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(Not) Making Sense of the Cardinals’ Trade Deadline

The Cardinals traded for Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. Why? Uh... innings?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Well… I… Uh… Hmm… But…

That pretty much sums up my immediate reaction to the Cardinals’ trade deadline. Let’s talk about what happened and then try to make sense of why it happened and how you should feel about it.

What the Cardinals did: Trade for Old Lefty Starters

The Cardinals made two trades this afternoon:

The first move was trading Jon Gant and minor leaguer Evan Sisk for Twins’ starter J.A. Happ.

It’s hard to characterize this deal as anything except strange. Gant is 28. He’s been an effective reliever. He was miscast as a starter this season and was a barely above replacement level player: .1 fWAR. He’s making just $2.1M on the season and has a season of team control remaining. Sisk is an intriguing arm in AA: a 24-year-old lefty reliever with impressive strikeout totals and issues with walks.

Happ, on the other hand, is a 38-year-old lefty starter with a 5.40 FIP on the season and exactly replacement level stats – 0.0 fWAR. He’s making $8M – 4 times Gant’s salary.

This is a stream of consciousness piece, so I’ll just say what I’m thinking: I’m having a lot of trouble understanding how a year of John Gant + Evan Sisk is worth two months of a replacement-level lefty. Really can’t explain it. The Cardinals took on salary, gave up years of control, and threw in a minor leaguer to get a bad, old player who is a pending free agent. *shrug emoji*

Then there was the second move:

The Cardinals acquired Jon Lester from the Nationals in exchange for outfielder Lane Thomas. This move is a little more straightforward. Lester is a former star pitcher who has settled in as a replacement-level starter in his dotage. He has a 5.41 FIP this season following a 5.14 FIP in 2020. His ERA for the last two years has been over 5.00. He’s been worth just .3 FWAR combined in 136.1 innings over that time frame.

Thomas has fallen out of favor with the front office. He’s struggled offensively and defensively when he’s been with the big club. His combined value in 2020 and 2021 for the Cards is -.7 fWAR. He does continue to hit in the minor leagues, with a 108 wRC+ at Memphis in 127 PAs on the season. He was a classic “change of scenery” trade candidate for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals are probably taking on the remainder of Lester’s $5M salary for this season.

Why the Cardinals did it: Innings Protection and Clearing Roster Space… I guess?

If you’re looking for some kind of brilliant explanation from me for why the Cardinals made these moves, then you’re going to be disappointed. I think two things are going on, which I try to outline here:

1. The Cardinals gain “innings security”.

For a while now Mozeliak has reiterated that he is looking for one thing at the deadline: innings, innings, innings. Not necessarily good innings. Or bad innings. Just innings. The Cardinals feel like they need someone (or several someones) who can come in and just pitch.

I don’t know why they feel that Jake Woodford and Wade LeBlanc and Johan Oveido and Angel Rondon and Matthew Liberatore and John Gant and the half dozen nameless waiver wire pitchers they’ve cycled through can’t give them “innings” but clearly, the club believes they can’t.

I could argue that the Cardinals think that Lester and Happ will give them “good” innings but that would be dumb. You all would laugh me off this website. There’s just no way that Mozeliak and company can look at the recent production of either Lester and Happ and believe that their best is yet to come.

I mean… they can’t honestly believe that, right? Right? Surely not.

They know those two are little more than replacement-level arms. So, they’ve decided it’s better to exchange young replacement-level arms for old replacement-level arms to protect those young replacement-level arms for … wait for it… future replacement-level production! Why risk Jake Woodford’s replacement-level production now when you might need his replacement-level production in 2023!

And as I write this, the Cards’ beat writers confirm this approach. From Katie Woo:

2. The Cardinals clear roster space for 2022.

This is pretty much meaningless but I’ll mention it anyway. Happ and Lester are free agents after the season. Gant had another season of arbitration and with half a season of starts this year, he would have earned a sizable bump in salary. Thomas occupied a roster spot and the club apparently had no intention of using him going forward.

