After a bye week, this is Part 3 of a series about an alternate timeline in which the St. Louis Cardinals decide to function solely to succeed in 2018, abandoning all interest in long-term player development and instead hoping to win this one title. You can read Part 1, about the first day of trades, which included the acquisitions of such superstars as Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and Bryce Harper, here. You can read Part 2, about the first month and a half of the season, which included trades for veterans Drew Pomeranz and Justin Smoak, here.
Carlos Martinez, who thrived in his new role as number-two starter to the tune of a 3.12 ERA (a career-best 140 ERA+), was injured. The Cardinals knew this for a few days, but the news turned out to be about as bad as it could be. He had a torn UCL. Carlos Martinez required Tommy John surgery. He would miss the remainder of the all-in 2018 season.
Suddenly, the Cardinals needed Adam Wainwright, who got off to a horrendous start to 2018, to become a formidable starter. There was still time to acquire more help, but now was not the time–there were not motivated sellers just yet. For now, the Cardinals would promote Ryan Sherriff, bump John Gant up to the rotation, and hold their breath.
The Cardinals remained a good team in the weeks following this news–they weren’t as good as they had been to that point, but regression was to be expected with or without Carlos Martinez. The Cardinals kept on keeping on and then, on June 2, some more bad news. Tommy Pham, who hadn’t quite maintianed his 2017 performance but was nonetheless a pivotal part of the lineup, was going to the DL. He would miss an expected six weeks.
Had a logical person seen this news, he or she would recognize that this wasn’t that big of a deal. It was bad but it wasn’t going to destroy the Cardinals. Jake Marisnick was more than qualified to fill in for Pham. The problem, as I saw it, was that there wasn’t really a backup outfielder now. So I picked up the phones.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire David Peralta from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Dakota Hudson and Brady Whalen: Hudson and Whalen, at this point, are two of the better Cardinals prospects, because all of the bigger names have already been traded away. But for 2018, neither should have the impact of former Cardinals minor league pitcher David Peralta, now an established Good Major League Baseball Outfielder, who could, while Pham is out, play left field while Wil Myers plays center fielder (defensively, it’s not ideal, but the presence of the slick-fielding Jake Marisnick could help in later innings), and once Pham returns, the left-handed Peralta could create a potent left field platoon with the right-handed Myers.
The next two weeks were a bit up-and-down: the Cardinals won the Miami Marlins series and swept the Cincinnati Reds, but then were inexplicably swept at home by the San Diego Padres. A June 15 victory against the Chicago Cubs helped to delight fans, but then, the next day, a third morale-crushing injury within the span of a month: Dallas Keuchel would miss 12 months with a torn flexor tendon.
So if you’re keeping score at home (and, considering I’m talking about a fictional universe in a computer game I played, I’m certain you are), the Cardinals lost each of its co-aces for the season. Desperate, I promoted Scott Diamond from AAA, which made the rotation for the all-in Cardinals team Drew Pomeranz, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Scott Diamond, and Jeremy Hellickson. Not ideal!
But no worries, the storm has been withstood. The pitching isn’t great, but the lineup is still excellent, even with Tommy Pham’s DL stint. But at this point, the Cardinals’ bullpen may need to kick it up a notch. It’s time for the three-headed monster of formerly excellent closers Luke Gregerson, Greg Holland, and Sergio Romo to step up their g…and Sergio Romo needs Tommy John surgery.
To be clear, this wasn’t instantaneous with the Dallas Keuchel news. It was later. Four days later. In response to the third case of a season-ending injury to a top starter or reliever in the course of a month, Mike Mayers was promoted. What an infuriating, stupid season it has been for the Cardinals’ pitching.
The next month went mercifully quietly on the injury front, and on July 19, the Cardinals were ready to re-activate Tommy Pham from the Disabled List. But they were also ready to make another move, this time one which seemingly fell into their laps, addressing the team’s biggest weakness.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Patrick Corbin from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Darren Seferina: Seferina, who was released by the Cardinals in real life on May 5, has never played above AA. He is a 24 year-old second baseman who, in the short-term future, is of little use to a team with Brian Dozier patrolling the position. Trading him for Corbin, on this roster a significant upgrade to the starting rotation, is an easy call.
