For the first time in my time as a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, I am writing this sentence: the St. Louis Cardinals, over a month into the season, have the worst record in the National League.
The Cardinals currently sit eleven games under .500, playing the season at a crisp 52 win pace. As it stands, they sit ten games back of the National League Central leading Pittsburgh Pirates, 8.5 games back of the Milwaukee Brewers team that most prognosticators thought (and think) would pose the biggest NL Central threat to the Cardinals, and six games back of any playoff spot at all. While a six-game deficit is hardly insurmountable, the Cardinals do not merely have to play at a six-win-or-better pace than the San Diego Padres for the remainder of the year, a thing I consider unlikely but possible–they also have to eclipse a ton of other teams. Passing the Colorado Rockies, who are one game ahead of the Cardinals as I write this? That seems like a reasonable task to complete–they could do it by the end of the coming weekend. Passing the Padres, Mets, and Phillies is a taller task.
The Cardinals are venturing precipitously close to the point of no return–for as much attention as last year’s Philadelphia Phillies received for overcoming an awful start to the season in 2022, they bottomed out at eight games under .500. That Phillies team snuck into the playoffs with an 87-win season–if the Cardinals hope to reach 87 wins in 2023, they will need to play the remainder of 2023 at a 95-win pace. I thought the 2023 Cardinals would be good–I did not think they would be a 95-win team.
While what is happening to the St. Louis Cardinals is unprecedented in my lifetime for this particular team, it happened like six months ago for a different St. Louis sports team–the St. Louis Blues entered the 2022-23 season coming off a campaign in which they won a playoff series, were as competitive as anybody against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, and were conservatively predicted to at least make the playoffs. But the Blues got off to a terrible start, and rather than denying it, they extracted as much value as they could get from the roster they had–they traded (while retaining some salary in order to make the players more desirable in a league with a salary cap) captain Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari to the Toronto Maple Leafs, stalwart winger Vladimir Tarasenko to the New York Rangers, and forward Ivan Barbashev to the Vegas Golden Knights. Post-trades, the Blues actually did start to play a little bit better, but they had dug such a hole that these additional forwards would not have changed the fact that they missed the postseason, but instead, the Blues now have two additional first-round draft picks plus a recent first-round pick acquired in the Barbashev trade. These are consolation prizes compared to having a good season, but the good season wasn’t happening anyway.
To be clear, I do not consider what the Blues did to be, by the more toxic definitions of the term, “tanking”. They entered 2022-23 expecting to compete, didn’t, and then they found teams with more use for their pending free agents and got something in exchange. My platonic ideal of a rebuild in baseball is not the Houston Astros, tear-everything-that-isn’t-nailed-down approach of the early 2010s, but some of the recent Kansas City Royals seasons–sign some veterans on one-year deals and trade them at the deadline if your team is as bad as most expect them to be. But as the deadline approaches, the Cardinals could be motivated sellers while other specific teams emerge as motivated buyers. Here are the tiers of selling we can expect.
TIER ONE: THE BARGAIN BIN (Jordan Hicks, Chris Stratton)
This isn’t (mostly) meant as disrespect to Hicks nor Stratton, but the fact remains that the Cardinals currently employ two fairly fungible relievers who will be free agents after this season. While Jordan Hicks has pitched better as of late, and Chris Stratton has actually been pretty solid this season (a 3.86 ERA and 2.93 FIP in 16 1/3 innings), losing either would not likely have a material impact on the 2023 Cardinals. Jordan Hicks, if a team were willing to give up anything of value, would be the single easiest trade chip on the roster, and now that he is pitching better, the odds of this increase, though I can’t imagine a scenario where his price tag is more than an extremely marginal minor leaguer. Stratton probably has a higher cost at this moment, insofar as he might be able to command, like, a contender’s 12th best prospect. I should also note that Adam Wainwright, if he were a typical pending free agent, would also be on this list, but for reasons I probably do not need to explain, his value to the St. Louis Cardinals is considerably higher than on any other team in baseball no matter how well or poorly he pitches. I would also add Paul DeJong to the list but I just can’t imagine a scenario where a team, absent the Cardinals also offering to pick up the option buy-out for next season, would offer literally anything for him. His best course of action might just be kind of hanging out for the rest of the season.
