On Sunday, the Cardinals officially kicked off the second half of the 2018 season by getting swept out of Busch Stadium by the Atlanta Braves. It was a miserable start to a three-series stretch against potential playoff competitors and, while the Cardinals have gone on to win 3 of 4 since, they’re sporting a losing record in this crucial run.
The continued stalling of the offense, bullpen woes and off-the-field drama that has permeated the clubhouse and front office is starting to make this season seem a bit… familiar. The Cardinals have been good enough to make the playoffs two years in a row, but have failed to capitalize on a soft playoff bubble, falling just a few games short. While there is still plenty of time to gain – and potentially build – ground on a playoff spot, the team has yet to definitively prove they’re capable of playing consistent, playoff-caliber ball. And with the trade deadline coming in less than four weeks, potential roster decisions for the 2018 season loom.
We gathered a few of the St. Louis Bullpen writers to discuss the season so far and what the outlook is like heading into the trade deadline. Keep in mind that some of these answers were written during the series win in Arizona and before Thursday’s offensive outburst in San Francisco.
1. The season is more than halfway through, and the Cardinals are 6.5 games out of first place and 2.5 out of a Wild Card spot. Is this above, at or below your expectations preseason?
Michael Bauer: I didn’t expect this team to win the NL Central, much less be in first place at the halfway mark. That said, to be 2.5 games out of a wild card spot with no sign (consistent) of a rebound is certainly a disappointment. This seemed to be playoff caliber roster at the start of the season (at least to me), but they haven’t played at that level all year.
John Fleming: The Cardinals’ relative division standing is about what I expected – maybe a hair worse, but I entered 2018 assuming that the division was a long shot. The Wild Card position is a bit more concerning. Before the season, I predicted the Cardinals and Diamondbacks would earn Wild Card spots. That the Diamondbacks (and Braves) are in first place creates an uncomfortable and unexpected situation where the Dodgers and Nationals are playoff threats. The biggest concern to me, however, is the sheer volume of contenders. When I believed that the Braves and Phillies were probably a year away, it seemed that the threats were the Diamondbacks, an NL East team, maybe the Brewers or Giants. Now, we get all of that in our way.
John Jones: I was right on their place in the division and too optimistic on the WC. Carpenter and Ozuna floundered while Pham, Fowler, and Gyorko disappeared; Martinez, Wacha, Yadi, and DeJong had extended DL trips; the bullpen was a black hole. All that said, Martinez, Carp, Ozuna, and Yadi are back, and DeJong is close; the Cubs are worse than anticipated, and I still don’t buy the Brewers with their present rotation. The division can be a dogfight, and the WC will be anybody’s guess down to the wire.
Josh Matejka: I could try to put together a post hoc rationalization on how this season has gone according to plan. But the truth is, I’ve been pretty disappointed. I was higher on the rotation than most, optimistic about the lineup and not panicked about the bullpen. Only the rotation has come through for me, and for the team to be stalling out like the past few years has ground me into a cynical powder.
Alex Turpin: Below. I wasn’t expecting they would be running away with the Central, and it’s still totally plausible they’ll make the Wild Card (which was my expectation.) But as far as overall performance goes, it’s hard not to look at the offense in particular as disappointing.
2. The trade deadline is coming in less than 4 weeks, and the Cardinals aren’t beyond a playoff spot. Should they buy, sell or stay put?
Michael Bauer: Sell, sell, sell. I don’t believe there’s a player on the market that would turn the Cardinals into a playoff team, and even if there was, would you put this team up against the Cubs in a 5-game series? I wouldn’t.
John Fleming: In and of itself, I don’t oppose selling, but the Cardinals just aren’t very well-equipped to do so. For the Baltimore Orioles, selling Manny Machado makes all the sense in the world (even if they weren’t the worst team in MLB), because he will return a monster haul and provides no value for 2019 without the massive extension he will inevitably sign this off-season. But for the Cardinals, you have Adam Wainwright, Bud Norris, and Greg Holland. None of these players are going to net you much, so unless you are completely out of it, there isn’t much reason to sell. The Cardinals can and should at least listen to offers for post-2019 free agents such as Marcell Ozuna, but unless an offer absolutely blows them away, they should be conservative. As for buying, I just don’t think the Cardinals are one player away – even the addition of a Machado means (probably) pushing Jose Martinez out of the lineup. It’s an improvement, but not as much as a trade as costly as a Machado blockbuster should be.
John Jones: Buy smart, like Aldi shoppers. They shouldn’t overpay and shouldn’t make deck chair shuffle moves. (I’m still upset about the July 2015 trade that sent AA hotshot Kyle Barraclough to Miami for Steve Cishek; Cishek was at that point a reclamation project, while Barraclough was a super live arm with control issues. We never could reclaim Cishek, while Barraclough has done quite well for the Marlins. I said it then and I’ll say it again: they’d have gotten better service out of Barraclough by just plugging him into the bullpen and enjoying the ride.)
Josh Matejka: The Cardinals philosophy of always being at least marginally good puts them in a difficult place every July. Going all in doesn’t fit the organizational *ahem* “way” of keeping a clear future, and selling doesn’t meet the direct financial “needs” of the franchise. So being conservative is probably the safe play. For my money, I’d love to see them unload a few guys in a way that might darken the immediate future while improving contention prospects down the road.
