THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Jack Flaherty is doing his part to enhance his value before the Aug. 1 trade deadline. In pitching the Cardinals to wins over the Yankees and Marlins, Flaherty aced the tests by blanking the opponents through 12 and ⅔ scoreless innings. Impressive.
With 6 and ⅔ shutout innings Thursday, Flaherty delivered the keynote performance for his team’s 3-0 victory at Miami. After dropping their first three games to the Marlins the Cardinals managed to get out of South Florida with a win. The 1-3 series was the latest failure by St. Louis, but at least Flaherty pitched well enough to stimulate the interest of potential trade partners.
Shohei Ohtani would be the obvious No. 1 prize on the trade market, but will the Angels trade him? Owner Arte Moreno has said no, but can always change his mind. If a team acquires Ohtani, are they willing to hand him a $500 million (or higher) contract? He can become a free agent after the season and wouldn’t be worth the exorbitant rental fee.
Marcus Stroman (Cubs) is having a good year but can opt out of his contract after the season, and that diminishes his trade value. If traded, would Stroman be willing to sign an extension with the team that acquired him? That can’t be answered right now.
The Cardinals have two potential free agents in Flaherty and Jordan Montgomery. Compared to Flaherty, Montgomery offers more quality and consistency. Barring an injury or some other setback, Montgomery will cash in for a bigger payday than Flaherty if both enter the free-agent marketplace.
I’m still trying to understand how the Cardinals plan to upgrade their rotation by letting Montgomery walk away, but I digress. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak remain convinced that their model works – except that it doesn’t … at least when it comes to pitching. And DeWitt has an allergic reaction to the very thought of paying the expected luxury price for a top-level starting pitcher. That’s how the Cardinals signed Mike Leake and Steven Matz when they could have had, say, Max Scherzer.
I have no confidence in DeWitt and Mozeliak to make a smart move in the area of starting pitching. They constantly overrate their pitching talent and have put an unofficial cap on what they’ll pay for a premium starter.
Will the Cardinals trade Flaherty or Montgomery? Would they trade both? That depends on a few factors.
Season To Date: Montgomery has a 3.28 ERA in 17 starts including a 1.66 ERA in his last seven assignments. His 10 quality starts lead the Cardinals. Among regular MLB starting pitchers he ranks 18th in WAR, 18th in ERA, 21st in fielding independent ERA and 30th in innings. Montgomery has a fine 3.22 ERA in 32 starts as a Cardinal after coming over in a trade with the Yankees last August. As a bonus, the left-handed Montgomery has held right-handed hitters to a .244 average and .711 OPS during his time with St. Louis.
The Predicament: Pending free agents don’t have as much value as you’d probably assume. Noting the recent trade that sent Royals walk-year reliever Aroldis Chapman to the Rangers, baseball analyst Joe Sheehan offered important historical perspective:
“The Rangers got three months of Chapman for a controllable #5 starter and (a largely unknown prospect.) Seven years ago, the Cubs had to hand over a consensus top-50 prospect — who would be a consensus top-ten prospect a year later — in Gleyber Torres, a well-regarded 21-year-old Double-A outfielder in Billy McKinney, plus two other players – and they did it for a little more than two months of the Chapman.
“The gap in the two returns for Chapman are an indication of how much has changed in MLB front offices since 2016. That trade, in fact, may have ended an era in which teams gave up top prospects for players with a year or less of control remaining.
“You can still get good returns at the deadline, as the Nationals have done in tearing down their roster by trading Trea Turner and Juan Soto, you just have to do it before the talent you have reaches its walk year. Look at what the Reds got for Luis Castillo, the Orioles for Jorge Lopez. Teams have all come around to the idea that rentals like Chapman, like Andrew Benintendi in 2022, like Kris Bryant in 2021, aren’t worth moving top prospects for.
