The St. Louis Cardinals are not the team that they hoped to be when they entered the 2023 season, at least not after 68 games when I started writing this article. At the time, the Cardinals were the 3rd worst (record) team in MLB at 27-41. However, here are some other facts about the same Cardinals club:
tied for 9th in fWAR by position players
tied for 7th in wRC+
tied for 3rd in xwOBA
tied for 15th in fWAR by pitchers
tied for 21st in ERA
13th in the league in FIP
17th in the league in xFIP
tied for 24th in xwOBA allowed
Now, I don't know about you, but when I see those numbers above, I do not see a team that should be in the bottom three of baseball. I don't see a team that should be a top five team or anything, but probably not a team that should even be bottom HALF, much less bottom 3.
I'm sorry to burst everyone's bubble who is reading this, but there has to be a middle ground between the ~70% of you I see on social media that are calling for a complete tear down and Bill DeWitt's family selling the team and no more Mo and no more of any of the coaches we have...and the other 30% of you who are saying there is still time with <90 games left at this point to still make the playoffs.
The prudent path forward, assuming the Cardinals continue to win at about a .400 clip, would be to be sellers - but for a quick retool, not a tank. There has been a lot of talk about trading Paul Goldschmidt in the blogosphere and then that has made it national when Will Leitch (a Cardinals fan and writer) wrote about it on MLB.com. However, my thinking there is that if you are trading Paul Goldschmidt, you're "burn[ing] this mother down!" and I'm just not ready to do that. Look at the stats above, with a little more pitching, the Cardinals should be right in it next year - just as we thought this year when we looked at the pitching.
So what changes should there be in either July or in the offseason?
Adam Wainwright retires.
I only put this first because we know this is happening.
Sign or Trade Jordan Montgomery
Jordan Montgomery is set to be a free agent after this season. There are reasons to believe that the St. Louis Cardinals should attempt to sign him long term. Studies have shown that the most predictive statistic out there for pitchers to see if their ERA at the end of a season is going to be good or not is looking at their K-BB%. League average for starting pitchers is typically between 14-15%. Jordan Montgomery's career K-BB% is 16.0%. Since the pandemic began, so we're talking 2020-23 now, it's 16.8%. Last year with the Cardinals it was 18.8%, but this year it's down at 15.1% entering today.
If the Cardinals are dead set on not signing Jordan Montgomery long term, then one of three things can happen. 1) They can let him leave via Free Agency, which is the worst of the three moves. 2) The Cardinals could offer Montgomery a qualifying offer. Montgomery can then accept the offer on a one-year deal with the Cardinals or he can test free agency. If he tests free agency and signs elsewhere, the Cardinals would then get a compensatory pick that will come after Competitive Balance Round B in the 2024 draft. 3) The Cardinals could trade him before the deadline this year.
Assuming the Cardinals decide to trade him this deadline, the Cardinals would need to receive back in return a value greater than what they think Montgomery will provide them in the last two months of the season PLUS the value of the draft pick they would receive as compensation.
I sign Montgomery to a deal or trade him before the deadline this year.
I could see the Mets, Angels, Orioles, Phillies, or Diamondbacks looking for starting pitching at the deadline. What are comps that the Cardinals could get in return?
A year and two months of Jordan Montgomery himself landed the Yankees Harrison Bader last year. So obviously less than a Harrison Bader. Check.
Montgomery has been a little better than 2022 Noah Syndergaard this year and "Thor" got the Angels Mickey Moniak and Jadiel Sanchez. Moniak was a former first overall draft pick (1.1, not just first round) and a 25-year old outfielder prospect at the time with around 150 failed PA at the major league level but he had just begun absolutely ripping AA/AAA pitching. He's got 68 PA of 155 OPS+ this year at the major league level. Sanchez was a 21-year old A-ball outfielder at the time who debuted at #28 on the Angels' prospect list upon the trade (per MLB Pipeline). So that's a promising young position player and a flier.
2022 Tyler Mahle was having a similar year to Jordan Montgomery when he was traded to the Minnesota Twins from the Cincinnati Reds. He had a year and 2 months left on his deal when he netted the Reds CIF prospect Spencer Steer, CIF prospect Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and LHSP prospect Steve Hajjar. Steer was pounding upper level pitching all year long and is doing well as the every day first baseman in Cincinnati this year. Encarnacion-Strand was pounding AA pitching last year and is pounding AAA pitching this year. Hajjar is a high strikeout arm who also walks a lot of batters and seems to be a long ways away. Last year, Steer jumped straight into the Reds top 30 prospects list at 7 and Encarnacion-Strand at 14 according to MLB Pipeline. That would be too big an amount to get back for the Cardinals because Mahle had 8 months of baseball compared to just 2 for Montgomery. But that would be a top 15 hitting prospect for our system or a top 10 pitching prospect for our system potentially as a return. That's top 10-15 in our system, not in all of baseball.
The Cardinals also traded for Jose Quintana (and Chris Stratton) last year by giving up Johan Oviedo and Malcom Nunez. Nunez jumped straight into the top 12 for the Pirates prospect list and Oviedo took Quintana's spot in the rotation. So that would be like the Cardinals taking Montgomery (and potentially Chris Stratton) and still getting a top 15 position player prospect from someone AND getting someone cost controlled to take the last 8-10 starts for Montgomery - or another future starter type that isn't ready for the majors.
Looking at all that above, the TL;DR version of it is that the Cardinals should expect to get, for Jordan Montgomery, a top 10-15 position player prospect (and a top 10-15 pitcher prospect if we throw in a decent reliever like Chris Stratton) in return.
Sign or Trade Jack Flaherty
Honestly, I think everything that applies above to Montgomery equally applies to Jack Flaherty. Yes, you could get much worse performance from Jack than you get from Montgomery, but the ceiling is much higher. And other teams know it, too.
