Smart baseball people will tell you not to try to evaluate trades in terms of who “won” and who “lost.” Luckily, I am not a smart baseball person.
The underlying idea is that trades are part of a very complicated matrix of roster machinations, involving everything from salary to 40-man rules to team chemistry and on-and-on. A given player may be blocked at the major league level or may be at risk of being lost for nothing to waivers. So to simply add up the WAR value of players on either side of a trade may not tell the whole story.
And yet... even with those caveats in mind, you should periodically be able to look at either side of a trade and feel confident that your team got the better value. Your team “won” the trade.
The Cardinals have not won a trade since 2016.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Cardinals have lost every trade in the last four years - some of these deals are still in the too early to tell phase - but I’m not especially optimistic.
There’s also a real question of whether the club has been deficient in evaluating its own talent or in developing it. In other words: Would Luke Voit and Randy Arozarena have become the same players had they stayed in St. Louis? I can’t answer that, and it’s not what I’m looking at here. Regardless of whether the team has been deficient in evaluating or developing its talent, the Cardinals are giving away much more than they are receiving.
At the 2016 Trade Deadline, the Cardinals acquired Jose Martinez for cash considerations and reliever Zach Duke for outfielder Charlie Tilson. On Dec. 1, they traded Jaime Garcia for John Gant (and a few others). I would grade those out as wins.
Since then, however, these are the major Cardinal trades:
May 21, 2017
Cardinals trade Matt Adams plus cash to Atlanta for Juan Yepez.
Adams has continued to hang around as a useful-enough bat. He put up 1.1 WAR with Atlanta over the remainder of 2017, then another 1.1 WAR with Washington in 2018, before coming back to St. Louis late in 2018 and doing very little.
Juan Yepez (22) is still in the Cardinals system, where he is ranked 20th by our own Aaron Schaefer.
This seemed like a fairly minor swap then and it still does now. Adams was not much of a loss for the Cardinals, but Yepez has yet to materialize as anything like a win.
July 21, 2017
Cardinals trade Marco Gonzalez to Seattle for Tyler O’Neill
Gonzalez has quietly become one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball, amassing 9 WAR with the Mariners over the past three seasons. O’Neill failed yet again in 2020 to establish himself as a regular in the outfield. In three partial seasons in St. Louis, he has amassed 1.9 WAR and was not given a single plate appearance this postseason.
O’Neill still hase one more season before reaching arbitration, but his prospect light has dimmed to the point of near darkness. The club clearly hoped he would become an everyday power bat, and felt Gonzalez’s fairly pedestrian stuff was expendable. It’s pretty clear they guessed wrong on both counts.
Dec. 1, 2017
Cardinals trade Aledmys Diaz to Toronto for J.B. Woodman
Diaz continues to hang on, amassing 1.6 and 1.1 WAR for the Blue Jays and Astros over the the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and getting some key at-bats during the 2020 playoffs. J.B. Woodman was released in August 2018 and is out of baseball.
Dec. 13, 2017
Cardinals trade Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra & Zac Gallen to Marlins for Marcell Ozuna.
Ozuna underperformed expectations during his two seasons in St. Louis, but was still an above average hitter.
Sandy Alcantara has established himself at or near the top of the Marlins rotation. Mags looks to remain more of a role player, but has produced positive value with his bat, speed and defense each of the past two seasons.
Zac Gallen was the 12th best pitcher in the National League this season by WAR, and would have been the clear ace of the Cardinals staff. The Marlins traded him to the Diamondbacks midway through 2019, so whether they and the Cardinals whiffed on his potential or Gallen developed well beyond expectations is an open question.
Ozuna produced 5.3 WAR as a Cardinal. Alcantara, Sierra and Gallen have so far been worth 7.4 WAR, and each is under team control for 4-5 more seasons. This was always a deal where the Cardinals were giving up long-term production for a short-term boost, but it seems clear they got less and gave up more than they were expecting.
Dec. 14, 2017
Cardinals trade Stephen Piscotty to Oakland for Yairo Munoz & Max Schrock.
This trade reportedly had a lot to do with the Cardinals helping Piscotty be near his ailing mother, which is noble and worthwhile. So this was never a trade the team needed to “win.” Even so, while Piscotty’s trajectory has tailed off, he has remained a more-or-less everyday player. Munoz and Schrock have each peaked as temporary bench options.
January 19, 2018
Cardinals trade Randal Grichuk to Toronto for Dominic Leone and Connor Greene.
The Lamborghini continues to have all the positives and all the negatives he did in St. Louis. Still, he has hit 68 HRs since he was traded, which is 13 more than the top Cardinal during that span (Matt Carpenter, 55).
