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Cardinals need to thread the needle to complete offseason goals

The Cardinals still have a lot of money and a lot of prospects. It’s not going to be easy to spend the right mix of both

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna and took an 85-win team on paper to an 88-win team on paper. Once you hit 90 wins or so, you can focus on marginal improvements. Before then, it takes sizable moves to close the gap with the leaders. Since the Ozuna trade, there has been considerable speculation about what would happen next. Down in Tampa Bay, the Rays have Alex Colome, Chris Archer, and Evan Longoria. In Baltimore, there’s Manny Machado. In Toronto, there’s Josh Donaldson. In Arizona, Zack Greinke might be available, and there are still a few “Proven Closers” available on the free agent market.

Yesterday, AE Schafer discussed why it certainly doesn’t seem like the Cardinals are done. First, here is an excerpt that is simply worth repeating:

The Cardinals, at this moment, are a team on the upswing. Now, I know there is a substantial segment of the fanbase that would scream bloody murder at such an assertion; these are mostly the same people buying wholly into the narrative of the linear downward trend, i.e. World Series —> NLCS —> NLDS —> Missed playoffs —> barely above .500. They would likely argue that such a clear, obvious line that a dolt like me is far too in the pocket of the organisation to admit to would suggest that next year the Cards will win 79 games, and in five years the stadium will collapse in on itself like a dwarf star, drawing the miserable husk of the city of St. Louis into it, crushing everything down into a tiny cube that still won’t attract any free agents.

The Cardinals are good. They just aren’t as good as the Cubs. Given they just acquired a player they only control for two more years, they should probably keep going.

For now, though, we have a Cardinal team that just made a move to inject some quality into the mix. And because of that, they can no longer afford to wait. To wait now, to hope for further maturation, to let that wave of pitching build on its own and begin to crest, is not really an option. So long as the Cards made no moves at all, they could have continued making no moves, and let the next winning club (hopefully), grow on its own. Now, though, they’ve broken the seal and made that first move. They cannot not make a second. And maybe a third. And in making those moves, will they end up shortening their window which is just now beginning to open?

So now comes the difficult part. We know the Cardinals want to keep improving, but pulling it off is the difficult part. Let’s start with Manny Machado. Over at CBS Sports Dayn Perry details the problem the Cardinals might have if they trade for Manny Machado:

The real issue is trading away either Jack Flaherty or Luke Weaver. Weaver is going to open the season in the rotation, and Flaherty is likely the first man up once there's a need. Speaking of which, depth is probably going to be an issue. Lance Lynn is almost certainly headed elsewhere via free agency, and it seems doubtful that Adam Wainwright is an adequate major-league starter on a contending team at this stage of his career. Mikolas, while he projects well after he resurgence in Japan, is an unknown quantity, and Alex Reyes may be ticketed for relief once his post-Tommy John season begins in early May. Elsewhere, Michael Wacha's past shoulder issues will always be part of his story.

Right now, the Cardinals have a good top-7 of the rotation: Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Miles Mikolas, Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty. After that, John Gant is likely the next man in. Dakota Hudson and Austin Gomber have pitched well in the minors, but likely aren’t ready for the next step. Jordan Hicks is a very nice prospect, but he also isn’t ready.

A team’s 8th starter is probably going to be in the rotation for a month during the season. If the top seven guys cover 150 or so of the starts, the team is going to be in good shape. Give up Flaherty or Weaver to get Machado and a rotation that is very talented, but thin gets thinner.

There are a couple alternatives. One would be to go ahead and complete the trade for Manny Machado, and then see if the Cardinals could add Zack Greinke, who has a no-trade clause fro 15 teams. That adds about $50 million to the payroll, roughly $8 million over the competitive balance tax amount and likely $15 million over where the Cardinals should realistically be if they want to make additions at the deadline.

So maybe the team offers up Michael Wacha in exchange for Greinke and asks that the Diamondbacks cover around $30 million of Greinke’s remaining contract. Trade Randal Grichuk somewhere as well and you hit the mark. Doing that is incredibly complicated and might not even be likely given the teams and players involved. If the Cardinals can make a move for Machado without giving up one of their top-7 pitchers, the deal becomes very palatable.

There’s a reason the Cardinals keep pursuing Josh Donaldson despite being rebuffed by the Blue Jays, per Ken Rosenthal. The Blue Jays aren’t desperate for pitching in the same way as the Orioles. The Blue Jays could probably use a replacement third baseman, which the Cardinals have in Jedd Gyorko. The Blue Jays corner outfielders are projected for 1.7 WAR over 1400 plate appearances. Randal Grichuk is projected to match that over a full season. Add in another prospect or two, and the Cardinals could get that major upgrade without sacrificing the pitching depth they need to compete in the majors this season. That scenario relies on the Blue Jays being willing to deal, which they might not be.

If Machado and Donaldson aren’t realistic possibilities, that doesn’t leave a lot of viable options. Keep in mind, it is hard to upgrade the Cardinals because they already have at least average players at every position. In his piece, Perry concluded that the difficulty with Machado meant that a Longoria plus pitching deal with Tampa Bay made the most sense.

If the pitcher is Archer, then that move makes a lot of sense. If it is Colome, the Cardinals improve by a couple wins total and they still find themselves a couple game behind the Cubs. It seems likely that Colome’s market trade value likely exceeds his actual trade value by quite a bit given his FIP last year was worse than Brett Cecil’s. Adding Archer and Longoria, however, take the Cardinals close enough to the Cubs where the race might be a tossup before the season starts.

The price is going to be incredibly high for Archer and Longoria, but at $20 million per year, the production is a bargain, and if the team can get away with offering just one of their top-7 pitchers—basically anyone but Carlos Martinez—they end up in a much stronger position in the rotation and in the infield while giving up mostly depth in the minors. That might not be ideal, but it is pretty close.

There is one other alternative which combines a few options from above. Trade two of the Cardinals young pitchers in a package for Archer—say Weaver and Flaherty or Wacha and Weaver—trade for Greinke, and leave the position players as is. Salary-wise, the Cardinals wouldn’t have much a problem given how cheap Archer is, and the team would then have three aces at the top of their rotation, buying time for the next wave of starters.

All of these possibilities are fascinating, but all of them are difficult, if not impossible to pull off. It makes so much sense for the Cardinals to do something more—and hopefully not multiple years or multiple prospects for a reliever—but there are a lot of moving parts involved. One move is reliant on another. This isn’t a case of moving from Stanton to Ozuna. It will be difficult for the Cardinals to pull this off, but if they want to get closer to a division title and a return to the playoffs, they are going to have to.