So I'm looking for a long-term contract or for the Cardinals to get a top 10-15 position player prospect or a top 10 pitching prospect for Flaherty also. If you add in a reliever like VerHagen or Stratton or Cabrera, then I'm looking for both a top 10 pitching prospect AND a top 15 position player prospect.
Sign or Trade Jordan Hicks
Another decision the Cardinals need to make is whether or not to sign Jordan Hicks to a longer contract. I don't believe that they will, but the argument could be made to do that right now. Why? Hicks still has trouble finding the strike zone, but he has finally figured out how to strike an abnormally large amount of batters out with his incredibly good stuff. Because of the walks and the huge abberation BABIP this year against him, his ERA is still bloated to a point you don't want it. However, Hicks' xERA, FIP, and xFIP are that (this year) of a reliever you'd want to keep around if possible.
I assume the Cardinals are not going to re-sign Hicks, however. So what are some good comps for a high strikeout reliever like Hicks, who is not a bonafide closer?
Mychal Givens netted Saul Gonzalez, a right-handed relief pitching prospect who was about league average age in just A ball. He was not in the top 30 of either the Mets farm system (from where he came) nor the Cubs farm system (to where he got traded).
I think that is about all you could expect to get for a Hicks at this point. Hopefully with Ryan Helsley out, he'll be asked to catch some lightning in a bottle and be used as a closer (since Gallegos is a better setup man) and establish some better value on the market. But I say you sign him for a year to establish even better value or move him for a low level flier prospect before you lose him for nothing in the offseason. If Hicks does what he's done this last week, then this trade value expands quickly.
Attempt to trade Paul DeJong (and then correspondingly bring up Masyn Winn for the last two months if done prior to the deadline this year)
Although Paul DeJong and Whit Merrifield have very different skill sets on the diamond, 2022 Whit Merrifield and 2023 Paul DeJong both have similar values. DeJong, as you reading this know, is a good defensive SS who struggles to hold up his end of the bargain with the bat sometimes but when he is on he has a ton of power. Whit Merrifield is basically the exact opposite of that, playing 2B and outfield decently while typically having a good to decent batting average and a lot of steals. Merrifield was definitely on the down turn of his career when traded this past trade deadline (from the Royals to the Blue Jays), but also was signed for this year and an option for next year. DeJong has two club options - so basically the same.
Whit Merrifield was traded, in 2022, for RHP Max Castillo and 2B Samad Taylor. Taylor was a prospect who had not yet made the majors (he actually made his debut with a walk off winner earlier this week in Kansas City) but who jumped into the 25th spot on the Royals' prospect list upon being traded to KC. Castillo was pitching well in the majors for Toronto at the time of the trade but did not pitch well for KC down the stretch nor has he done well this year in KC, but he's still just 24.
Another player traded last year was Brandon Drury. He was having an offensive year much better than Paul DeJong is this year but was not seen to be as good an overall player as DeJong plus he was on an expiring contract. DeJong should fetch slightly more than Drury, I'd imagine - and Drury returned the Cincinnati Reds INF Victor Acosta, an 18 year old rookie ball SS at the time who immediately jumped to #15 on the Reds prospect list upon the trade.
Shop Tyler O'Neill in a trade
The New York Yankees traded Joey Gallo last year for their (upon completion of the trade) #9 prospect in their system, Clayton Beeter, a then-23 year old AA pitcher.
Add Chris Stratton and Drew VerHagen to other trades as a kicker
Attempt to trade Genesis Cabrera while his value might be decent, I guess?
I'd like to think that I accomplished two of these three above with Stratton going in the Montgomery deal and VerHagen going in the Flaherty deal (or vice versa on the relievers), while keeping Cabrera around to try to build value for this offseason as he's still under contract through 2025 if you want him that long. Gives us a bit more time to trade him, sign him, or play him (or play him then trade him).
Attempt to trade prospects/players that you are "out" on, like Jake Woodford and Juan Yepez, who the Cardinals seemingly have no use for (up to you on who this could include). Attempt to trade Steven Matz or move him to the bullpen permanently.
I'm not going to assume any of this happens during this season at the deadline. With the players being traded above, I think that this group stays put to build value until the offseason.
Additional Context for the Trade Returns below
The 20-80 scouting scale is used to show how good a player or prospect is. 50 is seen as average major league (not professional, but major league) talent. Each 10 points above or below 50 is an entire standard deviation better than or worse than an average major leaguer. Entering the 2023 season, the top 21 prospects for the Cardinals had a future value (FV) of 45 or higher (per both Prospects Live AND MLB Pipeline).
Before the deadline
Trade Montgomery for a 45+ FV position player prospect + Stratton/VerHagen/Cabrera for a 45+ FV pitching prospect
Trade Flaherty for a 45+ FV position player prospect + Stratton/VerHagen/Cabrera for a 45+ FV pitching prospect
Trade Jordan Hicks for a low level prospect unless he catches lightning in a bottle then get something better for him
Trade Tyler O'Neill for a future potential front end (1, 2, or 3 but not ace level) starter
Trade DeJong for a 45 FV position player prospect
In the offseason
Still try to move Steven Matz, Genesis Cabrera, and anyone else you are "out" on like Jake Woodford and Juan Yepez (not me, the team)
Sign multiple starters - potentially including Jordan Montgomery and/or Jack Flaherty - for the 2024 rotation.
In the next article in the series, I'm going to be expanding upon the individual players from specific teams that I would like to target as returns for Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Chris Stratton, Drew VerHagen, Jordan Hicks, Tyler O'Neill, and Paul DeJong at this year's trade deadline.