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Building a Trade Deadline Strategy

The Cardinals needs are obvious, but how should they prioritize them?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline is less than a month away and the St. Louis Cardinals have some serious needs, but most of those needs can be filled simply by better health. Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader are missed, Dylan Carlson’s been roughed up a bit. Brendan Donovan has missed a few games. Steven Matz and Jack Flaherty haven’t pitched since 1922. The list goes on.

Simply put. This team is better than it has played in this recent cold spell. A fully healthy Cardinals team doesn’t look like that.

Health isn’t going to solve every problem, though. The starting pitching could use a boost and the catcher position has simply been terrible. So, Jeff Jones’ report shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

Now we know what the Cardinals are thinking, but the question then becomes: Is this the right approach? Well for starters, the right areas have been identified, but I’m not so sure that pitching is a greater need than catching.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know how bad the rotation has been recently, but I don’t think this cold stretch l demonstrates the true talent level of the rotation.

Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright are objectively good pitchers. Mikolas is within the top 30 starters in terms of fWAR and is even better when it comes to ERA (14th). The name Miles Mikolas may not scream number 1 starter to you, but he has pitched like one.

Adam Wainwright may be old and past his prime, but he’s also 22nd in ERA among qualified starters. I feel pretty comfortable with him as the number 2.

Now, again, don’t get me wrong. I would LOVE a true number 1 starter on this team and that would be a huge boost to the rotation. A true number 1 paired with Mikolas and Waino would give this team a really good rotation. Despite that, I think the team can refrain from paying a heavy prospect price to acquire one right now.

If the team goes out and gets Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas, then great. This is a really good roster and I wouldn’t mind seeing the front office roll the dice a little bit and see what this team can do in the playoffs. Still, I think that a mid-tier rotation option would do wonders for this team.

Before I continue, let me make one point clear. I still believe in Steven Matz. And by that, I mean that I still believe in Steven Matz’s ability to be an effective mid-to-back-end starter.

Sure his first nine starts didn’t go well. He’s at a 6.03 ERA and 4.25 FIP (that FIP really isn’t terrible). But do you know what his expected ERA and expected FIP are? 4.09 and 2.99, respectively.

His strikeouts are up and his walks are down. His main problem has been the long ball as his HR/FB of 21.1% is well above his career average and his HR/9 is in the same boat. I don’t think that’s gonna last all year. When he comes back, and he’s coming back soon, I expect him to provide a boost to the rotation, not drag it down further.

So, that’s three rotation spots that are safe. Mikolas and Wainwright and the top and Matz somewhere near the bottom. That leaves two spots, likely to be filled by Andre Pallante, Matthew Liberatore, or Dakota Hudson.

It would be foolish to back on Jack Flaherty this year. He’s out until at least the middle of August but probably longer and there’s no guarantee that he’ll even be able to pitch again this season.

So, this is where I’ll say the team needs to add. Again, if they want to add a higher end option, that’s great, but a dependable 3 or 4 starter to fill in the rotation gaps would be huge.

Each of Pallante, Libby, and Hudson has his flaws and of the three, I probably feel the best about Pallante. As a starter, Pallante has a 4.34 ERA. Hudson has a 4.00 ERA but is fading fast, and Liberatore is a distant third at 4.74.

Adding a starter and letting this trio battle for the final spot in the coming weeks would be the best way to improve this rotation. Dropping down to one 4.00 ERA guy instead of two and adding someone in the 3.50 range would be a huge benefit.

To me, though, the the biggest hole is at catcher, not in the rotation. Yadier Molina, Austin Romine, Andrew Knizner, and Ivan Herrera have combined for -0.9 fWAR. That’s well below replacement level and only Yadi, with a measly 46 wRC+, has been able to provide replacement level production. And he’s back home in Puerto Rico with an injury.

We can talk about how bad the starting pitching is all we want, and really it’s only had a bad stretch and not a bad season, but there is no world in which the rotation is worse than the catcher’s spot.

The biggest way for the Cardinals to improve without forking over some of their favorite prospects, is by trading for a decent catcher. Going from -0.9 fWAR to 0.9 fWAR is a massive jump. And a 0.9 fWAR catcher isn’t even that great.

There have been 19 catchers with at least 1 fWAR this season, so the Cards wouldn’t even need to look at a top 20 catcher to find 0.9 fWAR. In fact, Christian Bethancourt is someone I would have been interested in, but the Rays beat the Cardinals to the punch last week.

This is such an easy place for the Cardinals to upgrade, it would be ridiculous if they didn’t.

I get the whole Yadi farewell tour thing, and I respect it, but we don’t even know when he’s gonna be back. And, when he does come back, do you really want to have Knizner or Romine catch the games that Molina doesn’t? That’s a no. A very large no.

Molina is just a replacement level player right now. The Cardinals can still play the sentimental card and throw him out there when he comes back, but trading for a catcher who could take 55-60% of the starts and actually give the team production would be huge.

