My first reaction to the late-breaking trade which saw the St. Louis Cardinals sending starting center fielder Harrison Bader to the New York Yankees for starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery is that I’m mad because they ruined my “the Cardinals didn’t do enough to improve the starting rotation at the deadline” post I was just getting ready to click “publish” on.
But you probably don’t care about that angle. So let’s talk about how this trade impacts the Cardinals.
Unlike last night’s trade, which saw the Cardinals sending a competent but expendable quad-A swingman in Johan Oviedo and an extremely blocked corner infield prospect in Malcom Nunez to the Pittsburgh Pirates for José Quintana and Chris Stratton, there is a real risk in what the Cardinals just did, sending their starting center fielder of the last four-plus seasons to his childhood favorite team, the New York Yankees in exchange for Jordan Montgomery, a starting pitcher that may not move the needle as much as a Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas, but who represents a very clear improvement for the Cardinals’ rotation.
Harrison Bader has been a bit of an enigma during his time with the Cardinals, not because of anything he personally did (he seems like a genuinely cool and likable guy, and on a personal level I’m happy for him getting a chance to chase a championship with his hometown club) but because of the nature of the type of player he is–an extremely gifted defensive center fielder with a decent but extremely frustrating offensive profile–streaky with intermittent power but typically a pretty high strikeout rate (though his mark of 17.8% this year is a lot more appetizing). But ultimately, Harrison Bader should and likely will be remembered fondly in St. Louis as sort of a Peter Bourjos Gone Right.
Trading Bader away does allow the Cardinals to sidestep an upcoming question of how to handle Harrison Bader’s post-2023 free agency, one that, based on the lack of traction in extending him, was likely to resolve itself with the center fielder leaving St. Louis. And given that Bader’s game is largely predicated on speed and that he will be 29 years old when it happens, it’s fair to be hesitant about devoting a ton of resources to him. Another potentially limiting factor for Bader is his current bout with plantar fasciitis, which has caused issues for many professional athletes, with a player whose wheels are an integral part of his game being the most likely to be dramatically impacted. There is a reason that the Yankees insisted upon a conditional Player To Be Named Later in the trade, in the event that Harrison Bader is unable to play for them this season–they do not want to give up a pitcher of Montgomery’s caliber for free.
And assuming that the Yankees’ PTBNL list is as thin as most such lists are, the Yankees will certainly be hoping it doesn’t come down to this, since Jordan Montgomery, though not a superstar, is a highly capable pitcher. In this, his third full season as a Major League starter, Montgomery has an ERA of 3.69 and a FIP of 3.91, with an xFIP of 3.62 suggesting that he has been slightly unlucky with regards to home runs being hit against him. His ground ball rate, at a career high of 46.4%, suggests a solid systematic fit within the Cardinals’ premium defensive infield. Montgomery isn’t an ace, but he will help to fortify a Cardinals rotation that, while lacking desirable high-end talent, should be fielding a perfectly adequate veteran pitcher (Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, José Quintana, Jordan Montgomery) for four-fifths of the team’s games. Either Dakota Hudson or Andre Pallante (likely the latter, my own personal wishes notwithstanding) will be the team’s reasonable sixth starter option, with Matthew Liberatore also a viable piece for rotation depth.
Because of Harrison Bader’s injury status, I don’t think it’s even up for debate whether this trade is beneficial to the 2022 Cardinals–I think the answer is an unqualified “yes” (and given that the Yankees are virtually locked into a playoff spot, the need for August-September production is far lower for them than for the Cardinals). But how it impacts the Cardinals in 2023, the final year before both Bader and Montgomery reach free agency, is a reasonable question, less because of either player who was traded but because of Dylan Carlson, the team’s semi-long-time corner outfielder of the future who has been suddenly thrust into the role of starting center fielder. Carlson has certainly been a better offensive player than Bader since joining the Cardinals, but his defense, which has still been primarily in right field even this year, is up for debate. Anecdotally, he looks competent in center field, if certainly not as fantastic as Bader, but the metrics are a little more dubious. By Ultimate Zone Rating, Carlson has been a plus defender in center field this year, but the evidence is hardly conclusive, given how long it takes defensive metrics to be considered reliable (especially considering his below-average numbers in center field in 2021 and his below-average numbers in right field in 2022).
Ultimately, if you are still questioning Dylan Carlson: Center Fielder, I am right there with you. But hopefully, if things don’t go well, the team will not be shy to try Tyler O’Neill, a rabbit-quick two-time Gold Glove winner in left field, at the more strenuous spot in center fielder, or can mix in Lars Nootbaar. And, if this doesn’t work, hopefully the Cardinals are willing to look into new options in the off-season. The Cardinals were going to have to ask themselves some tough questions about their future in center field with or without this trade; the trade simply speeds up the process.
I think, given the situation, the Cardinals are probably making a good trade by sending Bader to New York, though I am far less confident of this one than I was of the Quintana trade. While it may be tempting to lump Bader in with the many, many trades over the years of the Cardinals sending away players with declining value at just the wrong point, it’s reasonable to ask if an aging (he isn’t old, but whom amongst us isn’t aging?) player with foot problems who is so dependent on speed is having a rough patch or if this is a sign of something more substantial. And disappointing as Juan Soto being traded to the San Diego Padres might have been, I can’t pretend that the Cardinals-equivalent package to what the Padres gave up (in my under-educated view, something along the lines of Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Jordan Walker, Joshua Baez, Some Decent Rookie League Guy I’ve Probably Never Heard Of, and maybe Lars Nootbaar as Luke Voit, I dunno, that’s the hardest one to compare to a current Cardinal) wouldn’t have at least scared me more than a little, even if I probably would have done it.
Ultimately, I’m content with the trades the Cardinals made on balance–they are a better team today than they were two days ago (a thing which, given Josh Hader’s departure, arguably can’t be said about the Milwaukee Brewers). But it’s also fair to note that many, many of us were screaming last off-season that the Cardinals didn’t have enough pitching depth. Obviously, Jordan Montgomery specifically was not readily available last off-season, and even though José Quintana was, I can’t pretend I was clamoring for him. But Carlos Rodón was available. Noah Syndergaard, traded today to the Philadelphia Phillies, was available. It’s not unreasonable to note that had the Cardinals addressed their problems proactively and not reactively, literally at the last minute of the trade deadline in the case of the Bader-for-Montgomery trade, the Cardinals could feel a lot more comfortable about their outfield situation for next season. And while the move they made today was arguably the correct one, it is also one that could have been avoided with some more planning.