The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2016 season as NL Central underdogs. And while some fans would certainly be inclined to write off 2016 to this point as a disappointment, what has happened so far during this season is not too terribly far removed from what was expected: that the Chicago Cubs were division favorites, that the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates would compete for second place while the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds would merely compete to stay out of the division cellar, and that if the Cardinals were going to make the playoffs, it would likely be via a Wild Card spot.
And as the All-Star Break approaches, the season has gone essentially according to expectations. Presently, the Cubs have a roughly 95% chance of winning the NL Central, and while the Cardinals are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, they are in the middle of a congested field.
With the trade deadline approaching, the Cardinals (and other playoff contenders) find themselves in a position to improve their team for the stretch run. But unlike, say, the New York Mets or the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals are, realistically, only in contention for a Wild Card spot rather than a division title. Can you hope for a division title? Sure. You go out and you try to win every game on the schedule. But with an 8.5 game deficit, it would be reckless to sacrifice too much of the future for a highly improbable division run. 2011s don't grow on trees.
A solid acquisition might be enough to overcome a three game deficit to the Mets, but the Cardinals could acquire Mike Trout for prospects and, at least in 2016, the Cardinals would still be division underdogs. Even if the Cardinals were to right the ship and, by whatever Cardinals Devil Magic required, become a genuinely better baseball team than the Cubs, they would have to make up ten games. It's just not likely.
Not that there is a preponderance of one-year rentals available but if these circumstances happened last year, the Cardinals would still be best advised to not trade for a David Price or Yoenis Cespedes in order to chase the Cubs, as this would still be a reach. The rationale for a big move would be to improve the chances of the Cardinals to make a Wild Card spot, which could mean adding just one playoff game.
And this is why the Cardinals should try to acquire Fernando Salas.
Now, when I say the Cardinals should try to acquire Fernando Salas, I say this more as an ethos than as an ironclad desire for the Cardinals to make a trade for Salas, the former Redbirds reliever who led the 2011 team in saves before being traded with David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.
Salas is not as good as Andrew Bailey nor Sean Doolittle. He is not, has never been, and likely will never be close. In 2016, he has been pretty terrible, currently rocking an ERA and a FIP of, respectively, 5.18 and 5.22, while his xFIP, a fielding-independent pitching spin-off which assumes a league average home run-to-fly ball rate, isn't much better at 4.72.
But the key with Salas is cost. He is in his final year of salary arbitration and currently makes $2.4 million, a dramatic overpay for a pitcher who has performed as poorly in 2016 as he has, but a perfectly acceptable salary if Salas were to duplicate his solid 2014 and 2015 seasons in middle relief with the Angels. Beyond salary potentially undertaken by the Cardinals, however, is the necessary package to acquire MLB talent.
In 2015, the Cardinals traded a minor leaguer for relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton. Unlike Salas, whose experience as a closer (a semi-arbitrary but ultimately valued status by baseball teams) is limited to a few months five seasons ago, Broxton had several seasons of high-leverage experience under his belt, including two All-Star Game appearances and a 2.35 ERA just one season before. And the cost for Broxton, who had a poor ERA but at least could hang his hat on a much better FIP, was Malik Collymore, a twenty year-old with a 99 wRC+ in Rookie ball.
Collymore ranked #14 on our 2015 prospects list. For comparison, the #14 prospect on our 2016 list was Nick Plummer (and again, while the exact demands of the Angels are unknown, even this is probably a bit generous of an offer). Given the historic dearth of prospects on the Angels, it may not take a particularly prominent prospect to win them over.
It is understandable to be hesitant to give up even a middling prospect for a Fernando Salas type, but the cost of a high-end reliever makes the cost of Salas look like peanuts. ESPN's Buster Olney, for instance, has suggested that if they hope to acquire Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs would have to trade Kyle Schwarber, who is currently injured but has shown tremendous power potential: in 278 plate appearances, the 23 year-old has a career isolated power higher than Stan Musial or Reggie Jackson and a higher wRC+ than Dave Winfield or Johnny Bench. While Miller is under club control for another two years beyond 2016, this also drives up his cost to "superb hitting prospect."
And the Cardinals bullpen as currently constituted does have upside. Trevor Rosenthal could turn back into his old self, and if Seung-Hwan Oh can maintain something close to his tremendous first-half performance, the relief corps suddenly looks considerably better. It could use a top-flight arm with closer potential (what bullpen couldn't?) but in what is an extreme seller's market, the Cardinals would be wise to stick with small moves rather than anything which could jeopardize the franchise's future.