In 2019, Major League Baseball has three distinct classes of teams. In the upper class reside the teams with certain playoff futures–the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros all have projected odds of making the League Division Series of over 96% with over two months left in the season, and there was never any doubt that these teams were going to be serious contenders for a World Series championship. There is a middle class–teams that lack the juggernaut status of the ultra-prosperous but filled with teams which have reasonably high upside, a decent chance of cracking the postseason, and a good enough roster that they could sneak through the October tournament and wind up winning a title. And in the lower class, there are teams which are utterly bereft of hope for 2019.
These classes have always existed, but they have never existed in quite as stark of terms as they do today. This is particularly true in the National League, where, as of the moment I wrote this sentence, seven teams are within two games of the line between second Wild Card and missing the playoffs, and all but one team is within seven games of playoff position. The middle class is enormous, but by the same token, the lower class is already decimated. Of Major League Baseball’s four worst teams (Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins), none entered 2019 was any illusions of postseason contention. Only one player combined appeared on FanGraphs’s recent list of the fifty most valuable trade commodities–Kansas City’s Adalberto Mondesi, who snuck on the list at #48.
It used to be a rite of passage for bottom-tier MLB teams to part with their pending free agents at the trade deadline because, well, why wouldn’t they? You either sell players for something or you lose players later for nothing, and since their seasons were effectively over, there was no present-day value for keeping the players aside from whatever sentimental value can be derived from a 70-win season. But teams have grown increasingly aggressive to sell. If the Miami Marlins still had Marcell Ozuna, for instance, they’d still be a last place team–they’d be better, but Ozuna wasn’t going to singlehandedly salvage the season. Thus they would be likely to sell, and thus they would be likely to receive far less in return for two months of Ozuna than they received in December 2017 for two years of him.
Bad teams aren’t holding on to players with limited club control remaining, and good teams are aggressively extending players in hopes of saving money relative to how much the same player would cost as a free agent. Both effects are limiting the pending free agent market and thus the notion of a late-season rental is becoming a bit antiquated. Last November, ESPN’s David Schoenfield released a list of the twenty best pending free agents. Here is a rundown of their current status.
- Nolan Arenado–signed extension
- Gerrit Cole–on a top tier team (extremely unlikely to be traded)
- Chris Sale–signed extension
- Xander Bogaerts–signed extension
- Anthony Rendon–on an upper-middle tier team (very unlikely to be traded)
- J.D. Martinez–unlikely to opt out of contract
- Paul Goldschmidt–signed extension
- Justin Verlander–signed extension
- Josh Donaldson–on a top tier team (extremely unlikely to be traded)
- Madison Bumgarner–on a lower-middle tier team (could be traded)
- Didi Gregorius–on a top tier team (extremely unlikely to be traded)
- Zack Wheeler–on an upper-lower tier team (fairly likely to be traded)
- Marcell Ozuna–on a middle tier team (more on him later)
- Rick Porcello–on a middle tier team (wouldn’t be outlandish if he were traded)
- Aaron Hicks–signed extension
- Miles Mikolas–signed extension
- Scooter Gennett–on a lower-middle tier team (could be traded)
- Yasiel Puig–on a lower-middle tier team (could be traded)
- Khris Davis–signed extension
- Francisco Cervelli–on an upper-lower tier team (could be traded)
So if you’re keeping track, 40% of these potential rentals for the St. Louis Cardinals are no longer rentals, and if you count Martinez, it’s up to 45%. Three more players are on premier teams, four if you count Rendon. So now we’re up to six available players, since one of the seven remaining is already on the Cardinals, of those established as top-tier talent before the season.
- Madison Bumgarner–The San Francisco Giants postseason hero has always been, depending on your perspective, overrated or burdened with unfair expectations. But he is a very good pitcher and would certainly improve the Cardinals. But because the Giants have been baseball’s best team since the All-Star Break, they are still well within range of a Wild Card berth. There has been a lot of luck involved, but the possibility of contending, plus seemingly a desire to sign him to an extension eventually (and a qualifying offer awaiting Bumgarner), might put the Giants in a position to make high demands because unlike, say, the Orioles offloading Manny Machado last year, they could justify keeping Bumgarner around.
- Zack Wheeler–Wheeler certainly means less to the New York Mets than Bumgarner means to the Giants, and thus may command a lower return, but Wheeler is also currently on the 10-day Injured List and thus presents far more bust potential than does Bumgarner.