“Work your way back from 2016 and see the prices some teams paid for rentals. The A’s got Sean Manaea, a top-60 prospect, for two months of Ben Zobrist. In 2015, the Mets traded Michael Fulmer, who would be rated a top-50 prospect heading into 2016, for two months of Yoenis Cespedes. The Orioles traded Eduardo Rodriguez for 20 innings of Andrew Miller in 2014. None of that will come close to happening in 2023 or in any year to come. The Gleyber Torres-for-Aroldis Chapman trade closed the door forever.”
In other words: Cardinals fans shouldn’t get their hopes up in anticipation of a windfall return for Montgomery. (Or Flaherty.) I mean, I suppose it could happen; all it takes is one twitchy general manager and/or owner to go into panic mode and overpay for a solid, effective and underrated lefty starter like Montgomery. But recent history tells us otherwise.
The Key Question: So if the Cardinals are low-balled in a trade offer for Montgomery, do they just sit tight, ride with him until the end of the season, issue a qualifying offer and collect a draft choice when he signs elsewhere?
Because of changes in the latest collective bargaining agreement, the Cardinals wouldn’t receive first-round draft compensation for Montgomery if he departs as a free agent after the season.
The Cardinals do not receive revenue-sharing payments and did not exceed the luxury-tax threshold this season. Because of that, their compensatory pick would come after “Competitive Balance Round B,” which follows the second round and is slotted before the third round. And the total financial value of the free-agent contract doesn’t matter.
Because they signed free-agent catcher Willson Contreras, the Cardinals don’t have a second-round draft choice in this weekend’s MLB draft. After choosing 21st in the first round, their next pick won’t come until the 90th overall selection.
By collecting a sandwich draft pick between the second and third rounds for Montgomery, the Cardinals can replenish their early-round draft stock in advance of next year’s draft.
If the trade offers for Montgomery exceed expectations, then the Cardinals can go that way if they like what’s being pitched to them. But if they don’t believe a more modest offer for Montgomery has as much value as the future draft pick, the Cards would have a solid reason to pass on a trade. That’s based on how they see it … and not how we see it. I don’t think the St. Louis front office has a “trade Montgomery and get something for him no matter what” mindset. And by keeping him, the Cardinals theoretically would have a better chance to retain Montgomery after the season. He has said he wants to stay here – then again his agent is Scott Boras.
Potential Interest: The Athletic recently cited 12 teams that are seeking starting pitching in the trademart. In no particular order: Rays, Braves, Orioles, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Reds, Giants, Angels, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies and Tigers.
Season To Date: Jack has a 4.27 ERA and a 4.02 fielding-independent ERA in 17 starts. After getting shelled by the Angels in early May, Flaherty has a 3.09 ERA in his last 10 starts and is, for now, trending favorably. He’s healthy. He’s averaging 93 mph on his four-seam fastball and can crank it to 96 mph. That said, the fastball is hittable (.318 opponent average) and Flaherty has unreliable control. His 48 walks are the most by a major-league starter. His rate of 4.66 walks per nine innings is the second-worst by an MLB starter. His strikeout is above average (21.8%) but nothing special. Flaherty allows too many hits as evidenced by his rate of 9.42 hits yielded per nine innings – the 11th worst by a MLB starter this season. And though he appears to be on a positive track right now, fact is Flaherty has only six quality starts in his 17 outings – a QS rate of only 35%.
The Predicament: With so many contending teams searching for starting pitching, Flaherty should have appeal in the trade catalog. But how much value? If he was under contract through 2024, suitors would likely step up with good offers. But Flaherty can walk after this season. And though he looks strong in 2023, there may be some lingering concern over his durability after two injury-troubled seasons in 2021 and 2022. I’ve seen a few people speculate that Flaherty could command a couple of premium prospects from the Dodgers – but the Dodgers are notoriously stingy about trading their best prospects and are highly unlikely to break their pattern for a pending free-agent starter with control issues. The Cardinals are getting plenty of calls on Flaherty … but that doesn’t mean they’ll be offered a haul of prospects for Flaherty.
