The Cardinals Need to Trade for a Pitcher... But Who?

Editor's Note: Here is another installment in Fanpost Friday! The Cardinals rotation has been a topic of discussion all offseason and the team's slow start to the season hasn't really done much to silence those talks. In the Fanposts Jbalvie looks over some options the Cardinals might pursue if they wanted to add to their rotation and I thought it might be a fun topic of discussion! And of course, if you are inspired to write a Fanpost yourself, we have a helpful guide to help get you started!

The starting rotation, and its general lack of quality, is one of the dominant topics of discourse so far in the 2023 Cardinals season, as it had been for the past several years, and promises to continue its ubiquity as the season continues (unless some insane breakouts occur between now and August).
Here is a summary of the current position of Cardinals online groupthink (I mean that in a loving way) discourse:

  1. The starting rotation is, depending on what flavor of fan you are, either league average or somewhat below it, which is not good enough for a team with serious playoff aspirations.
  2. Much like in previous years, Mozeliak needs to make a trade for a starting pitcher to fix this situation and make the team a viable playoff contender.
  3. Ideally, Mo makes such a trade before the deadline this time.
  4. The Cardinals' staff is especially bad at getting swings and misses, so this pitcher should be more of a power pitcher who can strike people out.

Firstly, to address the substance of these arguments. The Cardinals' starting pitching is, as of April 17th, indeed below average in ERA, FIP, and K's/9, and average in xFIP. Though it's worth noting that, as the xFIP would indicate, there's definitely some potential for regression to the mean. They have a .357 BABIP against (tied for 2nd worst) and a 16.2% HR/FB rate. Put simply, there's no way either of these will continue over an entire season.

Regardless, it's important to note that the rotation situation this year is more complicated in years past. In case you've spent years of therapy trying to erase this from your mind, I'll remind you that in 2021 the rotation was in much more dire straits than the 2023 one: the Cardinals simply didn't have enough people who could just throw a baseball into that rectangle on TV for 5 innings, so it was easy for them to find cheap geriatrics from the scrapheap to do a decent job of that.

This year, things are more complicated. The Cardinals actually have more than 5 starting pitchers in Flaherty, Matz, Mikolas, Montgomery, Woodford, Waino, and potentially Liberatore; that's not the issue. The issue is that none of them inspire great confidence. Waino, at this point in his career, and Woodford to me are two classic archetypes of the prototypical #5 starter: the crafty veteran and the unheralded prospect. Montgomery and Mikolas are, I imagine, what you would get if you AI-generated some MLB #3 starters. Flaherty at his worst is probably a #4 and at his best is probably a #2, and we have no idea what Liberatore will be.

So the team has arguably 6 #3 or worse starters. This means the trades of years past, for fringe guys like JA Happ and Jon Lester or quality but not amazing guys like Quintana or Montgomery, make absolutely no sense anymore. Why would we get another #3 guy when we already have so many? We need someone who profiles as a #2 or #1, particularly because they can get whiffs, and is more than just a rental. Though we have some quality pieces to trade for that, it can't be someone so valuable that we have to sacrifice too much (both because the that's a sort of move we know Mozeliak would never do and because trading our pitching prospects for a pitcher now would be completely counterproductive).

So, though it's easy to say "Mo needs to trade for a starter!!!" the reality is significantly more complicated. We need a starter who:

  1. Has some control left (more than just this year).
  2. Can strike guys out.
  3. Isn't too pricey.
  4. Is an MLB pitcher right now.
On a team that:
  1. Has enough pitching depth to be willing to trade him.
  2. Needs more OF/DH/1B guys who can hit that the Cardinals can provide.
This narrows the Cardinals' options signficiantly. I'll use to approximate some trade values. Let's see what their options are (the good options will be in bold):

The Giants offense this year is pretty uninspiring and they could look to upgrade with a Cardinals OF, but they don't have a ton of pitching depth.

Anthony DeSclafani was injured all of last year but looks good so far this year and has another year of control, but he's older, and injury risk, and I think it's unlikely that the Giants would sell a veteran who clearly likes it there at his lowest value. He's a good option but I just don't think the Giants would do it; they'd have to throw in some prospects for it to be worth it for the Cardinals.

Sean Manaea isn't that great and walks a lot of guys. He's exactly the #3-ish kind of guy the Cardinals have too many of, though he achieves it in a different way.

The Dodgers always seem to have pitching coming out of the woodwork, but it's hard to imagine that they really need another outfielder too bad.

Julio Urias would be a pure rental but he's fantastic. He'd be the most fun option on this list, but giving up O'Neill or Carlson for half a year of him might be a tough price to pay. Also the Dodgers are contending as usual so I don't know if they'd trade him to another NL contender.

Dustin May is also fantastic but there's no way they should ever trade him; he's just too good and has too much potential and control left to realize it.

Basically the rest of their tradeable guys are injured, and the Dodgers would never sell low, and the Cardinals need someone who can actually pitch now.

The Rockies could actually really use someone like an O'Neill or Carlson to hit nukes in Coors and play some solid defense in that massive outfield.

