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St. Louis Cardinals trade analysis: John Mozeliak makes the roster; Mike Matheny fills out the lineup card

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We've seen this before; will we see it again?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The general manager sets the roster and the manager fills out the lineup card. So the old baseball maxim goes. Over the last two seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals decision-makers have offered us two intriguing examples of this truism, with general manager John Mozeliak promoting prospects to St. Louis only to have manager Mike Matheny stow them on the big-league bench in favor of veteran players—at least until Mozeliak makes a trade that reshapes the roster and forces his manager's hand when filling out the lineup card.

David Freese vs. Kolten Wong

Last August, the Cardinals were in a heated division race. Mozeliak sought to give the club a jolt down the home stretch with an injection of speed by promoting Kolten Wong from Triple-A to St. Louis. The move put three players on the roster for two positions: third baseman David Freese, second/third baseman Matt Carpenter, and second baseman Wong.

By that point in the 2013 season, injuries had rendered David Freese a ballplayer who could only help his team win with his bat. The 2011 World Series MVP had to hit enough to overcome his poor baserunning and defense. At the time of Wong's promotion, Freese was hitting .268/.347/.385—not bad by any means, but also not good enough to help the team much given his poor fielding and baserunning. Mozeliak honed in on the different skill sets Wong and Freese possessed when discussing the club's rationale behind the roster shakeup:

"I'm still hopeful [Freese] can get things going," Mozeliak said. "Right now, my responsibility for the organization is to make sure we put the best team out there that we can. I still think David could be part of that, but we are also trying to inject some new life into the club."

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"To Kolten's credit, his game is a little bit of everything," Mozeliak said. "He's going to add a speed element to our team. He's going to add a defense element to our club. And hopefully from an offensive standpoint, he can handle this league. That's always the big question mark when you bring a young position player up."

Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com reported on how the move reflected the Cardinals' plans moving forward in an article entitled "Wong joins Cards as Freese loses playing time." The title seems a bit presumptuous in hindsight. But at the time, that was the plan as articulated by Mozeliak. Langosch summed up the timeshares at second and third thusly:

Though Wong will not immediately be an everyday player, the Cardinals intend for him to play regularly. That means decreased playing time for Freese and more bouncing around by Carpenter, who has been the team's starting second baseman this season. Carpenter's natural position is third, so there are no concerns about moving him back there.

Langosch reported further:

Manager Mike Matheny met with Freese prior to Friday's game to let him know that he will still have a prominent role on this club. While the Cards have not publicly outlined their plans, it could be that a platoon situation will emerge with the right-handed-hitting Freese and the left-handed-hitting Wong. Carpenter would then slide back and forth between second and third as necessary.

"All we're trying to do is maximize what we have," Matheny said. "Kolten has been our most consistent guy in Triple-A. ... And in order to use him, we're going to have be creative and guys are going to have to understand that we're trying to help our club as a whole."

Matheny penciled Wong into the starting lineup against the Cubs on the day of his call-up, started Freese the next day, and then gave Wong three consecutive starts after that. So the manager started Wong in four of the first five games the Cards had after the club promoted him to the majors. Wong went 5-for-18 over that time and posted a .278/.278/.333 line. Freese got two starts in a row after that and then Wong got the same. After seven starts in ten games, Wong's batting line was .200/.231/.240. Matheny started the rookie four times the rest of the season. The extent of Matheny's creativity down the home stretch consisted of starting Freese—who hit .214/.315/.366 after Wong's promotion—and relegating Wong to the role of bench player after his cold start. At season's end, Wong's batting line was .153/.194/.169.

During the offseason, Mozeliak traded Freese to the Angels and at the press conference that followed the deal, announced that the Cardinals planned to get Wong 500 at-bats in 2014 as the club's primary second baseman. However, because of Matheny's resistance to playing Wong as the primary second baseman, it looks like he'll notch about 350 at-bats this year. (Although, one wonders how much lower that number might have been had veteran Mark Ellis hit even a little bit.)

Allen Craig vs. Oscar Taveras

Oscar Taveras got his first sip of MLB coffee when Adams landed on the DL earlier this year with a calf strain. The plan was for the consensus top-five prospect to play daily, filling the Adams-sized hole in the lineup with Craig shifting from right field to first. Taveras homered in his first MLB game, but didn't enjoy must success in his results after that (even if his process was fairly impressive).

When Adams was nearly ready to return to the St. Louis fold, I wrote that the Cardinals should demote Taveras when they activated Adams from the DL because I didn't trust Matheny to get the rookie enough playing time at the major-league level. The Cards did just that, stating that getting Taveras regular playing time was the priority and that was ensured in Memphis. But Taveras was not relegated to Triple-A for long.

Three weeks later and after Taveras posted lukewarm numbers during his second 2014 tour with Memphis, the Cardinals recalled the rookie. Just as Matheny did when the Cards promoted Wong and created a playing time logjam in 2013, the manager preached creativity in lineup construction, as reported in a Langosch By Gosh! blog post:

"We just always kept in conversation about who would be the likely fit, about who would come in and bolster our offense. And how can we find time? With the DL to [Matt] Adams [earlier this month], it was pretty simple, let’s just let [Taveras] play and see what we’ve got. After that, trying to incorporate him pushed the need for a little creativity, not a lot unlike what we did with Matt Adams a year ago. I think that proved to be really beneficial with how that did help our bench. Every day we had a real nice bat off our bench regardless of how it played out.

