Morning, kiddies. Come on and sit down now, let ol’ Uncle Aaron tell you a story.
For this story, we’re going to have to go all the way back to the strange and wondrous year of 2006. Actually, we really have to go back to the equally strange and even more wondrous year of 2004 to begin this tale properly, but 2006 is sort of the money shot, so to speak.
Let’s start in 2004. The 2004 Cardinals were, for those old enough to remember, a magical team. Almost certainly the best team of my baseball-watching life, at least to this point. The ‘85 club is on the very edge of my peripheral memory; I know I was watching baseball and talking about it some at that time, but the earliest I can recall actually having a conversation about a baseball team was in ‘86, talking to my dad sitting on the lawnmower about how bad the Cards were that year. The 1986 club would have been my age five team, if we’re using the baseball age nomenclature, so ‘85 is just out of reach for me. Thus, 2004 stands as the best, most overall impressive club that I can recall.
The ‘04 team didn’t really start out like a house on fire, hovering around .500 through about Memorial Day. Beginning on the 27th of May, though, the Cardinals won three games in a row. Then they lost one. Then they reeled off six straight victories. And after that, they were off to the races. In the month of July, the Redbirds lost only five games. Think about that for a second. They lost just seven times in August. From the first of June through the end of August, in fact, that club went 60-21. It was the greatest summer of baseball any of us are likely to see, even if another team of that quality happens to come through town again. Three months of .750 baseball is just not a thing that happens very often, even for really great teams.
In all of that winning, though, there was a tough little kernel of concern buried. The ‘04 club was driven by a ridiculous offensive core, with Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Albert Pujols all posting above a 1.000 OPS. The rest of the offense was perfectly fine as a supporting cast, and once Larry Walker came over in a deal with the Rockies his 144 OPS+ fit in beautifully with the MV3. John Mabry had a nice season as a backup, Reggies Sanders was actually not quite as good as I remember him being, the middle infielders were both solid hitters for their positions. Positionally, everything was copacetic. On the pitching side, though, things were less ideal.
That isn’t to say the pitching was bad in 2004; far from it, in fact. The bullpen was extraordinary, with Jason Isringhausen posting a 148 ERA+ as the closer. More extraordinarily, he was something like the fifth-most effective pitcher in the ‘pen for Tony LaRussa that season, with Julian Tavarez (179 ERA+), Ray King (163), Kiko Calero (153), and Steve Kline (238!), all preventing runs at an incredible rate. The starting rotation was not off the charts great like the relief corps, but four of the five starters still posted better than average ERAs. Matt Morris was the only starter to actually be below average for the season, and even he was pretty good for most of the year, until his arm really started unravel as the dog days wore on. Chris Carpenter was the club’s best starter with a 122 ERA+, followed by Jason Marquis at 114. Woody Williams and Jeff Suppan were both just above average, but threw nearly 190 innings apiece. Altogether, this incredibly dependable, if not really spectacular, rotation made 154 starts, and very rarely failed to keep the team close enough for the offensive machine that was the MV3 to do its job.
However, by the end of the season, things looked much darker on the pitching front. Chris Carpenter ended the year on the disabled list, and we have to remember that Chris Carpenter in 2004 was just former Blue Jays super prospect turned arm injury cautionary tale Chris Carpenter, with one solid season under his belt following a couple lost years due to shoulder surgery, rather than the Chris Carpenter we learned to love in a Cardinal uniform. Jason Marquis had a great sinker, but already we were seeing some of the frustrating tendencies that would define his rocky tenure in St. Louis, not to mention his somewhat rocky relationship with Dave Duncan. Woody Williams had been a godsend for the Cards over the previous four seasons, but in 2004 he was 37 years old and coming up on free agency. In other words, not a long term piece.
By the time the Cards reached the World Series against the Red Sox, the team was exhausted, particularly the pitching. Matt Morris looked like his arm was barely holding on. The offense, which had been so incredible all summer, fell off, not completely, but enough that the pitching just wasn’t good enough. Even the best teams can wear down, can have bad stretches, and the story of the ‘04 Redbirds was the story of a team that used up everything it had to defeat Carlos Beltran and the Astros, only to fall completely flat once they got to Boston.
