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System Sundays: A Brief Consideration of Trade Assets

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With the trade deadline fast closing in, let’s consider the asset pool.

St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Morning, all.

I’m going to have one more piece on the trade deadline coming up tomorrow morning, and it will have some broad thoughts contained within about where the Cardinals are, what they should invest in the 2019 club, and the forces pushing them in one direction or another. This morning, however, I just wanted to take a quick look at the state of the farm system, and consider just what sort of asset pool we’re dealing with if the Redbirds are, indeed, going to be buyers in the next couple days.

Obviously, if you’re going to be a buyer, the liquid capital with which you are buying is likely to be minor leaguers, seeing as how you’re trying to add to, rather than subtract from, the major league roster. Now, there are certainly deals in which you could see players from the big league roster going out as well, but those scenarios tend to be somewhat complicated. The future talent for present talent swap is the most common for clubs attempting to improve this year’s squad, so we’ll just assume that’s the most likely scenario.

First off, what we need to do is look at the most up to date ranking of the system, so we have a baseline off which to work. Here is a link to the most recent MLB.com top 30 prospects list for the Cardinals; I have a few quibbles with the order and things like that, but haven’t done a re-ranking of my own offseason list, and it’s a perfectly fine list off of which to base our ruminations.

In case you don’t want to keep a tab open or keep flipping over to it, here’s the current list:

  1. Nolan Gorman, 3B
  2. Dylan Carlson, OF
  3. Andrew Knizner, C
  4. Elehuris Montero, 3B
  5. Zack Thompson, LHP
  6. Ryan Helsley, RHP
  7. Ivan Herrera, C
  8. Jhon Torres, OF
  9. Lane Thomas, OF
  10. Junior Fernandez, RHP
  11. Genesis Cabrera, LHP
  12. Randy Arozarena, OF
  13. Julio Rodriguez, C
  14. Johan Oviedo, RHP
  15. Jake Woodford, RHP
  16. Edmundo Sosa, SS
  17. Justin Williams, OF
  18. Malcom Nunez, 3B
  19. Trejyn Fletcher, OF
  20. Angel Rondon, RHP
  21. Griffin Roberts, RHP
  22. Tommy Parsons, RHP
  23. Tony Locey, RHP
  24. Andre Pallante, RHP
  25. Connor Capel, OF
  26. Seth Elledge, RHP
  27. Luken Baker, 1B
  28. Steven Gingery, LHP
  29. Austin Warner, LHP
  30. Ramon Urias, 2B

So here’s the thing we have to acknowledge right off the bat: this has been, by and large, a horrible year for the Cardinals’ farm system. Nolan Gorman, Dylan Carlson, and Randy Arozarena have all had extremely successful seasons, but beyond them very few Redbird prospects have had good years. Knizner has been just fine, I should say, but I was expecting maybe a little more of an offensive bump playing with the big league ball in Triple A. Still, he looks like the best bet to be Yadi’s heir at this point, and I have no real worries about that eventuality.

Actually, let me correct myself here: I should say very few Cardinal prospects toward the top of the list have had good seasons. There also haven’t been many guys in the upper minors, aka the guys you would most likely be using as trade chips, who have really had good seasons. Evan Kruczynski crashed and burned due to sudden and essentially unprecedented control problems. Austin Gomber, no longer a prospect due to service time but still very much a trade asset type player, is on the injured list with a shoulder problem. Griffin Roberts has been awful since starting his season late due to his weed suspension. Elehuris Montero has been hurt much of the season and posted a sub-.700 OPS at Double A when he was healthy. Jhon Torres and Malcom Nunez were both overmatched in full-season ball. Lane Thomas has serious contact problems. Justin Williams broke his hand punching a television, and that’s literally the only thing he’s managed to hit hard all year.

So let’s consider who on this list is really a good trade candidate-slash-asset. I’m going to say that, right off the top, I don’t know that I can part with any of the top three players in the system. Nolan Gorman checks in at 31 in the most recent Top 100 overall list from the MLB.com guys, and he has as much upside as any position prospect in the minor leagues. It would have to be a really special deal for me to even consider moving Gorman, and I just don’t know if that deal is out there. I wouldn’t move him for Syndergaard, I don’t think, even though Thor is, admittedly, really good and under club control for a couple more years.

