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Saturday SOC: the Cardinals’ Sketchy History of Trading for Starters

Some stream of consciousness thoughts on Mo’s admission that the club needs outside help, with a reality check on what that probably means.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets

The Cardinals have a real pitching depth problem.

The latest casualty on the club’s growing casualty list is Jack Flaherty. Last week, the Cardinals ace felt tightening in his back while pitching. The next half inning, he swung the bat anyway and the tightening became an oblique tear that will keep him out for “a while”.

Just a week or so before that, Miles Mikolas returned to action following a long recovery from forearm and shoulder tightness. Now he’s got some kind of calcification thing on his elbow and .....

Ok, you know what? You don’t want the whole injury breakdown. The bottom line is that Mikolas is out. And Flaherty is out. And Hudson was already out. And the Cardinals are without 3/5ths of their rotation options for most of 2021.

That’s ok because the club had built-in rotation depth, right? They knew about Husdon, so they re-upped with Waino. Mikolas was an early spring issue, so they prepped Gant to start. Both moves helped ease pressure on the club’s stable of young, developing arms, all of whom missed a year of development because of COVID. They also had Ponce de Leon and Jake Woodford ready to go. And there was Johan Oviedo, who really needed a full season in AAA, but since he was on the 40, he could be used on a temporary basis to cover for injury.

It’s only June and the Cardinals have already dredged the bottom of their starter pool.

The bullpen situation has made things worse.

Hicks is out. Andrew Miller missed time with ineffectiveness... I mean a blister. The rest of the bullpen got together in committee to decide that walks were cool and strikes drool. Tyler Webb paid the price for that with this baseball life this week, God rest his soul.

Now the Cardinals have massive gaps in their rotation. They have a huge chunk of their bullpen that can’t be trusted for low-leverage innings when the club is losing.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that Mike Shildt only has five pitchers out of twenty-one to chose from that he can trust to not turn a game into a blowout: Adam Wainwright, Gio Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, Kwang-Hyun Kim (update: who is now hurt...), and Alex Reyes. And those guys aren’t without their warts.

Oh, ok. Fine. Throw John Gant in there, too. But that walk rate. Sheesh.

With all these issues, plus some persistent injuries and problems on the offensive side, it’s amazing to me that they are still 5 games over .500 (as of Friday afternoon.) It shows how good this club can be when it is (relatively) healthy and performing (somewhat) as expected.

The Cardinals have a serious pitching problem. And they know it.

Normally Mozeliak would just cycle guys down to Memphis and give other youngsters a shot. But the pandemic has initiated a “don’t touch” policy with a lot of the intriguing arms down there.

Mo reiterated that when asked about it late this week, suggesting that the club would rather go outside of the organization for immediate help than promote players who still needed time to develop.

That was a fairly shocking admission from an organizational head who has taken pride in the system’s ability to have major league quality talent ready just when it’s needed.

It’s probably not a popular take — I know it wouldn’t be on Cardinals’ Twitter or Facebook — but the club’s current depth crisis doesn’t seem like one born of roster construction or developmental failures. The Cardinals trusted that guys like (in no particular order) Oviedo, Whitley, Elledge, Fernandez, Helsley, and Ponce would be able to make up for the inevitable injuries up and down the pitching line. It was a reasonable bet based on projections and minor league profiles.

Honestly, this roster should work. If just 2-3 of those players were pitching at their 50th percentile projections, the club would probably be ok.

They aren’t doing that. Things are not ok.

You know its bad when Mozeliak himself admits that they need outside help and they need it now.

So, he’s attuned his iPhone, equipped his “+1 Bowtie of Charisma” and headed out with young Girsch into the foreboding wasteland of the early June trade market.

Cardinals fans on the aforementioned social media sites are abuzz, eagerly awaiting the inevitable announcement of the Max Scherzer + Shohei Ohtani + cash for Edmundo Sosa + Matt Carpenter or Tyler Webb trade. (Yes, I know Scherzer and Ohtani play for different teams but giving up a talent like Sosa should be enough to make the deal work anyway. Get ‘er done, Mo! #Twitter.)

