There are, if you want to be literal and frankly very obnoxious about it, thousands of trades that the St. Louis Cardinals did not make at this season’s non-waiver trade deadline. They did not trade Luke Weaver for Mike Trout. They did not trade Greg Garcia for Mike Trout. They did not trade a player to be named later for Mike Trout. So on and so forth.
But there were, more than all others, three defining transactions for the Cardinals on July 31. One is a transaction they actually made; the other two are oft-cited hypothetical trades which the Cardinals did not make. First, the one they did make.
Cardinals trade Tommy Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays for minor leaguers Genesis Cabrera, Justin Williams, and Roel Ramirez: Evaluating a prospects-for-MLB player trade after seven weeks is asinine except in extreme circumstances. When J.D. Drew played like an MVP in 2004 while the key piece which the Atlanta Braves traded to St. Louis for his services, Adam Wainwright, put up a 5.37 ERA in AAA Memphis, it probably didn’t look so hot. Of course the team which is acquiring immediate MLB talent is going to be the early leader.
Justin Williams technically has MLB experience (one plate appearance for the Rays earlier this season, in which he hit into a double play), but the twenty-three year-old is best defined by his minor league track record, which is…unexceptional. When called up in July, he was the Rays’ #8 prospect–again, it’s something, but hardly a blue-chipper. Since joining the Memphis Redbirds, Williams has a .668 OPS, a slightly dip from his marks with the Durham Bulls. His 2018 AAA aggregate triple-slash line was .252/.307/.379. While 21 year-old Genesis Cabrera has been occasionally mentioned as a dark horse candidate to be sort of a lefty Jordan Hicks (a low-levels starter who can become a MLB reliever immediately), that’s quite the expectations to put on anybody. As it stood, on the 2018 season, spent mostly at AA, Cabrera had a 4.17 ERA (in a stirring tribute to his time with the Springfield Cardinals) and control issues, walking 4.6 batters per nine innings. And Roel Ramirez, as mostly a AA reliever, managed a sub-3 ERA, but is considered a lesser prospect, not currently ranking in the Cardinals’ Top 30.
The loss of Tommy Pham was rationalized throughout August pretty concisely–one, that Harrison Bader was absolutely killing it in center field in Pham’s place, and two, that the team’s record was awesome and that’s what matters. The rise of Bader is certainly a factor: even if you still believe Pham was, say, worth four extra wins over a season, and believed that Bader was worth three, then while Pham is more valuable, he’s worth more to a team where he is replacing somebody worth one win. And if you believe Bader is outright better, that means you’re either relegating Pham to the bench or playing an inferior player.
But while Pham and Bader posted identical 141 wRC+ totals in August (Harrison Bader is faster and I’d be inclined to give him the defensive edge, which isn’t even particularly insulting to Tommy Pham), Bader has struggled mightily in September. He’s striking out more, walking less, and hitting for very little power–despite a perfectly nice .321 batting average on balls in play in the first half of September, Bader had a wRC+ of just 31 (while I was writing this, he hit a home run, because baseball has a way of making my articles out of date). In the meantime, Tommy Pham has gone on a (admittedly, highly BABIP influenced) tear. But for the Cardinals, choosing between the two is a distraction from the point that they could, and probably should, be playing both of them along with Marcell Ozuna in the outfield. Dexter Fowler is hurt and was ineffective while healthy. Jose Martinez has been terrible. Tyler O’Neill swings and misses at everything he doesn’t hit over the fence (not counting his walk last night, because like I said with Bader, the Gods of Baseball hate my posts). Yairo Munoz keeps playing in right field. While Munoz has been effective, I have more faith in Tommy Pham to be a long-term outfield solution for an MLB club that Yairo Munoz by a considerable margin.
For 2018, the Cardinals are losing this trade. The Cardinals would be a better team with Tommy Pham on it right now in some capacity. But it’s too early to tell whether the trade will work out in the long term.
