant the deadline could be used to address any needs for 2015 and even 2016 without the fear of a misstep costing them a playoff berth. That logic turned into the following moves:

  • Traded AA reliever Kyle Barraclough to the Marlins for reliever Steve Cishek
  • Traded high-A starting pitcher Rob Kaminsky to Cleveland for OF/1B Brandon Moss
  • Traded rookie-level OF Malik Collymore to Milwaukee for Jonathan Broxton

The pitching staff had been preventing runs at an historic pace. The back of the bullpen had been solid but the front end- Miguel Socolovich, Matt Belisle, Mitch Harris- could be better. The lineup was highly productive, but the bench was dragged down by poor performances from Matt Adams (78 wRC+), Bourjos (83), and Jon Jay (59). Youngsters Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty offered relief for Bourjos and Jay, leaving the struggling Adams as a place to solve. That’s how the Cardinals ended up acquiring Brandon Moss, Steve Cishek, and Jonathan Broxton.

Moss carried a 112 wRC+ after the trade and gave the team extra punch. Broxton and Cishek did their job, albeit with the help of defense. Each posted an ERA at least nine-tenths of a run lower than their FIP. Cishek started to struggle in September and was left off the playoff roster. Neither Broxton or Moss were much of a factor in a disappointing NLDS. Barraclough ended up providing the Marlins with a few good, cheap seasons, but Kaminsky and Collymore never panned out. Moss had the extra benefit of being insurance against Jason Heyward’s departure via free agency at the end of the season. These moves worked even if the impact was limited.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds
One recurring theme that emerges is the use of youngsters to address roster holes. Alex Reyes in 2016 is just one example.
Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

2016

Standings on July 24

52-46; 58-40 pythag; 7.5 GB in NL Central; 1.0 GB for second wild card; 41.2% chance of making playoffs

What did they do? Did it work?

This was such a strange year that I’m going to break it down differently.

The case for buying: Their pythagorean record on 7/24 was a 96 win pace. The offense was the third best by non-pitcher wRC+ in baseball. Their FIP was fifth best. Decent talent was available at the deadline. Their issues were easy to identify. Trevor Rosenthal, Jonathan Broxton, and Kevin Siegrist (whose ERA was surpassing his FIP) struggled in the bullpen; Grichuk and Kolten Wong were struggling at the plate; Wacha was injured and unlikely to return; Jhonny Peralta’s first half was riddled with injuries; and defense and baserunning were dreadful. Rosenthal had just hit the DL right before the deadline, and both Matt Carpenter and Brandon Moss had been on the DL earlier in July. It was obvious where help was needed and might be needed later.

The case against buying: Even with a 58-40 pythag. on 7/24, they were 7.5 games back of the Cubs, who had also underperformed their pythag. by five games. The wild card race very competitive, which dampened playoff odds. Youngsters Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver presented solutions to Wacha’s injury and one bullpen slot without making a move. It’s hard to fix defense and baserunning in a single move, and replacing either Wong or Grichuk would have exacerbated that situation.

In the end, Mozeliak decided not to buy. They dealt Charlie Tilson to the White Sox for Zack Duke to address the left-handed side of the bullpen, and used the Reyes/Weaver combo to fill in other gaps. Wong (0.6 fWAR for the rest of the season) and Grichuk (1.4) improved. Peralta stayed healthy but made the defense and baserunning worse. Duke, Reyes, and Weaver collectively gathered 2.1 fWAR down the stretch.

Unfortunately, production from Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss, and Stephen Piscotty collapsed and it sank the season. Carpenter and Moss lost over 70 points of wRC+ during the post-July 24 part of the season. The offense was the engine for the first half but faltered down the stretch, and they were eliminated on the final day. The moves were fine but more could have easily been done.

2017

Standings on July 24

48-51; 52-47 pythag; 4.0 GB in NL Central, 9.0 GB of second Wild Card; 20.4% chance to make the playoffs

What did they do? Did it work?

They made multiple moves, only one aimed at helping the 2017 club make the playoffs.

  • Traded AAA/MLB pitcher Marco Gonzales to Seattle for AAA prospect Tyler O’Neill
  • Traded Mike Leake and cash to Seattle for minor leaguer Rayder Ascanio
  • Traded minor leaguer Eliezer Alvarez to Philadelphia for reliever Juan Nicasio (on September 6th)

A four game deficit can be erased, but it’s much harder when your true talent floats around .500. There are some similarities to 2014 in terms of the deficit and pythagorean record. Unlike 2014, the Wild Card race offered no safety net in 2017. The largest issue at the deadline was the bullpen, which had problems. Seunghwan Oh struggled in high leverage, while Broxton, Socolovich, and Siegrist faltered. In the lineup and the rotation, a rough season for Aledmys Diaz and a middling season by Piscotty were concerns.