German Marquez would actually be a solid choice. He is probably the best pitcher in Rockies franchise history (I'm not kidding) and has a club option for next year. He doesn't quite have the numbers one might like, but you could maybe dream that he'd get better outside of Coors, also he got injured in his start against the Cardinals which is worrying. He'd be pretty cheap, and the Rockies aren't very good at the whole trading thing so we could maybe get them to pay his salary or something.

Arizona has some good options, while San Diego really doesn't, but neither have enough rotation depth to where they'd be willing to trade away a starter.

In division, really the only intriguing team is the Reds (no way the Brewers trade anyone to us, and the Cubs and Pirates don't have anyone who fits our target build).

I'll be honest, I don't actually think Hunter Greene is any good, and Graham Ashcraft is more of a pitch-to-contact guy which isn't what we're looking for, though he'd be a good option.

The big fish would be Nick Lodolo, but the problem is that most of the Cardinals' trade chips are MLB-ready guys, but the Reds have no reason to trade for MLB-ready guys since they're rebuilding. Also, I know the Castellinis are cruel owners, but trading their best young pitcher to a division rival is maybe a little cruel even for their blood. A trade would require something like Winn, Graceffo, and maybe Herrera too. I don't see any way they could do it without Winn or Hence (and trading Hence would be dumb; I'm okay with trading Graceffo because he profiles as essentially what the Cardinals already have). I think it'd be worth it (Lodolo is really good, and he has 4 years of control left), but seeing Masyn Winn throw howitzers from short on the Reds would hurt, and I don't think the Reds would do it anyway.

The Mets have a great OF already and don't have enough pitching to start trading guys, and it's more or less the same story with the Phillies.

The Nationals would also probably not want MLB-ready guys, so we'd need to trade some prospects.

MacKenzie Gore looks good but is walking everyone, which is not exactly what the Cardinals want or are good at fixing. I'm not sure why the Nats would trade him, but he'd be basically a cheaper Lodolo alternative, and the Cardinals could definitely put a deal together that'd work.

If you were to draw up a team that is exactly the sort the Cardinals would want to make this sort of trade with, the Marlins would be that team. Lots of pitching but no hitting, they could really use a Yepez or O'Neill just to give Luis Arraez some protection.

Jesus Luzardo would be the perfect choice, but I'd take Trevor Rogers too, even though he's been bad for a while. Neither would be super expensive. A one-for-one trade for either of those and Tyler O'Neill would be approximately equal value (it'd actually be slight Cardinals overpay, they could throw in a prospect or two).

Neither the Angels or Astros have any reason to trade starters for hitters. The Rangers don't have anyone who they'd trade and the Cardinals would want.

The Mariners don't have much of a reason to trade for more hitters either, but Matt Brash has absolutely insane stuff, so good that he has 0.90 FIP this year despite walking a million guys. He'd be my pick (Kirby and Gillbert would be way too expensive), and he wouldn't be super expensive, but I doubt the Mariners would trade him and I don't think there's much the Cardinals could offer that they'd want.

The Guardians' primary issue right now is rotation depth, so there's no reason to trade anyone. If the White Sox tear it down, then sign me up for Dylan Cease since he's maybe the best pitcher in the American League but he'd come with a price tag to match. The Twins are contending in large part due to their starters so they shouldn't trade any. The Tigers don't have anyone worthwhile who's healthy. Brady Singer is a little too expensive and is more of a control guy with the Royals, and they don't have anyone else interesting.

The Yankees don't have anyone they'd part with. The Blue Jays would be crazy to trade Gausman but I'd take him (Manoah is way too valuable). The Red Sox's rotation is terrible so no reason for them to make it worse. Same with the Orioles.

On the Rays, Tyler Glasnow is a fantastic pitcher with a year of control left. The Rays don't really need another starting pitcher and could use some more lineup pop. He's coming back from injury in May, and I think it's a real possibility they could trade him. Everyone knows the Rays will trade him sooner or later so they don't have to pay him, probably even if they're selling a little low. A one for one swap for O'Neill would be about equal value. It'd be risky because he hasn't pitched about a calendar year now, but he was so good that there's room for him to fall and still be a solid #1 for the Cardinals. Also I'll admit I'm biased because he seems like a really good guy too.

And that's all the teams.

So, I'd say the Cardinals options, ranked from best to worst (in terms of arbitrary realistic possibility in my head), are the following:

Tyler Glasnow
German Marquez
Jesus Luzardo
Trevor Rogers
MacKenzie Gore
Nick Lodolo
Matt Brash
Julio Urias
Anthony DeSclafani

In my opinion, Glasnow is the best option, even though trading with the Rays scares me a lot.

EDIT 4/21: With Jeffrey Springs long-term injury for the Rays, they now have an open slot in their rotation that Glasnow would fill nicely. Though I still think they'll trade him, because they won't pay him, I doubt it'll be this year.
Also, if the White Sox go down the tubes, then I think Giolito would be a great option, but much like his high school classmate Flaherty, he's a free agent after this year, so he wouldn't fit the ideal build.