Fundamentally, the purpose of player acquisitions should be to provide increased entertainment for fans of the team doing the procurement. Even the deeply unpopular trades executed on July 29 and 30 by the Chicago Cubs which sent franchise icons Javy Báez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo to more immediate postseason contenders fit this criteria–whether right or wrong, the Cubs likely believe that the entertainment value of another couple months of these pending free agents in a likely dead-end season won’t be as high as what the players they received back will provide down the road. There are certainly examples that run counter to this idea–while the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t not receive prospects back in exchange for Blake Snell, it sure seemed like they were just trying to save some money–but in most circumstances, I am willing to work under the assumption that teams are trying to improve on some scale when making trades.
The St. Louis Cardinals entered July 30, the trade deadline date for the 2021 season, with an exactly .500 record. They were in a state of limbo for the day; they were too far removed from the postseason that making a push for a pure rental such as Max Scherzer or Trevor Story made much sense if it required giving up substantial long-term pieces, but they also lacked much in the way of pending free agents that could garner significant prospect packages back. I assumed that the Cardinals would opt for inactivity, and other than potentially kicking the tires on what Giovanny Gallegos could garner (the Chicago Cubs received considerably more back in return for reliever Craig Kimbrel than was expected), this made sense, as boring as that sounds.
And yet by 3:30 that afternoon, a half-hour after the trade deadline had passed and after the dust had settled, the Cardinals had made two real life, actual Baseball Trades, parting with two MLB players (and a minor leaguer) and netting two MLB players in return. Neither trade had even been rumored until well into the afternoon that day, and yet somehow, the team that seemed equipped neither to buy nor sell had done both. And at the end of the day, Cardinals fans could bellow out a collective, “Uh, sure!”
When J.A. Happ debuted in Major League Baseball, the number-one song in the United States was Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, and when Jon Lester made his debut, the number-one song in the United States was “Ridin'” by Chamillionaire. For a material number of people reading this, these songs probably feel like they must have always existed, and Happ and Lester, who each won a World Series title during the George W. Bush presidency, have been permanent fixtures in the sport. Happ, a journeyman 38 year-old now joining his eighth MLB team, has had a career characterized by seemingly random performance spikes–he won a World Series in 2008 and was a Rookie of the Year runner-up the next year, he won 20 games and finished 6th in Cy Young voting in 2016, and he made his first career All-Star Game in 2018 at the age of 35. Lester is the more accomplished pitcher, a firmly Hall of Very Good type with five All-Star game appearances, three top-four Cy Young finishes (including runner-up for the 2016 Chicago Cubs), and career comps on Baseball Reference including the very appropriate David Cone and Jimmy Key. Presumably, the Cardinals wouldn’t make two personnel decisions strictly so that bloggers would have a chance to Remember Some Guys. But I’m not convinced that wasn’t at least part of the motivation. On the balance, I moderately like one of these moves, moderately dislike another one of these moves, and mostly do not have a very strong opinion about either of these moves. Both moves are extremely low risk with extremely low reward, with one of the moves havinga slightly higher potential reward and thus it being enough for me to think the move is analytically more sound than not. But I’m also willing to give a few extra bonus points to the maneuvers for a reason which sounds very stupid–it’s just funny that J.A. Happ and Jon Lester are St. Louis Cardinals.
The cost of J.A. Happ was pitcher John Gant and minor leaguer Evan Sisk. On the surface, the trade doesn’t make a ton of sense based on Gant’s superior numbers to Happ–his ERA of 3.42 is just a shade over half of Happ’s 6.77 ERA. Based on peripherals, it doesn’t look much better–Gant has the superior FIP, Happ has the superior xFIP and xERA, but all three metrics are firmly in the fives for both pitchers. Is Happ a better pitcher than Gant? Eh, maybe, but he certainly isn’t substantially better, as much as John Gant became a whipping boy for Cardinals fans throughout the season. Given the poor performances of both pitchers, it might make more sense for both parties to seek the element of the unknown.
J.A. Happ will be a free agent at the end of this season, and while Gant will not be, this move was likely at least in part influenced by Gant’s pending third year of salary arbitration. Gant’s $2.1 million price tag for 2021 is not in and of itself exorbitant, but for an inconsistent pitcher with an ill-defined role in a salary climate in which players almost inevitably received raises every year in arbitration and whose lack of minor league options means he cannot be demoted to the minors, it would make sense that the Cardinals would not tender him a contract anyway. Now, perhaps whatever possibility that Gant pitches his way into worthiness of a 2022 spot is a point in his favor. Perhaps Evan Sisk, a minor league pitcher not within either his current or now-former organization’s top thirty prospects, has a non-zero chance to turn into a more productive player than Happ or Gant. I would be happy, when all is said and done, to acquire any Major League player for a Gant/Siske package; it is debateable whether Happ meets that requirement.
I am a bit higher on the Jon Lester trade, and it is isn’t exclusively because I find trading for a beloved member of the 2016 Chicago Cubs team in the wake of the late July Wrigley firesale to be funny. The downside to Jon Lester is nearly as obvious as the downsides to J.A. Happ–despite Lester’s impressive career, he is in the midst of his second consecutive downright bad season, with a few mediocre ones prior to that. To be clear, mediocre would be an improvement for the 2021 Cardinals rotation, which at this point just needs reasonably warm bodies, but a 5.02 ERA, 4.90 FIP, and 5.18 xFIP are hardly worth celebrating. Maybe one puts Lester, based on precedent, ahead of Johan Oviedo or Jake Woodford, players with similar numbers for 2021, but expecting more than the back-of-the-rotation status quo would be extreme.
But it’s not as though there is no precedent for the Cardinals resurrecting a formerly great pitcher to something resembling respectability, at which point I refer to John Smoltz, who pitched the final seven games of his Hall of Fame career as a Cardinal in 2009. Earlier in the season, with the Boston Red Sox, Smoltz struggled mightily, with a 8.33 ERA and a better-but-still-not-good 4.95 FIP preceding his release. But the Cardinals were able to extract a far more productive month-and-a-half out of the legend than his 2009 track record suggested–a 4.26 ERA and 2.73 FIP essentially for free does the trick. If the Cardinals could get, say, a four-ish ERA and FIP out of Lester, they would happily take that given the minimal cost the team spent–Lane Thomas was a much-maligned outfielder who had been passed repeatedly on the organzation’s depth chart, had played terribly in his 58 plate appearances in 2021 (a 20 wRC+, plus some notable defensive miscues), and was a strong candidate to be a 40-man roster casualty by next season anyway.
In the end, even if Jon Lester reaches his 90th percentile outcome and is legitimately a star for the remainder of 2021, it probably won’t be enough to get the Cardinals to the postseason. And the same goes for J.A. Happ. But it’ll be fun to watch, and that has some value too. No, it wouldn’t be worth surrendering the future joy we expect to receive from Matthew Liberatore or Nolan Gorman or Ivan Herrera or any of a host of prospects in the Cardinals’ system, but the Cardinals were likely done receiving much additional joy from John Gant or Lane Thomas. Maybe Lester and Happ renaissances aren’t likely (okay, there’s no “maybe” about it), but it’s a low-stakes enough gamble that it’s hard to get too upset about it.