Last night, the Sun went down, and just as predictably, St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty looked like the most dominant force in baseball.
While Flaherty got off to a somewhat mediocre start to his 2019 season, he continued to add to his unfathomably strong second half of the year. The twenty-three year-old ace threw six no-hit innings, allowing just one base hit on a fluky infield hit which bounced off first base. He walked just two batters and struck out 11 batters. Flaherty now has a 2.85 ERA on the season (very good!) and a sub-1 ERA since the All-Star Break (not a typo!).
Jack Flaherty was a well-regarded prospect, but he wasn’t as hyped as, say, Stephen Strasburg, a number-one overall pick whose first start was heavily promoted by ESPN. He was a top-100 prospect by many sources, but he wasn’t a top ten prospect. Top ten prospects are considered untouchable assets by teams that hold them–hence why the Houston Astros, aggressive as they have been in recent seasons to add to their MLB product, have hoarded superprospect Forrest Whitley. Top 100 prospects are considered trade chips. Hence there is a laundry list of times the Cardinals nearly traded Jack Flaherty.
The phenomenon of close-call trades is nothing new–perhaps the most notorious example in recent memory for the Cardinals came in the form of the time a pre-MLB Albert Pujols was considered a potential trade chip for backup San Diego Padres catcher Carlos Hernandez (whom the Cardinals acquired anyway and played, well, like a backup catcher the Cardinals got from the Padres). I have no idea how close this actually came to happening, but it’s terrifying to hear even in passing. Unlike that trade, which only publicly surfaced years later, it was heavily reported at the time that the Cardinals had offered Carlos Martinez to the Chicago White Sox in 2013 for aging shortstop Alexei Ramirez, and that the White Sox (thankfully) turned them down. The road less traveled is terrifying. As are these five times that Jack Flaherty was very nearly not a Cardinal.
- The balancing act that got Jack Flaherty to St. Louis in the first place is a tenuous one. Since the Cardinals didn’t trade Albert Pujols in 2000, they kept him and had the best player in baseball over an eleven-year stretch. After the 2011 season, Pujols signed with the Angels, which meant the Cardinals got two draft picks as compensation (which they used to draft Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty), but which also meant they had a much larger free agent budget than they anticipated. So the Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran, who played admirably for two seasons. Once Beltran became a free agent, the Cardinals were ready to give Allen Craig the everyday right field job while Matt Adams took over at first base, so they didn’t make much of an effort to re-sign the veteran. But they did offer him the qualifying offer, which he declined, which meant the Cardinals got a draft pick as compensation. The Cardinals used that draft pick on Jack Flaherty. But even this wasn’t a slam-dunk pick–ESPN prospect hound Keith Law openly speculated on the day of the draft that if “someone like STL doesn’t grab him first”, Flaherty could be a prime target for…the Chicago Cubs. No thank you!
- In the winter of 2017, a crazy thing happened in the world of professional baseball–the player with the most expensive contract in the history of professional sports went on the trade block and despite the fact that Giancarlo Stanton had never appeared in a playoff game, he was treated as a lottery ticket for a championship. Of course, this wasn’t Stanton’s fault–it just demonstrated that one player can only make so much difference. And while MLB teams cry poor far too often, the third of a billion dollar contract with a post-2019 opt-out (thus limiting the contract’s upside to two years of extreme value, at best) was probably unaffordable to all but a few teams (one of those teams, the New York Yankees, ended up acquiring him). But the allure of Stanton meant teams started offering actual prospects for the right fielder, and according to Derrick Goold, Jack Flaherty was on the table for Stanton, who has made 56 plate appearances this season.
- After Stanton was traded, the Ponzi scheme slash baseball team Miami Marlins went about trading away their other good outfielders, and the second domino to fall was Marcell Ozuna, who was traded to the Cardinals for Sandy Alcantara and three lesser prospects (one of them, Zac Gallen, turned out to actually be kind of a thing, but at the time, he was rather anonymous). The trade turned out fairly well for the Cardinals–Ozuna has been one of the team’s better hitters for two seasons and while Alcantara snuck onto an All-Star team, he has an ERA of 4 and a FIP that’s even higher. This trade would look quite a bit worse for the Cardinals if instead of Alcantara, they’d parted ways with Jack Flaherty. Alcantara and Flaherty were used interchangeably in discussions of the potential for an Ozuna trade.
- There is a good chance the Cardinals will face Josh Donaldson of the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, and that won’t be fun–Donaldson is a good player, and in a vacuum it would’ve been really cool for the Cardinals to have him on their team. But the trade the Cardinals offered, and which the Toronto Blue Jays declined, in which the Cardinals would have received one year of Josh Donaldson and would have parted with Jack Flaherty and another player is an easy, easy pass in retrospect. As if to add to the potential suffering, one of the players rumored to be involved in the trade at the time was Kolten Wong. But nearly trading Kolten Wong is a whole separate issue from this post.
- Josh Donaldson wasn’t the only one-year rental third baseman the Cardinals tried to acquire for their now-ace. The Baltimore Orioles, in their infinite wisdom, allegedly had interest in three Cardinals pitching prospects in their shopping of Manny Machado–Flaherty, Luke Weaver, and Jordan Hicks, any of whom would have been a better return than what they actually got in the middle of the season for him. But apparently, the Orioles were demanding two of the three. And thus Jack Flaherty remained, mercifully, a St. Louis Cardinal, for 2018 and hopefully for many years to come.