At the 2021 trade deadline, the Cardinals weren’t buyers. They weren’t sellers. They were nesters. They stayed in place.
We knew the Cardinals would sit this one out; this should surprise no one. The Cardinals hadn’t been a patron in the summer trade mart since 2015, and hadn’t jumped in for a substantial in-season move since 2014. The precious souls who thought Max Scherzer was coming to St. Louis were right: he’ll be at Busch Stadium with the Dodgers for a four-game series that opens Sept. 9.
The Cardinals’ big gamble at the deadline was an attempt to squeeze a few good starts out of pitching geezers Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. I don’t know about quality starts or wins, but this rotation will lead the majors in AARP memberships.
If you thought the Cardinals would do something right — as in make a meaningful trade — they went left. Their rotation will feature Adam Wainwright and four lefthanders: Kwang Hyun Kim, Wade LeBlanc, Lester, and Happ. Kim is the little bro of the group at 33. The other flour starters have an average age of nearly 38 years old. The medical staff will have to stock up on beta blockers.
Friday’s trades for Happ and Lester would have been swell in, say, 2015. But this is 2021, and Happ has a 6.77 ERA on the season and an 8.74 ERA over his last 14 starts. Lester has a 5.02 ERA on the season and a 7.11 ERA in his last six outings.
The Cardinals traded a better (if flawed) pitcher in John Gant to Minnesota in exchange for a starter that has the worst earned-run average in baseball this season. (Minimum 15 starts.) Why? Well, Gant goes into his first arbitration year in 2022 and his salary will take a big jump. After so many walks by Gant, the Cardinals walked away. But it’s fair to wonder: when you trade a 28-year-old pitcher that has a 3.42 ERA this season and a 3.52 ERA in 139 games as a Cardinal — aren’t you supposed to come away with someone better?
To maneuver Lester away from Washington, the Cardinals parted with one-time wonder boy Lane Thomas. All this did was remind us of the litany of mistakes made by the St. Louis front office in evaluating outfield talent. Something is wrong when an organization trades Randy Arozarena and prematurely gives up on Adolis Garcia to — at least in part — create playing time for the ludicrously overhyped Thomas.
The Cardinals offered a predictable spin in the attempt to set a narrative — hey, media! These experienced starters can give us innings! These super-senior lefties aren’t voracious innings-eaters; Lester averages only 4.7 innings per start this season and has supplied fewer than five innings in 10 of his 16 turns. In fairness to Happ, he lasted either six or seven innings in four of his last six starts with the Twins and his rate of 5.17 innings per start is roughly league average.
These two moves sum up the bewildering leadership displayed by the St. Louis front office in 2021.
1) Do nothing over the first two-plus months of the offseason.
2) Make a blockbuster trade for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.
3) Do nothing after that.
4) Leave the roster vulnerable to the inevitable barrage of injuries that were predicted by baseball people from coast to coast after a truncated 2020 season.
5) When the injuries hit — tearing up parts of the rotation and reducing the offensive capability of the STL outfield — the roster holes became a convenient excuse for the team’s disappointing performance and mediocre record.
Sorry, no sale. More than a few MLB teams — including division leaders and contenders — took a proactive approach in augmenting their roster to soften any injury-related repercussions. The approach worked. The Cardinals didn’t do enough work.
Cardinals management ignored the high probability of injuries. Heck, the baseball bosses even ignored injuries, in house, that compromised the pitching depth.
The front office knew that Dakota Hudson would miss 2021 after undergoing elbow surgery. They knew that Miles Mikolas (forearm) hadn’t pitched since the 2019 NLCS, and got a reminder when Mikolas suffered a setback during this year’s spring training. The Cardinals were down another starter after including Austin Gomber in the Arenado trade.
And now, just as the Cardinals are counting on the return of both Mikolas and Jack Flaherty to the rotation in the coming days, they decided to go get Happ and Lester.
The Cardinals attempted to add more stability to the rotation after (A) largely ignoring a problem that’s been there for months; (B) just as Flaherty and Mikolas are nearing comebacks; and (C) by acquiring two starters that statistically rate among the very worst in baseball this season.
The Cardinals didn’t add a starting pitcher to their rotation pool until signing traveling-man LeBlanc on June 17, after he’d opted out of a minor-league contract. LeBlanc didn’t make his first start until June 28th, nearly a month after their ace, Flaherty went on the IL with a torn oblique. The Cardinals had a 5.75 rotation ERA in June and went 10-17 to tumble into a hard landing in the standings.
LeBlanc isn’t a heavy innings guy, but he’s done a nice job: six starts, 2.93 ERA. And now the front office is trying to do it again by adding Lester and Happ to the mix.
If everyone gets healthy and stays that way, the Cards will be looking at a rotation bundle of Wainwright, Flaherty, Kim, Mikolas, LeBlanc, Lester and Happ.
Seven veteran starters.
Better late than never?
Go old — or not at all?
Look, perhaps Lester and Happ can outperform the lowered expectations and give the Cardinals a short-term boost. At least they have two more experienced MLB arms to cover additional injuries.
Lester and Happ are proud competitors with extensive postseason experience. They’ve pitched for good teams and have been given the ball in a lot of big games. Lester is a three-time World Series champion with a 2.51 ERA in 26 postseason games. Happ has started four postseason games and worked out of the bullpen in 11 others.
