Ever since Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers memeified the notion of sports teams “trusting the process”–the ideology by which they construct their rosters, there are some corners of the sports analysis world which have decided to completely eschew results. On some level, this is the wise move–if I’m playing poker and I’m dealt a pair of aces, go all-in, and then lose, this doesn’t mean that my preconceived notion that aces are the best possible starting hand was wrong; it simply means I got unlucky one time.
But that aces are the premium pocket cards to hold in Texas hold’em is a vetted mathematical fact substantiated by rigorous mathematical data, and the underlying logic of it is so airtight that I am fairly certain I could explain it to a poker novice. And in the world of sports transactions, having a pair of pocket aces is an unprovable hypothesis. In the early 2010s, when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were two of the sport’s unquestioned three top prospects, the Tampa Bay Rays were quite certain that they held the sport’s other great prospect, Matt Moore. It turns out the Rays had the equivalent of (I promise I’m almost done with the poker analogy) a suited ace and ten. It’s possible that this will turn into a great hand (it could even turn into the best possible hand), but it’s also possible it will turn into you holding an ace high and being dominated. Even the “safe” prospects are the rough equivalent of this.
The St. Louis Cardinals trade which has been the subject of the most revisionism over the 2022 season was the trade which sent Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen, Daniel Castano, and Magneuris Sierra to the Miami Marlins for Marcell Ozuna. By results, the trade has been a catastrophe for the Cardinals–the Cardinals got two perfectly competent seasons out of Marcell Ozuna which, given his subsequent arrests for aggravated assault and driving under the influence, feel even worse in hindsight. But even setting aside Ozuna’s personal baggage, Sandy Alcantara is probably going to win the National League Cy Young Award this year (sorry, Brewers), Zac Gallen is pitching better than any starter on the Cardinals this season and was arguably the best pitcher in baseball in August, and even Daniel Castano has been perfectly playable rotation depth for the Marlins. There are two extremes one can take–to yell and scream that the Cardinals are idiots for making that trade, a take which nobody was offering up when the trade was actually made, or to speak glowingly of process and that giving up one semi-prospect (Alcantara typically ranked in the top 5-10 range of Cardinals prospects), a toolsy if not particularly good prospect (Sierra), and a pair of guys that most fans who are not extremely in the weeds with prospect following learned existed the day the trade was made (Gallen, Castano).
I think there’s plenty of room in the middle–in most cases when a team trades prospects, particularly non-elite prospects, for established MLB talent, they’re going to come out on top, but when the trade does not work out, it usually really doesn’t work out. But we also don’t have to pretend that losing out on Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen is somehow not irritating. Even if I fully understood the process, and trust said process enough that I still, say, wanted the Cardinals to trade potential future superstars for Juan Soto, I’m not going to pretend that the end result is not the worst trade John Mozeliak ever made. And that said, even though it is materially less bad for the Cardinals, I’m still madder about the Tommy Pham trade–sending a cost-controlled outfielder to the Tampa Bay Rays for a collection of three prospects who were each sub-Replacement Level as Cardinals. Tommy Pham was a 2.6 WAR player for the remainder of that season and the Cardinals missed the playoffs by three games. Might have helped! The results were far worse with the Ozuna-Alcantara trade–even the 2019 team and memories of an NLDS which I still treasure would likely have been improved by adding Alcantara instead of Ozuna–but I can accept a bad result if the process is defensible. Trading Pham for low-level prospects was going all-in with 6-3 off-suit–you might hit a straight, but that doesn’t make it a smart gamble.
But just as I am able to rationalize the Marcell Ozuna trade from a process standpoint, I am also able to acknowledge occasions during which the Cardinals narrowly avoided disaster. As much as the trade which sent an aging Jim Edmonds to San Diego for David Freese looks awesome now, Freese was an extremely minor prospect–had Freese become what expectations suggested he would become, we’d be looking back at the trade like we look back at the Skip Schumaker for Jake Lemmerman trade, which is to say that we would not be looking back at it. The acquisition of Matt Holliday is revered more in hindsight because of an unrelated, subsequent transaction–signing him as a free agent to a seven-year contract–but had Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen, or Shane Peterson lived up to expectations, giving them away for a two-month rental whose iconic 2009 Cardinals moment was a clumsy postseason error might have invited Marcell Ozuna comparisons. Trading Colby Rasmus for rental pitchers worked out well in the sense that the Cardinals won the World Series, but had Nelson Cruz caught one very gettable fly ball in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Rasmus’s 5 WAR 2013 season while his center field replacement on the Cardinals took a step back would have been much more difficult to stomach. The loss of Carson Kelly and Luke Weaver for Paul Goldschmidt seems like a landslide today, but what if the Cardinals hadn’t been able to extend Goldschmidt beyond what turned out to be a fairly pedestrian 2019 season? What about the Nolan Arenado trade viewed as “the Cardinals essentially signed a guy to a seven-year, $214 million free agent contract with a pair of player opt-outs and also gave up something for the privilege because they refuse to sign major free agents for some reason”?
One trade that I loved the second the Cardinals made it and loved in the subsequent years after it was made came on July 31, 2014, when the Cardinals traded Allen Craig, in the midst of a career freefall after having already inked a long-term extension with the Cardinals, and Joe Kelly to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for starting pitcher John Lackey (and minor leaguer Corey Littrell, who has been out of professional baseball since 2017 without ever reaching the Majors). For the Cardinals, it meant shuffling out Allen Craig, whose struggles had only barely diminished his starting time, and although Joe Kelly still had value as a borderline starting pitcher, John Lackey, who would re-up for the league minimum thanks to a contract quirk in 2015, was an unquestioned improvement. The Cardinals improved for 2014 and 2015 and then when Lackey left in free agency, with a qualifying offer attached, the Cardinals also were able to draft Dylan Carlson as a result.