Our own John LaRue gave us a little taste of the complexities involved in a deal for Sherzer here. Give it a read.

I know how much Cardinals fans like to play in the mental playground of blockbuster deals. l don’t want to be the face-full of icy water but the club’s history of pre-deadline trades under crisis should inspire expectations a bit lower.

No, lower.

Seriously. Lower.

In 2007, the Cardinals were struggling through their Kip Wells period. Braden Looper was in the rotation... a move that is strikingly similar to John Gant right now. Anthony Reyes was already looking forward to fighting fires.

The club was desperate for rotation help. So, they reached out to the Detroit Tigers and acquired Mike Maroth. Maroth had been pretty rough for the Tigers that year, but had some ok seasons in his recent past. Expectations were low, but LaRussa hoped he could at least cover innings. He cost the Cardinals the infamous Player to be Named Later, who turned out to be former first-rounder Chris Lambert.

Maroth was terrible for the Cardinals. He started seven games and pitched in 14 more, only netting the club 38 innings. His ERA was 10.66. His WHIP was over 2. He’d fit right in with this 2021 pitching staff.

When Maroth failed to provide the necessary help, the club went back to the well at the deadline, acquiring Joel Pineiro. Pineiro was solid down the stretch and stuck around for two more seasons.

In 2014, the Cardinals were also desperate for starters. They cycled about a half-dozen arms in and out of the rotation, including the unforgettable Nick Greenwood, before giving up in late July and snagging Justin Masterson.

Masterson had been good/bad/good/bad for the Indians. in ‘14, he missed time with an injury, and the Cards took a risk on him when he was set to return. Despite the fact that he was traded while injured and not all that good, Masterson still cost the Cardinals former first-rounder James Ramsey.

Masterson was a bit better than Mike Maroth, but still pretty rough. The club gave him 6 starts and 30 innings. He gave the club an ERA over 7.

As in 2007, the Cardinals didn’t stop at one starter added. Not long after Masterson arrived, they brought in John Lackey. Lackey settled the rotation down with 10 average-ish starts and returned for another season before finishing out with the Cubs.

On deadline day in 2010, the Cards picked up Jake Westbrook in a three-way that sent Ryan Ludwick away. Westbrook was, well, Westbrook for the Cardinals.

Going back further, I can only find one other pre-deadline day trade for a starter since 2000. Chuck Finley, who was a very good starter in his prime, was acquired from the Indians in mid-July in 2002. He was 39 years old and still slinging it pretty well. He was solid for the Cardinals in their playoff run that year.

In the 2000s, the Cardinals frequently added starters. Most of the time they waited out the market to buy in August, when the clearance shopping was at its peak. Woody Williams was a post-deadline acquisition in 2001. Sterling Hitchcock was, too, though much less desirable results, in 2003. John Smoltz came over in mid-August as a free-agent signing (I believe) and he will forever be a Cardinal in my mind.

That should clue you in on what Mozeliak means when he says he’s looking for outside help this far from the trade deadline. The only names to comp are Mike Maroth, a 39-year old Chuck Finley (twenty years ago), and an injured Justin Masterson (and he didn’t arrive until July 30th).

It should also give you an idea of just how pricey even bad additions are before the deadline. All those pre-deadline adds required first-round caliber talent or intriguing prospects (Coco Crisp) in trade.

So, when Mozeliak says he’s looking outside the organization, you probably shouldn’t imagine Max Scherzer in a Cards uni by the end of the weekend. Instead, find the current version of Maroth, Finley, or Masterson and prepare yourself to give up something more than the current version of Nick Greenwood to get it.

Or they could just sign Rick Porcello. And since they need infield help, maybe grab Pete Kozma, too. I always thought they could have both players. (A few of you will get the reference.)

Sorry to leave you with that image on a Saturday. Surely the Cardinals’ pitching staff will right itself soon. Surely. Surely?

Have a great weekend!