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Revisiting the Trade Deadline

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Since this in now my third article for VEB, I figure that it is about time for me to introduce myself. I am from Columbus, Ohio, but I attend school in Michigan where I am currently a Sophomore at Hillsdale College. At school, I am pursuing an economics degree with a minor in math which connects well to my interest in baseball statistics. I have been a Cardinals fan for my whole life, and I have remained passionate about the game even though I stopped playing after high school. I am excited to write about the Cardinals and hear all of your opinions about the team, or other topics (say, hot dogs, for example) and I am looking forward to contributing to such a large community of Cardinals fans.

Looking back as the MLB Trade Deadline approached earlier in the summer, there were plenty of trade rumors and reports that the Cardinals would be active at the end of July. However, they essentially did nothing, trading Jedd Gyorko, international spending money and cash considerations for LHP Tony Cingrani (out for season) and minor league right-hander Jeffry Abreu (out for season).

With the team firmly in the playoff hunt and battling the Cubs and Brewers for NL Central supremacy, it was understandable that Cardinals fans were angered by this inaction. To even further enrage the fans, after the deadline came the overused quotes about trust in the team and unwillingness to overpay. It was just salt in the wound when the Cubs pulled off a major deal just minutes before the deadline, acquiring Nicholas Castellanos for two pitching prospects. It seemed like the Cardinals might have missed another opportunity to make a postseason push, while the Cubs seized their chance.

Nonetheless, at the time of this writing, the Cardinals are three games ahead of the Cubs (and four up on the Brewers) in the division and look like a good bet to make the playoffs after a three-year drought.

This begs the question: How did this happen, and did the Cardinals front office actually do the right thing? Clearly the Cardinals have pulled ahead due to internal improvement as players such as Paul Goldschmidt and Jack Flaherty have begun to play at their immense potential. At the deadline, most of the team’s starting lineup was underperforming in terms of their career averages, but the team looked solid on paper, so maybe this internal improvement should have been expected. However, players such as Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, are all on the wrong side of thirty, so there was some risk involved in waiting for a change in fortune that may or may not come. Despite this, it appears that the front office did the right thing.

Sure, they could have added more bullpen depth, but the Cardinals have one of the best bullpens in the league. It ranks second in ERA, first in FIP, and seventh in fWAR. This does not mean that it could not get better, but it would have required a very high asking price for a marginal improvement. Obviously, there is still a case for aggressive improvement, but the front office needs to weigh the cost versus the benefit in order to decide if this would be the right move, and based on the results, it appears that they were right.

Another possible improvement area was third base, but this was never going to be a realistic option with the recent Matt Carpenter extension and the emergence of Tommy Edman. Even though there are mixed opinions on the young infielder/outfielder, it is clear that Mike Shildt likes him as a player and wants to play him every day. The team has also gotten a lot of production from Carpenter over the years, and they clearly wanted to give him a chance to figure things out. At this point, Carpenter has not righted the ship, but it would have been unrealistic to expect the front office to replace him with an external acquisition so soon.

The most likely area to be improved was the starting rotation. Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, and Adam Wainwright are solidly entrenched in the rotation, but Michael Wacha has been struggling mightily all season. The fifth starter has been, arguably, the weakest link for this Cardinals team, and there is a strong case to be made that the front office should have improved that spot before the deadline. However, once the playoffs roll around, the Cardinals will be able to drop to a four-man rotation, thus eliminating the need for a fifth starter. Obviously, there was concern about whether or not the Cardinals could make the playoffs, but now that their chances have improved significantly, it appears that their biggest weakness will be able to simply go away in October.

However, a high-profile acquisition like Marcus Stroman, for example, could have helped fortify the rotation for the playoffs by allowing Wainwright to move to the bullpen. This is certainly a viable option and it seems like a move that the Cardinals could have made, as well as a move that they would have met a lot of the criteria this front office targets. Stroman has been very successful this year posting a 3.35 ERA and a 3.78 FIP. His contract also runs through the 2020 season, making him more than a rental, which is something that John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch look for in a trade candidate. Also, his above-average groundball rate (53.9%) would have played well in the strong St. Louis infield.

The Mets only had to give up two pitching prospects, albeit pretty good pitching prospects, but that is still a relatively small price to pay. This seems like a price that the Cardinals would have been able to match as they have an abundance of good outfield prospects and some infield prospects that are more-or-less blocked. However, if the Blue Jays were strictly looking for pitching it is more understandable that the Cardinals did not make the acquisition, as their pitching pipeline has faded a bit more than usual this year. It makes sense that the team would be reluctant to deal from a position that is relatively light on depth. There is a reason that St. Louis targeted pitching heavily in the draft this year: they needed to replenish the system.

Ultimately, if we take the words of the front office at face value then we can see that not only did they believe in this team, but it appears that they were right for doing so. However, even if that was truly the reason for the inaction at the deadline, there are still reasons for frustration. The Cardinals have an abundance of MLB-ready or almost MLB-ready talent that is currently blocked from making the team. For instance, Randy Arozarena, Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Adolis Garcia, and Harrison Bader are all ready for the Majors and Dylan Carlson is close, if not ready. Mike Shildt has also shown a willingness to play Tommy Edman in the outfield, thus adding to the roster crunch. There are only three spots in the outfield and with Dexter Fowler under contract through 2021, and Marcell Ozuna hitting well and looking for an extension, there are only one or two starting spots available for next season. Something has to give, and the Cardinals would do well to deal from a position of depth like the outfield to add another key piece to the major league roster. At some point, the front office is going to need to figure out how to best use the excess position player depth in Memphis - and it could have been very beneficial to use it to upgrade the team (and specifically the rotation) at the trade deadline.

The front office has consistently balanced the future and the present for the better part of two decades, whether that was under Mozeliak, Girsch, or Walt Jocketty. Because of this balance, the front office can be seen as excruciatingly passive sometimes or calculated at other times and much of this valuation depends on the success of the team.

So, it appears that the team was right to hold onto its hand at the deadline and wait for regression, but there are still questions that will need answers soon. Is the rotation, and team in general, good enough to make a playoff run? Also, what will the Cardinals do with all of their prospect depth? Ultimately, the overall perception of this year’s Trade Deadline will be formed by how well the Cardinals end the season and how deep they go in the postseason.