The 2021 Cardinals never had an especially large margin for error—and that was the case before the entire roster decided to collectively break. After dropping four of the past five series (the lone win against a Diamondbacks team with the worst record in baseball), I think Cardinals fans (and writers) have decided to bury our heads in the sand and find ways to talk about anything but the current on-field situation. Thus, we find ourselves in the kicking-the-tires-on-hypothetical-trades-but-not-really-because-we-all-know-Scherzer-to-St-Louis-isn’t-going-to-happen phase of the season.
Of course, there is still lots of baseball to be played between now and July 30. (MLB is moving the trade deadline up a day this year to avoid last-second trade negotiations coinciding with afternoon games.) But with Kwang Hyun Kim joining Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas on the IL, those last two expected to miss substantial time, it’s hard to imagine this pitching staff (which already ranks 23rd, 24th, and dead last in ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-, respectively) doing much more than treading water. That puts the Cardinals in a predicament: we aren’t talking about potential trades to get a bona fide contender over the hump so much as we are reinforcements just to stay in the hunt. All of this is to say that short of a sudden turnaround in the next month-plus, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Cardinals could genuinely justify pitching acquisitions beyond Human With A Functioning Arm To Eat Innings.
On the other hand, the NL Central is bad. As in, the division has no good baseball teams. If we use third-order win%, defined by Baseball Prospectus as “a team’s projected winning percentage, based on underlying statistics and adjusted for quality of opponents,” all five clubs “should” have a losing record entering play today. As a result, the Cardinals are still only 2.5 games back even with their recent woes and the Brewers winning nine of their last 10. One complicating factor, however, is the state of the wild card race. FanGraphs’ playoff odds essentially have the Dodgers and Padres as locks to win either the NL West or first wild card. Their projections remain skeptical of the Giants, but San Francisco has banked a 6.5 game lead over St. Louis in the standings. So FanGraphs only gives the Cardinals a 9.6% chance in the Central, and their wild card probability (4.7%) is even slimmer since they would need to overtake one of SF/SD/LAD and one of CHC/MIL while also holding off the Braves and Phillies.
That raises of question of what exactly the Cardinals as sellers would look like. Looking at their payroll table, there aren’t many players that seem like obvious trade deadline candidates. Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright aren’t going anywhere. Neither Andrew Miller nor Matt Carpenter would net much in return. Kim is the only other plausible rental, but he’s currently on the IL for the second time this season. Noteworthy trades in this scenario, if any, would presumably be lateral moves like [insert outfielder] for [insert young talent].
Barring a change in circumstances, the Cardinals aren’t in a position to truly buy or sell. Welcome to trade deadline purgatory.