The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t too far away from being fully devoted sellers. They are a bad weekend from having such a marginal chance at making the playoffs that retaining certain players just wouldn’t have much tangible value for the Cardinals, beyond the entertainment of them being around for a fruitless season.
The obvious cases for players to sell are the players who will be free agents this off-season, but this list is admittedly a bit thin, particularly on players who could garner a significant return. Bud Norris has pitched well in 2018, but it is not as though the Cardinals could reasonably expect a major return for a 33 year-old reliever, particularly one whose behavior has come under scrutiny in recent weeks (to be clear–the Cardinals could absolutely get something for him, but even a superstar like Manny Machado could only garner a good-not-great prospect plus some spare parts with his free agency looming after the season). Greg Holland seemed like a candidate if things went sour for the Cardinals during the season, but he’s been a bit too much a part of the reason the season went south, with his ERA of nearly 8, to command much return. And Adam Wainwright, in addition to being hurt and probably not being good enough to contribute in the starting rotation of a July buyer, has no-trade protections and probably isn’t going to be willing to agree to a trade in the next couple weeks.
The next layer of trade candidates are those under team control through 2019–they still have value to the Cardinals if they intend to contend next season, but to a team contending this season, they have a larger window of significance. Marcell Ozuna has been a bit disappointing in 2018, but he is in just his second year of arbitration and should be paid below his market value next season as well. Jedd Gyorko, once thought to have a bad contract from a team perspective when he was acquired from the San Diego Padres, will be paid just $8 million next season by the Cardinals (the Padres will also pay $5 million) and he has a $13 million team option for 2020–if Gyorko continues to be a productive MLB player, this is a valuable commodity to have. Matt Carpenter has a similar but slightly more expensive (though certainly worth it for a player of his caliber) contract. And Miles Mikolas has been a significant value during his first season back in Major League Baseball.
But beyond that is Carlos Martinez. Martinez, the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals, is slated to make $11.7 million per season through 2021, an absolute bargain given the quality of pitcher he is, with team options for 2022 and 2023 for $17 million and $18 million (as with Gyorko and Carpenter, team options are almost always team-friendly). Carlos Martinez isn’t just one of the best players on the Cardinals–he is perhaps the most valuable trade chip on the team.
This week, following upheaval in the Cardinals organization stemming from the dismissal of manager Mike Matheny and the subsequent introspection that is hard to avoid when such a major chance is announced, rumors out of New York started to emerge that the Yankees, currently within striking distance of the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and currently with a 99.8% chance of making the postseason in some capacity, are interested in Martinez. As the Yankees already have a bona fide ace in Luis Severino, this would be a move designed not to win the Wild Card game in which the Yankees have a good chance of participating but to bolster their rotation for the forseeable future–beyond Severino, the rotation has been shaky, and their second-best starter, CC Sabathia, turns 38 tomorrow and is on a one-year contract.
Carlos Martinez has long been considered untouchable by the Cardinals, but the Yankees, in addition to having an excellent MLB team, have a deep farm system, filled with significant prospects, particularly hitting prospects. Let’s break the potential Yankees return for Carlos Martinez into three categories–totally unrealistic, probably unrealistic, and realistic.
- Totally unrealistic: This is the “guy at a bar spitballing” group and would include players such as Aaron Judge. Judge is 26, is already a more valuable player than Martinez, and is scheduled to make the league minimum through 2019, with three arbitration seasons to follow. Demanding Aaron Judge is a shrewd way to get Brian Cashman to stop calling you.
- Probably unrealistic: Entering 2018, the top Yankees prospect was Gleyber Torres, the player the Chicago Cubs sent to the Bronx for the honor of having scumbag Aroldis Chapman for two-plus months to blow a save in Game 7 of the World Series. The second baseman has certainy lived up to expectations so far–in 241 plate appearances, the 21 year-old has a wRC+ of 143 (43% above league-average, a particularly esteemed level for somebody who plays a premium defensive position like second base) and although his defensive numbers have been somewhat disappointing, he is generally well-regarded in the field. The Cardinals, of course, already have a second baseman in Kolten Wong, as well as others who filter in and out of the position from time to time, but Torres is such a significant, high-upside improvement that a Martinez-for-Torres swap makes sense from a Cardinals perspective. Now, I don’t think the Yankees would make this trade, but I also don’t think Brian Cashman hangs up the phone in disgust.
- Realistic: Rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar has been an above-average hitter for the Yankees in this, his age-23 season. Justus Sheffield, 22, has a 2.53 ERA and 3.13 FIP with the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Outfielder Estevan Florial, 20, has been an above-average hitter with the high-A Tampa Tarpons and is widely regarded as a top-100 prospect. None of these players are as exciting as Torres, but these are realistic targets. A pitcher of Martinez’s caliber could probably garner multiple of them.
Smart teams never say never on trading players–if Carlos Martinez can command a preposterous return, he is not so untouchable that a trade could not be made. But it would take a lot to pry Martinez away from the Cardinals. And maybe that’s worth it! But assuming the return is prospects, and less developed prospects rather than a Gleyber Torres, the trade would essentially be a white flag of a rebuild.
The Cardinals aren’t likely in the market for a massive rebuild because the Cardinals are too good. When the Chicago White Sox sent Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox, it was because they were already going to be a bad team, so what difference were a few short-term wins going to make when a compelling, productive team for the future could be built? The White Sox had a handful of stars–Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton–so they traded them away. The Cardinals sans Martinez wouldn’t be the worst team in baseball by a long shot, but they probably wouldn’t have a realistic chance at the postseason. The Cardinals have pitchers with rotation upside but they would need tons of breaks–Miles Mikolas would have to be able to keep this up, Michael Wacha and Alex Reyes would have to stay healthy, Luke Weaver would have to have his ERA meet his peripherals, Dakota Hudson would have to make sure his ERA doesn’t begin to meet his peripherals, Jack Flaherty would have to continue developing…again, all of this is possible, but it becomes a much longer shot without the stabilizing force of Carlos Martinez in the rotation.
If the Cardinals want to trade Carlos Martinez and maintain a playoff contender in 2019 onward, they would have to sign a significant free agent pitcher right away–Dallas Keuchel and Patrick Corbin, while not as good as Martinez, are close enough that the overall quality of the rotation wouldn’t take that significant of a dip. Otherwise, the Cardinals might as well turn into outright sellers–trade Carpenter, trade Gyorko, trade Jose Martinez, and essentially become the San Diego Padres. A Cardinals team without Carlos Martinez is (at best) a third-place team, and at that point they might as well embrace it.
Listening to offers on Carlos Martinez is sensible, as is listening to offers on any player. But he is such a valuable part of the short and long term of the St. Louis Cardinals that the Cardinals should hold out at least for a “probably unrealistic” return. Because if the Cardinals did emerge as playoff contenders in the next couple years, they would be looking to give up significant pieces for a starter as good as Carlos Martinez.