When evaluating what transactions a Major League Baseball front office should execute, the most instructive precedent to consider are other Major League Baseball trades. But I’m going to take a look at a pair of NBA trades. Bear with me.
The team-building mechanisms of the two leagues are different in several ways, notably that MLB does not have a salary cap and that the NBA is driven by high-end star power far more significantly. If you gave a last-place MLB team a fully healthy and operational Mike Trout, the team would be better, sure, but they wouldn’t win the division. Star power is more significant, for somewhat self-evident reasons, in a sport where top players are on the court for a vast majority of the game and can touch the ball a disproportionate number of times than for a sport where the best players in each lineup only come to the plate once every nine occasions.
Because the NBA is so star-powered, teams have a somewhat precise idea of their competitive windows, and they respond accordingly. Three seasons ago, none of the NBA’s 2021 Final Four made the playoffs. Of the Final Four teams from three seasons ago, only one made the playoffs in 2021, the Boston Celtics (more on them later). The nature of the sport is that sometimes, a team has to make a trade that, on paper, seems extreme, sacrificing long-term sustainability for short-term success–a recent NBA example would be the Milwaukee Bucks trading two first-round picks, two first-round pick swaps (the team can opt to trade first round picks with the Bucks if the Bucks draft higher), and a couple of active players for Jrue Holiday, a valuable role player whose addition solidified a roster that just brought the city of Milwaukee its first championship in a half-century. But giving up so much draft capital for Jrue Holiday would have been a horrible idea for, say, the Charlotte Hornets, a team that would improve with Holiday but would certainly not be a legitimate title contender. Context matters.
In 2014, for the second consecutive season, the Cleveland Cavaliers held the #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. The Cavaliers had struggled for the previous four seasons, since the exodus of LeBron James to the Miami Heat, but they had been blessed with incredible fortune in the NBA Draft Lottery. In 2011, the Cavaliers drafted point guard Kyrie Irving, who was emerging into one of the league’s premier young players. In 2013, the Cavaliers struck lottery gold again and selected Anthony Bennett, who had a rough rookie season but whose future reputation as an all-time NBA bust was not yet cemented. And in 2014, the Cavaliers opted for the talented small forward Andrew Wiggins.
Unknown at the time of the draft was the future of LeBron James, who had won four consecutive Eastern Conference titles in Miami, with a pair of titles in the middle of said run, but was now a free agent and was giving serious consideration to moving elsewhere. Wiggins was a somewhat redundant figure in the event that Cleveland could lure James back, a thing viewed as a possibility but hardly a certainty or even arguably likely, but the young team drafted who they believed to be the best player available. In hindsight, while Wiggins has had an okay NBA career–he certainly isn’t a bust on the level of Anthony Bennett–he wasn’t the best player available. By Value Over Replacement Player, the NBA’s answer to Wins Above Replacement, the pick should’ve been Nikola Jokić, the 41st overall pick by the Denver Nuggets, but this is an unrealistic ask steeped exclusively in hindsight. The #2 player in the draft by VORP, Wiggins’s Kansas Jayhawks teammate Joel Embiid, would’ve been far more realistic, and many prognosticators in the moment preferred that Cleveland take Embiid, considered a can’t-miss on talent but an injury risk.
In a vacuum, the Cavaliers should have taken Embiid over Wiggins. And on paper this is even more obvious given a mammoth event which happened two weeks later, the return of LeBron James to the Cavaliers; as I noted earlier, Wiggins essentially played James’s position and Embiid would be a seven-footer on a team bereft of a stable center. But in hindsight, the Wiggins selection was unequivocally the correct pick for the Cavaliers over Embiid, because a month and a half later, the Cavs flipped Wiggins, 2013 #1 pick Anthony Bennett, and a first-round draft pick for Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love. While Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate today, he did not make his NBA debut until the 2016-17 season, while Kevin Love helped to contribute to a narrowly-decided championship in Cleveland in 2015-16. Embiid began to eclipse Love’s production by 2017-18, and the gap has grown even more substantial since, but even if the Cavaliers would’ve been a better team in 2017-18 with Embiid, it probably wasn’t enough to top the dynastic Golden State Warriors, who swept Cleveland in that year’s NBA Finals. The next season, LeBron James left Cleveland for the Los Angeles Lakers, and unless you want to try to argue that LeBron would stay in Cleveland longer given the unfinished business of bringing a title to town (it’s possible, but he also really seemed to want to remake Space Jam in LA for some reason), I feel comfortable with the belief that while drafting Embiid would’ve given Cleveland Cavaliers more VORP, the Kevin Love trade, because it more neatly fit into their competitive window, gave them a title. By the same token, had the Philadelphia 76ers somehow acquired Love in lieu of drafting Embiid, it would be depriving them of their current (granted, mostly regular season) success. Context matters.
Cleveland knew its window and it pounced–I’m not going to pretend they are brilliant masters of the sport because they realized that having the best basketball player of the century meant they had a good chance of winning in the short term, but they at least did that. And the trade would’ve been nonsensical, if not a complete disaster given how Bennett and Wiggins turned out, had Cleveland made it without acquiring LeBron James. An equivalent trade by underlying logic would’ve been an infamous trade in 2013 which briefly destroyed the Brooklyn Nets and reinvigorated the Boston Celtics.
The Boston Celtics had been reignited as a franchise in the late 2000s with the addition of veteran stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to supplement Paul Pierce, but by 2013, the aging core amounted to an average-ish NBA team, playing to a nearly .500 clip and an unceremonious first-round exit in the first round of the playoffs. They recognized their window was closing. By contrast, the Brooklyn Nets wanted to make a splash following a first-round exit in their first season in Brooklyn. So the Nets made an offer which (awful pun unintended) netted them two future Hall of Famers in Garnett and Pierce, a veteran shooting guard in Jason Terry, a reserve forward you either remember or do not care about, and a couple of picks for a treasure trove of Boston Celtics reserves and future draft picks.
