Over the next few days, you’ll hear fans, pundits, talking heads, national reporters give their opinion on what the Cardinals need to do this trading deadline. And while an opportunity may present itself, there’s really only one thing they have to do: trade the impending free agents. Well, if there’s a market for them, which is mostly me taking a shot at Drew VerHagen. But that’s it. They don’t need to get a 2024 rotation piece out of this deadline, they don’t need to trade Tyler O’Neil or Dylan Carlson or any of the position player depth.
I’m not saying these things can’t happen. I’m saying they don’t have to happen. You can’t force it. With the impending free agents, it’s a simple process: their value over the next two months to the Cardinals does not matter, so you take whatever the best offer is. You don’t need to take the best offer for Tyler O’Neill, because it might not be good. Maybe somebody buys into his upside, but if O’Neill has a two-month stretch to end this season that parallels his 2021, there’s a strong chance the return will be greater in the offseason.
But I want to speak about how Jon Morosi claimed the Cardinals need to trade for two rotation spots and be willing to part with Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, and Lars Nootbaar to do it. Or more generally, assuming that the impending free agents don’t return a 2024 rotation piece that we “need” (as in not better than Miles Mikolas), that we should trade cost controlled and proven MLB position players for starting pitchers at the deadline.
This... makes no sense. Why in the hell would the Cardinals pay for cost controlled pitching right now, which will be an additional two months of value that the Cardinals have no use for, instead of in the offseason? Again, the Cardinals may do something like this, because a trade makes sense and they know it won’t be available later, but to think they have to get a 2024 rotation piece seems stupid to me. You’re paying extra for games that do not matter to the Cardinals.
There is one exception: injured pitchers. Injured pitchers are actually a big risk, but they also make sense. They should come at a reduced price. And in theory, they’ll be healthy by the time the Cardinals could use them. Of course, you do need two to tango and most teams don’t like to trade pitchers at their lowest value. So it would have to make sense for them too. The team would have to be competing for a playoff spot. They need to have a hole in either their lineup or rotation that the Cardinals could help with.
And here’s the hardest part: there probably needs to be a reason beyond those two for why exactly they would trade a pitcher at their lowest value. There are three possibilities. One is that the pitcher is a risky bet and the team wants to jump on getting value just in case. Imagine if Tyler O’Neill was injured right now for instance. A second reason is that the team would be happy to get rid of their salary. A third reason is that the pitcher is expendable, or the team thinks he is. Basically an injured version of the Jordan Montgomery trade.
So I went through each team’s injured list and paid specific attention to the 60 day injured list. There are actually a lot of names. I stuck to the proven names, the guys who have actually succeeded at the MLB level just because I don’t see a whole lot of value in trading for question marks who are also injured. With the difficulty that pitching prospects have in adjusting to the MLB, that’s a player I’m not counting on for 2024. And the goal is to get a 2024 rotation piece.
Nobody exemplifies risky better than Chris Sale. Sale didn’t pitch at all in 2020, threw just 42.2 IP in 2021, 5.2 innings in 2022, and 59 innings in 2023. He’s also going to be 35, and typically pitchers don’t get healthier as they age. He’s also very far removed from when he was an ace. I’m not sure it’d be inaccurate to say he no longer as ace upside.
But well, there’s a couple points in Sale’s favor. He looks like a pitcher that would be welcome on any pitching staff. He has a 28.5 K% and 6 BB% through 59 innings this year. His ERA of 4.58 looks bad, but all the advanced metrics suggest he should be getting better results: 3.71 FIP, 3.62 xFIP, 3.48 SIERA, 3.60 xERA. I’m more concerned about his health than performance. In the innings he’s thrown since 2021, as few as they’ve been, he’s pretty much always pitched like an above average starter.
While he’s not on the salary reason, he could be there. I don’t know what the Red Sox plans are. And even if the Red Sox have to throw in salary, and they probably would quite frankly to get some sort of return, because his surplus value is negative. But even so, he shouldn’t cost much of anything. It all depends on if the Red Sox want to trade him.
From the Cardinals’ side, he has a $27.5 million salary for 2024 (and I imagine it will actually be lower if the Red Sox throw in money) with a $20 million club option. That club option for 2025 appears to come with no buyout and is guaranteed with a top 10 Cy Young finish, which I think the Cardinals could live with.
So do the Red Sox fit the other criteria? They are 7 games back of the AL East and have a 38.4% chance to make the playoffs. That’s not great, but it could be high enough to buy. It could also rise in the next few days. But if you’re considering buying, and your price is Chris Sale, who you can’t depend on to be healthy, that’s not a huge commitment. Do they have a hole? Well their current SS is Yu Chang, who has a 53 wRC+ on the season through 88 PAs. They also can’t fill out a full pitching staff. Yes they have the needs we can provide.
Cortes is risky for performance reasons. It’s not clear how good he is. He burst onto the season out of nowhere in 2021 as a 26-year-old, but his 2.90 ERA paired with a 3.78 FIP and 4.18 xFIP. Which the Cardinals could use of course. And then in 2022, he paired a 2.44 ERA with a 3.13 FIP and 3.63 xFIP. Now this year he has a 5.16 ERA, 4.60 FIP, and 5.06 xFIP. What kind of pitcher is he exactly?
ZiPS projects a 3.70 ERA and 3.89 FIP for what it’s worth. With two years of control after 2023, that’s a reasonable valuable pitcher. I think Cortes is risky because what he’s worth in trade value should demand a much less risky investment. You want to know what you’re getting.
