The Cardinals have a power chamber set up in the nation’s capitol for a three-game weekend series against the Washington Nationals.
The gathering isn’t so much about the next three days of baseball.
The encampment is more about the next three months of baseball …
Or perhaps the next two or three years of baseball.
Team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., was said to be on the trip, but that’s incorrect. (I apologize for the misunderstanding and the mistake. But president of baseball ops John Mozeliak, GM Michael Girsch and their adjutants have established a mobile operation to monitor and process the activity between now and Tuesday’s 5 p.m. (STL time) major-league trade deadline.
There will be discussions. There will be inquiries. There will be round-table assessments of potential trade acquisitions. There will likely be multiple rounds of negotiations, and a search for common ground that results in deals.
(1) Just because the St. Louis delegation is in D.C. it doesn’t mean the Cardinals command center is focusing exclusively on Nationals outfielder Juan Soto. But if there is a chance to make a trade for Soto, it makes sense to convene at the nexus of activity … and to be in close proximity to Nationals GM Mike Rizzo and perhaps Soto’s agent Scott Boras. (Boras is always within reach, via smart phone.) Closing in on a deal for a player of Soto’s magnitude is no simple undertaking.
(2) DeWitt doesn’t have to be on the scene to be closely involved in trade discussions. He’s fully engaged in all baseball matters, and arguably has more influence on personnel decisions than any franchise owner in MLB. The Cardinals pulled off the Nolan Arenado trade because of DeWitt, who negotiated owner-to-owner with Colorado’s Dick Monfort. If the Cardinals go hard after Soto, no transaction will be consummated unless DeWitt gives the green light. And he will absolutely be a prominent voice in putting a trade-package offer together. A hypothetical example: if the Nationals want Nolan Gorman, and DeWitt opposes the idea of giving up Gorman … then Gorman won’t be traded to Washington. The same applies to top prospect Jordan Walker, young outfielder Dylan Carlson, Masyn Winn, Tink Hence or any other Cardinal that DeWitt wants to keep.
Witnessing the social-media intoxication over Soto’s availability has been damn entertaining, and I know that this shouldn’t be a Soto-or-pitching proposition. If motivated to do so, the Cardinals can make a pitch for Soto and go on a separate expedition for a starting pitcher.
I make no predictions here because there’s no reason for me to add to the confusion by putting names on a list of false rumors being dished by goofballs and their fake Twitter accounts. Or even so-called mainstream media types who are squirming for baseball “insider” status.
But in an attempt to put this situation in the proper frame, here’s what I think …
— If the Cardinals don’t land a significant starter, and perhaps even a second solid starter, their odds of winning the NL Central will grow longer. The Cards are missing Steven Matz and Jack Flaherty. And though they keep talking about a September return from the IL for both starters, beware of the false optimism that’s a regular feature of The Cardinal Way. This team requires certainty in starting pitching, and DeWitt and Mozeliak know it.
— Baseball analyst Eno Sarris, who writes for The Athletic, specializes in pitcher evaluations. Sarris updated his starting-pitching rankings on Friday, and I wanted to see how he rated Milwaukee’s top three starters compared to STL’s top three starters.
Brewers: Corbin Burnes No. 3, Brandon Woodruff No. 13, Freddy Peralta No. 41.
Cardinals: Miles Mikolas No. 36, Adam Wainwright No. 70, and Dakota Hudson No. 124.
The Brewers have the edge, and it isn’t close.
— FanGraphs projects a final record of 90-72 for the Brewers, 85-72 for the Cardinals, and gives St. Louis a 20.3 percent shot at winning the division. These projections can change quickly. And if the Cardinals reinforce their rotation and begin winning more frequently, they’ll improve their chances.
— Soto would upgrade the STL offense, yes … but at what price? But even with Soto on board, this team would still have to overcome their ebbing rotation to make it to the playoffs and go far in the playoffs. The Cardinals rank 17th in the majors with a 4.32 rotation ERA since June 1. And their 4.42 fielding-independent rotation ranks 24th since June 1.
