A few days ago, I was tuned into MLB Network, when something horrible happened. Jon Heyman, a baseball reporter for whom I have great respect, proposed a trade for the Cardinals. St. Louis would receive Josh Donaldson, the Toronto Blue Jays’ slugger who has recently been linked to the Cardinals in rumors. In exchange, the Blue Jays would receive a king’s ransom: top Cardinals’ prospect and top MLB pitching prospect Alex Reyes, the Cardinals’ top outfield prospect Magneuris Sierra, and the Cardinals’ young, first round shortstop, Delvin Perez.
I was shocked by this proposition. Donaldson, is an electric player. He swings the bat with tremendous power, and has a plus-plus glove at third base, too. He is an all-star caliber, middle of the order bat, without a doubt, the type of impact bat that Cardinals’ fans have been clamoring for all season. But Donaldson is already 31 years old, and has this year and an arbitration year remaining on his contract. While he is a tremendous player, he is aging out of his prime and approaching a huge payday. He is exactly the type of player the Cardinals would be wise to avoid as a panic buy at the deadline, especially for a cost anywhere near that high.
At the All-Star Break, the Cardinals sit five and a half games back of the NL Central and 7.5 games back of the Wild Card. They are not, at present, a playoff caliber team, nor are they particularly close. Moreover, they do not currently have the kind of core centerpiece that you can build a team around, and Donaldson, with no disrespect, cannot fill that void at his age. The Cardinals’ must avoid wagering elite prospects for an unlikely playoff run this year, and players of the caliber of Sierra, Reyes, and Perez, should be kept in the organization at all costs.
So, with this plan, are the Cardinals’ doomed to mediocrity for the rest of the season? By no means! The Cardinals are actually in a tremendous position to get younger, better, and stronger going forward, if they play their cards (no pun intended) wisely.
Recent weeks have seen several younger or newer players make a big impact for the Cardinals. Most notably, Tommy Pham has been one of the stories of the season for the Birds so far. The 29 year old outfielder is playing with fire, and he has been one of the top contributors on both sides of the ball, slashing .288/.376/.490, and making huge plays in all outfield positions.
More recently, Paul DeJong, who slapped his ninth major league home run in Sunday’s game against the Mets, has seemingly locked down the shortstop position in the majors, showing better defense and offense than Aledmys Diaz, who he knocked down to Triple A. Meanwhile, St. Louis native Luke Voit has shown tremendous pop in his bat, slugging .613 in almost two weeks in the Majors. And Luke Weaver, the Cardinals’ top active pitching prospect (with Reyes on the DL) has finally secured a spot on the roster, currently pitching out of the bullpen. No doubt Weaver would have been considered for a starting role, had Michael Wacha not found his groove and delivered three good starts in a row.
The Cardinals face a significant challenge, though, in where to play all of these players. Weaver is blocked from the rotation by the surging Wacha, Voit is only an option at 1B, but has played so well that the Cardinals have moved Matt Carpenter back to 2B for the time being. When Kolten Wong, who has been having a fantastic season, and made a tremendous rehab start on Sunday, returns from the DL, that will create yet another problem. Dexter Fowler has returned from injury, meaning Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty cannot all be starting. There are logjams at almost every position around the diamond. But as much as this is the Cardinals’ biggest challenge, it may be their biggest opportunity, too. With the deadline approaching, and the Redbirds not in an obvious playoff position, they may be in the perfect place to add by subtracting.
What does this mean? Well, for starters, it means eliminating logjams and creating a clear starting lineup day in, day out. Let’s look at some of these players and talk about potential moves:
For DeJong, the move has already been made. They’ve sent down Diaz, and DeJong has started consistently at short. Unless something major changes with either player, that is likely the plan going forward.
The outfield situation is hazier. I think the Cardinals must do right by Tommy Pham, and if that means trading him, they ought to trade him. This would be a good time to do so, as certainly his value has never been higher. But Pham has earned playing time somewhere. He has played his heart out and been the most consistent player on the team this season. If the Redbirds’ front office is committed to Randal Grichuk, then they should sell high on Tommy Pham and let him have a playoff opportunity with another team. If not, they should commit to Pham here and hope that he is a player in the mold of Ryan Ludwick, who surges late in his career.
Weaver is another case where the solution should be fairly easy. With Lance Lynn on the final year of his contract and pitchers always in high demand at the deadline, the Cardinals should absolutely trade Lynn and collect some prospects for the future (this was made easier with a good start by Lynn on Sunday). They are in a unique position to trade a starting pitcher and possibly get stronger, with the likes of Weaver and Jack Flaherty waiting for playing time. St. Louis should also consider whether now might be the right time to trade Michael Wacha. If they can get top value for him, while he is hot, they can potentially lose the headache of his shoulder injuries and his inconsistency.
The most challenging case is Luke Voit. Voit has been tremendous in his time here, and has become a fan favorite immediately, given his hometown status. Many analysts have said he has MLB staying power (this piece is incredibly detailed, and well worth the read). He has a clean swing and natural pop, and would be a great addition to any lineup. But, like Matt Adams before him, Voit figures to be a fixture at 1B, without legitimate options for other positions. With the Cardinals having committed to playing Carpenter at first, and with Wong performing well above expectations at 2B, this presents a problem. But perhaps it is a problem with a radical solution.
Perhaps the Cardinals should at least investigate trading Matt Carpenter. Though Carpenter is a fan favorite here, he is also one of the club’s worst defenders and one of the league’s worst base runners. As a team leader, there can be little doubt that his weakness in these areas affects his teammates. Moreover, though the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler as a leadoff hitter and center fielder this offseason, Carpenter has demonstrated that he excels only out of the leadoff spot, which has moved Fowler to number two in the lineup. With Carpenter blocking Voit and Fowler, and with his tenacity and strength at the plate and the term on his contract likely to demand a high return on the trade market, perhaps it is time that the Cardinals look at what they might get for him.
Mozeliak and new GM Mike Girsch should not trade someone as talented as Carpenter just to clear up the lineup a bit, of course. Nor should they make any moves if the value isn’t there and the fit isn’t right. But this year may present a fairly unique opportunity for the newly arranged front office to move key assets, collect strong prospects, and remain just as competitive this year while building for the future.
Much as Cardinal nation loves and has come to expect playoff baseball, Redbird fans should concede that this year’s squad is weaker than the top NL competition, and a deep playoff run is not likely, even if the team makes the playoffs at all. But that reality is no reason to panic and make blockbuster moves that obliterate a rebounding farm system. The right move is to be smart, build for the future, and make the most of the players you have who may be key pieces as you move forward into the seasons ahead.