The Key Question: If the Cardinals decline to trade Flaherty because they’re unwilling to move him for a low-value price, could we see him back in the STL rotation in 2024? It’s possible. If the front office makes Flaherty a qualifying offer for 2024 – at a salary of $19 million or $20 million – and he rejects it to become a free agent, the Cardinals would be happy to pocket a ‘24 draft choice sandwiched between the second and third rounds. But if Flaherty accepts the qualifying offer, the Cardinals would be fine with that. (If they are uncomfortable with that scenario, they wouldn’t make a qualifying offer to him.) If Flaherty and his agent (CAA) firmly believe his (mostly) encouraging 2023 performance is a runaway to an outstanding 2024, they can take the gamble and attempt to cash in for a bigger, multi-year free-agent reward after next season.
Potential Interest: As mentioned, the Athletic recently cited 12 teams that seem likely to pursue starting pitching. But let’s focus on the realistic postseason contenders: Rays, Braves, Orioles, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Reds, Giants, Angels, Red Sox and Phillies. Philadelphia needs back-end rotation help, and Flaherty would fit. But they wouldn’t pay a bounty for him. This isn’t a prediction, but I could see Flaherty or Montgomery going to Baltimore if the Cardinals choose the trade option. The Orioles have an abundance of prospects.
1. Cardinals manager Oli Marmol has repeatedly praised his team for competing hard, and fighting hard – no matter how many runs they’re trailing by in a game. OK, but isn’t that what this team is supposed to do? Isn’t it a player’s minimum job requirement to compete with maximum effort instead of giving up? The standards of a once-proud franchise have been lowered beyond recognition in 2023.
2. I was happy to see Jordan Hicks make an immediate recovery from his game-costing throwing error in Wednesday’s 10-9 loss to the Marlins. Hicks cleanly secured a 3-0 lead Thursday, retiring the Marlins in order in the ninth on a ground ball, strikeout and fly ball. Since moving into the closer role, Hicks is 6 for 7 in save opportunities with a 2.45 ERA and 30% strikeout rate.
3. Rookie Alec Burleson hasn’t played as much as he did earlier this season but he’s doing a good job with his recent opportunities, going 5 for 16 (.313) with two walks and a couple of RBIs in his last five games. Burly had two hits and drove in a run in Thursday’s 3-0 dubya at Miami.
4. The Cardinals have promoted infielder Jose Fermin from Triple A Memphis. Fermin, 24, has spent seven seasons in the minors and will make his major-league debut this weekend against the White Sox if Marmol puts him in a game. In the minors he has a career slash line of .256/.346/.364 with scant power – homering every 63 at-bats. He makes excellent contact, having struck out only 10.7% of the time in the minors.
4a. Where have you gone, Taylor Motter?
5. Checking on the St. Louis offense: The Redbirds rank 6th in the majors with a 108 wRVC+ which means they’re eight percent above the league average offensively. That may not seem like much, but it’s all relative, and only the Braves, Rays, Rangers, Angels abd Dodgers have done better than St. Louis. Thirteen MLB teams are below average offensively per wRC+.
6. The Cardinals are 9th among the 30 MLB teams in OPS and tied for 7th in onbase percentage, 7th in slugging, and 7th in home runs per game. Even though the Cardinals have hit a respectable .261 with runners in scoring position, they continue to leave too many runners on base. Their average of 7.1 runners stranded per game ranks 23rd overall and 10th in the NL.
7. I think we’re seeing the “real” Willson Contreras and it’s exciting. His competitive intensity would make Yadier Molina proud. Did you see Contreras get in the face of Marlins hitter Bryan De La Cruz last night? Did you see Contreras diving like a mad man in an effort to snare a foul pop near home plate that didn’t appear to be catchable? Yadi would be proud of those things too. My point is, the dude has finally gotten comfortable after a rough start to his job – one that included his shameful benching as the catcher for a brief time. We’re seeing WC’s true personality now. And in his last 12 games Contreras is batting .419 with a .500 OBP and .674 slug for a 1.174 OPS.
