Opinion Columns & Blogs

Should the Cardinals be buyers or sellers as the MLB trade deadline approaches?

The St. Louis Cardinals played a mediocre first half

At 44-44 at the All-Star break, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves just two games out of first place in the NL Central despite inconsistent play through the first half of the season.
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At 44-44 at the All-Star break, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves just two games out of first place in the NL Central despite inconsistent play through the first half of the season.

I would hate to be the person who had to decide if the St. Louis Cardinals are buyers, sellers, or if they stand pat at the looming Major League Baseball trade deadline.

They’re on a bit of a hot streak since the resumption of the schedule following the All-Star Game. But they’re still a bad week of being below .500 and they’re just as close to the cellar as they are to the penthouse.

The argument could be made (as it usually is) that whatever player is injured will be back before the end of the season and be just as good as anyone the team could get in trade. This year the list of walking wounded is more lengthy than usual. Catcher Yadier Molina, slugging left fielder Marcell Ozuna, corner infielder Matt Carpenter and pitchers Mike Mayers and Brett Cecil are all guys who are currently out but who are expected to be back sooner or later.

The question is: Are those players enough to help the Cardinals break away from the pack in the National League Central Division? Because, with the exception of the pitchers, all of those players were healthy a few weeks ago and, even then, St. Louis was still a win one, lose one sort of baseball team.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have already backed up the brinks truck to land an elite closer in former Boston Red Sox fireman Craig Kimbrel. Yeah, he’s taken a little bit of time to warm up, but the Kimbrel signing was a shot across the bow to NL Central competitors. Is there any doubt that the deep-pocketed Cubs will go out and get another bat and/or a lefty reliever before rosters are set in stone?

That puts the Birds in a position where they might be pressured to make a deal of their own.

There’s no doubt that the Cardinals could use a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher or two. Michael Wacha just lost his spot in the rotation for the second time. Meanwhile, his replacement, Daniel Ponce de Leon didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he got his chance to be in the starting five.

The Cardinals might have Ozuna and Molina coming back to potentially drive in runs. But what they could really use for the offense is a legitimate guy who can get on base at the top of the lineup.

Unfortunately, it appears that Matt Carpenter’s days as an elite player at getting on base are behind him. Not only does the nomadic infielder have a .215 batting average as of the second half of July, but he’s only got a .321 on-base percentage.

Six other regulars including Paul Goldschmidt, Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong and Ozuna can all claim a better rate of getting aboard.

While the Redbirds have been terrible at driving in runs in a way that doesn’t involve a homer (a glaring example being Fowler’s leadoff triple over the weekend only to be left stranded) the most likely solution to the team’s run-scoring woes would be to improve the number of opportunities for the sluggers to hit with runners on base.

Still, my gut feeling is that — unless a deal they can’t refuse lands in their lap — the Cardinals are unlikely to make any major moves before the winter.

Team architect John Mozeliak spent a lot of money to build this club. Some of it on players like Mike Leake and Luke Gregerson who aren’t even in St. Louis anymore as well as Cecil and Fowler who haven’t exactly lived up to expectations.

I get the sense by the way the team managed its off-season, passing yet again on big money players the pundits thought made all the sense in the world for Cardinals, that team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. wants to see a return on his investment. The team may have to win or lose with the players it already has.

If it doesn’t make it to the playoffs for the first time in four years — and make a decent showing at that — St. Louis could find itself in the middle of a regime change with a new president of baseball operations and general manager taking the club in a new direction in 2020. If that’s even a possibility, I don’t think DeWitt is going to want the new guy to be saddled with commitments to high-dollar players that don’t fit in with his plans.

So, what does it all add up to?

I think this is going to be another year where the Cardinals add a middling player like a middle reliever or an innings eater who could give the starting rotation some depth but who wouldn’t break the bank in terms of salary or prospects required to trade for him.

I could also see the Redbirds subtracting some depth players from the roster. But don’t get your hopes up, because the big contract guys aren’t going anywhere.

If that’s the tactic the Birds are considering, I wish they would take a pass instead. Don’t waste prospects on short-term band-aid solutions. Instead, invest some money on singing Ozuna to a reasonable contract extension as a trade deadline show of good faith to fans and stay the course.

If the team really thinks 2019 could be its year, it’s going to require the addition of at least one front of the rotation starter who could face other team’s aces in big games both in the playoffs and before the post-season starts.