Side note: Dave Loggins’s ‘Please Come to Boston’ has one of the all-time great choruses, particularly amongst his particular genre of shitty early 70s soft rock, which happens to be one of my favourite genres of music. Especially the third chorus, the high notes on ‘nobody like me’ give me a bit of a chill every time I listen to it. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
If you were the GM of the Cardinals in 2004, and looking for ways to shore up an historically great club, it was pretty easy to see where your efforts should be focused: the top of the rotation. What the 2004 team really needed was an ace, or more properly, an Ace; a guy who could take the mound in big games and stop a losing streak in its tracks, or take over a series opener and set the tone. The dependable, just-above-average rotation had done its job fabulously for that ‘04 club, but it’s tough to count on even a team with those three players driving the offense to be that good year over year. A defining presence at the top of the rotation was what the Cards really needed to solidify the greatness of their team. (Or, more realistically, to help guard against the inevitable regression coming as the offense aged and certain players needed to be replaced.)
So that’s what Walt Jocketty went fishing for in the winter of 2004. He cast his eyes out West, to Oakland, where the A’s were preparing to tear their Big Three apart, ending a run of excellence they would struggle to replicate for the rest of the 2000s. The debate came down to Tim Hudson vs Mark Mulder, and it seems the Cardinals ended up landing on Mulder primarily because of his lefthandedness, which they thought was important due to how right-handed heavy the rest of the rotation was. Thus, Hudson headed off to Atlanta en route to a Hall of Very Good career that was probably kept from being a Hall of Fame career only by a couple of unexpected dud seasons in his early 30s, and The Great Muldoo came to St. Louis in exchange for a young, promising pitcher named Dan Haren, a former catching prospect with a very intriguing bat named Daric Barton, and Kiko Calero, who was mentioned above in the list of good bullpen arms from the ‘04 crew.
I did not like the Mulder deal at the time, but I did love Mark Mulder. I legitimately thought he was the missing piece to a championship club, and in spite of believing Dan Haren and Barton were both future stars in the making I felt that the presence of Mulder at the top of the Cards’ rotation practically guaranteed a title in the next couple years. Sure, his performance in 2004 — particularly the second half — was a little worrisome, but this was a guy who had won 72 games from 2001-’04, back when wins and losses were still a little more in our minds as meaningful measures of pitching success. Even if we go with more modern methods of analysis, Mulder was worth 16.5 fWAR over those four seasons, and rolled up huge ground ball numbers. What Dallas Keuchel was to the just-starting-to-git-gud Astros, Mark Mulder was to the early aughts Athletics.
Funny thing, the Cardinals did, in fact, get their title within the next two years, and the 2005 team did, in fact, get its ace pitcher. However, neither of those things happened exactly as planned. The ace of the ‘05 squad was Chris Carpenter, who turned into Chris F. Carpenter that year, winning the NL Cy Young award and throwing over 240 innings of 2.83 ERA ball. The 2006 club endured setbacks galore and a collapsing pitching staff to just squeak in to a playoff spot, then rode two good starters, one brand new closer, some really bad defense by the Detroit Tigers, and a couple big offensive moments to a very sloppy but still glorious title run.
Now to the point of this story. It was during the 2006 ALCS, watching Dan Haren pitch against the eventual pennant-winning Tigers, that I turned to my friend Travis and said, and I quote, “This fucking sucks. Dan Haren is going to be a Hall of Famer.”
Sadly, I ended up a little short on that prediction. Dan Haren did not, in fact, end up in the Hall of Fame. He had the sort of career that puts one in the Hall of Very Good, right there with Tim Hudson, only in Haren’s case it was mostly a very short tail on his career that sunk his chances at a real Hall run. His peak was probably 10-15% too low for a Hall of Famer, but the big issue was that after a six win season in 2011 with the Angels at age 30, Haren dropped like a stone to just 1.8 WAR at age 31, and gradually slid from there. He was done at 34, the victim of an arm that slowly degraded and cost him his fastball. Haren had always been a little homer-prone, but beginning in 2012 it became a huge issue for him, as his heater just didn’t quite sneak past bats the way it once had, and a high-fastball fly ball pitcher suddenly couldn’t seem to keep the ball in the park any longer. Haren was not a Hall of Famer, but you don’t have to juice his numbers all that much to get him in the neighbourhood.
Daric Barton also was decidedly not a Hall of Famer, and ended up having a fairly disappointing career, minus his legitimately extraordinary 2010 season. Barton essentially answered the question, “What if you took Joey Votto’s good but not great power output and turned it down three more notches?” His career walk rate was 13.9%, his career strikeout rate just 16.7%. The problem was his career isolated slugging was just .118, leading to a career wRC+ of just 102. For a first base/DH type, that’s just not going to get it done.
