The problem with a couple weeks’ worth of Juan Soto trade rumors and discussion, not the least of which were propagated by this site, is that virtually any other trade is going to seem like a half-measure by comparison. Even if the Cardinals had, say, jumped into the Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas bidding wars before they were acquired by the Seattle Mariners or New York Yankees, respectively, either would have felt underwhelming compared to the outfielder credibly compared to Ted Williams (not to mention the part where the prospects required to acquire Castillo or Montas likely would have jeopardized the bid for Soto).
José Quintana, himself once the centerpiece of a major Trade Deadline move (which netted Dylan Cease and Eloy Jiménez for the Chicago White Sox), is not Luis Castillo nor Frankie Montas, and he certainly isn’t Juan Soto, and the cost of Quintana for the Cardinals reflects this. As initially reported by MLB’s Francys Romero, the Cardinals sent Johan Oviedo and Malcom Nunez, two players I have seen connected to precisely zero Juan Soto rumors, to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Quintana and relief pitcher Chris Stratton. And while Oviedo has pitched reasonably well primarily in relief with the Cardinals over 25 1/3 innings in 2022 and Nunez has posted a respectable .823 OPS with the Springfield Cardinals, neither is viewed as an indispensable part of the organization’s future.
While José Quintana, 33, is a former All-Star who was once viewed as a legitimate top of the rotation arm, his stock fell considerably after he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 2017. While Quintana was productive in the latter half of 2017, he was workmanlike at best over the next two seasons and had a brutal 2021 campaign, intended to be a career-rehabilitating one-year stint with the Los Angeles Angels which turned into being selected by the San Francisco Giants after being designated for assignment in August.
But after Quintana signed a one-year, $2 million, “look at least I’ll get a bunch of starts here and maybe catch someone’s attention for 2023” contract with the Pirates, José Quintana became one of the team’s most pleasant surprises. In 103 innings, Quintana put together a 3.50 ERA and a 3.24 FIP in twenty starts with the Pirates. Although his strikeout rate has fallen a bit from his prime, to 7.8 per nine innings, Quintana has overcome his biggest 2021 flaw–walks–to the tune of a 2.7 BB/9 rate. His 2.0 Wins Above Replacement is already his highest single-season mark since 2016 (and his FanGraphs WAR mark is even stronger). Is Quintana a vaunted #1/#2-ish starter like he was in 2017 when he made the Chicago team switcharoo? Absolutely not, but for a team like the Cardinals which is starved for starting pitching, he could certainly serve a major role in improving the team.
As for Chris Stratton, a late addition to the reporting of the trade, his shaky 5.09 ERA is not likely a reflection on his true talent, but his composite numbers since joining the Pirates/becoming a full-time reliever in 2019, probably are, which is to say…he’s fine. A 3.98 ERA and a 3.73 FIP. And his 3.61 FIP also reflects this notion. Stratton certainly is not Ryan Helsley nor Giovanny Gallegos in terms of upside, but the righty’s 40 2/3 innings shows that he can eat innings in the second tier of bullpen leverage situations–the key to Stratton is that he is almost certainly a better pitcher than T.J. McFarland or Nick Wittgren or Drew VerHagen. And unlike Quintana, who will be a free agent after the 2022 season, Stratton will still be arbitration eligible for 2023. Worst case scenario, the Cardinals cut him loose without punishment. Best case, they have a solid bullpen contributor for next season.
As for the players the Cardinals gave up, Johan Oviedo is certainly the headliner. While in his previous two seasons, the 24 year-old struggled with his control while pitching primarily as a starter, he was more successful in 2022 pitching primarily in relief, with a 3.20 ERA and a 4.07 FIP. But that it took until June 4 for Oviedo to make his season debut with the Cardinals, instead pitching (poorly, with a 5.58 ERA) as a starter with the Memphis Redbirds for the bulk of his 2022, suggests that he was viewed as little more than organizational depth. And Oviedo was likely bound for another season on the Memphis shuttle. This kind of player is nice to have, but he is hardly indispensable to a team’s long-term plans. He is the type of player who is imminently replaceable. To lose Oviedo for nothing would have been a shame; to lose him for pieces which should immediately benefit the Cardinals is just about the best possible outcome for the team (and, given that Pittsburgh should offer much more ample Major League opportunity, for Oviedo himself).
Malcom Nunez, even more than Oviedo, reflects a type of player who was likely at a professional standstill with the Cardinals’ organization. Although he has hit well in Springfield, the twenty-one year-old first baseman was blocked not only, most obviously, by Paul Goldschmidt, but likely by Juan Yepez and Alec Burleson in terms of his MLB path. He can play third base, too, though it’s not like the path with, conservatively, Nolan Arenado, Nolan Gorman, and Jordan Walker is exactly an inspiring one for a non-major prospect. Meanwhile, like Oviedo, Nunez likely has a much clearer path to the big leagues with Pittsburgh, who could reasonably stash him on the 40-man roster this off-season, which would have been necessary (and unlikely) for the Cardinals to prevent him from Rule 5 Draft exposure.
Ultimately, there is a zero percent chance that the José Quintana trade will impede a prospective Juan Soto trade–it either still happens or was never going to happen in the first place. It’s not as though the Oviedo and Nunez package was going to work for the Washington Nationals. But in the meantime, the Cardinals improved at their greatest position of weakness and added depth at another not-exactly-strength for the short term without dramatically hindering their long-term viability. There is always the chance that Johan Oviedo turns into a star, but the odds of this, based on what we know about him, are low enough that cashing in on the much surer thing, José Quintana, was the only sensible option.