Is there a need here? Well Luis Severino has pitched terrible and Carlos Rodon is off to a bad start and I’m not sure Domingo German is a playoff starter you want. So yeah they could use one of our starters. As for the playoffs, well they are 9 back and have 28.2% odds, but they are also the Yankees and they might still buy.
McCullers made 8 starts in 2022, and has made zero starts and will make zero starts in 2023. His health is extremely risky and while his contract is affordable, $17 million a year to not pitch is a tough pill to swallow if you’re a team like the Cardinals. Aside from health, when a pitcher is so far removed from pitching, you’re not actually sure if they’ll return back to normal when they do return. He is a big risk.
The Astros have the need, JP France and Brandon Bielak aren’t very good, and Christian Javier has some concerning stats. They could really use another arm. Offensively, they... sort of have a hole, but I think they’re dug into their underperforming players. Jose Abreu has been terrible, but I don’t think they’re going to bench him for whichever 1B/DH the Cards would give them (and they have Yordan Alvarez at DH) and Jeremy Pena has been underwhelming and DeJong might represent an improvement, but I doubt an underwhelming 1st half will lead them to taking away his job. They are two games back of the AL West, so yes the playoffs are within reach.
Double whammy risk on this one. He has injury concerns and has topped out at just 133 innings pitched in his career. Plus, after a 4 fWAR rookie season, he was considerably worse in 2022 with a 5.47 ERA and 4.36 FIP. He did make four good starts this season, but also four starts.
The Marlins, always a budget conscious team, might trade him because he’s entering arbitration next year. He’ll be 26 as well, so it’s not like he can’t return to form. And I don’t know what happened last year, but he had a 4.11 xFIP. He doesn’t seem completely broken. He has a 4 fWAR season on his belt - in just 133 innings! - and he’s cost controlled for three years, and shouldn’t cost that much on the open market because of his injuries and last year’s 5.47 ERA.
And yes, the Marlins are buying, they have already bought, so no question on that one. Do they have the need? Well, somewhat. They are fine at starting pitcher and they seem pretty strong in the bullpen, but they truly could use a better 1B. The options are a 39-year-old 95 wRC+ Yuli Gurriel or 97 wRC+ Garrett Cooper.
Dustin May would qualify, but since he’s out for 12 months, he wouldn’t actually help the Cardinals until post-trading deadline next year, so he wouldn’t be a big boost to the 2024 squad, the entire point of this exercise. I thought about putting Shane Baz here, but I don’t know how risky he really is, and the Rays aren’t trading a guy still making league minimum.
He’s sort of risky I suppose, but he’s more risky because of his salary, hence his inclusion here. He’s getting paid for three more reasons, at $23 million next year and $25 million the two years after. He will also most likely, unless he has a very fast recovery, miss the beginning of next season. He had the surgery on May 3rd, so there’s always a chance, but not something you plan for.
In the “good problem to have” department, but nonetheless limits the upside of this move is that Ray can opt out after the 2024 season. Going into his age 33 season, I’m not real sure how likely it is that he would opt out, staring at a 2 year, $50 million deal, but that is a possibility.
We all know they don’t need a starting pitcher, but they could use Paul DeJong badly actually. Old friend Kolten Wong is.... is uh.... this hurts me to tell you guys, but he’s playing about as bad as possible. He has a 38 wRC+ and -1 fWAR. He’s started in four of their last five starts against RHP so he’s still a starter. They could really really use Paul DeJong. On the other hand, their odds of the playoffs aren’t very high (17.2%). If they want DeJong for next season, trade could still work.
Bieber is going to at least miss most of the rest of this season. He went on the IL on July 10th, and has since been transferred to the 60 day. The problem is that if the Guardians are making the playoffs, if he returns by the end of the year, it doesn’t actually make sense to trade him. Bieber is making $10 million this season and will make more in his last year of arbitration and the Guardians are always budget conscious, so players making high salaries are always a possibility to be traded.
They could also use Paul DeJong. Guys, I think the Cardinals might get something for DeJong, there are a lot of playoff caliber teams with just... nothing at short. The option years do not hold much appeal to a team like the Guardians unless they hope to trade him. And they do have a 23-year-old SS Gabriel Arias starting everyday, but he doesn’t seem ready with a 77 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR. The Guardians are 1.5 games out of 1st, however they are so much worse on paper than the Twins that they have just a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs. So they might not want to buy.
I thought the Rays might qualify as they have four pretty good starters right now, all under team control or under contract next year, and three other good pitchers on the injured list. But they don’t qualify. You see Tyler Glasnow is overwhelmingly likely to get traded with a $25 million salary. Jeffrey Springs had Tommy John surgery earlier this year so he won’t start next year in the rotation. Suddenly, seven turns into five. Not to mention, they don’t really have any help coming after those five. They can’t actually afford to trade anyone and besides Glasnow, their salaries aren’t high enough to be trade bait.
There are four other pitchers I originally wanted to include in this article who either don’t make sense to trade for or don’t fit with any of the three reasons.
John Means is close to returning to the majors and it would be counterintuitive to trade him at this point, even if they get a better starter in return. Triston McKenzie would be fun to get, but he’s entering his first year of arbitration next year and he’ll still be cheap. German Marquez is a pitcher I’ve wanted for years, but it feels pretty likely he’ll only be okay next year returning from TJ and won’t be able to start the season in the majors.
Lastly, Walker Buehler makes sense in theory, because he’ll return late enough that he might not start, but his salary is not an issue and he’s not risky, which leaves expendable. But while he might not be able to start this year, they really really need him next year. They have Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, maybe Lance Lynn (who has a club option), and a bunch of rookies or just graduated rookies.