— And if the Cardinals can’t put a better brand of starting pitchers out there, Soto won’t do enough to compensate for the glaring weakness. But he has two years left on his contract … so maybe he could carry the Cardinals in 2023, and/or 2024. But even then the Cardinals must make sure to cultivate a much stronger rotation instead of just wishing and hoping for it. This annoying nonsense – overestimating their stock of starting pitchers – must stop.
I’m not opposed to trading for Soto. Not at all. But I do listen to my pragmatic side. I know that many of you believe that the Cardinals can’t pass on Soto to use their trade resources on starting pitching instead. And even if the Cardinals miss out on the playoffs in 2022 because of unstable starting pitching, at least Sosa would be here in 2023 and ‘24. I’ve heard that a bunch of times and I understand that line of thinking.
But the failure to make the 2022 postseason after ignoring the real-time pitching problem would be a terrible look with potential consequences.
The Cardinals would be throwing away the final seasons of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina and perhaps Adam Wainwright.
They would waste fantastic performances from All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. That would be a shame.
By missing the playoffs the Cardinals would squander the valuable contributions from their impressive rookie cast of the players.
They would fail to take advantage of a defense that ranks 6th overall and 2nd in the NL in runs saved. They would come up short despite having a real edge in baserunning. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Cardinals rank 4th overall and No. 2 in the NL in net baserunning gain this season (plus 65 bases.)
And I’ve mentioned this a few times already this season but did you know that the Cardinals rank 4th in the majors in total WAR by position players? Using WAR, only the Dodgers, Yankees and Blue Jays have more WAR from their position players than St. Louis.
The offense isn’t the greatest, but it’s not as bad as it seems. And despite some recent struggles on offense, the Cardinals still rank tied for 6th in the majors in adjusted OPS.
When your group of position players is 4th in MLB in WAR, they’ve collectively done a good job. But we can’t say the same about the St. Louis pitching. The Cardinals are tied for 25th in overall pitching WAR – and are 26th in starting-pitching WAR.
The Cardinals are erratic and frustrating, but the team also has a lot of strengths. But the liability – starting pitching – could ruin everything.
The Cardinals need starting pitching a lot more than they need offense. So the Cardinals have some decisions to make. Let’s just say that the Cardinals can’t have it all, because they don’t want to trade away too much of their future. Let’s just say the Cards have to choose between starting pitching or Soto. What will they do? If the answer is go for Soto, does that mean taking a hit in 2022 and finishing as a regular-season also-ran? Are they willing to take that chance?
The Cardinals could market their fans on the idea of getting Soto now — then getting better pitching in place for 2023 and 2024. OK, but so much for making the most of Pujols’ return to St. Louis. And suppose the Cardinals do an incompetent job of revamping their rotation and find themselves searching again at next year’s trade deadline? Or 2024’s trade deadline?
After this season Arenado can opt out of his contract, and Goldschmidt will have only two years left on his contract. What if Soto leaves as a free agent after the 2024 season? It isn’t a lunge of a reach to think of a scenario in which Arenado, Goldschmidt and Soto are all gone from the Cardinals by the end of the 2024 campaign.
And if that should happen? By trading prospects and young players to land Soto now, the Cardinals would have less cost-controlled talent in house to fill huge voids in the position-player group.
And for all of his prowess at the plate, the wonderful Soto isn’t a miracle man. Since winning the World Series in 2019 the Nationals have the third-worst winning percentage in the majors (.388). Only Arizona (.381) and Pittsburgh (.374) have done more poorly.
If you’re the ultimate optimist, then you’re hoping the Cardinal bosses will find a way to thread the needle and acquire Soto and rotation help. Is it possible?
The St. Louis baseball administration likely will have some huge decisions to make this weekend in Washington. And then again on Monday and Tuesday. Decisions that will impact the present and the future … and for better or for worse. They’ll have a lot to think about.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.