This article originally appeared on Flyover Country Baseball (my Facebook baseball page) back on August 1, 2017. It was my reaction to the last few years of watching Cardinal baseball and being frustrated by the lack of decision by the front office at the 2017 MLB non-waiver trade deadline. I post it here now in hopes of adding to it in the future when time allows - either to add on about what's happened since then to now or to revel in a decision being made at the 2018 deadline of a set direction for this team we all love so dear.
The 2017 trade deadline for the St. Louis Cardinals was a time of paralysis. The Cardinals were frozen, and I believe because of previous occurrences over the last 3 years. Let me explain. I’m going to break this down into multiple sections.
Section I - Buyers Beware
I think the lack of moves goes back to 2014, truthfully. Oscar Taveras made the decision to drive drunkenly in the Dominican Republic on October 26, 2014 and he and his girlfriend were killed in a car accident. Oscar Taveras was the Cardinals top prospect and was rated an overall of 70 on MLB.com’s Pipeline feature. A 70 is basically a perennial All-Star, almost at worst. He was a top-3 prospect in all of baseball according to at least three outlets - for two straight seasons! I wrote back in 2014 (if you care to search back that far about projecting prospects through statistics) that MLB.com’s grades on Taveras’ five tools basically put his peak at about the level of a Ryan Braun with better defense. How valuable would that be in our lineup right now at age 25 and in his third full season? Talk about a LH power bat to hit 3rd in the order.
Entering the 2015 season, the Cardinals were coming off of 3 straight playoff appearances and already had a “donut hole” of prospects - as Derrick Goold oft spoke of it. They were hitting this hole where they did not have much in the high minors, as all of their best prospects had hit the majors or were at the low minors level. Help was on the way, but it was a long ways off. As you can see, this help is finally starting to come this season and you can see the tides a brewing for next year’s crop as well.
The Cardinals had excess starting pitching (both at the time and nowadays as well) and so they ended up trading Shelby Miller and a starting pitching prospect for Jason Heyward and a reliever. Heyward was the price piece in the deal as he ended up leading the Cardinals in both fWAR and bWAR that season. The Cardinals obtained a star player, just entering his prime, but with just the one year left on his contract. They made a serious effort to re-sign Heyward to a long, expensive contract. Heyward has admitted that the Cardinals would have spent more money and would have included opt-outs like the Cubs had, if he would have asked them to. Instead, he chose to take less money to go win a World Series on the north side of Chicago. Due to the death of Taveras, the move for Jason Heyward was made swiftly and made out of the Cardinals’ comfort zone of growing from within. Well out of that comfort zone. This was strike one in our Paralysis Prelude. Also, the reliever they acquired had two years left on his contract, but pitched a total of 10 1/3 innings as a Cardinal due to injuries. Buyer, beware.
The 2016 season did not go at all how they would have wanted. The fundamentals were absolute crap, the pitching regressed hardcore (well beyond what anyone could have imagined), and the team basically abandoned any type of offense that didn’t involve hitting the ball over the wall. This team played just well enough to be in the wild card hunt and had a need at relief pitching at the deadline and got Zach Duke from the White Sox. That was all they did, though...as that team didn’t seem to “deserve a big move” - as Tony LaRussa was apt to discuss. Duke had a year and 2 months left on his contract. He did not pitch wonderfully in the 2 months after being acquired and he also got hurt and only was able to pitch another 3 months this year. Buyer, beware.
The Cardinals once again moved WELL out of their comfort zone this offseason. The Cardinals spent $30.5M for 4 years of a relief pitcher and spent $82.5M for 5 years of a guy coming off of a career season who is a center fielder by name and a left fielder at best defensively. Those two represented the most spent on free agency outside of their own organization by any team this past offseason. The Cardinals also re-signed Yadier Molina to a 3-year, $60M extension, Stephen Piscotty to a 6-year, $33.5M extension, and Carlos Martinez to a 5-year, $51M extension. All in all, the Cardinals spent over a quarter of a billion dollars in one offseason on major league talent alone. So far this year, Yadi has been shoved into the #5 hole as a hitter, Piscotty has been injured, Carlos has bounced around between ace (most often) and just above average (just too often), Fowler has been hurt a bit off and on, and Cecil has either been light’s out or a gas can. Buyer, beware.
Another move they were forced to make this offseason was due to a hacking scandal that you all have likely heard of. The Cardinals lost potential talent at the front end of the draft. They likely knew it was coming and they again stepped outside of their comfort zone. The Cardinals spent big on international free agency in 2016. Derrick Goold wrote in one article that the Cardinals had more million dollar plus signs on the first day of the international free agent period this past season than they had had in the previous DECADE.
Section II - Seller’s Remorse?
At the deadline in 2015, the Cardinals traded Kyle Barraclaugh to the Marlins for Steve Cishek. Cishek pitched okay but was just a rental. Barraclaugh is about to become a guy that other teams are going to be trading for at a deadline in the near future...and the Cards got <25 innings out of Cishek. The Cardinals also traded two other minor leaguers for two established players. They traded their then-top 3 prospect Rob Kaminsky to the Indians for Brandon Moss - who was a slightly above average hitter with some pop and very little (to be kind) defense during his time in STL - and Jonathan Broxton was acquired for Malik Collymore. That last trade isn’t so bad except Broxton was 1) well past his prime, 2) not really an improvement, and 3) somehow extended for a couple of years?!? This year, the Cardinals had to pay Broxton his full salary to leave less than halfway through the season. Seller’s remorse?
