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St. Louis Cardinals trade deadline quandary: To trade or not to trade?

With so many question marks surrounding the Cardinals, should general manager John Mozeliak even make a trade?

Daniel Descalso experiments with a mechanical adjustment that is sure to help his batting production.
Daniel Descalso experiments with a mechanical adjustment that is sure to help his batting production.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Every baseball transaction is a gamble of sorts. When a club signs a player to a contract, they are betting that he will play well enough to justify the salary. Trades, especially those at the non-waiver trade deadline, are a different type of wager. Teams that acquire a big-leaguer at the deadline are making the gamble that giving up the players (often prospects) necessary to receive the proven major-leaguer will result in qualifying for the postseason, which will give them a chance to win the World Series.

On this Non-Waiver Trade Deadline Eve, the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals are in contention, which is about where they’d hoped to be. On the other hand, the Cardinals have been a disappointment—due to a combination of injury and underperformance. The Redbirds are the owners of a 56-49 record that places them third in the Central (3.5 games behind first-place Milwaukee) and a half-game out of the Wild Card race (trailing both Atlanta and division rival Pittsburgh). The Cards are in the thick of the postseason hunt in spite of a powerless offense and because of excellent starting pitching. And so general manager John Mozeliak faces a difficult decision: To trade or not to trade.

Despite the weakness and strength that defined the Cards for the majority of the season, Mozeliak and his minions find themselves targeting pitching as opposed to offense, a fate brought about by injuries to Jaime Garcia, who stepped up with Chris Carpenter as the only reliable starters during the club’s magical 2011 World Series run, and Michael Wacha, 2013 NLCS MVP. Throw in the struggles of Joe Kelly (4.37 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 3.72 xFIP), Shelby Miller (4.20 ERA, 4.76 FIP, 4.80 xFIP), and Carlos Martinez (4.57 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 3.77 xFIP)—perhaps three more exhibits in support of manager Mike Matheny’s case that he and the big-league coaching staff aren’t in the player development business—and the reason the Cardinals have a winning record has turned into a potential weakness that may cause the club to miss its first October since 2010.

But the focus on pitching isn’t just about the cracks the rotation is showing with two months to play and at least a month until Wacha might return. Mozeliak is attempting a deal from the corner he has painted himself into. It’s the same corner that led him to demote Kolten Wong at the end of April. The position players not named Jhonny Peralta that Mozeliak has locked up with multi-year, multi-million-dollar contracts aren’t hitting at levels commensurate with their salaries, especially in the power department.

Allen Craig, one of the worst baserunners in MLB and a poor defender, can help the Cardinals win in only one way: hitting. After Tuesday night’s game, his seasonal batting line is .238/.292/.347 (which equals a .286 wOBA and 81 wRC+). Teams that start right fielders with such a low level of offensive production—especially when that player gives up runs in the field and on the bases—don’t often qualify for postseason play. Yet Matheny maintains that he will continue to pencil Craig into the lineup because he was once a good hitter. The Cardinals' Leader often justifies starting Craig because of his performance in small samples of at-bats against specific starting pitchers from days past when the Wrench hit well enough to bat cleanup. And despite claims that Matheny and his staff have identified some mechanical problems with Craig’s swing, the former slugger’s performance is only getting worse. In July, Craig has hit .125/.208/.208 with a 65.7% groundball rate and a line-drive rate of just 8.6%. There's no indication that Craig is close to turning things around—in fact, he appears a defeated man which makes his at-bats painful to watch. Nonetheless, Mozeliak and Matheny appear poised to ride the team down the home stretch of this season’s pennant race with a right fielder tied behind its back—one who is owed a guaranteed $25.5 million from 2015 through 2017.

Craig isn’t the only reason the Cardinals have scored the second-fewest runs in the National League. Matt Holliday hasn’t hit for power, even though his slugging numbers are creeping upward. From 2010 (Holliday’s first full year as a Cardinal) to this year, his SLG has fallen from .532 to .525 to .497 to .490 to .416. Likewise, his Isolated Power (ISO), a stat that excludes singles and focuses only on extra-base hits, has gone from .220 to .229 to .202 to .190 to .149. Some of this is likely due to the league-wide falloff in power-hitting combined with the decline of age. Regardless, at age 34, the club’s $17 million left fielder isn’t providing the middle-of-the-order pop that the team has grown accustomed to receiving from him.

Matt Carpenter, who Mozeliak inked to a guaranteed six-year deal after his breakout 2013 season at second base, has hit for far less power this year than last. Carpenter’s SLG has fallen from .481 to .394—some of which can be attributed to his BA dipping from .318 to .284. Carpenter’s ISO has fallen off considerably as well, from .163 to .111. The Cardinals and their fans may get to witness a five-year, $47.5 million experiment in whether a player can maintain a high OBP despite hitting for little power. But for now we’ll just wring our hands over the next two months. The five years that follow will get here soon enough.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the club has been the loss of all-universe catcher Yadier Molina. His defense is irreplaceable, to be sure, but the Cardinals have been unable to find someone to fill the lineup void created by his absence. Molina was batting .287/.341/.409 (.329 wOBA and 111 wRC+) prior to injuring his wrist. While not up to par with his MVP-caliber seasons in 2012 or 2013, such a hitting line from a catcher has real value. And replacing the Molina with Tony Cruz and A.J. Pierzynski doesn’t help the offense one bit.

So this is the team that Mozeliak sees as the trade deadline looms—one with far more questions than answers:

  • Will Wacha pitch again in 2014?
  • Is the Pierzynski/Cruz combination at catcher good enough to help carry the team to October?
  • If the team qualifies for the postseason, will Molina make it back and be able to play at typical Yadi levels?
  • Will Adam Wainwright’s tendinitis-plagued elbow allow him to be an innings-munching staff ace down the stretch?
  • Will Kelly, Miller, or Martinez pitch well enough in the rotation to help the Cards during the final two months?
  • Will Holliday hit for more power?
  • Will Craig hit at all?

All of these combine into one big question as the trade deadline looms: Are the 2014 Cardinals a team worth betting on with a splashy move? I'm not so sure they are.

Correction: The original version of this post had the wrong ERA, FIP, and xFIP for Joe Kelly. The post has been edited to show Kelly's correct ERA, FIP, and xFIP