If the Cardinals really want to limit the prospect haul they would need to surrender then they can shop on the rental catcher market, but they shouldn’t be worried about signing a guy with another year after this one. After all, Molina will be gone and the only starting option is Ivan Herrera, and he didn’t exactly shine in his first major league stint.

I’m not saying that he can’t be a starter next year, and he didn’t get consistent playing time when he was up earlier, but the point is that we just don’t know how good he’s going to be at the major league level next year.

It’s hard for a catcher to make the jump from Triple-A to the majors. That’s nothing against Herrera, who’s still a super promising prospect, but is he going to be ready to take over as the full time starter when he’s 23 and has just 22 MLB plate appearances to his name? I don’t know, but a team serious about contending shouldn’t take the risk of leaving the position unfortified.

If the Cards don’t get a catcher for next season, then who is backing up Herrera. Knizner? That’s not exactly a recipe for success.

In fact, I think it’s time for the Cardinals to move on from Knizner. Prospect pedigree is one thing, but he can’t hit and he’s a bat first catcher. He’s not particularly young anymore at 27 years old, and he’s been worth -1.9 fWAR in his career. He simply isn’t a backup catcher for a team with playoff of championship aspirations. He should be a reclamation project for a cellar dweller instead.

Normal teams, meaning teams who haven’t employed an insanely durable hall of fame catcher for the last 19 years, need two reliable catchers anyways. Knizner is definitely not that and we don’t yet know if Herrera will be next year.

A trade for a rental would be great, but a trade for a backstop who can contribute next year would solve two problems.

This may have been less of a concern if the Cards had given Herrera more of a chance, but they didn’t. I mean, come on, can he really be worse than Knizner, he of the .178 batting average, 10th percentile framing, and low defensive grades? I think not.

If the Cards had played Herrera more, they could have figured out what they had. If he’s bad, then trade for a catcher for this year and the next. If he’s good, then you’re set for this season and really only need a sturdy backup next year.

Things could have been so much simpler, and, at worst, the Cards would have gotten the same amount of production they got from the current catching duo, which is to say, none.

I get the whole long term development concern for Herrera, but there’s something to be said about struggling in the majors and being given the chance to adjust. I would have liked to see him play more, if not simply because it would have made the catching situation much clearer with the trade deadline approaching.

Even so, the team should trade for a catcher. To quote Jeff Jones’ above report, there should be no “potentially” about it.

Here’s an interesting wrinkle. It appears that the Cards are looking for more than just pitching and catching. Here’s the report from Jon Morosi.

Now, I read this report as saying two things. The first being that the Cards have checked in with the Nats and the second being that the Cards are looking for offense. That seems to be what the tweet says, but Mozeliak has yet to say anything about looking for offensive upgrades apart from the catcher position (unless I missed something).

Since the Nats catcher is 23-year-old Keibert Ruiz (formerly a Dodgers top prospect), it seems that the Cards weren’t reaching out to them for catching help. So, maybe Josh Bell? He’s a great hitter but he would take over the everyday DH role, which leaves scraps for Juan Yepez unless he would be included in the trade. That would also mean Pujols getting phased out of the DH spot since Bell is a switch hitter, so that doesn’t seem likely.

I would take the Nats report as the Cards doing their due diligence, but it does bring up an interesting point. Where would the team upgrade the lineup? And if the Cards are looking for an offensive upgrade, why hasn’t Alec Burleson gotten a shot yet? He almost certainly would be more productive than Conner Capel, Corey Dickerson and Lars Nootbaar (yesterday’s game notwithstanding).

Much like Herrera, playing Burleson could have made things clearer. I would have loved to have seen those two in the lineup together in the last two weeks or so instead of whatever combination of unproductive players was used every day.

Who knows how long Bader is going to be out with his foot injury? The Cards missed an opportunity to give Burleson a few weeks (at least) of regular playing time. Instead we get to see Yepez in the outfield instead of DHing, which means more of Pujols DHing, and we get to see Capel, Dickerson, and Nootbaar in the other corner.

Again, if the Cardinals want to upgrade the offense, there’s no easier way to do it than by trading for a catcher. Quite frankly, the rest of the offense is fine and I wouldn’t waste prospects trying to improve on a strength instead of focusing on weaknesses. Use those prospects to get another starter and a competent catcher.

So, to get back to the title of this piece, my trade deadline strategy would have two priorities. Instead of labeling them 1 and 2, I’ll label them 1a and 1b because both of them should have high priority.

1a.) Find a major league catcher. And by ‘major league’ I mean literally someone who’s above replacement level. Preferably well above.

1b.) Get another reliable starter. He doesn’t need to be a top end starter (though that would be great too), but he does need to be dependable.




3.) A non-catching offensive player. I’m really not concerned about the offense. Again, any improvements are welcome, but I would prefer another starter instead of another hitter.

The Cards had a rough stretch, but as J.P said not too long ago, “they’re fine”. They seem to have gotten out of their rut and gone back to being a good team. Adding a few pieces could make this team even more dangerous.