In recent years the Cardinals have seen a number of high profile acquisitions enter the team, as well as some prospects. For a team that traditionally values homegrown players, however, there have been a larger than expected number of blockbuster trades and signings. These include the trades for Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt, as well as the signings of Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil, Andrew Miller, and even Greg Holland.
It is interesting to see how the Cardinals have been seemingly increasingly more willing to splash the cash on relievers in free agency or trade a large amount of good prospects for a big bat. To a degree it makes sense that the Cardinals would look to make big moves to improve a team that seems to always hover around 90 wins. However, this does not appear to be the wise strategy.
Take, for example, the Marcell Ozuna trade. The Cardinals acquired a player who had a monster year in 2017. This trade seemed to make sense as the team hoped that he could become the impact middle-of-the-order bat that it was looking for. However, once he arrived in St. Louis, he was good but not great. He provided 5.3 WAR over the course of two seasons before leaving for the Braves following the 2019 season. The return for the Marlins, however, turned out to be pretty good. Sandy Alcantara is still just 24 years old and threw over 197 innings for the team last season while posting a 3.88 ERA and 4.55 FIP. Those numbers are decent for a back-end starter, but there is still plenty of time for him to improve. Zac Gallen seems to have been the real prize, though, as he compiled 1.6 fWAR in just 80 innings as he posted a 2.81 ERA and 3.61 FIP last season. He is also just 24 years old and the Marlins were able to trade him for Jazz Chisolm who is Baseball America’s number 88 prospect for 2020. Magneuris Sierra struggled in 2018, but made a good, albeit brief, impression in the majors last season and Daniel Castano dominated Double-A.
Additionally, the Dexter Fowler signing seems to have been flawed as well. The 34-year-old has provided exactly 3 WAR in three seasons with the Cardinals after signing a five year deal worth $82.5 million following the 2016 season. That an expensive contract for a player who has been unable to post higher than 1.5 WAR in a season for the last two years. Everyone knows the failure of the Brett Cecil and Greg Holland deals, and even the Goldschmidt deal does not look that great after Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly each performed well in Arizona while Goldschmidt had the worst year of his career since his first full season in the bigs.
On the other hand, the Cardinals have had many prospects develop into key contributors during this time. Harrison Bader has actually provided more WAR (5.4) than Ozuna over the past two seasons after locking down a full time role in 2018. Sure he has his flaws, but he is still young, promising, and cheap. Paul DeJong has provided the team with 10.5 WAR over the last three seasons as he has locked down the shortstop position for the forseeable future. Tommy Edman debuted last year en route to finishing the season with 3.2 WAR. Things have been good for the Cardinals on the pitching side as well as Dakota Hudson, Jack Flaherty, and Jordan Hicks have all emerged as solid contributors while compiling a combined 9.0 fWAR. With all of these successes, it is clear that the Cardinals have talent in the minor leagues. In fact, it was partially due to an abundance of talent that the trades for Ozuna and Goldschmidt were able to happen. However, due to this, it is weird to see the team turning to the free agent market or the trade market in order to fill in holes on the team. When the Cardinals traded for Ozuna they had Randy Arozarena, Magneuris Sierra Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, and Tommy Pham, and Jose Martinez in the organization. Bader was not a starter at the beginning of 2018, SIerra was traded, and Arozarena and O’Neill were hardly given a chance to earn a major league place. Instead the Cardinals loaded the outfield with three veterans in Pham, Fowler, and Ozuna. It is intersting that they traded their most productive outfielder (Pham) after acquiring Ozuna and Fowler. That outfield could likely have been much better and much cheaper with a combination of Pham, Bader, and O’Neill playing. However, the Cardinals search for proven MLB veterans actually led them into a worse outfield. Sure hindsight is 20/20, but by acquiring veterans at a high monetary or prospect cost, the Cardinals failed to give their good prospects a chance while instead paying too much for too little production.
The Goldschmidt trade made a bit more sense as the Cardinals needed some help at first base and very few people expected Edman to have the year that he had. Even so, the trade for Goldschmidt moved Carpenter to thrid base full time which helped delay Edman’s arrival. Seeing Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly’s success must hurt the team a bit, but both of those players did not have a clear path to playing time with the Cardinals due to a strong rotation and the ageless Yadier Molina.
However, the three big relief signings (Andrew Miller, Brett Cecil, Greg Holland) do not make sense considering the Cardinals strong pitching pipeline. In some of those cases the team was looking for proven late-inning options, but this caused the Cardinals to overlook what they already had in their organization. Jordan Hicks came on strong after surprisingly breaking camp with St. Louis in 2018. Daniel Ponce de Leon has always performed well in the MLB, but he still cannot get a full season’s worth of appearances. Austin Gomber has also performed well in the majors (although he has struggled with an injury in 2019). Additionally, players such as Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson have been good enough to earn jobs in the starting rotation in recent years. Even players like John Brebbia were not really given a chance until after the Cardinals had signed Brett Cecil. Additionally the Cardinals traded away Zac Gallen, Sandy Alcantara, and Luke Weaver. So, if the team had turned to its prospects instead of making big moves, then it would have had a roster that was cheaper, and probably even better.
Hindsight is always 20/20, so there is no way that the Cardinals could have known exactly what would transpire with these moves. However, one theme is that the team constantly looked for proven MLB talent to fill holes on the roster instead of leaning into a bit of a youth movement. For a team with such a focus on drafting and developing, this seems unnecessary. There are nearly always prospects ready to fill an MLB role, but many times they are not given that chance. This seems especially unnecessary in the bullpen as the Cardinals always seem to have enough pitching talent to stock their own bullpen.
Part of the failures of most of these moves is the age of the players that the Cardinals acquired. Andrew Miller, Dexter Fowler, Paul Goldschmidt, Greg Holland and Brett Cecil were all near 30 years old or older when they were acquired and signed to long term contracts (Holland was only signed for one year). However, while this is part of the problem, the other part is a seemingly reluctant attitude towards trusting prospects whom the Cardinals have developed while instead looking outside of the organization to fill the team’s needs.