TIER TWO: THE WAIT AND SEE (Jack Flaherty)
It’s darkly funny, after years of some of the biggest weirdos in the Cardinals fanbase claiming that Jack Flaherty was just biding his time until he could sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, that Flaherty might be stuck in a situation where the Dodgers wouldn’t even want to use a roster spot on him. At this point, the best landing spot for Flaherty might just be with the Cardinals for another year, but I would guess it is more likely that he just goes to (pulls random bad team out of head) the Chicago White Sox or something and tries to re-establish himself as some reasonable facsimile of the pitcher he was in 2019, which I should note was four years ago. That said, while Flaherty’s numbers so far have looked pedestrian, he has started to cut out his chronic walk issues and trading him immediately doesn’t make much sense–his value at the moment is pretty low and could reasonably increase over the next couple months, at which point if the Cardinals’ struggles continue, trading Flaherty makes sense.
TIER THREE: HALF (Jordan Montgomery)
This tier is named after the classic negotiation scene from the film Bad Santa, in which the Tony Cox character attempts to negotiate a payoff deal with Bernie Mac’s mall security character–Cox starts at a low percentage, but Mac, understanding that he holds all of the cards, steadfastly and confidently says “half” repeatedly, while Cox slightly increases the percentage up until he is trying to advocate for high-forties percentages just so he can claim he won. With Montgomery, unlike with the previous free agents, the Cardinals do have the leverage, because a 30 year-old lefty with a 3.34 ERA, a 2.67 FIP, and a history of dependability is a legitimately valuable commodity, and unlike a Chris Stratton type, the Cardinals have the leverage of the qualifying offer–the Cardinals can offer Montgomery the qualifying offer this off-season, if he maintains his current level he would likely reject it, and then the Cardinals could get a compensatory pick. The last five times the Cardinals earned a comp pick, they subsequently drafted Alec Burleson, current Memphis masher Luken Baker, Dakota Hudson (look, I know people aren’t high on him right now, but he gave the Cardinals innings, so it’s not NOTHING), Dylan Carlson, and Jack Flaherty. The allure of the comp pick doesn’t mean the Cardinals shouldn’t trade Montgomery; it simply means they don’t have to trade him. This is good leverage to have.
TIER FOUR: LET’S MAKE THINGS CLEAR (Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Juan Yepez)
I listed these three players in alphabetical order by last name, but O’Neill seems the likeliest to go–he and Oliver Marmol butted heads early in the season in a moment which seems to have destroyed the vibes of the Cardinals, and while I am not convinced at this point that Marmol will outlast O’Neill in St. Louis, it does make some baseball sense to trade him–he will be a free agent after the 2024 season, can likely secure a decent prospect or two for the Cardinals, and would clear up some of the current outfield logjam. Carlson is likely the more valued player–he still makes the league minimum and has three years of team control remaining until he hits free agency, and while his offensive struggles have been well-documented (last night’s home run off Shohei Ohtani aside), he is also the best defensive center fielder on the team. And Juan Yepez finds himself in a strange purgatory with the Cardinals’ organization right now–he has hit well, but at positions already manned by other players, and even as a 95th percentile Juan Yepez fan, even I cannot pretend he is the outfielder in Memphis about whom I am the most excited about eventually returning to St. Louis. I love him like a son, and not just because his actual dad follows us on Twitter, and it feels like his departure would likely be for his benefit, but it is likely that a better fit would emerge in the off-season (i.e. bad teams would be more inclined to acquire him).
TIER FIVE: YEP LET’S GO ALL THE WAY THERE (Giovanny Gallegos, Paul Goldschmidt)
*takes giant swig from bottles* OKAY NOW HERE ME OUT. Paul Goldschmidt, of course, has a no-trade clause, so he might not want to leave, but maybe he wants to play for a major contender for this year and next year. I get it! No hard feelings! And Gallegos, whatever animosity you feel about yesterday aside, has been a consistently good pitcher and he’s under contract, and not an unreasonable contract, through next season. He wouldn’t be a blockbuster like Goldschmidt, but he’s a reliever and he would get you something.