Dominic Leone amassed a negative WAR in 69 games as a Cardinal before being released at the end of last season. Connor Greene was placed on waivers following the 2018 season. He has still never pitched in MLB.
The Cardinals were ready to move on from Grichuk, but they got virtually nothing in return and the better options they hoped for in the outfield have failed to materialize.
July 27, 2018
Cardinals trade Sam Tuivailala to the Mariners for Seth Elledge.
Tui was quite good for the Mariners in 2018 and early 2019, before going down with a serious shoulder injury. Elledge produced negative value in his first 12 innings as a big leaguer this season, and was just off the VEB Top 30 list coming into the season.
July 29, 2018
Cardinals trade Luke Voit and $1 million International Bonus Pool to the Yankees for Giovanny Gallegos & Chasen Shreve.
Whereas in several of these transactions, the Cardinals have landed real duds, this deal did garner the club an excellent reliever in Gallegos. The problem is that even the best reliever will not be worth a very good position player.
Gallegos was a Top 5 reliever in the NL in 2019, worth 1.6 WAR. Luke Voit eclipsed that value in 56-games in 2020, led the AL in home runs and posted a 152 wRC+.
The Cardinals ultimately installed Paul Goldschmidt at 1st base, but that cost them another trade of several prospects and a $130 million multi-year. Luke Voit is under team control for three more seasons.
July 31, 2018
Cardinals trade Oscar Mercado to Cleveland for Conner Capel & Jhon Torres
Mercado played 115 games for Cleveland in 2019 and was worth almost two wins. This season, he was abysmal in 36 games. Conner Capel is no longer ranked in the VEB Top 40.
Jhon Torres is currently ranked 7th in the Cardinals system by VEB, so should he continue to develop this is one that could certainly move into the win category. But it’s not there yet.
July 31, 2018
Cardinals trade Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay for Justin Williams and Genesis Cabrera.
The Cardinals had 3.5 more seasons of Tommy Pham under club control when they dealt him. He kept right on Tommy Phaming, and was worth 3-4 WAR in both 2018 and 2019. His 2020 numbers were down considerably, though his season was impacted by COVID and then ended by getting stabbed again.
Cabrera has come to feature prominently in the Cardinals bullpen, though given his control issues it looks less likely he will ever become a starter. As with Gallegos, even if Cabrera can become a very good reliever, he will be unlikely to produce the value of a plus everyday player like Pham. Justin Williams has six PAs as a Cardinal.
Dec. 5, 2018
Cardinals trade Luke Weaver, Carson Kelly, Andy Young and a 2019 1st round pick to Arizona for Paul Goldschmidt
Of all the Cardinals trades for the last four years, this one probably grades out closest to a win. This trade accomplished what the team wanted, with the Cardinals acquiring a “middle of the order” hitter and then signing him to an extension. I have no qualms with this deal.
But if we take a narrow view on just what was swapped in the trade itself, it gets murkier. The Cardinals acquired one year of Goldy, in which he was worth a solid (if under his standards) 2.9 WAR. Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly each had very good 2019s, worth a combined 3.7 WAR. Both Weaver and Kelly were underwhelming this season, but are under team control for several more years. Andy Young reached the majors in 2020 as well.
Jan. 9, 2019
Cardinals trade Randy Arozarena, Jose Martinez and a Competitive Balance Round A pick to Tampa Bay for Matthew Liberatore, Edgardo Rodriguez and a Competitive Balance Round B pick
And here we land at the trade that has been on all of our minds lately. And of course, with the centerpiece of this deal on the Cardinals side not yet in the majors, it’s far too early to offer a full evaluation of this deal.
But let’s be honest... it’s not looking great. Randy Arozarena is putting up historic numbers on the biggest stage. And sure, we’re still in small sample size territory. He could turn into Aristides Aquino. But it’s going to take a pretty hard break in that direction for this not to mean the Cardinals traded away the very thing they’ve been struggling to find for years - a productive outfielder.
During Game 1 of the World Series, Joe Buck said someone in the Cardinals front office told him that Liberatore “better be Randy Johnson.” That’s hearsay, so take it with a grain of salt, but it certainly suggests how even the Cardinals brass feels about whether they won or lost this deal.
Here’s a look at just the players that have changed hands in these deals:
Could you quibble with one or two of these deals and suggest that given all the factors, it was a worthwhile deal? Yes. Could you point to a few and say the jury is still out on whether they will be worthwhile in the long-term? Absolutely.
But when you look at the names on both sides of this ledger, representing nearly four full years of trades, to me it looks pretty damning. For years, the Cardinals had the reputation of being a club you did not want to trade with because they always seemed to get the better of the deal. For the last four years, the Cardinals have gotten fleeced.