It is July 6th, and the St. Louis Cardinals are 43-41. That record places them 9.5 games back of the 52-32 Chicago Cubs and sitting in 3rd place in the National League Central division. Normally, still being 3 months away from the playoffs, Cardinals fans would have reason to be patient and optimistic – particularly considering that St. Louis is only 3 games shy of the second wild card spot.
This year is very different.
Following a dreadful 7-5 home loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates tonight, St. Louis sits in a very precarious position. With the trade deadline coming up, General Manager John Mozeliak has a potentially franchise altering decision to make. Do the Cardinals buy or sell?
In this writer’s opinion, for the first time in my recent memory, the Cardinals should sell.
There are a lot of factors to this decision, but let’s start with the things that tonight’s 7-5 loss to Pittsburgh taught us.
The Pirates, despite their underwhelming start, are still very good and will only get better. Having won 6 straight games, Pittsburgh has now surpassed St. Louis for 2nd place in the division. Gerrit Cole just made his first start of an injury rehab assignment on Tuesday, striking out 6 in 3 innings of work for Triple-A Indianapolis, and is due back very soon. His return, combined with the arrival of top pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow and the impending returns of Francisco Cervelli and, eventually, Jameson Taillon can lead Pittsburgh to believe that they will only get stronger in the second half.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are trending in the very opposite direction. The team’s leading home run hitter, Brandon Moss, was put on the 15 day disabled list on Tuesday with a sprained left ankle, and that news came following the news that ace reliever Kevin Siegrist would be placed on the disabled list with mononucleosis – basically, extreme fatigue.
And, if that wasn’t enough, the Cardinals’ only All-Star, Matt Carpenter, left tonight’s game in the 2nd inning with what the club called, “a strained right oblique.” Carpenter – 1.001 OPS / 164 WRC+ / 3.5 WAR – has dealt with said injury before, and we could be looking at possibly a month long stay on the shelf. Carpenter potentially being out for a month would be a devastating blow to St. Louis, and the fact that the Cardinals haven’t been able to win with Carpenter doesn’t remotely give me any belief that they can win without him.
Following Carpenter’s exit, the Cardinals took a 5-1 lead and looked poised to snatch a crucial win from Pittsburgh. That was all before Jaime Garcia and the sieve-like Cardinal bullpen decided to have another breakdown and change the script. With no Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton inherited the 7th inning tonight, and promptly gave up the 3 runs which would give Pittsburgh a lead that their lights out bullpen would not relinquish.
The Cardinals’ bullpen has been a problem all season long, and there isn’t a reason to believe that improvement will occur. The Cardinals’ collective 3.73 bullpen ERA ranks 10th in baseball, and the 9 losses surrendered is tied for 4th best in baseball. So the fact that the Cardinal bullpen has still felt extremely inconsistent and vulnerable despite the seemingly solid numbers is worrisome.
Yeah, I know, how brilliant to base my opinion on a bullpen off of a gut feeling that I get while watching them every night, but it’s true. No team can win in the playoffs with a bullpen like the Cardinals have. With Siegrist’s injury being as unpredictable as it is, Trevor Rosenthal’s meltdown – 5.28 ERA, 22 walks in 29 innings – and Jonathan Broxton’s inconsistency – 1.80 ERA in April, 9.31 ERA in May, 0.77 ERA in June – the Cardinal bullpen doesn’t really point towards improvement.
But, let’s assume that the Cardinals decide to become buyers at the July trade deadline, they would presumably be shopping for bullpen arms and/or a position player. So what kind of bullpen help is out there on the market?
Looking to New York, the names of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman have been thrown all over the trade rumor mill. Miller is likely out of the Cardinals price range, as the Yankees’ have reportedly asked for Kyle Schwarber in return for Miller from the Cubs; the Cardinals do not have a player comparable to Schwarber that should be dealt for two and a half years of an 8th inning reliever, that’s completely unreasonable for a transitioning club like St. Louis.
Moving along to Chapman – who will be a free agent at the end of the season – his asking price will likely be in the range of either a young, MLB ready position player – a la Kolten Wong or Randal Grichuk – or a B+ position player prospect – a la Carson Kelly or Harrison Bader. Neither of those scenarios should be attractive to St. Louis, as Chapman’s price tag at the end of the season will be too high to re-sign him, and giving up any of those four names for three months of Aroldis Chapman should be a big red light.
In an almost identical scenario to Chapman is Arizona closer Brad Ziegler. He is a free agent at the end of the 2016 season, and would likely carry a high price tag due to his sparkling 1.85 ERA and 18/19 save record. Milwaukee closer Jeremy Jeffress – he of a 2.45 ERA and a 23/24 save record – will carry a heavy price tag due to the 3 years of control a club will have over him following the 2016 season, and it’s highly unlikely that Milwaukee would be willing to part ways with their top reliever to a team in the same division.
