The Cardinals won yesterday! Not only did they win, they won in such a way that no reasonable person could possibly say anything negative about it. They faced one of the best pitchers in the league, and while he pitched like one of the best pitchers in the league, the Cardinals were able to score in one of the few opportunities they had and then they feasted on the Giants bullpen. Sure, Alex Reyes was shaky, but we all knew he was bound to give up runs and if one were to give up runs, doing so with a five-run lead is the way to do it. Using Reyes at all with a four-run lead is maybe questionable, but it didn’t become a four run lead until the last minute, and Reyes was ready and possibly had thrown enough warm-up pitches that today was essentially an appearance anyway.
But this article sort of assumes the downslide will continue despite one game, or at least that the Cardinals are in too much of a hole to recover. Which may or may not be true. We have a little over three weeks until the trading deadline, and there’s no reason to do anything, one way or the other, until the deadline. It is in the best interests of the Cardinals to wait until the very last minute to decide how to approach trades when the deadline comes. They could go 15-5 or 5-15, or 10-10. Until those games happen, they will not and should not do anything.
But let’s say, hypothetically, if one were running an Out of the Park Baseball team, and you had the current Cardinals team, and their situation is more or less the same when the deadline comes. You would absolutely sell right? In a video game where you can go strictly by the numbers and not worry about fan revolt or owner revolt or whatever outside influences that would lead you to not go by the numbers, you would sell. Which, in theory, means the Cardinals should sell. But who are they selling? Let’s look at some theoretical players to trade.
But first, if we’re selling, what’s our contending date? Do we expect the Cardinals to contend next year? 2023? Later than that? Because that is a very important question on who to sell. It doesn’t make any sense to trade players who are either under contract or under team control when you expect their next contending year to arrive. And here’s where we arrive at a fairly obvious point: if the Cardinals sell, the contending date is 2022. They have Nolan Arenado. They are not punting next year. They would not punt next year without Arenado in fact, because it’s kind of the Cardinals’ brand.
So leaving aside opinion in the matter, the Cardinals’ version of selling would be to restock for next year, not in a few years. So anybody who is a potential contributor to the 2022 playoff Cardinals probably shouldn’t be traded. And to figure out that, you simply need to think of the likelihood that they will be a significant contributor and the ease with which they would be replaced if traded now, and had to replace them. These questions are fairly easy to answer if they aren’t under contract next year, less so if they are.
Too expensive to trade
The Cardinals have a few players where trading them is simply a nonstarter because of their contract. You can hypothetically pick up some of the contract, but usually that just means you’re picking up enough to make the contract market value, which means virtually no value in return. We saw evidence of this in the Nolan Arenado trade in fact.
This category applies to Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Miles Mikolas (if he were healthy), Andrew Miller, and arguably Carlos Martinez too. Plus Arenado, but mostly because of the no trade clause and opt outs, which are two too many complications for most teams. Martinez would be a good bounceback candidate for next year, except his club option for $17 million is waaaaay more than he’d get on the open market no matter how well he finishes this year, which means his final two months are the only value you’d get and that’s only valuable to good teams, who would not gamble on Martinez with how poorly he’s pitched.
These players have, at minimum, three years of team control after this year. They are either valuable contributors to the Cardinals now and probably the future, or they aren’t, but they wouldn’t get anything in a trade anyway. Which is not to say the latter can’t be traded, but it will be a return nobody cares about.
For the starters, this applies to Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman, and Johan Oviedo. On the bench, Edmundo Sosa, Andrew Knizner, and Jose Rondon would qualify. And in the bullpen, you got Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Junior Fernandez, and Brandon Waddell. On the injured list right now, Kodi Whitley, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Dakota Hudson would also qualify, not that they can or will be traded, but I mentioned Mikolas above, so covering my bases.
Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright will not be traded. And I will insist to include Matt Carpenter in this category, although he’s definitely already covered by the too expensive category.
