The intriguing dalliance with the Washington Nationals over the future of outfield prodigy Juan Soto was fun while it lasted, and the tease created a tingling sensation and exhilaration among the wild-eyed faithful that wanted the Cardinals to go big and bold.
Members of the Cards front office went home instead, leaving the madhouse of baseball’s swap meet to head into their safe space. In the countdown to the 2022 MLB trade deadline, STL president of baseball operations John Mozeliak delivered himself from temptation, remembered who he was, stayed on brand and added bulk pitching to a scraggy starting rotation.
Mozeliak didn’t get Soto.
But he metaphorically found Soto … Soto in this case being a Zen Buddhist school, characterized by the practice of sitting meditation leading to gradual enlightenment.
In other words, the enlightened “Mo” did not sacrifice the coven of his best and brightest prospects and budding young stars to satisfy demands made by the Nationals. Soto or No Soto, will be debated into, well, eternity. But in rejecting the powerful allure of seeing Soto in that classic Cardinals uniform, Mozeliak chose to maintain a quarter-century of consistent success, shelter his top prospects, preserve a full future and stay connected to his pragmatic soul.
And he still addressed his team’s most glaring need by trading for two above-average starting pitchers … leaving the sacred prospects safe from harm.
In a sequence of deals that began early in the week, the Cardinals parted with backup infielder Edmundo Sosa, mid-range hitting prospect Malcolm Nunez, depth-chart pitcher Johan Oviedo, and injured veteran center fielder Harrison Bader.
Coming to St. Louis in the Mo-lapalooza were left-handed starting pitchers Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery, right-handed reliever Chris Stratton, and fringy lefty reliever JoJo Romero.
If you were looking for a huge splash, then go to Hurricane Harbor at Six Flags. If you actually believed the Cardinals would land Soto, take comfort in knowing that you’ll be able to visit Santa Claus in a few months – and the Easter Bunny after that.
If you were agreeable to the idea of a common-sense upgrade of a terribly frayed starting rotation, then Mozeliak was your mang. If you wanted the Cardinals to build walls around your museum of valuable prospect stars, Mozeliak was your security specialist … and no one could get to them.
I have no problem with any of this.
Mozeliak did a good job.
Quintana (Pirates) and Montgomery (Yankees) are sturdy and reliable and pitching well in 2022. They are not airheads. They aren’t made of porcelain. They take the ball every fifth day, having combined for 41 starts this season.
Quintana and Montgomery each have above-average Bill James game scores for the year. Both lure hitters into chasing out-of-zone pitches at a high rate, and are stingy in denying walks. Both give bushels of ground balls to be handled by a highly-skilled St. Louis infield that leads MLB with 41 runs saved defensively – and no other MLB infield is close to matching that.
Take a look at the individual ground-ball rates of the six starting pitchers the Cardinals can call on, depending on how they’ll go in choosing their top five:
Andre Pallante, 61.4%
Dakota Hudson, 52.2
Adam Wainwright, 45.5
Jose Quintana, 45.5
Jordan Montgomery, 45.3
Miles Mikolas, 44.5
As we know, this is not a strikeout-oriented rotation. Of the six starters listed here, only Montgomery (20.7%) and Quintana (20.3%) have strikeout rates over 20 percent. The league average for strikeout percentage by starters is 21.5 percent.
Among the 70 big-league starters that have thrown at least 100 innings this season, Montgomery and Quintana rank 47th and 48th, respectively. But at least the Cardinals have two starters that can provide strikeout rates topping 20 percent – if barely so.
If you couldn’t find heavy strikeout punchers on the 2022 trade market – they were in short supply – the next best thing is to have a rotation that can keep the ball on the ground. The Cardinals have six of those groundhogs as rotation pieces now.
Mozeliak has armor-plated his rotation to give it more day-to-day consistency. Hudson isn’t as dependable as Wainwright, Mikolas, Quintana and Montgomery, and Pallante could be transferred back to the bullpen. Having taken note of that, here are the six earned-run averages in the St. Louis starting-pitching group:
Roll all of the earned-run averages together, their combined starter’s ERA is 3.45. The MLB-wide ERA for the season is 4.10.
And here’s their Fielding Independent ERAs:
Other than Hudson, that looks good. The rotation’s current FIP – 4.23, which ranks 19th – is likely to improve with Quintana and Montgomery moving in.
The strikeouts aren’t much of a factor – though Montgomery has a surprisingly sporty swing-whiff rate – but the Cardinals couldn’t solve that now. They’ll have to work on the problem next offseason.
Now, here are their ERA+ figures for the season, and 100 represents the league average:
Five of the six St. Louis starters have an above-average ERA+. Max Scherzer isn’t in there, and Justin Verlander isn’t in there … but I’m not going to throw a fit over an updated St. Louis rotation that includes five above-average starters.
Using ERA+ as our guide, last season the Cardinals had only one above-average starter in the rotation (Waino) down the regular-season stretch in their run to a wild-card spot. The other starters were either injured and missing, or working out of the bullpen, or posting below-average ERA+ figures.
A year later, the situation is much better. At least right now, and we can check back on that later in the month. But near the deadline the Cardinals solidified their rotation and boosted their shot at winning the NL Central. And this was arranged without having to agonize over their decisions. These were easy trades, especially after the Yankees decided that they wanted Bader. (Confusing.)
No, I didn’t expect to see Bader moved in the trade for Montgomery, but after thinking on it, this makes sense. The Cardinals want to go on with Dylan Carlson in center, where he has more value, so they’ve put his career on a new track. Carlson, 23, isn’t eligible for free agency until the 2027 season.
Bader is 28 years old. He makes $4.7 million this year, and will make another guaranteed $4.7 million in 2023. After that, he can become a free agent. Harry has a hard time staying in the lineup; he’s missed 106 in-season days to injuries since the beginning of 2021, and was paid $1.71 million in salary during his absences.
Bader’s offense has fallen off this season. Over his previous two seasons Bader was 14 percent above league average in OPS+, and that’s dropped 23 points, to nine percent below league average, in ‘22. Bader is way down this season in hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and average exit velocity.
With his foot pain (plantar fasciitis) almost certainly a factor, Bader is a minus 2 in defensive runs saved as a center fielder in 2022; that would represent his worst defensive showing in a major-league season.
As a bonus, the Cardinals were able to move the cost of Bader’s contract while securing Montgomery. The pitcher can’t become a free agent until 2024.
Mozeliak managed to add two above-average starting pitchers without weakening his prospect currency. After his moves, the Cardinals still have 12 of their top 13 prospects, 23 of their top 24 prospects, and 28 of their top 30 prospects according to Baseball America’s 2022 midseason rankings.
The prospect treasure – barely touched – gives the Cardinals a lot to work with when it’s time to reshape parts of the roster for 2023. They’ll have plenty of prospects to barter in making offseason trades, and some of their next-wave collection of talent will arrive in the big leagues in ‘23.
At some point – like, next winter – Mozeliak has to start moving some prospects. And he knows it. There’s no way to have all of these dudes playing and pitching for the Cardinals at the same time. Mozeliak has to ease the logjam, but he can do it without panicking and overpaying under pressure in the time-crunch dash to the annual summer trade deadline.
Mozeliak can’t hold onto his prospect babies forever.
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.
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.