In looking at the possible bullpen trade market, none of the Cardinals’ options really make sense at this point in the season, and ever since the 2nd wild card was added into the mix by Major League Baseball, the trade deadline has become a sellers’ market.
The injury to Matt Carpenter – on top of the already existing injuries to Brandon Moss, Kevin Siegrist, and now Jhonny Peralta – combined with an inconsistent bullpen and the recent and expected continual resurgence of the Pirates put the Cardinals in a position to sell; a position they must take advantage of…
…which brings us to a different question. If the Cardinals are to sell, who do they put out on the market?
In no particular order, here are the players that St. Louis should look to sell before the July 31st trade deadline.
Matt Adams – With the injury to Brandon Moss, Adams should get the bulk of the playing time over at 1st base for the next few weeks. But, with Mike Matheny being the manager that he is, Jedd Gyorko has started both of the games that Moss has been unavailable for. As Adams showed earlier in the season, he is a very productive first baseman when he gets consistent playing time. When given 22 starts during the month of May, Adams posted a 1.064 OPS and drove in 19 runs. He will have two years of arbitration control beyond this one, so to a team looking to buy, such as the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, or Houston Astros, Adams could present very good value.
Seung-hwan Oh – By far, Oh has been the Cardinals best reliever. Sporting a 1.67 FIP, 12.2 K/9 rate and racking up 1.4 WAR so far this season, Oh represents a very dependable and very versatile reliever, as he has pitched anywhere from the 6th to the 9th inning for the Cardinals this year. In a reliever market that seems very top-heavy, Oh could be a mid-level option for any team looking for reliever help. Being on a one year deal, the Cardinals’ asking price couldn’t necessarily be particularly high, but Oh is still a valuable piece that could fetch a solid return in a somewhat sparse reliever market.
Brandon Moss – Depending on how long his DL stint is, Moss could be unavailable at the July deadline due to nobody wanting to trade for an injured player. But, with a .566 slugging percentage, a .910 OPS, 17 home runs, and the ability to play both corner outfield positions and first base, Moss presents tremendous value. He is a free agent at the end of the season, but plenty of teams could use a player like Moss, and if the Cardinals decide to sell him, he would be in high demand among relatively offensively challenged teams such as Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Jaime Garcia – This is the Cardinals’ big ticket to a truly successful trade deadline, in my eyes. The starting pitching market at this year’s trade deadline is pretty low on talent, with the biggest potential names out there being Rich Hill and Hector Santiago. Julio Teheran’s name has been thrown around, but the Braves are adamant that they will hang onto their ace and keep him around through their rebuild. With many contending teams in dire need of starting pitching – Kansas City, Boston, Baltimore, Texas – Garcia would be in high demand. He has proven his health over the past season and a half, and his 162 ERA+ and 4.1 WAR during the 2015 season show that Garcia can be a frontline left-handed starter. On top of that, Garcia has a very reasonably priced $12 million team option in 2017, so there is control beyond this season. For a pitching-needy club making a postseason push, the Cardinals could really pull in some pieces for Garcia.
This article could be interpreted as Ryan panicking and giving up on the Cardinals after just one frustrating July game, but I don’t view it that way. I viewed tonight, July 6th, 2016, as a reality check.
The Cardinals are in a very precarious position. The team’s core is finally showing signs of slowing down and breaking down. Yadier Molina got off to hot start, but has since struggled his way to a .671 OPS and a startling -1 defensive runs saved. Adam Wainwright has somewhat turned things around following his dreadful start, but still sits with a 4.70 ERA and a career low 6.1 K/9 rate, suggesting that his stuff just simply isn’t fooling hitters like it normally has. And while Matt Holliday has hit 15 home runs, his OBP is a career low .319 and his defensive metrics are atrocious.
The 2012 Phillies are often used as an example of how not to deal with an aging core, as that front office simply held on too long and the team’s core aged and sent the team into a rebuilding abyss. If the Cardinals decide to be patient and make one last run with this core, they will have to give up valuable young pieces to do so and thus could be looking at a similar situation; a gutted farm system, a bunch of aging veterans, and no success to show for it.
The Cardinals have plenty of young talent spread throughout their minor league system and are not far away from being a very good team. But this is just not their year, and giving up valuable young farm system talent for short term rentals would only set them back further.
This one month could decide the future of one of the greatest franchises that baseball has ever known. Let us all hope and pray that John Mozeliak makes the moves that help us look back upon this month as the time that the Cardinals began their next great dynasty, not the time that the Cardinals began their descent into baseball hell.