Meanwhile, over in Cardinal land, what happened with Mark Mulder, the big lefty acquired to be the ace the 2004 club was so sorely missing? Well, remember a moment ago, when I mentioned how the ‘06 team endured a collapsing pitching staff? Mark Mulder was a huge part of that collapse. His 2005 season was such that he was nicknamed Swamp Gas here at VEB, seeing as how he somehow won 16 games and posted a mid-3s ERA despite appalling peripherals, giving him the substance of the swamp gas that so often leads to people with bad teeth describing UFOs on History Channel documentaries, but it was in 2006 that his shoulder fell apart completely. He had labrum surgery that year, and really never came back. The modern science (some might say pseudoscience), of pitching mechanics was really just beginning to take off back in 2006 and ‘07, and Mulder was one of the early examples we had of a guy whose delivery you could look at on high-speed video and see just how late his arm was, and how it was essentially stuck behind his body in such a way that it created a terrible strain on his shoulder. The Cards resigned him for the ‘07 season, trying to salvage some value from the trade post-surgery, but the rehab just never took. Elbows can be fixed. Shoulders are another matter entirely.
What was especially galling about the Haren-Mulder deal was the fact the Cardinals traded away the exact thing they were looking for. They needed a number one or two starting pitcher, and that’s what Dan Haren turned into immediately, throwing up a 3.7 fWAR season in 2005 and following it up with 3.8 and 4.7 win seasons in ‘06 and ‘07, respectively. Had the Cards simply done nothing, they would have had six-win Chris Carpenter and four-win Dan Haren anchoring the rotation in 2005, and the collapse of 2007 might very well not have happened.
It was that 2007 collapse that probably sealed Walt Jocketty’s fate in St. Louis, though his inability to get along with Jeff Luhnow and his new breed of analysts on the scouting side played a huge role as well. We shouldn’t forget, though, just how badly the Dan Haren trade turned out for the Cardinals when considering what led to the end of Jocketty’s tenure as Cardinal GM. Not only did trading for Mark Mulder directly contribute to the slide of 2006-’07, leading to a necessary retooling under John Mozeliak in 2008-’09, but giving up an eventual 40+ WAR pitcher in return for the husk of Mark Mulder’s shoulder is exactly the sort of trade that tends to get GMs fired, even aside from the overall performance of the team.
Now let’s talk about Tampa Bay, and about Randy Arozarena.
This past offseason, the Cardinals were facing a serious logjam in the outfield, and needed to find some way of working through their options. The hope, of course, was that come Spring Training the players on the field would do things that cleared up any questions you might have, and someone like, say, Tyler O’Neill would take off and show why the Cardinals were so enamoured of him back when they traded Marco Gonzales for the Canadian strongman a couple years ago.
The bad news is that didn’t happen, even within the strange and difficult contours of the 2020 season. The worse news is, well, this:
video via Man Cheetah Highlights
Randy Arozarena was dealt this offseason along with Jose Martinez to the Rays, in exchange for left-handed pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and a minor league catching prospect. The catcher is intriguing but not exceptionally so, while Liberatore was one of my favourite pitching prospects in the minor leagues. Even so, I did not like the trade at the time, because I felt like the Cardinals gave up the outfielder I most wanted to keep, or maybe the guy I wanted to keep second-most, after only Dylan Carlson.
In fact, here is the scouting report-slash-trade analysis I published back in January, as part of my offseason prospect list series, saying pretty much what I just said, only in more words. I used the term ‘Mookie Betts lite’ for Arozarena, and received an email from a reader shortly after questioning not only my ability to scout prospects but also my general sobriety. To be fair, my sobriety is always in question, and I have some pretty legendary misses in my scouting career (Braxton Davidson is not, apparently, one of the top five hitters in the American League these days, and Rob Kaminsky’s first Cy Young does not appear to be just around the corner), but I feel pretty damned vindicated on this particular front.
Now, to be fair, we are talking about very small samples in all these situations, and Arozarena going crazy for a couple weeks in the postseason (also a few weeks during the season), should be taken with big grains of salt. He’s (probably) not going to hit a homer every eleven trips to the plate from now on. Probably. However, given that he is a plus runner, generally seen as a plus defender, and all the questions were really about his offensive upside, well...
The good new is that the players the Cardinals acquired, Matthew Liberatore, is still an extremely promising prospect. We don’t have actual numbers for the guys who pitched in Springfield this year, but Liberatore was in that group, and not too long ago John Mozeliak said in an interview that the young lefty had an extremely good summer and could be in the mix for a possible rotation job as soon as next season. Now, it’s fair to be somewhat skeptical about that, thinking maybe old Johnny Mo is just trying to put a good face on a deal he botched so badly, but to me that doesn’t really sound like Mo’s M.O. He may occasionally talk up the system as a whole in a way we might think of as overly optimistic, but he very rarely says things about specific players that are way off. Liberatore could still miss, certainly, but if Mozeliak says he was good in Springfield, I actually do believe that to be the case. (And, to be honest, I’ve heard that same thing from a couple of other people whose identities I cannot divulge. So, you know.)