We aren’t talking about a season’s worth of pitching here. We’re talking about a few weeks, maybe a little more, and anything is possible over a limited time. In his exceptional run as Tony La Russa’s pitching coach, Dave Duncan’s speciality was fixing and reviving declining veteran starters. But Duncan doesn’t work here anymore, and we’ll see if pitching coach Mike Maddux has anything to offer Lester and Happ.
I’m skeptical but there’s always a chance. Happ had a 1.91 ERA for the Twins in his first five starts of the season. Lester had a 2.55 ERA over a five-start stretch that began May 29. And I agree with those who say it’s probably best to have rookie Johan Oviedo working on his control problems down at Triple A Memphis.
I’m keeping this in mind: it’s fine to have some fun, poking at their ages, but it’s wrong to hate on Happ or Lester just because the front office brought them here. The usual front-office dawdling isn’t the fault of the two pitchers; they’re in St. Louis to help. Or at least try to help.
Last week, I explained why I expected the Cardinals to stay out of the expensive shopping departments at this year’s deadline. I’ll recap and elaborate with updated thoughts…
—Don’t mess with 2022. I wrote that last week and I’m staying on it. If holding onto your top five prospects means that they’ll be part of a transition to a more exciting and capable team in the near future, I’m OK with that. I didn’t want the Cardinals to trade a top prospect for an attempted short-term fix that was unlikely to lead to the postseason and a run in the playoffs.
—Parting with an elite prospect for the chance to get knocked out of a coin-flip Wild Card game is stupid. If the Cardinals are to make a run for the second Wild Card, they can do it with what they already have. Why? Because getting the second Wild Card will happen ONLY if other teams collapse, giving the Cards a chance to sneak up and sneak in.
—That said, I’m suspicious whenever I hear president of baseball operations John Mozeliak claim that other teams asked for STL’s top prospects in trade talks. As I wrote last week: how is it that other contenders can pull off impact trades without surrendering top prospects?
—If the Cardinals fail to take advantage of the abundance of cleared payroll space to build a better team around their core players for 2022, then someone must answer for that. There will be no excuses for 2022 — especially after management basically took the 2021 season off after acquiring Arenado in February.
—The Cardinals clearly believed that Arenado would be enough to win a lackluster NL Central. This miscalculation grossly underestimated the Brewers, and disregarded the Reds. And while the Brewers and the Reds were much more active in the quest to address weaknesses and vulnerable spots, the Cardinals’ haughtiness and inertia proved devastating. Likewise, the first-place Brewers, the second-place Reds and contenders in the NL Wild Card bracket all made multiple trade moves last week. The Cardinals? They didn’t get better, but they did get older.
—Mozeliak and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. must move away from the apparent operating principle that I’d flippantly describe as: “The other NL Central teams suck, so we’ll get by.”
I’ll say it again: raise the standards.
The goal shouldn’t be striving to finish slightly higher than the teams in your division, even if you believe the division is mediocre.
The goal should be having a team that can compete at the highest level, and that means setting your sights on the Dodgers and the other best of the best teams in the majors.
When Flaherty went out, with no trade made in response, the lack of urgency was revealing. By holding tight through the Flaherty, Mikolas and Carlos Martinez injuries, the front office made a decision that it carried through the deadline: St. Louis wouldn’t attempt to repair 2021 in a way that harmed the chances of significant success in 2022 and beyond.
We heard you, Cardinals.
Just as we heard the same message at the trade deadlines in 2020, and 2019 and 2018 and 2017 and 2016 and 2015.
It’s their story. Every year.
Obviously, they’re sticking with it.
“Ultimately, we did turn to more of getting through the 2021 season, and that’s where we settled,” Mozeliak told the media on a Zoom conference late Friday afternoon, after the deadline passed.
By playing it safe in ‘21 to preserve the future, and giving the fans the usual copy-and-paste explanation, the pressure should intensify on DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak to follow through and deliver in 2022.
I don’t think the same old song can work again. The same played-out song that included two golden-oldie starting pitchers this time. I could be wrong; I guess a lot of this depends on home attendance, local TV ratings and the strength of fan loyalty. It also depends on what the Cardinals believe they can get away with in a gentle media market.
While I’m glad that the Cardinals kept Norlan Gorman and his top-prospect brothers, I can’t help but think about something else.
And no matter how many times we talk about the future and signal our approval of the decision to hold onto the most valued prospects, another season is slipping away.
If this season ends with the Cardinals lagging behind as also-rans, they will have wasted another season — perhaps the final season — of Wainwright pitching to Yadier Molina.
That’s not all, of course. In addition the franchise would have wasted a year of the corner infield tandem of Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado — two aging stars with huge contracts. Goldy turns 34 next month, and Arenado will be 31 early next season. If you can’t put a better team around these men, what was the point of acquiring them and investing massive sums of money in their contracts?
If this season ends in a flameout, then it’s a failure. The Cardinals can try to explain it away, but that doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s still a failure.
Thanks for reading …
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
The weekly “Seeing Red” podcast with Bernie and Will Leitch is available at 590thefan.com …
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net 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.