Cardinals don’t trade for Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer: When I first heard the headline “Cardinals trade Tommy Pham to the Rays”, I got briefly excited that it might be for Chris Archer. It would be a weird trade, admittedly, but it would be interesting.
Instead, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates who acquired Chris Archer. If it had to be called a buy or a sell move for the Pirates, it was the former, as they gave up a lot of club control in exchange for fewer years of club control of a much more notable player. And so far, it is looking like a very good thing that the Cardinals didn’t make this trade.
As has been the norm for Chris Archer in his last several seasons, he seems to be getting unlucky, but even if you take that at face value, his peripherals still haven’t been great in Pittsburgh. In eight starts, Archer has a 5.49 ERA and 4.50 FIP. He is still under three more years of cost control, and while he will turn 30 next week, it’s not as though his age suggests he’s on the verge of falling off a cliff, but the early returns aren’t great.
And the players the Pirates gave up look like they might already be better than Archer, without even considering age or cost. In 106 plate appearances with the Durham Bulls AAA affiliate of the Rays, Austin Meadows (a well-regarded prospect) had a 223 wRC+. Tyler Glasnow, in eight starts, has Archer bested by ERA (4.70) and FIP (4.30). And while at the time we did not know who the Player to Be Named Later that would be heading to Tampa Bay would be, we now know that it is Shane Baz, 2017’s #12 overall pick, who struggled in two Rookie ball starts for the Rays but showed potential in this, his age-19 season, prior to the trade.
The Cardinals equivalent to this trade would have hurt. The Pirates had to give up their #2 and #3 prospects entering 2018 and their #1 prospect entering 2017. The Cardinals’ equivalent, not accounting for positionality, would be Jack Flaherty, Carson Kelly, and Alex Reyes. If you give up this bounty for a bona fide superstar, fine. If you give it up for a pitcher who may not be an ace-level pitcher anymore, I’d be terrified. This could easily end up the Pirates’ version of the Cubs’ Jose Quintana trade.
Cardinals don’t trade Bud Norris: There were two schools of thoughts with Bud Norris at the trade deadline–the Cardinals could either trade Norris, who surpassed expectations this season, and reap value from him in what was otherwise looking like a lost season, or they could hold on to him and ride his hot hand into a 2011-lite run to the postseason.
As it turns out, the Norris non-trade became a textbook example of process vs. results. By process, the Cardinals nailed it (by the same token, they may have royally screwed up the Tommy Pham trade, but let’s just look at these trades one at a time). Entering play on July 31, the Cardinals sat 7 1/2 games back in the NL Central and trailed four teams for the NL’s second Wild Card spot. And they got incredibly hot and are now in prime position for postseason baseball! Suddenly, having a great reliever is super valuable!
Unfortunately, Bud Norris is no longer a great reliever, to the degree he was one during the first half of 2018 for the Cardinals. Norris’s xFIP has increased in each month of 2018, jumping to a poor 4.76 for August before ballooning to a hideous 10.91 (with a 21.15 FIP!) in September. In the second half of 2018, Bud Norris has a 4.42 ERA, 6.53 FIP, and 5.50 xFIP.
But to argue that this collapse proves he should have been traded is wildly dishonest to the original point of trading him was because he was bad. Greg Holland was bad, and that was why nobody wanted to trade for him. Bud Norris was good, and the idea was that a good player could bring some kind of return. In retrospect, it would’ve been great to trade him at the height of his value, but predicting that Bud Norris would become an extreme version of 2013 Edward Mujica would’ve been nearly impossible. Had it been known that Bud Norris was going to turn into a pumpkin, he never would have garnered anything in a trade anyway.
So by my score, I have one “not feeling great about it, but I’m not quite circling it on my March Madness bracket yet”, one “I’m feeling really glad the way things went down”, and one “it didn’t work out, but getting mad at the Cardinals for not doing it is entirely hindsight and akin to getting mad at them for not acquiring Max Muncy or something”.