This afternoon, it was reported, initially by Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat, that when the St. Louis Cardinals’ roster expands from twenty-six to twenty-eight players tomorrow, the new additions will be pitcher Brandon Dickson and catcher Ali Sánchez. The news brought inquisitive replies of “Who?”, which is generally not considered a good sign when both of the players involved are former big-league Cardinals.
Sánchez, 24, debuted at the big-league level in 2020 with the New York Mets and played in one game, a seven-inning affair on May 5 against the aforementioned Mets, for the big-league Cardinals. He has spent the bulk of the 2021 season with the AAA Memphis Redbirds, for whom he has an 82 wRC+ in 240 plate appearances, but if you want another angle to inspire more confidence, he also clears the way for Andrew Knizner, whose 58 wRC+ is lowest among the eleven Cardinals with at least as many plate appearances (142) as he has, to be a pinch-hitter.
Dickson’s route to the 2021 Cardinals was even more convoluted. Dickson, 36, is somehow six months older than Andrew Miller, and hasn’t appeared in the big leagues since the first Obama term, appearing in four games apiece in 2011 and 2012 for the Cardinals. After spending eight seasons with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s Pacific League, Dickson returned to the United States this season, and with the Memphis Redbirds, over 10 1/3 innings, he has a 9.58 ERA and a 8.61 FIP, but if you are a true xFIP adherent, Dickson’s xFIP is 5.49. Which is still pretty bad but less bad! Also, he was part of the Silver Medal-winning United States Olympic team, which is nice.
Brandon Dickson is, of the twenty-three pitchers who have thrown at least ten innings with the Memphis Redbirds, 23rd by ERA and 23rd by age. As he is not yet on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, Dickson is not even a particularly convenient addition. Among players currently on the 40-man roster, Seth Elledge and Johan Oviedo, while certainly not exciting players, have been demonstrably superior players to Dickson–their Major League statistics have been superior to Dickson’s AAA numbers. As for Sánchez, he might be the best catcher in the Cardinals’ organization–Iván Herrera is the far more highly regarded catcher, but at 21 and with just one season of average-ish offense at AA Springfield, I can’t confidently declare Herrera is better at this moment–but the barrier for justifying Sánchez on the roster is not whether a better catcher exists but rather whether a better hitter is playing in the minors than Andrew Knizner. Juan Yepez (155 wRC+ in 280 Memphis plate appearances) and Connor Capel (114 wRC+ in 317 plate appearances) likely clear that threshold.
But the real enticing choices were, and always have been, Matthew Liberatore and Nolan Gorman.
The 21 year-old childhood friends are the two most acclaimed prospects in the Cardinals’ organization, and both players are participating at the highest levels of Minor League Baseball for the first time in their careers. Neither has been a superstar–Liberatore, in his first season in the Cardinals’ organization, has a pedestrian strikeout rate and has an ERA and FIP gravitating around the mid-fours, and Gorman, though he has flashed promising power, still has an on-base percentage at just .327 in order to construct a competent but hardly revolutionary 109 wRC+–but Liberatore and Gorman are likely a better pitcher and hitter, respectively, than Brandon Dickson and Ali Sánchez. They are undoubtedly more interesting players.
So are Brandon Dickson and Ali Sánchez the most fun additions to the Cardinals’ roster? No. But are Brandon Dickson and Ali Sánchez the best players the Cardinals could add? Also no.
But the St. Louis Cardinals are sitting on the periphery, at best, of the playoff race. By Baseball Prospectus’s Pecota odds, the Cardinals have just a 0.2% chance of winning the National League Central, and while they are just three games back of the Cincinnati Reds for the second Wild Card spot, their odds of cracking the postseason in any way, shape, or form sit at just 1.7%. And while the Cardinals are hardly tanking–they did, after all, trade for MLB rentals just a month ago yesterday–the additions of Dickson and Sánchez suggests that while the Cardinals aren’t giving up in the literal sense, they aren’t willing to give up anything for the remainder of this playoff run.
And on some level, it’s understandable–Liberatore and Gorman, or to a lesser extent Juan Yepez, would be a lot more fun, but the Cardinals’ playoff odds would remain below 2% regardless. As dirty as considering MLB service time manipulation feels (and to be fair, not promoting guys with average, limited AAA results is hardly the most egregious case of this practice), there is a reason teams do it beyond run of the mill corporate greed. But even if these moves fall short of the Cardinals waiving the white flag of surrender, they sure aren’t waving a green flag to kick their season into high gear, either.
If these roster additions bore you, I promise that you are not alone in the matter. But the Cardinals aren’t a team pursuing being especially entertaining for the rest of the 2021 season–even if that’s the smart move, it doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it in the moment. And if Dickson and Sánchez don’t move the needle for you to tune in to Cardinals games, that’s entirely understandable.