Predictably, the Celtics got worse. Less predictably, the Nets also got worse by regular-season record, but the way their season ended–losing to the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Miami Heat in the second round–did make perfect sense. The Nets on paper had a decent roster–Garnett and Pierce, while past their primes, were still solid players, as was incumbent point guard Deron Williams–but they were no Heat. And it showed. And since they were suddenly one of the oldest teams in a young man’s sport, they went from pretty good to mediocre to outright bad pretty quickly. And they were outright bad with little chance at improvement, since Boston owned their very high first-round draft picks, which they used, along with their own early draft picks, to rebuild. And because the Nets overestimated their window, they missed out on the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
A similar story to what unfolded in Brooklyn is unfolding with the Los Angeles Clippers, who traded a ton to acquire Paul George (to be fair, a better and far more in-his-prime talent than Garnett or Pierce) in a move partially to build a contender and partially to escape the shadow of the far more popular New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers. There was a lot of pressure to make a splash for the sake of making a splash, even if it was going to hurt the team in the long term.
Unless you’re the Los Angeles Dodgers, these same cycles exist in baseball as well. The most famous examples of the competitive window life cycle come from teams like the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, organizations which transparently gutted their contemporary product in order to bolster their farm systems for an eventual World Series run, but on a smaller scale, this happens all the time. Take, for instance, a franchise that hasn’t had a losing season since I was three years old, the New York Yankees. In late July 2016, the Yankees were a half-dozen games behind the Boston Red Sox, and while they knew they had promising youngsters in the pipeline soon to arrive and rejuvenate the franchise, they knew that their competitive window as far as playoff contention would not open again until, at the earliest, 2017, so they traded their pending free agent closer, Aroldis Chapman, to the Chicago Cubs for a package of prospects and young MLB players headlined by infield prospect Gleyber Torres. By 2018, Torres was the team’s All-Star starting second baseman, and Chapman, having reached free agency, was back on the Yankees.
As it stands, the St. Louis Cardinals stand eight games back of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and seven games back of the San Diego Padres for the National League’s second Wild Card spot. As of yesterday, the Cardinals had a 3.4% chance of making the postseason per FanGraphs projections (and a less than 3% chance of making it to the NLDS), and the Cardinals remain without their best starting pitcher. They have improved from their brutal June, but the Cardinals are still just one game above .500 for the month of July and if they maintained that pace for the remainder of the season, would still find themselves in the mid-eighties in terms of win total and somewhat conclusively removed from the playoff picture.
The Cardinals’ championship window is closed for 2021.
And that’s fine, really; it’s true for a lot of teams. You can still watch games and hope the team wins and hope to have fun along the way and all that, or if you only view the sport through the prism of winning championships, you can find other ways to spend your time for the next eight months. And this is independent of any realistic addition to the Cardinals for a postseason run.
The inspiration for this post was Trevor Story, shortstop for the Colorado Rockies and probably the baseball player who at the moment most combines baseball excellence and likelihood of being traded by late Friday afternoon. Ever since the Cardinals acquired Nolan Arenado, Arenado and Story have been treated as some kind of inseparable duo, despite the very obvious fact that they have, indeed, been separated (and that Arenado spent three full seasons with Colorado prior to Story’s arrival in the big leagues), and because of the cult of Arenado that convinced themselves that park-adjusted metrics are fake news and that he was going to hit 40 home runs no matter where he played his home games, the focus has shifted to Trevor Story. But even if you ignore his relatively lackluster 2021 numbers at the plate (which I can), the move doesn’t make much sense for the Cardinals. First is that Story doesn’t mark that much of an upgrade over Paul DeJong, a very good defensive shortstop with power who is much maligned by fans because he strikes out a lot (it’s probably worth now consulting Trevor Story’s numbers, if you are not familiar with them)–updated ZiPS projections have Story produced about 0.3 more wins for a team over the remainder of the season. But second and more significantly is that Trevor Story is two months away from free agency, and unless the Rockies are giving away Trevor Story for free (given the Nolan Arenado trade, I can’t say they definitely aren’t), the Cardinals would be dispensing with players they hope to use during a championship window in hopes of finding a player that will secure them, in all likelihood, a distant second place finish in the National League Central without any postseason baseball.
But the same principle applies to all pending free agents, not just Story. It applies to Max Scherzer, to Starling Marte, and to the host of pending free agents from the Chicago Cubs, a team in essentially the same position for 2021 as the Cardinals which seems to perceive itself as a seller. It doesn’t apply as strongly with a Joey Gallo or Kyle Gibson or Whit Merrifield, players who could be useful to the Cardinals in 2022, but the Cardinals would be competing with teams hoping to get eight months of competitive use out of the players rather than only the six next season.
Unlike the Chicago Cubs, who have three extremely useful and coveted position players in Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo to dangle in front of contending teams in hopes of bolstering their next competitive window, the Cardinals don’t have a ton of obvious trade chips to sell. Matt Carpenter, Andrew Miller, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright are all pending free agents, but all four have no-trade clauses (the former two have them explicitly written into their contracts; the latter two have 10/5 rights) and have expressed zero interest in going elsewhere and may not have much value to a contending team anyway. There are relievers scheduled for arbitration raises that the Cardinals might prefer to simply sell off–John Gant being a “notable” example–but for a Gant type, you’re looking at a low-level prospect or Player To Be Named Later type. This isn’t to say that the Cardinals shouldn’t sell, merely that they can’t sell much. But the inability to sell does not mean the Cardinals should buy in order to preserve a delusion that the Cardinals could bring their 12th World Series title to St. Louis in 2021.