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Where do the Cardinals go from here?

On Monday night, the Cardinals managed to climb back into a game that started out with Miles Mikolas handing the Phillies a four run first inning lead. They struck out eighteen times along the way and blew a chance to tie it up in the 8th, but they made it back. Then they took a 10th inning lead on a Tommy Pham home run.

But then, as has been so often the case, Mike Matheny inserted Matt Bowman into the game. Bowman allowed a baserunner on a single and proceeded to put the winning run on via intentional walk. Next, he allowed a line drive to left field which Marcell Ozuna misplayed and failed to keep in front of him. Two runs scored. The Cardinals lost.

It’s been just over a year since the St. Louis front office interceded in the 2017 season by making a few mid-season coaching changes. The Cardinals responded then with a long stretch of winning baseball.

In the chart above, the first blue dot represents June 9th, the date the Cardinals made those coaching changes, and the second blue dot is August 13th. During that period, St. Louis won 58.3% of their games – a 94 win pace over a full season. Yet, after that time, the team played just .500 the rest of the way. They ended the season with only 83 wins, outside the playoffs for the second year in a row.

After the season’s disappointing end, the front office continued to make changes. They parted ways with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and hired Mike Maddux, a move sold as bringing a more analytical mind into the dugout and as aiding Matheny’s bullpen management. Jose Oquendo returned and Willie McGee was added, presumably both to help improve the defense and bolster dugout leadership.

Flash forward to the morning of June 19th, and the Cardinals again sit just a few games over .500. Since sweeping the Cubs on May 6th, St. Louis is 17-20 over the last six-ish weeks despite a favorable schedule that included 20 games against the Twins, Royals, Padres, Reds, and Marlins. Now, they won’t play a team who currently has a losing record until a July 5th trip to San Francisco. “It’s a long season,” but the Cardinals have started this tough stretch of games by narrowly avoiding a sweep at the hands of the Cubs and then losing a heartbreaker in Philadelphia.

Luckily, I guess, the Cardinals aren’t out of the postseason race - they currently have the sixth-highest playoff odds in the NL - and the months of June and July are for making changes. While many fans are calling for those changes to be made in the dugout, namely at the manager and hitting coach positions, I want to take an early look at the more traditional route of player transactions.

Normally when I’d do this sort of thing, I’d run WAR projections and forecast the dollar value of players through the length of their contract to get an estimated value for each player. I’d compare that value to their salary and get a surplus value, which is the kind of value that gets you something in a trade. I’d use some ballpark estimates to value our prospects and we’d start playing with a pool of talent which would be used as the pieces in my baseball-blogging RPG.

This time, though, I’m not going to do that. Why not? Because I don’t think it’s worth my time. I don’t think the Cardinals really have any assets who they would or should be open to moving that would get them much worthwhile. I'm running the risk of working through the whole roster below, but hopefully you can put up with my spit-balling.

For starters, St. Louis only has two prospects in the MLB Pipeline Top 100: Alex Reyes at #15 and Tyler O’Neill at #73. Reyes isn’t going anywhere after he underwent season ending surgery, and O’Neill likely isn’t viewed highly enough to be the centerpiece of an impact trade.

Recent prospect graduate Carson Kelly has probably struggled too much in his early MLB-time to be viewed as more than a complimentary piece in some deal, while Luke Weaver has run into struggles of his own which might have been foreshadowed by some weak 2017 peripherals. Jack Flaherty has arguably been the team’s best starter and, if they plan to contend this year or next, he’s likely to be a key part of their success. Jordan Hicks isn’t going anywhere.

Additionally, it looks like the Cardinals outfield prospect depth has taken a hit with Randy Arozarena and Adolis Garcia failing to take a step forward this year. Thus, as a potential replacement for Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader has become less expendable. Not that you wanted to see less of him, anyways.

Beyond those young guys, there are a few fine prospects like Dakota Hudson, Ryan Helsley, Austin Gomber, or Andrew Knizner, but none of them look like they’d be more than a weak-second or good-third piece in difference-making deal. They each have their flaws and risks to any team looking to bring them on. Maybe one of them or someone else mentioned above fetch a pretty good rental reliever, but they’re not going to return Brad Hand.