8. Nolan Gorman is reemerging from his extensive hitting recession, and the Cardinals need that. In his last 11 games Gorman is batting .273 with a .368 OBP, .515 slug. The upturn includes two doubles, two homers, six RBI and five walks. The walks are a positive sign; Gorman has cut down on his “chase” rate on pitches out of the zone. And his strikeout rate is 25.4% since June 17. That’s a substantial improvement from his 41.3% strikeout rate from May 17 through June 16. Gorman went 2 for 3 with an RBI and run scored in Thursday’s victory.
9. Jordan Walker’s prodigious two-run, go-ahead homer late in Wednesday’s loss was a thrill to watch. He is exceptionally strong. But he’s still a rookie, and it’s very early in his career … so there will be lulls. And Walker is batting .143 with a .458 OPS in his first seven games in July. No big deal.
10. Nolan Arenado pummeled the Marlins for five hits in 15 at-bats (.333) during the four-game series. All five of his hits went for extra bases – four doubles and a homer – for a .800 slugging percentage. And his Thursday-night homer was the winning stroke in the 3-0 triumph. In his last 15 games Arenado has a .667 slug and 1.027 OPS with 11 extra-base hits and 13 RBI. He’s fire.
11. After a cold first month, Arenado has a .606 slugging percentage, 15 homers, 14 doubles and 44 RBI since the start of May. That slugging percentage is the sixth-best in the majors among players with 150+ plate appearances over that time – and his 44 RBI rank 7th.
12. Except for Arenado, the NL’s starting All-Star third baseman, the Cardinals are nearing their mini-vacation during the break. But before that, they’ll play three games against the White Sox on the South Side of Chicago. The White Sox (37-52) have a .416 winning percentage that ranks 26th overall, one spot above St. Louis (36-51, .414). Jordan Montgomery, Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz are scheduled to start the three games for St. Louis.
13. The White Sox have dropped seven of their last 10 games and are 9-17 since June 8. They rank 24th in runs per game, 24th in run prevention, and are 29th in defensive runs at a minus-39.
14. The late innings should be interesting. The Cardinals and White Sox each have 18 blown saves, tied with tied for the Nationals for the most in the majors. The White Sox have blown 29 leads, two more than the Cardinals have. St. Louis has lost 10 games after taking a lead into the 7th inning; Chicago has lost eight such leads.
15. With the Cardinals playing the White Sox, the series has me thinking about Tony La Russa. He’s dealing with challenging health issues, and I hope and pray that he’ll soon be OK. La Russa turns 79 in October; my goodness, where did the years go? La Russa was 51 when hired as St. Louis manager before the 1996 season and his time here was interesting, colorful, and rewarding. TLR was in the middle of everything, never taking a break from his quest to plot out every game and come up with the best way to win it. His non-stop intensity was remarkable during 16 seasons as the STL manager. And his personality became his team’s personality.
The Cardinals’ two World Series championships under La Russa were profound and prestigious – and the look even better now that so much time has elapsed. Coming out of retirement to manage the White Sox, TLR had a .553 winning percentage in 300 regular-season games before having to step down because of his health with 34 games remaining in 2022. Since La Russa returned to retirement, the White Sox have a .447 winning percentage.
TLR ranks second all-time with 2,884 regular-season MLB wins. He took 15 of his teams into the postseason where he won 71 games and three World Series.
Managing is much, much different now. As I wrote when La Russa was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in December, 2013:
“General managers are going with younger, inexperienced managers who are a part of the machine — facilitators who are expected to implement the organizational program, rather than take command as a singular, all-controlling, dominating force. The manager’s job is still important, but it’s been downsized. Maybe that will be the final piece of La Russa’s legacy: he was the last of the powerful managers that ruled over a franchise.
“He was the last of the lions.”
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a happy weekend.
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
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.