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Buyers or sellers? Here is one move that could transform the St. Louis Cardinals

As we enter July, it seems all St. Louis Cardinals fans want to talk about is whether the team is going to be a buyer or a seller at the non-waiver trade deadline.

As bad as things have gone this season, the Redbirds remain only a handful of games out in the National League Central. Unless things take a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, St. Louis isn’t going to completely bail on the 2017 season.

That being said, a lot of folks are saying the Cardinals have too many problems to fix everything on the fly.

Maybe that’s true. But none of the teams in the NL central is a juggernaut. Incremental improvements might help make the difference. Also, we need to consider that the Cardinals are likely to see help in the second half from players returning from injury — as well as players graduating from the minor leagues.

The Cardinals have managed their latest resurgence without contributions from outfielder Dexter Fowler. Reliever Kevin Siegrist could be back soon, too.

But the guy a lot of people seem to have written off, lefty hurler Zach Duke, acquired at midseason in 2016, is recovering quickly from elbow surgery and has begun a rehab assignment. All of those players will make the Cardinals better, the latter two will help out the battered bullpen. The former will add some depth and versatility to the offense.

Here is a suggestion for one move that could turn the Cardinals from a middling, mediocre team to a favorite to win the division and be a force in the postseason.

The Detroit Tigers have one of the worst records in the American League and their ownership has reportedly called for the team to slash payroll. One player the team is likely to shed is a pending free agent, outfielder J.D. Martinez. Another is one of the best pitchers in recent history, Justin Verlander.

St. Louis’ biggest deficiency is the lack of a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter. Martinez is just the sort of player it needs. Making $11.75 million this season (half of which will be paid off by the time he’d arrive), Martinez is batting .307 with a .395 on-base percentage. He’s hit 14 homers and has 10 doubles.

Verlander, under normal circumstances, would be way too pricey for the Cardinals. He’s making $28 million this year as well as in 2018 and 2019. But the word out of Motown is that the Tigers are willing to pay a significant portion of Verlander’s salary over the next three years — including the remaining balance for this season — in order to free themselves from the rest of their commitment.

What if the Cardinals got the Tigers to pay off the balance this year plus picking up the tab for $8 million each of the next two years? Detroit would save $40 million and the Cardinals would get 2 1/2 years of a battle-tested veteran starter for what amounts to $16 million a season.

It’s hard to get a pitcher of that quality anywhere near that price. While Verlander is 34, it’s not a crazy risk because of the smaller level of financial commitment — not to mention that it would be for far fewer years than if the Cardinals were to try to add an ace-type pitcher on the free-agent market.

Verlander is 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA this season and his walk rate is unusually high. But he continues to have strikeout stuff with 92 whiffs in 98 innings. He was spectacular last season and may very well benefit from a change of scenery.

If the Cardinals made this move, they could let starting pitcher Lance Lynn walk next season to pay for about half of the Verlander commitment.

What would it take to get Martinez and Verlander? That’s the question. St. Louis is well equipped with trade chips.

Luke Weaver, St. Louis’ top pitching prospect is tearing it up at the Class AAA level and is bucking for a promotion with a 7-1 record, a 1.93 ERA and 41 hits allowed in 56 innings of work. He’s struck out 60 and walked 13.

Harrison Bader, the Cardinals’ top prospect among hitting prospects, is batting .296 with 14 homers. He has a .350 on-base percentage and a .505 slugging percentage and seems ready to play in the majors someplace.

The Cardinals could offer Tyler Lyons or Michael Wacha, cost-controlled MLB-ready hurlers. Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk could be available.

The names are up to the general managers to figure out. But Martinez would make the batters in the St. Louis lineup better by putting a feared slugger in the middle of the mix. Verlander would offer the Cardinals a second ace that would give the club the best pitching in its division and a one-two punch that would make it a threat in any short playoff series.

This team really isn’t that far away from being a contender.

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