Alex Turpin: Too early to say at this point. They are in the unenviable position of needing to see how July shakes out before truly knowing what their strategy should be. If the trade deadline was tomorrow, buying all in could put them back in prime position to make the Wild Card. On the other hand, the strength of this team is actually its young talent, so I don’t think that’s necessarily the best approach. The team is also too likely to contend in the next 5 years to be full-on sellers. How they play in July will likely be the deciding factor, but at this point I’d say I prefer buying to selling.
3. Let’s assume the Cardinals choose to buy by July 31. There are a variety of areas where the team needs improvement, but which do you see as most pressing to the present success of the club?
Michael Bauer: The Cardinals’ most pressing need for the present and the future is a new manager, but since that’s not going to be fixed in a trade, I would at least explore the possibility of a Machado trade. The Cardinals have the pieces to get a deal done, but given some… recent events, you have to wonder if he’d want to sign an extension here.
John Fleming: The Cardinals have traditionally done reasonably well by trading declining prospects such as Zack Cox or Michael Blazek for bullpen help, and I think doing this is the path of least resistance for the Cardinals. Unlike in previous seasons where the bullpen was a scapegoat more than an actual major concern, the Cardinals bullpen has been legitimately bad this year. Given the costs involved and the relative improvements presented, I’d rather the Cardinals acquire Brad Brach from the Orioles than Manny Machado. An off-the-radar non-pitcher I arbitrarily like is Freddy Galvis, the Padres shortstop who would be easily the best fielder of the Cardinals’ shortstop merry-go-round, so even if Paul DeJong comes back and doesn’t miss a beat, Galvis would still have defensive replacement value. Also, call and ask the Rockies about Jon Gray. I’m not saying you have to acquire Jon Gray, but if the Rockies are going to demote him, you have to ask.
John Jones: Martinez is killing them at 1B, but his bat is worth more than any trade would like bring back. I’d bench or ditch Fowler (sorry, buddy), acquire Manny Machado for 3B and permanently move Martinez to RF and Carpenter to 1B. Infield defense improves immensely along with the offense, putting the Cardinals squarely back in the division fight.
I’m also calling Colorado about John Gray. He has the fifth-best xFIP in the majors, and I’m taking the waaaay under on his 5+ ERA. You can never have too much (Grade A) pitching. If this demotion signals the Rox’ real thoughts on Gray, they need to jump on that.
Josh Matejka: The bullpen is clearly the worst part of this club, but the thing I think is really holding the club back is this woeful offense. We can wax poetic about “if they were all hitting” until the sun explodes, but the fact is the roster hasn’t been able to manage more than two consistent performers at a time. This isn’t really a great time to add a difference making bat given what is sure to be a fascinating free agency period, but I’d think you have to at least check on some buy-low guys (Donaldson, perhaps) if you’re sure they haven’t turned into complete pumpkins.
Alex Turpin: It has to be bolstering the offense. The starting pitching is still deep and talented, despite recent struggles. The bullpen is random, as are all bullpens, and its biggest problem has actually been the manager. The offense is the area that has most consistently been the problem and has the least likelihood of naturally getting where it needs to be. Adding a big bat via trade at the deadline will be costly, but if they’re going to make an aggressive push, that’s where it needs to be.
4. Let’s assume the Cardinals choose to sell by July 31. Name one player who should be traded, why and give me a hypothetical return.
Michael Bauer: Bud Norris is an obvious candidate to be traded since teams are always in the market for relievers, but I’m intrigued by Jose Martinez going to an American League team. Could he get you some hitting prospects for a team in need of a DH? We may find out.
John Fleming: If Greg Holland continues to pitch well, he has the most realistic upside of the pending free agents. If the Cardinals are planning on selling, I assume the playoffs are basically off the table, at which point retaining the pending free agent would be totally unnecessary. You’d still lose the draft pick associated with signing Holland, but you’re doing that anyway. I’m not knowledgable enough about prospects to gather too specific of a return, but to a bullpen-starved contender, such as the Cleveland Indians, a high single-digits prospect (arbitrarily looking at you, Aaron Civale!) seems like a reasonable return.
John Jones: I’d trade Carpenter in a heartbeat, as a perfect tear rolled down my cheek. He’ll never be better than he is now. A buying contender gets 2.5 years of control, and his present Troutian output is enough to make them forget that they’re buying his decline years. Carpenter would be perfect for the Yankees with their short RF porch, and the Bronx’s patience with Greg Bird seems to be getting thin. The Yankees have the pieces to make it worth our while. I’d ask for Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and whatever else it took to square it up.
Josh Matejka: I’m really going to take a very non-Cardinals, all-in stance here and say you have to at least explore the possibility of a Matt Carpenter trade. While he has clearly been the team’s best player, he’s reaching a critical point where he’ll lose his remaining value in the next year or two but is still a great, cost-effective piece for any team to have. If the Cardinals feel they can get a good enough return, it makes sense to listen to offers. Let me be clear: I will be devastated if this happens. But these are trying times on Clark Ave., and drastic measures may be necessary.
Alex Turpin: My answer is Michael Wacha. Wacha is facing free agency, and there is a chance he’ll go elsewhere anyway. The Cardinals have a stable of young arms. Wacha, recent injury notwithstanding, has had a very good season, and contending teams will pay a pretty penny for starting pitchers they feel comfortable throwing out there in the playoffs. It’s hard to speculate the return without knowing who would be in the market for him, but I will say that the Cardinals would be looking to add young talent that is close to major league ready. With the core of young talent, any “selling” move they make will likely still be made with contending during the next few years in mind.