Scott Diamond, at this point rocking a 9.45 ERA, was designated for assignment. The rules of baseball required the team to send Diamond through waivers before they could send him to AAA. He, um, made it through.
The Cardinals were perhaps shockingly quiet for the next twelve days, as the trade deadline approached. At this point, it was tricky to know what the Cardinals were. Their record was 60-46, a perfectly fine mark, but they stood nine games behind the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were back to their 2016-esque ways. That said, the Cardinals still led for the first Wild Card spot and seemed to have a very good chance of making it to the one-game playoff round.
A real team would probably be somewhat inactive at the deadline given these circumstances. Passing the Cubs was very unlikely, and it wasn’t as though the Cardinals could really improve their odds of a Wild Card berth too terribly much. Improving the roster was possible, for sure, but was it worth mortgaging the future for the sake of incremental improvements?
In my case, yes.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire A.J. Pollock from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Andrew Knizner, Max Schrock, Tommy Pham, and Austin Gomber: No, I don’t know why I listed the Cardinals players in this order. Pham is the obvious 2018 headliner, and I don’t like losing him, but when you’re losing him to improve at Pham’s position (Pollock ranks materially higher by OOTP scouting), you do it. Gomber was valuable organizational depth, and losing him was not ideal, but Knizner and Schrock remained deep in the system with little hope of contributing to a Cardinals championship run.
And with that move, I sat back, enjoyed a nice, strong drink, and rested on my laurels, content that I had built the best team I could possibly build. At this point, the available starting pitching wasn’t going to improve the team (Clayton Kershaw, besides being on the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers who presumably would’ve needed to be completely blown away to deal him, was too costly to afford), but the lineup–boy, oh boy, the lineup.
I’m just kidding, of course I made another trade.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Daniel Murphy from the Washington Nationals for Junior Fernandez, Ian McKinney, and Brian Dozier: Dozier had been something of a disappointment for the Cardinals–he was fine, but at a 103 OPS+, the Cardinals could do better. So I dangled a pair of minor league pitchers in order to upgrade to the National League’s leader in batting average at the time.
So here is the current lineup:
- Catcher: Yadier Molina
- First Base: Justin Smoak
- Second Base: Daniel Murphy
- Shortstop: Manny Machado
- Third Base: Josh Donaldson
- Left Field: David Peralta/Wil Myers
- Center Field: A.J. Pollock
- Right Field: Bryce Harper
This lineup has more real-life Washington Nationals, more real-life Toronto Blue Jays, and frequently more real-life Arizona Diamondbacks than it does real-life St. Louis Cardinals. Only Molina, whom I probably would have tried to upgrade upon if not for his no-trade clause that he refused to waive, remained from the Cardinals lineup from which I began. This is the ultimate test of the “Do fans care about the players or are they simply rooting for laundry?” question. And the answer was overwhelming: the Cardinals sold out every single home game they played in 2018. Fan support was through the roof. Fan Loyalty is literally listed as “EXTREME”. Maybe fans cheered louder for Yadier Molina than for the roster of rentals surrounding him, but it probably wasn’t by much. And he gets the biggest cheers anyway.
Following a 13-10 start to August, one which found the team continuing to solidify its position as a playoff front-runner but one which did not allow the team to close any ground with the Chicago Cubs, A.J. Pollock was sidelined with an injury which, under the current (actual, real-life) Cardinals’ circumstances would probably justify a DL stint. He was expected to miss a week, and while this would mean three days of healthy A.J. Pollock on the DL, it would mean not playing a man down for several games. But Pollock remained because, at this point, there just wasn’t a worthy replacement available. The Cardinals could just have to go with Myers or Marisnick, depending on the day, in center field, and hope for the best, as the lack of depth of the roster began to expose itself.
And that’ll do it for this part of the series. The fourth and final part, detailing September and perhaps October of this team, will be around, as always, on St. Louis Bullpen in the near future. Stay tuned.