The Cardinals didn’t necessarily regret doing this, but the Cardinals signed Jaime Garcia to a 1 year contract in November of 2016 and then on December 1st, flipped him to the Atlanta Braves (again, the Braves) for three prospects. You’ll see in a moment why they might regret it, except I don’t believe the Cardinals had any intention at all of going into the 2017 season with Jaime Garcia on their 40-man active roster, despite giving him a $12M contract. None of those 3 prospects the Cardinals got in return for Garcia entered the Cardinals top 20 and only 2 entered their top 30, if I remember correctly. None have made a big impact on the 2017 Cardinals, nor do they look like they will - and it’s debatable as to whether or not they’ll make any impact on future Cardinals clubs as they fall farther and farther behind other outstanding pitching prospects. This could create a bit of seller’s remorse, however?
The Cardinals added to their possible seller’s remorse by trading Matt Adams - again to the Braves! - for Juan Yepez. This deal screamed to me to not be a good (or even reasonable) baseball deal. The club had a lot of options of what they could do - including holding on to Adams and allowing him to be the PH extraordinaire. They had 13 pitchers at the time (instead of the 12 teams normally employ). The club almost immediately released 2 of those pitchers after trading Adams. They quite clearly did not get nearly enough back for Adams as Yepez was not in the Braves top 50 prospects anywhere that I could find. That’s not top 50 prospects in baseball...that’s top 50 within their organization. As in, the Braves could have fielded a Major League team twice (much less their actual major league team) with prospects before anyone would have stumbled upon Yepez.
Section III - The Matheny Conundrum
Yes, I realize that I am (to put it lightly) not Matheny’s biggest fan. I think he does much more wrong than he does right. Trying to put my feelings on Matheny aside and let facts take over, let’s look at some fact.
In 2013, the Cardinals went to the World Series under Matheny and lost.
In 2014, the Cardinals went to the NLCS under Matheny and lost. A step back.
In 2015, the Cardinals went to the NLDS under Matheny and lost. A step back.
In 2016, the Cardinals finished above .500 but missed the playoffs. A step back.
In 2017, so far the Cardinals would be out of the playoffs and under .500. A step back.
Tony LaRussa used to famously tell his players that they can play poorly and suffer the consequences with their win-loss record and with the reinforcements (or lack thereof) that the upper management gives them - OR they can play well enough to “deserve” a big move at the deadline to show that the organization is completely behind the team on the field and go all in. In 2016, the Cardinals front office deemed the Cardinals unworthy, acquiring just Zach Duke (as I profiled earlier). It appears that the Cardinals brass has deemed this (worse) team in 2017 as more unworthy than last year’s group.
If this were the end of the story we’d be too lucky. Earlier this season, I (here at FCB) wondered “aloud” whether or not Mike Matheny had lost this team. They did - and still do - not look like a team that was playing hard for their “leader of men.” Since that sentence wades dangerously close to my feelings or my opinion let’s look back into some more facts.
In the last week, Yadier Molina - a team captain for a decade and the heart and soul of the Cardinals along with Adam Wainwright - put Matheny on blast on Social Media for a perceived slight. Bernie Miklasz wrote a wonderful piece all about it and it’s potential ramifications, but I’m going to quote an excerpt if you’ll permit:
You have to understand the way Matheny works to foster loyalty in the clubhouse. And yes, I’ve written and talked about this many times in the past. The insecure Matheny leans on veteran leaders to set the tone, and to keep other players in line.
Since taking over as a rookie manager (at any professional level) in 2012, Matheny’s go-to guys have been left fielder Matt Holliday, pitcher Adam Wainwright and Molina.
As part of the unspoken deal, Matheny always has the veterans’ backs.
And in return, they’ve [had] his back.
Well, the perceived slight that Molina commented on gives the appearance that this “leader of men” in charge of the Cardinals clubhouse no longer has that quid prop quo deal with his leader, Yadier Molina.
Miklasz continues to say what I’ve been thinking has happened for months now:
It was interesting to see that five of Molina’s teammates — Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham, Greg Garcia and Kevin Siegrist — “liked” Molina’s controversial post on Instagram.
If Matheny loses Molina’s loyalty, he’s in real danger of losing the clubhouse.
I think that being “in real danger of losing the clubhouse” time has come and gone.
Between the Taveras death, the donut hole of prospects, the scorning of the Birds on the Bat by Jason Heyward after spending big in talent to get him, the lack of success on the trade market when buying the last couple of years, the lack of success after spending big money to get/keep talent this past offseason, and that they’re an under .500 team through 4 months that hasn’t earned a big addition... we can see why the Cardinals may not want to be buyers.
Between the Garcia and Adams trades, plus the team being somewhat in contention (if you use your imagination), the fact that the Dewitts have been the owners of the club for over 20 seasons and have never once been sellers, and the fact that the CBA was changed and the Cardinals (while great at many things in the front office) are notoriously slow at adapting to change ... we can clearly see why they may not want to be sellers in this market.
With the interesting situation brewing at the helm of the on-field portion of the organization, would it be better off seeing if he is going to be at the helm next year before deciding on moves that give a potential future manager fits?
As I alluded to in my intro, I do believe MUCH more has happened that can be added onto this to show that the Cardinals are not sure if they are buyers or sellers - and I've written much more (see my Disjointed Series) about if the Cardinals really have a sense of direction for this team that is all very cohesive at the moment. I hope to add to this soon with more of my own thoughts. I'd love to hear yours in the comments.
Thanks for reading,