That said, there was always a chance this trade could backfire. What if the 35 year-old Lackey started to play up to his age? What if Allen Craig, who had been a reliable hitter prior to 2014, regained something close to his form and the right fielders expected to step up in his absences floundered (for 2014, the latter very much did happen)? What if Joe Kelly, still dirt-cheap and barely 26, found a new gear and the Cardinals forfeited years of cost control (look, I know it isn’t your money, but it’s money that could be used on somebody else on your favorite baseball team) for a relative rental in Lackey? But any trade has some risk. The Jordan Montgomery trade, however, had very little, and the return is flourishing as a St. Louis Cardinal. It almost certainly will not go down in history as one of the all-time great heists, but it may just be John Mozeliak’s masterpiece.
Unlike most trades, this one is fairly quick to analyze–the Cardinals acquired Jordan Montgomery from the New York Yankees in exchange for Harrison Bader. Both players are in their second years of salary arbitration and will be free agents following the 2023 season. Montgomery is a year and a half older, but both players are at an age where it would be reasonable to expect no massive decline nor any major steps forward. In theory, at least, this is the case.
My analysis of this trade, in keeping with the nature of this blog, will be Cardinals-centric, but I want to first look at the Yankees’ perspective. And while Yankees fans, for the first time in the history of the franchise I assume, are pretty mad about this trade so far (and were broadly pretty unhappy about it from the beginning), I completely understand their perspective. Through the trade deadline, the Yankees were a juggernaut whose destiny as first round bye-receiving World Series contenders seemed cemented–even after a particularly poor August, they remain mortal locks for October baseball with a better than 90% chance of receiving a first-round bye–so trading Jordan Montgomery, a useful but not indispensable pitcher who, with the addition to Frankie Montas, was looking unlikely to have a prominent playoff role, for a player in Harrison Bader who, when healthy, fills the largest deficiency the Yankees have experienced all season–defense in center field–made all the sense in the world.
The problem, however, is that Harrison Bader was hurt and still hasn’t played for the New York Yankees. And it’s not as though when Bader (likely) returns, the Yankees are assured that he will be the speedy defensive superstar he was in St. Louis–given that Bader’s injury, plantar fasciitis, is a foot injury, it is within the realm of possibility that how Bader is the most impacted will be in the area where he has most thrived. And while Bader is hardly old, at 28, he is reaching the age where speed starts to decline (albeit incrementally at this point) naturally. If Bader had even average speed, while he wouldn’t be unplayable–despite his reputation, he has been roughly a league-average hitter for his career (granted, speed helps that too) and he has solid defensive instincts–Bader would stop looking like a material upgrade over Aaron Hicks or Aaron Judge in center field.
For the Cardinals, the loss of Harrison Bader meant a hole in center field, which meant putting a ton of faith in Dylan Carlson, the player (in)famously held onto by the Cardinals during the trade deadline’s Juan Soto sweepstakes. Carlson has mostly held his own in center field defensively, though he was a below-average hitter (not catastrophically below average, but certainly not good), but the offense in the Cardinals’ outfield has stayed firmly afloat and even improved thanks to the red-hot Lars Nootbaar. Following his excellent Wednesday night game in which he hit a vital two-run home run in the top of the thirteenth inning, Nootbaar’s wRC+ jumped to 135 (35% above league average) and stationed his Wins Above Replacement, depending on which measurement of it you prefer, somewhere in the 4.8-5.1 WAR range prorated to 600 plate appearances. And mind you that none of this matters as it pertains to the Jordan Montgomery trade because Harrison Bader wouldn’t be playing right now anyway.
Meanwhile, Jordan Montgomery has been one of the finest pitchers in baseball since the Cardinals acquired him. In his five starts as a Cardinal, Montgomery is 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA and a 2.21 FIP. Montgomery has long fit a Cardinals-style archetype–good control and ground balls and not overwhelming strikeout totals–but since he became a Cardinal, Montgomery has improved in all three aforementioned aspects. That the lefty has benefited from pitching surrounded by a far superior defense to what he had in the Bronx is hardly surprising, but the overall deployment of his arsenal has also changed meaningfully. While as a Yankee, he threw sinkers over 40% of the time, changeups nearly one-fourth of the time, and curveballs over 20% of the time, his usage of all three of those pitches has declined in St. Louis in favor of the four-seam fastball–after using it just 7.8% of the time in New York (and 16.1% of the time last season), he has thrown the pitch 31.8% of the time in St. Louis. This simplified approach seems to be netting results–being able to vary speed has made him far less hittable.
It is an open question as to how the Cardinals will handle the center field position in 2023, though this is really just more promptly addressing what was always going to be an issue–the lack of whispers of a Harrison Bader extension always suggested he was probably going to be gone after 2023 anyway. If Lars Nootbaar keeps hitting like he did in July and August, when he had wRC+ marks of 186 and 174, then Dylan Carlson moving back to right field is out of the question. And in the meantime, a rotation which now will include Jordan Montgomery in his final year of arbitration has another weapon, one that is looking even more potent than he did a month ago.
The most important part of the Jordan Montgomery trade, however, is 2022, the season about which we know the most. Giving Montgomery credit for turning what was a three-game deficit into a six-game lead is not rational, but Montgomery’s role in stabilizing the Cardinals’ rotation certainly helped the situation. It looks increasingly likely that the St. Louis Cardinals will participate in a three-game Wild Card series in October and that Jordan Montgomery will be scheduled to start one of the three games, and this outsized role will only further solidify how strong this trade has been for the Cardinals.