Dylan Carlson comes in at 52 overall on the big list, and I actually think that’s a little low for him. Then again, he’s more about performance than crazy tools, so prospect-wise he’s easy to overlook just a bit. Still, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made Carlson should maybe be the Cards’ number one prospect right now, even with the incredible upside of Gorman, simply because of how good Carlson is so close to the big leagues and still extremely young. Again, how good would a deal have to be for me to move Carlson? Probably so good it doesn’t exist. The Cardinals are going to have major questions on the offensive side of the ledger following this season, and Dylan Carlson is likely the best answer to at least one of those questions.

The third-ranked prospect in the system, Andrew Knizner, doesn’t crack the overall top 100, but I think he pretty easily could. As for why I would have a hard time moving him, it’s as much about where the franchise is right now as the player himself. I like Knizner, a lot, but I could see plenty of deals where moving a player like him could make sense. The problem is the Cardinals are facing down the end of the Yadier Molina era, and they already moved one heir apparent this past offseason. Knizner is, I think, too important to the future of the franchise right now to move. Your mileage may vary, but I don’t know that I can justify moving my top catching prospect, who is right at the edge of being a big leaguer, with a 37 Yadier Molina entering the final year of his contract in 2020.

Now, as I said, I think reasonable people could disagree, but to my eye I have a very tough time justifying any moves that involve any of those top three guys. One has so much upside I want to keep him, while the other two are not only good and exciting, but also potentially fill areas of need in the extreme near-term future. I get that deals that really improve your club almost always hurt, but I’m just not willing to mortgage 2020 and beyond at this point.

So that takes the top three off the board, at least in my estimation. We move on, then, to Elehuris Montero at four. Now, Montero I would be perfectly fine dealing, because as much as I like his bat, I don’t necessarily see him sticking at third long term, and even if he does I think Nolan Gorman is ultimately a better prospect, at nearly the same level as Montero. The presence of one guy doesn’t automatically make another player redundant or expendable, but Montero to me makes most sense at this point as a trade chip, seeing as how first base is likely occupied for awhile and he’s a lesser prospect at the hot corner than another player just one level down. The problem, of course, is that Montero has had a terrible season, and his value is way down. That doesn’t mean you can’t trade him, of course; it just means you’re likely not getting very good value for a guy who just the past offseason was seen as a rising offensive star.

How about Zack Thompson at five? That’s an aggressive ranking, but not completely unjustified. Dealing away current year draftees feels like a special kind of desperate to me, but I could see it making sense. Problem is, Thompson really hasn’t increased his value any since the draft, so whatever you think he was worth as a draft pick is essentially what he’s worth right now. Now, if he was the centerpiece of a Syndergaard trade, that would make plenty of sense to me. I don’t know if Thompson has that kind of juice right now, though.

Ryan Helsley at six could be a good trade candidate, but he’s had a bad year as well, with significant control issues one season after missing a big chunk of 2018 with shoulder troubles. Helsley could still be very good, but there are real questions about him, and his value has taken a hit over the last calendar year, I think, even if his ranking really hasn’t.

Now Ivan Herrera at seven is an extremely interesting player here. Herrera has had an excellent season, posting an OPS near .800 in Peoria at just nineteen, and his upside would be tough to give up. However, he’s exactly the kind of long-term bet a rebuilding team can place, and a club looking for a major shorter-term upgrade could look to move. I think Herrera might actually be one of the more likely players in the system to get moved, considering what he might bring in return.

Torres is an interesting consideration as well, with as much upside as any player in the system, but some pretty serious contact issues cropping up this year. His stock has dropped from where it was this past offseason, but is still up from the time the Cards acquired him in the Oscar Mercado deal from Cleveland. Lane Thomas looks more and more likely to top out as a fourth outfielder; his 87 wRC+ and 27% strikeout rate in Triple A this year are both big red flags.

Rounding out the top ten, we have Junior Fernandez, who has certainly done as much to boost his stock this season as any other player in the system. After kicking around High A without a lot of success for a couple years, Fernandez really took off this season after being promoted to Springfield, at which point he just absolutely destroyed the Texas League to the tune of a 1.87 FIP over 29 innings. He was bumped up to Triple A Memphis, and while his strikeout rate has declined from over 36% to 31%, he’s been nearly impossible to hit and is currently running a 0.59 ERA in the Pacific Coast League, with the livelier ball.