On the other hand, I’ve often suggested that the Cardinals could use their “cost-controlled” talent already at the MLB level to shuffle pieces and make an upgrade somewhere and continue to contend for a wild card spot. As those contracts have progressed, however, it’s becoming more difficult, both because of the escalation in annual dollars owed and aging talent.

We can ignore Miles Mikolas and Marcell Ozuna in this exercise. While they likely have the best value relative to their contracts, the length of that control (through next year for each) limits their value. Plus, again, if the Cardinals want to contend, these two will be centerpieces. They’re here to stay until at least deadline season next year.

While Matt Carpenter is still a good player, he’s owed about $22 million dollars over the next two years with a team option that could take that to $40 million through 2020. On top of that, his slumps seem to be both deeper and more frequent the last couple years. He has a fair share of health concerns and is two and a half years on the wrong side of 30. As far as trade value goes, he doesn’t have much.

Moving around the infield, Jedd Gyorko is having a slow season that looks more like the 2015 version than 2016-17 version we’ve grown used to. He’s owed about $19 million through next year and then either gets a $1 million buyout or $13 million in 2020. It’s a fair price for the kind of player he is, but that doesn’t mean he’d fetch much from another team.

Kolten Wong is owed about $20 million through 2020 with a team option or buyout for 2021. It’s not a bad contract, but he’s in the midst of a career-worst year at the plate. Moving him now would definitely be selling low, and he might not have that much value anymore even if you were able to sell higher.

Paul DeJong isn’t going anywhere due to his hand injury and, more importantly, the fact that he’s the only guy in the Cardinals system who looks like he can play shortstop at the MLB level. That the team signed him to such an early extension is enough reason to believe they wouldn't have interest in moving him this year anyways. Carlos Martinez and Yadier Molina certainly won't be moved, either.

In the outfield, Tommy Pham is another sell-low candidate who, while in a favorable team control position, has a lengthy injury history and significant vision concerns which limit his value. He’s as risky as MLB position players get. Dexter Fowler has a no trade clause which I suspect he would waive, but the contract is so bad the Cardinals might have to swallow nearly all of it just to get him off their roster.

Bud Norris might make a pretty good bullpen trade piece, but he’d likely just get a mid-tier prospect or two at the expense of taking away a rare reliable option in the Cardinals bullpen. They need him in the bullpen more than whatever they'd get in his stead. I don’t need to tell you that Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Tyler Lyons, and Bowman are lost. None of the remaining guys with team control have established value in a bullpen role just yet.

Finally, getting to someone with potential value, José Martínez might be the best trade piece the Cardinals have. Due to his defensive limitations, though, he’d probably need to be sent to DH for an AL team. Unfortunately, JD Martinez is a better and much more proven version of our own Martínez, and he returned very little of worth last year for the Tigers. Granted, he was a half-year rental whereas Jose has plenty of team control remaining. Given that precedent and the offseason pattern of teams being hesitant to chase offense-first players, however, we might not expect José Martínez to bring back as much this year as he might have just a few years ago.

If José Martínez isn't the team's most likely trade candidate, Michael Wacha probably is. Again, though, he comes with concerns of his own. We know about his injury history. Perhaps raising that flag again, his fastball velocity is down about 1.5 mph compared to last year and about 1.0 mph compared to last month. He'd surely bring back something of value, but nothing that would do much to change the course.

You could probably package Wacha and Martínez together to send to an AL team for a good value, but by removing two starters without a similarly talented replacement for at least one of them, you run the risk of making the MLB club worse. The Cardinals aren't in a position to sell in that manner. The injuries to the pitching staff and underperformance by Wong and Gyorko have sapped their startable-level depth.

So where do the Cardinals go from here? I, personally, expect to see the same holding pattern we’ve seen for the last two years. Maybe they add a relief arm and say that getting Paul DeJong back off the DL is just like a trade. The front office probably thinks this team is good enough to make the playoffs as constructed if the breaks just go their way. Maybe they are, but it doesn’t feel that way currently. Instead, it feels like they’re stuck in the middle and on the outside looking in. There doesn’t appear to be a clear way out when looking at the current rostered playing talent. Maybe I'm a pessimist! Or, perhaps, the St. Louis Cardinals will again need to look inside the dugout.


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