The solution for Diaz was internal like so many other times before. Paul DeJong took his plaace. They addressed the bullpen riddle by throwing depth at it, and it remained comparable quality through the end. Nicasio was a nice move but far too little, far too late. They finished 4.0 GB in the wild card and never really sniffed the playoffs.

It’s become fashionable to point to 2017 as part of a trend where the front office didn’t help the team, but it’s easy to understand the logic for their choices. Why deal future wins for current wins on a team with only a 20% chance of making the playoffs? As to whether or not it worked, Leake and Gonzales have provided 10.9 fWAR to Seattle for a reasonable cash outlay. In return, the Cardinals have 1.5 fWAR of Tyler O’Neill, whatever else he does over his cost-controlled years, and financial freedom after dealing Leake. I suspect O’Neill will make it a wash but has a lot of catching up to do, particularly since Gonzales has multiple cost-controlled years left.

The Cardinals had the right idea- freeing up salary for 2018, trading a depth starter for a top 100-ish outfielder with power- but they may have undervalued Gonzales, or overvalued O’Neill. Time will tell.

2018

Standings on July 24

51-50; 52-49 pythag; 7.5 GB in the NL Central, 4.5 GB for the second Wild Card; 17% chance to make the playoffs

What did they do? Did it work?

Ben Godar covered this with an in-depth, highly recommended recap here. The specifics:

  • Traded Sam Tuivailala to Seattle for Seth Elledge
  • Traded Luke Voit to the Yankees for Giovanny Gallegos and Chasen Shreve
  • Traded AAA OF Oscar Mercado to Cleveland for minor league outfielders Conner Capel and Jhon Torres
  • And finally, the goat rodeo... they traded Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay for minor league outfielder Justin Williams, and minor league pitchers Genesis Cabrera and Roel Ramirez

They had just changed managers. They weren’t likely to win the division, weren’t in a great place for the Wild Card, and had only a 17% chance to make the playoffs. That’s not totally a lost season, but it’s pretty close. It would have made a lot of sense to sell.

Instead, they... both sold and bought? Adding Gallegos and Shreve for what was at the time a quad-A bench bat made a lot of sense, both for the remainder of 2018 and into 2019. It wasn’t a hard buy type of trade but it was aimed at enhancing the 2018 squad with future ramifications. Voit exploded, Shreve turned into a pumpkin, and Gallegos has been a revelation. What was seemingly an innocuous deal has mushroomed in importance.

Then there are the roster churn moves aimed at clearing space on the 40-man roster- the Mercado and Tuivailala trades. The Cleveland deal was essentially 23 year old Oscar Mercado for 18 year old Oscar Mercado, plus a scratch-off in Capel. It will be years before we know how either trade turned out. Mercado looks good in his first pass at MLB pitching but Torres is just 19 and is playing in rookie ball.

The idea of dealing Pham is understandable. The problem is that the return was light, and they dealt him at one of the lower points in his value. It looks like a disaster thus far and it’s going to take a major turnaround from any of the three prospects received to change that. Like other years, their internal options worked splendidly- Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill were very good down the stretch. The quandary is they had created an additional problem by dealing Pham to clear playing time for Bader and O’Neill. All they did was solve the problem they created for themselves. They shot themselves in the foot, then effectively performed surgery to fix it.

Instead of buying, they addressed roster clutter and tried a soft sell. Much like 2017, they had the right idea but the return value raises serious questions about talent evaluation skills. It could have worked, but it doesn’t look likely at this point.

MLB: SEP 12 Pirates at Cardinals
If organizational trends hold, players like Daniel Poncedeleon could have just as big an impact on this year’s deadline as any potential trade target
Photo by Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Conclusions and Trends

  • Blockbuster moves were the early trend- Matt Holliday in 2009, a three-team trade involving two MLB regulars (Jake Westbrook and Ryan Ludwick) in 2010, and the flat-out crazy eight player Colby Rasmus deal in 2011.
  • The 2012 to 2015 trend was, understandably, buttressing playoff runs. Most of those decisions came down to choosing between internal options or going outside the organization. Many years blended both. The performance these years was tremendous. Very few prospects dealt came back to haunt them, while all of the players acquired provided appropriate value. When internal options were chosen, they performed adequately.
  • From 2016 to 2018, they’re trending down, mostly in the realm of evaluating their own talent to trade and receiving appropriate value in return.
  • While the actual decisions made in recent years are questionable, and there were risks taken in earlier seasons, their approach has been defensible at worst and spot-on at best in every season.
  • The use of internal options from the farm system is something I found myself repeating many times, and it’s hard to ignore their success doing it. Junior Fernandez, Tommy Edman, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Genesis Cabrera are all possibilities this season. Keep an eye on expanded roles in some way for those players in the coming months.
  • The most inactive years were 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2016. The most active years, either buying or selling or both, were 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2018. Most of those inactive years make sense in retrospect, although 2016 feels like a missed opportunity. Most of the active years were highly effective until 2018.