Still, the optics of what the Cardinals received from the outfielders they held onto versus what the Rays are currently getting from Arozarena could hardly be much worse. The Haren for Mulder trade was definitely worse, as Jocketty literally traded the exact thing he was trying to acquire for a broken version of it, while the Arozarena trade was all about moving a piece the Cards weren’t sure they had a spot for in exchange for a long-term asset they were very high on, but there’s also the aspect of this deal that the Cards very much chose to keep Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader and Lane Thomas while trading away Arozarena. It’s not that simple, of course; the Rays almost certainly pushed for Randy A. because they liked him the most, and sometimes you have to give up an asset you like to try and get something else you want, but it would be hard to imagine a deal looking a whole lot worse right now than this one when you consider the Cards’ 2020 outfield versus how it would look with Arozarena/Bader/Carlson going forward. There is also, of course, the Dexter Fowler piece to all of this and how the Cardinals simply don’t seem to understand sunk costs, leading to both the Tommy Pham and Arozarena trades indirectly, but that’s for another column. (Actually, that’s for multiple past columns, as well, so you can go look those up if you want.)
In the end, as much as I hated giving up Arozarena and thought it was going to bite the Cardinals in their collective ass (admittedly, I didn’t think it would happen this fast or this dramatically as to have postseason highlight reels referring to him as the Cuban Mookie Betts...), I cannot say the Cards were entirely wrong in their thinking, particularly considering how Tyler O’Neill’s 2020 turned out.
O’Neill ended up struggling, badly, on offense this season, but as I covered back in September, the thing is that O’Neill actually looks like a potential all-around star player, if he actually hits the way most of us thought he would. His failures this season were not of the plate discipline variety, nor of the one-dimensional slugger variety. Rather, the guy whom I am contractually required to refer to as a Canadian Strongman and whose minor league ISOs were regularly in the .250-.300 range, hit for very little power this season and ran a seemingly impossible .189 BABIP for 160 plate appearances. Tyler O’Neill with a .289 BABIP and an ISO of .246, which he ran back in 2018 in his first go-round at the major league level, rather than a .187, looks like a five-plus win all-around player. Instead, he showed off incredible wheels and absolutely dominated in left field while hitting one medium-deep fly ball after another.
And so here we are, heading into another offseason without any certainty in the outfield, with the Cardinals and their front office potentially having made a disastrous trade last time they tried to massage an asset into a better, more useful one. The question is whether the Randy Arozarena trade really is John Mozeliak’s version of Jocketty’s Dan Haren disaster. So far, I say no, it isn’t. Not quite. We don’t know yet what the Cardinals got out of the deal, and the decision they made on who to keep in the outfield could still work out well for them long-term. On the other hand, it could end up in a very similar mental space for Cardinal fans, should Matthew Liberatore, a tall, ground ball-heavy left-handed pitcher, end up looking more like Mark Mulder than, say, Jaime Garcia or Dallas Keuchel, who are a couple of the pitchers I really like as comps for Liberatore. (In fairness, Liberatore arguably has much better overall stuff than either, but for now those are the kinds of pitchers he resembles.)
The truth of the matter is it will be hard for this deal to ever end up as ugly as the Haren for Mulder swap, simply because Mo and Co. weren’t moving the thing they were trying to acquire in trying to acquire it. If they had traded Arozarena directly for an outfielder, say Lane Thomas or Justin Williams or somebody, maybe then we would have that direct point of comparison. Still, if we’re looking at the trading history of John Mozeliak and his front office, it’s mostly positive up until the last couple years, and most of the bad deals have been forced by roster crunches of one sort or another. Even if you really like Luke Voit, the truth is Giovanny Gallegos has been nearly as valuable the past two years when accounting for playing time. Tommy Pham was a bad trade forced by an outfield crunch and a bad contract (not to mention some long-term concerns about Pham’s eyes and attitude, which may or may not be justified), and Randy Arozarena looks very much like a bad trade right now, forced by the same bad contract, a similar outfield crunch, and a failure to properly assess which of the various options was the one most likely to go supernova.
So is this trade as bad as Haren for Mulder? No. At least not yet. But the fact one can ask the question without it sounding crazy is not a good sign for anyone. Well, anyone except the Rays, I suppose.