- Rick Porcello–The former Cy Young winner has had a very lackluster 2019, with an ERA of 5.61 and a fielding-independent pitching of 4.71. While Bumgarner and Wheeler represent undeniable rotation improvements for the Cardinals, Porcello is far more debatable. I suppose he could pitch out of the bullpen, but at $21 million per year, it might be tough to rationalize the highest-paid player on your team being a middle reliever.
- Scooter Gennett and Yasiel Puig–I’m grouping these two together out of laziness, but also because I can fold an emerging candidate, Tanner Roark, into the entry, as all three are teammates on the Cincinnati Reds. While the Reds have a promising run differential, they might be behind too many teams to forge a formidable postseason run. While Gennett and Puig are appealing candidates–Gennett has spent most of 2019 injured but was terrific in 2018, and Puig has been hot as of late–neither are especially good fits for the Cardinals, who seem very content with Kolten Wong as their second baseman and who have recently gotten very solid production from their corner outfielders (with Marcell Ozuna on the horizon). Tanner Roark, a semi-local kid, makes more positional sense than Gennett or Puig, but there may also be obstacles in trading with a division rival.
- Francisco Cervelli–The Pirates catcher is rumored to be facing down the end of his career as a catcher, but even if he weren’t, trading for a catcher who would start over Yadier Molina, even if Molina is having a bad season, is probably a bridge too far even if the Pirates were willing to part with him to a division rival.
Despite the team’s offensive struggles, there isn’t really an obvious need for a position player because the available players don’t represent particularly big upgrades. This was a big part of why those who wanted the Cardinals to sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper was so fervent about it–when your team is filled with average-ish players, it takes a truly special player to be a substantial upgrade, and those truly special players don’t come around that often. If Didi Gregorius were hypothetically available, would he be an upgrade over Paul DeJong? Maybe, but would he be much of an upgrade, one worth mortgaging a substantial piece for the future? Probably not.
A position notably absent from this list of top free agents-to-be is relief pitchers–potentially available targets include the likes of San Francisco Giants reliever Will Smith. But while complaining about relief pitching is a tradition beloved every single year by every single fan base in baseball, the Cardinals, the relief corps for the Cardinals is in the top ten in baseball by Wins Above Replacement, with the team’s ERA ranked seventh and FIP ranked sixth. None of this is to say that the bullpen cannot be improved, but there are playoff contenders with more of a need to improve for the stretch run, not to mention elite teams more inclined to add relievers than any other position, as relievers have a disproportionate impact once October arrives. Also, the team is already paying $12.5 million for a lefty reliever.
Starting pitchers would make more sense–a player like Madison Bumgarner, who is relatively durable and can eat innings on a rotation that hasn’t recently gone too deep in games, would be a welcome addition. And to be clear, the Cardinals should absolutely inquire about Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Wheeler, and any player that they believe would improve the club’s chances of winning a 12th World Series championship. But making moves for the sake of making moves is counterproductive. If the Giants wanted, say, the team’s #10 prospect for two months of Bumgarner, that’s an acceptable price, but getting into a bidding war with the objective of trying to prove you care would not behoove the organization. And sure, a short-and-long term asset such as Detroit’s Matthew Boyd is appealing, but he would also likely cost the team one of Nolan Gorman or Dylan Carlson, as well as some lesser prospects.
By the same token, the Cardinals should hold on to Marcell Ozuna. They probably won’t re-sign him–Jose Martinez and Dexter Fowler are still under contract, Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader will still be making league minimum, prospects such as Carlson and Randy Arozarena will be at their disposal, and Ozuna is going to be expensive. They should make a qualifying offer, barring a second-half collapse, but if another team goes over the top on a bid, I can’t blame the Cardinals for aiming for a starting pitcher instead (I can and will blame them if they don’t do this). But in the short term, he gives the Cardinals their best chance to win, and the only contending team with a true dearth of outfielders, the Cleveland Indians, probably won’t give the Cardinals enough to reasonably make a trade.
The Cardinals have felt pressured at trade deadlines–sometimes they make savvy moves and sometimes they freak out and do dumb things like trade Tommy Pham for spare parts. The Cardinals should approach the trade deadline with caution rather than making an aggressive move in the name of posterity.