"A lot of this is going to come down to, we’re going to throw him in some opportunities, but he’s going to have to produce. And if he produces, just like any of the other guys, you keep swinging it right, you’re going to have the opportunities."

Matheny made a point of starting Craig in the days following Taveras's recall, even going so far as to start the rookie in center field at AT&T Park with Craig in right—something he indicated in the above-linked Langosch post that he would not do.

Adams 2013 was clearly Matheny's model for Taveras 2014. There was one major problem with this plan: Craig wasn't hitting. It was tough for anyone to question Matheny's deployment of Adams a year ago with Craig hitting .315/.373/.457 as the primary first baseman and Beltran posting a .296/.339/.491 line as the right fielder. Both were key contributors to the NL's top offense. However, this year's club isn't your 2013 Redbirds.

The 2014 Cardinals are in a different situation entirely; in part, due to Craig's offensive ineptitude. The club is second-to-last in the NL (behind only the historically awful Padres) in runs and have hit for virtually no power. Craig's production fit right into this profile. His baseball card will show a .237/.291/.346 line for his time with St. Louis in 2014. It's no wonder that the media and fans alike began clamoring for baseball's top hitting prospect to get more playing time in right field. (For what it's worth, on July 1, I joined those calling for Craig's benching.)

In baseball, the cream usually rises to the top over the course of the 162-game regular season. But in the weeks after the Cardinals recalled Taveras, neither the rookie nor Craig hit. Taveras posted a .220/.246/.254 line over that time span; Craig batted .122/.204/.204. Matheny deferred to the veteran because the rookie did not force the manager's hand by hitting for even decent production. Matheny's loyalty to Craig is not at all surprising given Craig's track record of MLB success in seasons past and his place in the clubhouse pecking order. Put otherwise: continuing to play the underperforming Craig over the underperforming rookie was the path of least resistance.

Things came to a head the week before the trade deadline when Matheny spoke to the press and was asked about how he was divvying up time between Craig and Taveras in right field. As tweeted by KMOX's Chris Hrabe, the manager made no bones about his preference for Craig and strongly inferred that he was playing the veteran because he gave the Cardinals the best chance to win:

The next day, Mozeliak spoke to the press:

This is not a full-fledged feud between manager and general manager, but it sure seems to indicate a disagreement on the subject of Craig vs. Taveras.

A week later, Mozeliak traded Craig and righthander Joe Kelly to the Red Sox for John Lackey. Suddenly, Taveras had right field all to himself.

Mozeliak was a guest on the Edmonds and McKernan show on CBS Sports 920 after the Craig and Kelly trade was announced. You can and should listen to the audio of the whole interview at the link. Here are some excerpts from the blog post summarizing the exchange:

To what extent were you surprised on how Oscar was being utilized on his return from Memphis the second go around? I wasn't surprised at all. I understand the manager's frustration with trying to get a guy going. We weren't getting a lot of production from the right field spot. Obviously Oscar will now get a lot more playing time, but that was not the genesis of this deal. We wanted to address a top flight starter and we also knew that we had to do something with our outfield eventually.

Mozeliak also explained that trading Craig and Kelly for Lackey was the "best fit" for the Cardinals:

On Craig's inclusion in the deal: did you go into the process with the intent of moving Allen? Well, obviously every deal has its own DNA. Lackey is someone we've had great interest in throughout this process and we couldnt find anybody to match for a deal with him. We then saw we could move a pitcher for our major league roster and it made sense but unfortunately it also included one of our outfielders in Allen Craig. Obviously we do have depth in the outfield and giving players more playing time was a big concern and this was the best fit for us. Lackey's contract was obviously something we factored in as well. Also, there was never a discussion about Allen being sent down to Memphis to try to get himself back to his old self.

After listening to the entire Mozeliak interview, we know that other clubs expressed interest in Taveras and Piscotty, but the Cardinals refused the trade proposals involving those players. Mozeliak also knew that the Cardinals would have "to do something with [the team's] outfield eventually" and ultimately decided that trading Craig and Kelly for Lackey was "the best fit" because "giving players [i.e., Taveras] more playing time was a big concern" in 2014 and beyond. Even so, Mozeliak maintains that getting rid of Craig "was not the genesis of this deal." Such a result may not have been the trigger, but it was plainly a consideration and probably a primary one.

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For the second time in as many years, Mozeliak attempted to give the St. Louis roster a jolt by promoting a top prospect. For the second time in as many years, Matheny elected to play a more established, underperforming player over the promoted prospect. And for the second time in as many years, Mozeliak responded to Matheny's lineup construction by trading away the manager's preferred veteran, which opened the door for the prospect to get much more playing time. Make no mistake: the Cardinals are Mozeliak's team.