Fernandez presents an interesting conundrum, in that as a potential trade asset he certainly has value, but is a) probably not the sort of piece a rebuilding club would be looking to trade for, considering he’s a relief-only 22 year at this point, and b) just might be as good an addition to the big league bullpen as nearly any reliever you’re going to find on the market. Could he be part of a deal for a Sam Dyson? Sure he could. Would you maybe rather see what he could do in the big league bullpen, as opposed to dealing for, say, Sam Dyson? I sure would. (Feel free to replace Sam Dyson with Mychal Givens or whoever in this hypothetical.)

We should consider for a moment what kind of value Randy Arozarena might have on the trade market. On the upside, Arozarena is having an absolutely stunning season this year, split between Double and Triple A. He’s currently running a 150 wRC+ in Memphis after beating up Texas League pitching to the tune of a 160. That’s the good news, and the reasons why Randy Arozarena could be a very valuable trade chip.

On the other hand, Arozarena’s success this season is heavily weighted toward results on balls in play (his BABIP in Memphis is .430), and while he’s earning most of those hits with loud contact, the fact remains he will not run a .430 BABIP in the big leagues, and his power and plate discipline numbers are not so great as to support him hitting at a star level without a whole bunch of hits falling in. Arozarena is really the sort of player whose all-around game is where he shines, but even performing at this level he’s only the twelfth-ranked prospect in a fairly middling system that has seen a lot of players underachieve the last couple years. Now, I might argue he should be ranked higher, but the question is whether other teams see him as significantly better than a no. 12 prospect.

I could see both Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford being useful trade pieces, but I’m not sure how highly either would be prized by other organisations, and considering how questionable the Cards’ short- to medium-term pitching outlook appears to be right now, I could also understand them being hesitant to move arms who are getting close to the big leagues and look like solid bets to stay in the rotation. Again, if we’re talking about a deal for a starter who is going to be around for a couple years, that helps to ameliorate that concern and both Oviedo and Woodford become more likely to be a part of such a deal. But I don’t think either could be the centerpiece of a deal for a Syndergaard or a Marcus Stroman.

Beyond this point, we start getting into more speculative territory in terms of what other organisations might think of players. The bottom half of a prospect list is pretty much always like that. Nunez is a complete lottery ticket at this point, and exhibit A as to why you always want to see players against a certain level of competition before falling too deeply in love. Justin Williams I just don’t really see having any value. Roberts’s stock is way down, and I would hesitate to move him at such a low point unless I was convinced he wouldn’t bounce back, which I am not. You’ve got multiple draft picks from just this year creeping into the lower third of the list, and while I would be willing to part with some of them, trading away players you’re just beginning to really get to know as pros has its own set of risks attached.

The one player in this lower range I do want to talk about is Angel Rondon. Prior to this season, Rondon was a really intriguing pitching conversion project who showed plus arm speed and some really good natural body control. Suddenly, though, midway through this year he’s at Double A, pitching quite well, and is only 21 years old. He’s one of the more intriguing pitching talents in the system right now, and I guarantee the Cardinals are getting a whole lot of asks about him in trade conversations. I would hesitate, like really hesitate, to move him, because I think by this time next year he’s one of the top pitching prospects in the system, if not the top guy, but he’s absolutely going to be sought after I’m sure.

Okay, so this has officially not been a brief look; I had intentions of this being a rather slight piece just running down the list. Oh, well.

This is obviously not a comprehensive look at all trade assets the Cardinals possess; there are players not on the top 30 list who obviously have some value, particularly if you find a buyer who likes that guy more than one or two public sources. (Coughs in a way that sounds like ‘Nootbaar’) But let’s face it: the Cardinals could really use a major upgrade in their rotation, something like a number one or two starter, and a deal like that isn’t going to be based around players lower in the system just because a few prospect wonks think a guy is underrated. The kind of upgrade the Cardinals should really be looking for is the sort that would basically require them to break into that top five prospect range, and I’m just not sure I’m willing to give up any of the top three, leaving you with relatively few options capable of headlining a blockbuster package.

So what would you be willing to give up? Obviously it depends on the player being acquired, but I’m curious to know the temperature of the room. How high up this list would you be willing to go, and how much of it would you be willing to sacrifice, to go out into the market and bolster this year’s squad?

Oh sweet Jesus just release Mike Mayers already. Son of a bitch. (Just to timestamp my writing this.)