Alright now we’re getting somewhere. Players in arbitration could hypothetically be traded, because, even if they have more than this year of team control, they might have the right mix of tradability and replaceability. They both don’t have that many years until free agency and their reduced price could make whatever potential prospect they get worth more than what they would do here.
But this is not a great list to work with. Harrison Bader has been a 3.7 WAR per 600 PA player for his career, but injuries and ineffectiveness against right-handed pitchers leading to getting benched have put his benchmark at more like 400 PAs. So you have a much better than average player on a rate basis turn into a league average player - that is not a player you’re getting fair value for.
Plus, he’s done enough interesting things this year, that I absolutely do not want to give up on him. He has a 94 wRC+ with a .209 BABIP so far! He’s cut his K rate nearly in half. Yeah the sample size isn’t great, but if these changes indicate a change of some sort, even if small, he’s suddenly an above average hitter and an All-Star. Is it likely? Probably not. But it seems to be a much better gamble - with the downside being a league average player - than whatever prospect he would net in a trade.
Paul DeJong is not technically in arbitration anymore having signed a team friendly extension, but he fits the spirit here. And he would be an absolutely terrible player to trade right now, at the absolute lowest of his value. He is extraordinarily unlikely to be this bad, with a .185 BABIP, a career high BB rate, and a K rate that would be the second lowest of his career. Even if it made sense to trade him, now is not the right time to do it at all.
Alex Reyes also doesn’t make a ton of sense, especially if the Cards plan to stick him at a starter is still the plan. Because an All-Star closer is still less valuable than a good starter. And teams are aware that his advanced stats are not, uh, great. He’s walking too many hitters. He would really not net that much in a trade I don’t think, especially with his injury history.
John Gant is another player that just wouldn’t get anything in a trade. He was a reliever posing as a starter this year. The reliever version of him last year could have gotten something, but I think he may have tanked his value until he proves himself as a reliever again. Since he just moved to reliever, that is going to take more than three weeks. Apparently, 34-year-old Justin Miller is also in arbitration, but all you have to know about him is that he was freely available on waivers, so obviously no team is trading actual prospects for him.
Jack Flaherty and Jordan Hicks are both on the IL, but also wouldn’t make sense to trade now anyway.
Who to trade then?
I didn’t mention Wade LeBlanc, also had for free on waivers so same argument I had for Miller. And I didn’t mention any of the pre-arb minor leaguers, and only one name sticks out there and that’s Justin Williams. But he doesn’t really make sense to trade at the deadline at all. In fact, at some point this year, he should be in the majors to see if he improves or proves himself at all to be a major leaguer. He’s exactly the type of guy who should see playing time to a team who is writing this year off.
There’s really only one person who makes sense to trade: Kwang-Hyun Kim. He’s turning 33 later this month, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense to re-sign him beyond 2021. So trading him ruins no future plans. He has a very reasonable $4 million salary for this year, so just about anybody could trade for him. And while his advanced stats aren’t great, he’s only pitched 98 innings total in his career, which, combined with his KBO career, is absolutely an advantage for the Cards. His advanced stats aren’t necessarily what he is.
Here’s the kicker though: what would he get back? And would that return be worth, essentially announcing to the team: “we’ve given up on you.” It partially depends on where we’re at on July 31st, because while the odds of making the playoffs may be low, they could still be .500 and the return could be some team’s 15th best prospect. While I’m record as saying Arenado opting out isn’t necessarily a bad thing, doing things like that are the kind of things that would lead him to opt out. And there’s a difference between thinking it’s not bad, and making moves to make that actually happen. But maybe the Cards are 10 games below .500 and any reasonable person would understanding giving up. Who knows?
But the point is: once again, the Cardinals find themselves at the trading deadline and have essentially nobody really worth selling, except a 33-year-old starter with iffy advanced stats who might not even get a great return. So keep that in mind when you want the Cards to sell: there’s nothing to sell that makes sense.