In poker, the best result that one can have is to win the hand. But the second-best result is to lose the hand quickly. You see, if a poker player realizes early on that he or she doesn't have much of a chance to win, by folding, little is lost besides perhaps a relatively small ante or blind bet. The worst thing a poker player can do is remain in the hand, continue investing heavily, and at the end of betting, have worse cards than his or her opponent.
This is a somewhat imperfect analogy to baseball, as there is some value to having a good season that doesn't ultimately result in a World Series championship. The 1985 and 2004 St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, did not bring a World Series title back to St. Louis, but they did produce countless memories for fans. Certainly, these seasons are at the least considered more successful than, say, the franchise’s 70-92 last place season in 1990.
But when teams consciously try to go all-in, to borrow once again from poker terminology, a result other than a championship looks far less desirable. Had Nelson Cruz caught David Freese’s fly ball in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the deadline trade which sent Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays and rental pitchers (oh, and Corey Patterson) to St. Louis would be viewed less favorably. This probably isn't fair, and fans would still have memories of defeating the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers, but a matter of literal inches ultimately determined the overall perception of that season and that trade for the Cardinals.
The St. Louis Cardinals have had multiple opportunities over the last several years to trade
starting pitching prospect promising reliever stalwart closer competent reliever good reliever Trevor Rosenthal. This would have occasionally meant selling high and occasionally it would have meant selling low, but with Rosenthal now set to undergo Tommy John surgery next week, at no point, almost by definition, was his stock lower than it is now.
It is easy, far too easy in fact, to use hindsight to chastise the Cardinals now that it appears their window to sell has closed. That Rosenthal would suffer a major injury within half a month of the 2017 trade deadline, while certainly a possibility which should have (and probably did) at least somewhat factor into the calculus of whether or not to keep him, was not itself a likely outcome.
But while those clamoring for a trade were not necessarily forecasting the worst case scenario, it is not as though calls for dealing Rosenthal are purely a matter of retrospect. In July, for instance, Audrey Stark mentioned Rosenthal as a logical fit with a playoff contender in desperate need of bullpen help: the Washington Nationals.
Although the 2017 Cardinals had a less urgent need to part with Rosenthal than they had to part with pending free agents Lance Lynn, Seung-Hwan Oh, or Zach Duke, provided that they were committed to being full-on sellers, it was clear that unless Trevor Rosenthal became an absolutely transcendent pitcher, the Cardinals would receive more value for the year-plus-stretch run that he presumably would have been available for in 2017 and 2018 than only the stretch run he would be available for in 2018 had the Cardinals held on to him until next year’s deadline.
In addition to 2017, however, the Cardinals did have other opportunities to trade Trevor Rosenthal. Although the peak of his value was probably after the 2013 season, it is hard to be too frustrated that the Cardinals would want to maintain a pitcher slated for two more seasons at the league minimum, plus three more seasons at less than market value, particularly at a point when there was at least some consideration that Trevor Rosenthal could potentially work his way into a role in the starting rotation at some point.
But in 2015, there was a perfectly reasonable case for selling high on Trevor Rosenthal. After a relatively mediocre 2014, Rosenthal had come back the next season to pitch at nearly the level of his breakthrough 2013 campaign. Perhaps the best argument in favor of trading Rosenthal came not from Rosenthal himself but from former Phillies closer Ken Giles, who was traded that off-season to the Houston Astros.
Although Giles was under team control for one more year than Rosenthal, this also meant his MLB closer pedigree was a bit thinner; that said, Giles, along with a minor league infielder, garnered 2013 #1 overall pick Mark Appel (although his prospect status had somewhat declined, he still ranked 43rd on MLB.com’s list), a young toolsy starter in Vince Velasquez, starting pitcher Brett Oberholtzer, and two more minor league pitchers.
An even more established closer, Craig Kimbrel, was also traded to the Boston Red Sox from the San Diego Padres for a large haul of prospects. The red baron advocated at Viva El Birdos at the time for the Cardinals to sell high on Rosenthal.
Rosenthal struggled in 2016, and while the seeming emergence of Seung-Hwan Oh meant that the Cardinals did not (think they) need(ed) a premium closer, the Cardinals retained him. At this point, the Cardinals could have traded Rosenthal as a way of preventing what seemed like a redundancy, but unlike the unlikely-but-possible 2013 or the far-more-likely 2015 trades of Rosenthal, the Cardinals would have been selling low.
Following 2016, Trevor Rosenthal’s trade value was at its lowest point to this point in his career. At the 2017 trade deadline, Rosenthal’s trade value was probably at least that of Justin Wilson, who along with Alex Avila netted the Detroit Tigers a prospect package which included Chicago Cubs minor league third baseman Jeimer Candelario. And on August 24, Rosenthal’s trade value is next to zero. He is unlikely to pitch in 2018 and the precedent, perhaps most notably set by the Kansas City Royals regarding injured ex-closer Greg Holland, suggests that Rosenthal is unlikely to be tendered a contract.
In retrospect, of course, the Cardinals should have traded Trevor Rosenthal. Even the most ardent Rosenthal supporter, when given the gift of hindsight, should be able to acknowledge that a couple more weeks of Rosenthal following the deadline was not worth the prospect package he surely could have garnered. Whether or not keeping Rosenthal around was ever the wise decision is a bit more ambiguous.
As it stands, the Cardinals stand four games back of the Colorado Rockies for a Wild Card spot and 4.5 games back of the Chicago Cubs for the division—if you believe that a healthy Rosenthal could make the difference for this team, then holding on to him was a sensible move, even if a good process ultimately led to a poor result.
If, however, you believe the Cardinals should have been sellers at the trade deadline in the first place and that fans and front office personnel who saw a path to the postseason in 2017 were being overly optimistic and unwilling to look into the future, the latest bad news on Trevor Rosenthal seems to be an apropos turn of events which highlight a lack of long-term responsibility by the Cardinals.