There are essentially two ways for a team to improve over an offseason. One of the ways is the one that’s most talked about - free agency. It’s easier to project for one thing. Player agreeing to sign a deal is a simple process. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but “I want this player to sign with the Cards” is an easy enough discussion.
Trades are the other way to improve. The Cardinals traded Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to acquire Jason Heyward one year away from free agency after the 2014 season. They traded for Paul Goldschmidt much more recently. Before the trades happened, I don’t believe most saw either coming. Certainly not the Heyward trade, which I remember as if it came out of nowhere. I think there may have been some leadup to the Goldschmidt trade to prepare us, but I may be making that up.
In any case, there’s not really any rumors swirling around the Cardinals making such a trade right now. Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen of course. But rumors swirling around doesn’t make a trade happen either. Remember the absolute height of the Nolan Arenado rumors? Pepperidge Farm remembers. I’ve always thought a trade was unlikely due to my belief in the Rockies way overvaluing Arenado’s worth in trade, but there was definitely a point in the offseason where my opinion was the minority one and people acted like it was an inevitability.
But now that I’ve brought up Arenado, I’ll use him as an example for the theme of my post. I’m finding it extremely difficult to imagine trade scenarios this offseason. I’m not talking the shedding salary variety. Those don’t interest me, or at least those don’t interest me in a theorizing way. I’m talking about a trade that actually is meant to improve the team, or maybe shift a strength into less of a strength for a position that is a weakness right now. And the reason has to do with money.
This is not a Cardinals are cheap post. This is a question of how the hell they can improve through trades when every team in baseball wants to shed salary and nobody wants to spend money. How can I possibly come up with a trade under those constraints. Arenado for example is simply a nonstarter due to his contract. In theory the Cardinals could throw in a bad contract of their own for him, but I still think the Rockies are of the belief that Arenado’s contract isn’t underwater. I don’t think the opt-out is a serious concern. Things would have to change a lot between now and next free agency for opting out to look like anything but an incredibly dumb decision. Can’t imagine a CBA in flux is going to help the free agent market,
So when I tried to imagine a hypothetical trade, I couldn’t even get to the part where I imagined specific players. Because a trade requires one of three things to happen: you add salary, you lose salary, or the salary difference is neutral. Most trades would involve either the Cardinals adding salary or the Cardinals shedding salary, which requires another team to add salary. We already know the Cardinals aren’t adding salary, and we have reason to believe just about every other team doesn’t want to add salary. And if they do, they don’t want to trade actual prospects instead of just signing someone at a bargain price in free agency.
So where does that leave us for trades? Salary neutral trades. It does not help that, of the Cardinals making millions, none are really someone you trade for. There are six Cardinals making at least $12 million. All of them are technically underwater. Forget trying to get a team to just pick up $12 million in a trade. You actually have to throw in something just to get them to accept it or pick up most of the tab, and you enter a “What’s the point then?” stage.
Paul DeJong is way too valuable to trade unless we’re full-on rebuilding, which would be rather dumb given the rest of the NL Central is not exactly looking world beaters either. Then there’s Kwang-Hyun Kim, but that’s the reality we’re just straight up shedding salary and I’m trying to focus on improvements. Then there’s John Gant, who also would not be an improvement trade, but a shedding salary trade, considering he wouldn’t bring back much. Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks fit the same definition.
Harrison Bader is probably the only player who has actual value that makes some sort of money that could theoretically bring an improvement. Except, for it to be an actual improvement to the team in 2021, I imagine we would actually have to add a player who makes more than Bader. Bader is projected for just $1.45 million. They aren’t going to get a better value than that in a trade for Bader. I’m not saying the trade would necessarily be bad, but it would almost certainly be a win later trade. Which would make the 2021 team worse and I’m trying to make the 2021 team better.
Everybody else makes league minimum. The Cardinals, in order to make a 2021 improvement, would need to actually trade them for someone making actual money. Again, this is all possible, but given everything we know, it feels like a bit of a waste of time to try and predict such a trade. The less money the player in return makes, the less likely the other team wants to trade them. The more money they make, the less likely the Cardinals want to get them. Make sense?
Which essentially just leaves one other outcome to improve the team: trading a prospect or league minimum player for a player making league minimum. Which is also not realistic, because players making league minimum have never been more coveted. In the same boat, you could also the trade a player making league minimum for a player in his first year of arbitration. Such as someone like Bader on another team.
I came into today trying to come up with a cool trade target. All the obvious suspects make too much money. And I couldn’t come up with anyone and well, it just seems like the trade market might not be as good of a solution to the team’s problems as I hoped. Because when over half the league has no interest in adding salary, it’s hard to actually make a trade. Back to square one: hope the Cardinals have more in the budget for Yadier Molina, Adam Waiwnright, and someone else than publicly portrayed.