Moving two assets that were under control for two pending free agents clears two roster spots for 2022. Does that mean anything?

Nope, not a bit. The Cardinals could have just non-tendered Gant in the offseason, making him a free agent. And they could DFA Thomas at any time.

However, those moves bring nothing to the Cardinals besides 2022 roster flexibility. So, they made the moves early and instead of getting nothing, they get their desired “innings security”. That’s… something, I guess?

Happ and Lester, along with Carpenter, Martinez (whose option will certainly be declined), Molina, Wainwright, LeBlanc, and I-don’t-know-who from among the slew of waiver-wire relievers will all be free agents after the season. That’s a lot of gained roster spots for Rule 5 additions and acquisitions during the off-season.

What the Cardinals didn’t do: Buy or Sell.

As has become a tradition at the deadline for the Cardinals, the team was neither buyers nor sellers. Their moves can’t be construed as anything other than lateral. (Or as Mozeliak put it, “settled”.)

Should they have been buyers?

If you’ve read my work lately, you’ll know my answer. Definitely not. There was no reason to give up significant prospects to improve upon postseason odds that have remained below 5% for the entire month of July.

On Friday morning, there was the tiniest bit of Cardinals’ smoke around Twins pitcher Jose Berrios. Berrios is a very good starter under contract for 2022. If the club was going to buy, that’s a deal that would have made sense. Berrios would have immediately become the Cards’ best starter now and would be their second-best starter through next season.

Berrios ended up getting traded for two highly regarded draft picks – both top 50 talents. As former Birdo Ben Humphreys would say, that’s well beyond Mozeliak’s #pukepoint. I really can’t blame him. Berrios for Liberatore and Gorman would have been hard to swallow.

Significant buying was just never in the cards. After the deadline had passed, Mozeliak reiterated that at no point were any of the club’s top 5 prospects available. Per Jeff Jones:

Should they have been sellers?

If you’ve read my work lately, you’ll know my answer: Definitely yes. This looks like a seller’s market, with significant prospects being moved for all kinds of talent. It was one of the most active deadlines that MLB has seen in a long time. The Cardinals should have gotten in on some of that action beyond Gant and Thomas for aging lefties of negligible value.

Their best trade piece was probably Kwang-Hyun Kim. In the end, his value on the market was debatable as so many other pieces moved. Would we all agree, though, that Kim is significantly more valuable than Lester or Happ?

Happ brought back an arb-eligible swingman (Gant) and a lively-armed AA reliever (Sisk). Lester brought back an MLB-ready utility outfielder (Thomas) who has flashed some tools.

Ok, bump Gant, Sisk, or Thomas up a notch or two and we find KK’s potential trade value. Instead of a swing arm, maybe that’s a quality prospect starter – maybe someone in the Angel Rondon to Zach Thompson range? Instead of Thomas, maybe that’s a MLB-ready outfield prospect with a starter’s upside – someone in the Nick Plummer to Alec Burleson range, perhaps?

I’m projecting a bit here, but I would have ecstatically exchanged Kim and a little of that “innings security” for any player at any position in the range presented above, plus or minus some value. Those are players who could impact the Cardinals’ future well beyond the next two months of Kim’s current contract.

Alas, it was not to be.

The Cardinals did not explore selling off other possible assets. For example, Jeff Jones reported that they did not approach Andrew Miller about a deal:

Of course, they didn’t! He’s old. And left-handed. And not very good. As evidenced by the players they acquired and kept, Miller perfectly fits what the Cardinals want! (And now for the day’s best Tweets...)

How Should you Feel About the Deadline?

I think our own John LaRue summed it up the best:

And speaking of Halloween, there’s also this, which should make you feel better:

It could be worse! We could be the Cubs… who at least made a decision – to sell – and then took decisive action to improve their future outlook.

The trade deadline is over. The Cards have, in Mozeliak’s own words, “settled”. Mediocrity abounds. And we have to watch every old lefty in the league pitch on a nightly basis.

But it’s Friday night. It’s a bit cooler. And I’m heading to the lake tomorrow.

Enjoy your weekend!