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An Awkward Trade Deadline

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The trade deadline is approaching but the Cardinals are hampered by a roster crunch. What options do they have?

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Monday is August 31st. Yes, the trade deadline.

Recently Mark Saxon, Cardinals reporter for The Athletic, spoke with a distracted John Mozeliak about what to expect with trade season suddenly upon them. When asked “how focused” Cardinals President of Baseball Operations was on the deadline, Mozeliak answered, “not really”. “Candidly,” he explained, “the timing of it is not ideal for us, as we start to unwind people coming off of COVID back onto the roster.”

The Cardinals are still facing a 40-man roster crisis, precipitated by the COVID outbreak and the compressed schedule that resulted. The story of the Cardinals season is the story of a hundred minor transactions. Those seemingly insignificant moves – a player outrighted here, another added to Springfield there, yet another being activated to the roster – are having a significant impact on the Cardinals present and, believe it or not, will impact their future.

With the trade deadline looming, the Cardinals admit that they are both hamstrung and distracted by the uncertainty surrounding the margins of their 40-man roster. Still, the deadline might also be an opportunity for the Cardinals to acquire some much-needed stability.

By our esteemed colleague Skyricesq’s count, the Cardinals currently have 6 players that will need to pass through waivers when the club activates their remaining COVID positives. Lane Thomas, Kodi Whitely, Rangel Ravelo, Carlos Martinez, Austin Dean, and Ryan Helsley are all still absent from the active roster. All of them, except Whitely, are either ready for a return to action or making themselves ready. That means the club will have to pass 5 players from their current 40-man roster through waivers to return these players to active duty. Other teams would have the opportunity to claim these players and the Cardinals would lose them with no compensation.

By my count, there are thirteen players on the Cardinals current 40 man roster who could be a candidate to be waived. I’ll divide those players into two categories: likely roster cuts and likely roster keeps.

Likely cuts (4): Nabil Crismatt, Jesus Cruz, Ryan Meisinger, Roel Ramirez,

Likely keeps (9): Rob Kaminsky*, Johan Oviedo, Ricardo Sanchez, John Nogowski, Rangel Ravelo, Max Schrock, Edmundo Sosa, Austin Dean, Justin Williams

I have put an asterisk next to Rob Kaminsky because he’s on the border for me. I think the Cardinals would like to keep him and I think he has a future in the league as a lefty who can perform passably well against righties. Because of that fact, I think it’s possible he could be claimed if placed on waivers.

If the Cardinals have 5-6 players that they will need to activate (depending on Whitely) and four players that they might be comfortable cutting, that means the club needs to either risk an additional player or two players or find a different way to clear roster space. That’s where the trade deadline might help.

Option 1: Pass Players Through Waivers While Teams are Finalizing Rosters

John Mozeliak alluded to this strategy in his interview with Saxon: “The one thing that might work out for us, timing-wise, is other teams might be dealing with roster crunches, too, as they navigate Aug. 31, so we may be able to get some people through, but there’s no guarantee it happens.”

In other words, with other teams finalizing their rosters for the postseason, 40-man rosters are going to fill up, hopefully leaving little space for non-competitive additions. Currently (Friday morning) all but six teams in the majors are within 4 games of the expanded playoffs. Those teams are not likely to devote vital 40-man roster space to players with little or no major league experience or upside. This might allow the club to sneak useful but non-impact players, like John Nogowski, Ricardo Sanchez, or the aforementioned Rob Kaminsky, through waivers without claims.

As Mozeliak said, however, there are no guarantees. While many of these players might never have a significant impact on a roster, most have the potential to play in the majors down the road. If these players are claimed, the Cardinals lose that potential production (however small) with nothing gained in return. It’s hard to blame the Caridnals for wanting to get something from every player they develop.

Option 2: Trade Roster Depth for Non-Roster Potential

That leads directly to option 2. The Cardinals could exchange today’s depth for tomorrow’s.

At the 2018 trade deadline, the Cardinals shipped out Tommy Pham, Oscar Mercado, Luke Voit, and Sam Tuivailala – all 40-man roster players – for a variety of non-roster prospects. These were not celebrated (or even successful) deals. However, the Cardinals did free up needed roster space at the time and acquired non-roster players who have emerged now as contributors, including Gio Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, and Seth Elledge.

Faced with a similar roster crunch – though under very different circumstances – the Cardinals could again move useful players now (even at a loss in trade value) to gain depth down the road.

Who could be moved in such a deal? Well, who are today’s versions of guys like Voit, Mercado, or Tuivailala? Comparables could include Justin Williams, Dean, Nogowski, Ravelo, Schrock, Lane Thomas, Junior Fernandez, or Jake Woodford. If the Cardinals could somehow get another Jhon Torres for Justin Williams or a future Seth Elledge for Junior Fernandez, I would call that a win, all things considered.

Consider also Tommy Pham. With a crush of outfielders needing playing time, the Cardinals could consider moving Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill for higher-end non-roster prospects. If Jose Martinez netted the Cardinals Matthew Liberatore, what could Bader or O’Neill bring?

Of course, the roster crunch mentioned earlier applies here. The Cardinals might have difficulty shedding useful weight in trade if other teams don’t have space to add players. Mo should make the phone calls and aggressively try to move players who aren’t immediately helping the club win.

Option 3: Use Roster Depth to Improve the Active Roster

This is what Cardinal fans want, right? After a poor offensive showing against the Pirates, grumblings about the anemic offense are growing louder. The pitching staff holding up its end of the bargain, but it’s difficult to ask the Cardinals run prevention to be perfect every night. Could the Cardinals use the trade deadline to make a significant addition to their roster?

This seems doubtful. First, since nearly the entire league is still in playoff contention, the list of sellers is small. Twenty or more teams will be competing with the Cardinals for the handful of impact players that the bottom third make available. The Cardinals don’t usually jump into those kinds of bidding wars.

Secondly, the Mozeliak and crew like to pretend their roster is so full of intriguing players that they couldn’t possibly add anyone else into the mix. The club is already having trouble finding playing time for O’Neill, Bader, and Thomas. Why would they get another outfielder? Carpenter, Edman and Miller are having to share time. Why would they want to look at a 3b’man or a DH?

The reasons why to do those things seem obvious to me: having depth is not having good depth. Having good depth is not as good as having great talent. Great talent is a step behind elite production. Do you follow me? The Cardinals, with a wealth of good-not-great players, have a dozen different ways to improve their roster, none of which they’re interested in making.

Here we are, as always, square-faced with the Cardinals’ biggest weakness in roster management: their desire to stick-with players that they’ve invested in and get-a-look at players they’ve developed inhibits their aggressiveness in pursuing upgrades to what is an obviously medicore roster.

So, what will the Cardinals do?

I wonder if the distractions of COVID, roster management, a million games in a handful of days, and the unknowns created by a compressed season and no minor leagues will paralyze the club. While I would like Mozeliak and Girsch to pursue option two and move some depth to create a little roster wiggle-room, I expect them to let the trade deadline pass without even a whisper, while trying to push some players through the waiver wire when no one is looking.

Skyricesq and others will have coverage of the deadline as it passes and any transactions that the Cardinals make. I’ll chirp about it here in the comments and on Twitter (@JPHill_Cards) as always. Enjoy your Saturday!