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The Cardinals Froze in the Headlights at the Trade Deadline

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As potential trades dissolved, the Cardinals missed a lot of opportunities.

Green Cross Code Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

The trade deadline was a frustrating day for Cardinal fans as anticipation for a move slowly dissolved into the realization that nothing was going to happen. The team is at least playing well, though that only makes the inactivity more maddening. It’s a team finding its footing but clamoring for help in a few key spots. While they were unproductively pursuing multiple trades for big names, several lesser helpful moves passed them by. They froze in the proverbial headlights.

Let’s slip on the rubber glove one last time and perform the trade deadline autopsy. First, here’s where everything stood on July 31st.

Needs

The Cardinals desired a starting pitcher and a reliever- preferably left-handed- to plug in to the pitching staff. Derrick Goold intimated in his weekly chat that any starting pitcher acquired would need to be a major upgrade, one who would “alter the look of their rotation.” At another point, Goold made the following reference about Noah Syndergaard:

Thor is new to the conversations, and he fits the profile of what the Cardinals are seeking...

They didn’t appear to be looking for just any pitcher. They were shopping on the top shelf. This is where an opportunity was missed.

Another reliever was less pressing than a starter, particularly with potential contributions from Junior Fernandez, Ryan Helsley, and others down the stretch. Still, you can never have too many arms in the bullpen, and another lefty to pair with Andrew Miller- or even a depth righty- could have helped.

The Cardinals made no significant trades, opting instead for three minor moves- acquiring Zac Rosscup from the Dodgers for cash, claiming LHP Adalberto Mejia off waivers from the Angels, and trading Jedd Gyorko and cash to the Dodgers for 19-year-old RHP Jeffry Abreu.

Available Pitching

Here are the starting pitchers and relievers traded in the run up to the deadline. I’m excluding any players the Cardinals have traded in the recent past. Left-handed relievers have an asterisk:

Starters

Zack Greinke, Marcus Stroman, Trevor Bauer, Jason Vargas, Jordan Lyles, Homer Bailey, Andrew Cashner, Aaron Sanchez, Tanner Roark, Drew Pomeranz, Trevor Richards

Relievers

Jake Diekman*, Chris Martin, Derek Holland*, Sergio Romo, David Phelps, Joe Biagini, Nate Jones, Logan Allen*, Jake Faria, Adam Kolarek*, Mark Melancon, Ryne Stanek, Nick Anderson, Shane Greene, Sam Dyson, Hunter Strickland, Ray Black, Roenis Elias*, Daniel Hudson, Peter Fairbanks

Other names came up in rumors but none were moved- Noah Syndergaard most prominently, along with Robbie Ray and Zack Wheeler.

Tanner Puckett bulleted out what the starters cost yesterday. Just to hammer home that there were upgrades available, here are rest of season ZIPS projections for starters traded at the deadline, along with Michael Wacha and Daniel Poncedeleon:

Rest of Season ZIPS Projections

Pitcher fWAR
Pitcher fWAR
Bauer 1.6
Greinke 1.3
Stroman 1.1
Roark 0.8
Sanchez 0.6
Richards 0.6
Bailey 0.4
Cashner 0.4
Poncedeleon 0.4
Vargas 0.3
Lyles 0.3
Wacha 0.3
Pomeranz 0.2

Pomeranz, Vargas, Lyles, Cashner, and Bailey weren’t worth it. Greinke is mostly easy to dismiss. The Astros gave up a package the Cardinals couldn’t match without decimating the farm system. Perhaps the Cardinals could have turned that around by eating more salary, but it’s altogether possible Arizona just wanted the prospects. The Richards deal can be dismissed, as it was an oddity featuring two teams swapping lots of cost-controlled years for young pitchers.

The remaining four are the missed opportunities. Bauer, Stroman, Roark, and Sanchez were all available for packages the Cardinals should have been able to match with varying degrees of value lost. Two in particular stand out- Roark and Sanchez.

The Reds flipped Roark to Oakland for high-A outfielder Jameson Hannah, a well-rounded 45 FV outfielder who currently lacks power. There’s no direct parallel, but there are combinations of prospects that could have bested Hannah. Jhon Torres, to name one example, is very close. As for Roark, he’s a modern day Jeff Suppan, reliably providing lots of adequate innings. It’s not sexy, but it’s an upgrade over Wacha and Poncedeleon. It’s a missed opportunity.

Toronto traded Sanchez with Joe Biagini to Houston for outfielder Derek Fisher. Sanchez has struggled this year, but he was a classic buy-low candidate. Last month, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello astutely observed that Sanchez still has elite curveball spin but the pitch is underused. He’s screaming for a better pitch mix and a sharp organization to unlock more value. That could have been the Cardinals.

As for Fisher, he was on the fringe of the top 100 in 2017 but hasn’t translated it to success in Houston. Considering Biagini was in the deal, Fisher alone was too much for Sanchez. The Cardinals surely had something to trade for Sanchez.

Milwaukee Brewers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Relievers

Since the lefty relievers were a higher priority, we’ll focus mostly on Diekman and Holland. As for Kolarek, Elias, or any of the other pitchers not included in the Rays-Marlins deal and Greene, the cost was next to nothing. Any of them could have been Cardinals if they saw a shred of potential and a benefit over current options.

Ismael Aquino and Dairon Blanco went to Kansas City for Diekman, and neither have any prospect cred. Diekman’s base numbers don’t look great but his peripherals are tasty- a 32.8 K%, a 20.3 K-BB%, and both FIP and xFIP in the mid 3’s. This was an easy trade to get done and a shrewd one on the part of the A’s. It presents a marginal upgrade with almost no risk, and the Cardinals either didn’t chase it or offer enough. That’s a missed opportunity.

Holland, like Diekman, has ugly base numbers. Even the peripherals aren’t great. He’s listed here for two reasons. He only cost cash- no prospects- and he’s a buzzsaw against lefties. His .209 wOBA allowed to lefties the last two years is 16th best out of 536 pitchers (min. 20 IP). The two the Cardinals acquired, Mejia and Rosscup, are interesting projects, but Holland has a very specific skill that could have helped. It’s not a make or break type of opportunity- this is far from a big deal- but Holland could have been useful.

Conclusions

In some years, external upgrades aren’t as valuable as internal options. As I detailed in my retrospective articles last week, the Cardinals used that strategy in the past to great effect. It works when you have Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver (2016); Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, and others (2013); or Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill (2018). This year, there is no such internal upgrade in the rotation.

If they were fixated only on the top end of the starting pitching market, they missed on the rock-solid Roark, the interesting project in Sanchez, or 1.3 years of Marcus Stroman. Any would have been an upgrade over current rotation options, and the asking price was demonstrably right in the Cardinals’ wheelhouse. If they wanted to make a splash and absorb some risk, Bauer was available and could have fit.

If the starting market wasn’t developing the way they wanted once they saw the enormous asks for Wheeler and Ray, it was time to shift to relievers. Ideally, they could have acquired Diekman earlier in the week and insured themselves against Wednesday’s train wreck. Even after Diekman was off the board, there were several relievers available basically for free. None would have been exciting, and the upgrade would have only been marginal, but it would have been something- anything- with almost no risk involved. Carlson and Gorman didn’t have to move to get something done. That’s true both for a few of the starters and the majority of relievers.

Instead, once the market shifted, they froze like a deer in headlights, and it has real ramifications for their chances. I’ll let Craig Edwards have the last word: