The December trade which saw the St. Louis Cardinals sending right fielder Stephen Piscotty to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for minor leaguers Max Schrock and Yairo Munoz was most often at the time, and is still most often today, viewed in the context of Piscotty. It had been known throughout much of the 2017 season that the outfielder was dealing with unspeakable personal grief, as his mother Gretchen had been diagnosed with, and later died of, ALS. This information was necessary to understanding every aspect of the trade–Piscotty’s family’s proximity to Oakland made the move specifically poignant in ways that trading the outfielder to the East Coast would not have, and knowing the personal turmoil that Stephen faced created some context for his struggles at the plate in 2017.
But while the trade had a wonderful ripple effect in bringing Stephen and Gretchen Piscotty closer together for a few more precious months, it would be insincere to pretend that this factor, while perhaps the catalyst for discussion, was the sole determining factor in the trade. The Cardinals and Athletics were, ultimately, two teams with different needs, and if it didn’t make baseball sense for both parties, John Mozeliak and Billy Beane were not going to execute the trade.
The timing of the Stephen Piscotty trade could not have made it more obvious what the Cardinals were doing. In the morning on December 14, 2017, the Cardinals’ outfield stood at Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, and Piscotty, with Randal Grichuk figuring in somewhere as a fourth outfielder and Jose Martinez on the roster as a first baseman/alternate outfield option and Harrison Bader probably on the outside looking in due to sheer volume and–the point is there were a lot of options. In the afternoon, the Cardinals traded four prospects (including Magneuris Sierra, who some people that aren’t me might have figured somewhere in the outfield mix) to the Miami Marlins for Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna, an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in left field the season before, was an obvious and immediate starter. Pham, who went from organizational afterthought to down-ballot MVP candidate in the span of a few months, was too productive in 2017 to possibly bench. Fowler, due for $16.5 million for each of the next four seasons and coming off a strong 2017 campaign at the plate, was similarly automatic. And either Grichuk (later traded himself) or Bader made more sense as a “fourth outfielder”, as each had far more extensive experience in the more difficult center field spot, than Piscotty.
Oakland did not have this level of outfield depth. Stephen Piscotty had struggled in 2017, but even before that, nobody was confusing him as an elite right field option. He was about league-average, which may sound like it is minimizing him but league average players are very valuable. League average players sign high-double and even triple digit free agent contracts. To a team like the Athletics, who aspired to make their already-thin outfield depth thinner by converting Khris Davis, a terrific hitter whose inability to throw is probably the second-most notorious case in MLB of inexplicable skill shortcomings behind Jon Lester throwing to first base, to designated hitter, a player like Stephen Piscotty was an obvious reclamation project and somebody who, even if his 2017 struggles turned out to be an actual drop in true talent rather than a temporary blip caused by extraordinary personal circumstances, could figure immediately into the team’s starting outfield rotation.
What the Athletics did have, however, was young infield depth. The team’s best player in 2018, and second-best player in 2017 by Wins Above Replacement, is Matt Chapman, a 25 year-old third baseman. Shortstop Marcus Semien, 27, is a relative mainstay on the team. And the team’s top prospect, Franklin Barreto, is a 22 year-old infield prospect who made his MLB debut at 21. Infielders Max Schrock and Yairo Munoz were relatively redundant pieces for the Athletics–they were decent, though hardly elite prospects, but there are only so many infield spots for a team to use. So they were sent to the Cardinals.
In 2018, Stephen Piscotty has been dreadful. He has been a materially below-average hitter (his wRC+ stands at 76, making him 24% below league average), exascerbated by the fact that Piscotty plays a position with a high offensive threshold and that Piscotty’s defense at said position, which has never been great, has been outright bad so far in 2018.
The obvious caveat, as detailed before, is that Piscotty has been playing with a heavy heart, and I’m hardly discounting the possibility that Piscotty bounces back to what we saw of him in 2015 and 2016. But that version of Piscotty is still fairly replaceable–not replaceable in a “is Replacement Level” way, mind you, but in a “Harrison Bader has way more upside and just turned 24” way. Even after trading Piscotty and Grichuk, the Cardinals still find themselves with an abundance of outfielders–Tyler O’Neill hit home runs in three consecutive games and he was still sent back to Memphis because, well, what are the Cardinals supposed to do with another one of these guys?
Max Schrock, one of the prospects acquired for Piscotty, is one of the stranger prospects in baseball in the sense that while he isn’t a major prospect, at least one noteworthy baseball analyst, Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs, has written that Schrock is a future MVP. Was the post tongue-in-cheek? Sure, but it wasn’t entirely tongue-in-cheek. And throughout the minors, Schrock has been an above-average hitter while playing a premium defensive position (second base) thanks in large part to his ability to avoid strikeouts. While the modern game doesn’t hate strikeouts as much as previous generations, nobody is arguing they’re a good thing. Avoiding them is good! While Schrock’s offensive production has declined in 2018, a year in which he was bumped up to the AAA level, due in large part to lack of power, he is still avoiding strikeouts and, at 23, still has room to grow.
But the real highlight of the Stephen Piscotty trade for the Cardinals so far has been Yairo Munoz, who cracked the 2018 Opening Day roster after a strong Spring Training. Munoz struggled mightily at the plate in his initial run in the Majors–in his twenty plate appearances before being demoted to AAA Memphis, Munoz struck out in 55% of them and managed a wRC+ of 5. Not 50…five. It seemed that Munoz simply wasn’t ready to face MLB pitching, but then something happened. That first “something” was “everybody got hurt”, but the second was that thanks to a much stronger run since returning to the big leagues, Munoz has a wRC+ of 117. It’s more than a little bit BABIP-assisted (.417, particularly for a player who is not especially fast, is a tall order), but he is also striking out less and displaying actual extra-base potential, including two home runs.
I’m still not sure that Munoz is quite “ready” for the big leagues, his 2018 success notwithstanding. His shortstop defense has looked shaky, and although the extremely small sample size numbers suggest his third base defense is the shaky part of his game rather than at shortstop, I am much more inclined to believe that Munoz’s MLB future, if not as an outright utilityman, is at third base than at shortstop. But while poking holes in his game is somewhat easy, there are two factors to keep in mind–one, that Munoz is 23 years old and is still developing as a player, and two, is that had Stephen Piscotty still been on the Cardinals, he was going to be a man without a role. Munoz might be a worse player than Stephen Piscotty right now, but Piscotty was never going to be able to fill in for Paul DeJong at shortstop in any capacity.
Stephen Piscotty signed a six-year, $33.5 million contract extension with the Cardinals before the 2017 season. Relative to free agency, this is a bargain, but the Cardinals were going to be on the hook for Piscotty’s arbitration years regardless. This wasn’t going to be a massive expenditure, but it was part of the budget regardless. A little over five and a half million dollars for a starting outfielder is a great bargain, but Stephen Piscotty was going to be a man without a role in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock both arrived in St. Louis with absolute team financial control–three years of the league minimum salary at the MLB level, plus three more years of arbitration. Munoz is more valuable today to the Cardinals than Piscotty because he fills a greater area of need, and while Piscotty could very well re-emerge and turn this trade into a win-win trade for both teams, the Cardinals appear to have already held up their end of the winning bargain.