What the Cincinnati Reds and the Oakland Athletics are doing is awful for baseball. These are both teams which had winning records in 2021 and were winning and playoff teams in 2020. They are teams that were not going to enter 2022 as division or postseason favorites, by any means, but neither team was in a completely dire situation, either–the Reds would have made the 2021 postseason under the new rules instituted for 2022, and the teams which finished ahead of Oakland in 2021, the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners, will potentially be subject to roster churn (the losses of Carlos Correa and to a lesser extent Zack Greinke for Houston) or regression (the Mariners were infamously outscored last season by 51 runs, despite winning 90 games).
Of course, the Mariners should have more true talent on their 2022 roster, not only because of ascending prospects but thanks to the Cincinnati Reds themselves. The Reds essentially gave away their best hitter, Jesse Winker, to the Mariners so that they would take on the (not even that high!) salary of Eugenio Suárez, a guy who received MVP votes and hit 49 home runs in the distant, distant past of 2019. Earlier in the off-season, the Reds lost Nick Castellanos due to free agency and Wade Miley, their best pitcher in 2021, due to placing him on waivers in hopes to avoid paying him (the Chicago Cubs, who say what you will about them at least appear to be trying this off-season, claimed him). The Reds also traded starting pitcher Sonny Gray in a move that, admittedly, I think is defensible in the context of their other moves–Chase Petty was a 2021 first-round pick, so it’s not as though Gray was a pure salary dump. But the rest of the off-season that led up to that move was malpractice.
The Oakland Athletics have been even more transparent–at least with Cincinnati, you could kind of argue that the team’s window was already closing. Oakland is just straight up setting their team on fire. By Baseball Reference WAR, the team’s best player last year was Matt Olson–he was sent to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects and center fielder Cristian Pache, who has played sparingly enough at the big-league level that he retains his rookie eligibility. And while Pache and catcher Shea Langeliers are intriguing long-term pieces, there is zero question that this trade hurts Oakland’s viability for 2022. Their second-best player by WAR, Chris Bassitt, is now a New York Met, dealt for a pair of minor leaguers. Their fourth-best player, Matt Chapman, was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for four prospects.
As much as we complain about the Cardinals’ spending on this website, these grievances are trivial compared to those by fans of the Reds and Athletics. These teams are straight up not trying to be good and their owners will collect Competitive Balance Tax revenues for it. And what do their fans get? Brow-beating about how the fans don’t support the team enough (if any Reds fans are reading this, for the love of GOD do not listen to any Cardinals broadcasts at Great American Ball Park this year) and how if Oakland can’t support a team then they should just relocate to Portland/Las Vegas/Nashville/whatever other random city that the upper-to-upper-middle-class folks that make up the bulk of baseball fans like to go to for vacations. It’s disgusting and despicable and this harsh reminder of how little baseball teams care about baseball just a week after the end of an owner-instituted lockout is an unwelcome turn of events.
That being said, there is nothing that the St. Louis Cardinals as an individual team can do to stop this system. The Reds and Athletics are going to keep selling off what they have, and at this point, they’ve already removed themselves from actual contention so who can really blame them for at least trying to salvage some hope for the future? The Reds and Athletics each have a pair of talented starting pitchers in their rotations, and despite the delusions of the Cardinals front office, yesterday’s injury concerns about Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes underscore that the Cardinals do, in fact, need another starting pitcher.
While the starting pitching market has dried up considerably, with a solidly past-his-prime (though still very much employable, as I keep @-ing to the Cardinals on the off-chance that somehow their social media team and front office work side-by-side) Zack Greinke and a hurt-to-start-the-season Danny Duffy topping the current crop of candidates, there are superior pitchers available from two teams that are known to be motivated sellers. And because Cincinnati and Oakland are known to be selling, it means the Cardinals could likely give up less in order to get such a player–there is a reason Atlanta gave up higher quality prospects to acquire Matt Olson than Toronto gave up to acquire Matt Chapman. Once Olson was gone, Oakland had tipped their hand.
The four pitchers worth examining are Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle with the Reds and Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas with the Athletics. These are the two best remaining players from the 2021 Reds/Athletics post-offseason moves and while none fit the Max Scherzer-style pipe dreams of earlier in the off-season, the Cardinals can only do what they can do now. And by trading for a player who doesn’t make as much as he will deserve in free agency, it fits the Cardinals’ style quite a bit better, for reasons I do not quite understand but am graciously willing to work around in this case.
Here is a look at how each pitcher fared in 2021/how they are expected to fare in 2022 (age is listed by their Opening Day age).
|Age||2021 ERA||2021 FIP||2022 ZiPS ERA||2022 ZiPS FIP||Years until FA|
How good are these pitchers? Well, none are realistically going to be Cy Young candidates–Montas got some down-ballot votes last season, and that marks the comprehensive list of times any of these four were in even peripheral consideration for elite status. But three of the four project to, in 2022, post a lower earned-run average than every Cardinals starter other than Jack Flaherty, while Tyler Mahle projects to outperform (by ERA) all but Flaherty and Dakota Hudson. And given recent injury history with Flaherty and Hudson, it’s not exactly outlandish to expect any of these guys to be necessary as temporary front-line starters for the Cardinals.
By projected FIP, things look even more optimistic for this group–Castillo and Montas project as superior to Jack Flaherty, while Mahle and Montas project as superior to all but Jack Flaherty in the Cardinals rotation. That the Cardinals have an infield with three Gold Glovers and a shortstop position that, whether staffed by Paul DeJong or Edmundo Sosa, has historically been filled by a quite good defender, is often mentioned as justification for, say, retrieving Jon Lester or JA Happ off the scrap heap, but the same things which would benefit those two would also benefit these solid young starting pitchers.
As for which of the four you want, the cheapest would probably be Sean Manaea. In addition to being the oldest, he also has just one year of team control remaining and he has some injury risk, having missed a considerable portion of the 2019 season. In a vacuum, I would rather have Frankie Montas between the two Oakland Athletics starters, but Montas would probably cost a high-level prospect–the return would probably be a tad but not way lighter than the four-prospect package headlined by last year’s #19 overall pick which was yielded for Matt Chapman, and Manaea probably could be gotten for a Michael McGreevy or Zack Thompson type. But also, you would get Frankie Montas for two years, and having a good pitcher for two years is better than having a good pitcher for one year (citation needed).
Would the Reds be willing to trade Castillo or Mahle within the division? I have never understood the argument that a team shouldn’t–after all, the Reds clearly don’t plan to be competitive in the next two years anyway, so who cares if it’s the Cardinals or Brewers taking the division–you get to deprive the Cardinals of future prospects! I don’t know what they’re thinking, but let’s say the Reds are willing to deal. Although Tyler Mahle is younger and had the superior 2021 ERA, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t rather have Luis Castillo, the former All-Star with a more established record of success. Of course, that also means having to give up more in all likelihood. Again, I’m not being picky.
Time is of the essence for the Cardinals–we are less than a month from Opening Day and they are bracing with the very real possibility that they begin the season with Jake Woodford in their starting rotation. Not “go to him in the middle of the season as the war of attrition rages on”, which is fine, but start the season with him. The NL Central only has two other teams even trying, one of which is actually good (I commend the effort, Cubs, I really do, but that team is the Milwaukee Brewers). This division is wide open for the taking and the Cardinals’ favorite type of move–trading for a cost-controlled veteran whom they can talk themselves into the antiquated “will take less to play in St. Louis” extension rather than actually signing a big-ticket free agent–is right there. They should take it.