I can speculate why the St. Louis Cardinals fell from the best record in the National League to ninth place in the National League during the past three weeks.
But what can the team really do to get its mojo back?
I heard someone suggest that the Redbirds needed to tear down the club to the studs and rebuild from scratch. How could that even be a consideration when the team has so many young players? Typically, a fire sale happens when a team has players in their prime who are nearing the end of their contract. Some of the present is traded for a lot of future in the form of multiple prospects.
The Cardinals don’t have a lot of expensive players in their prime who are nearing the end of their deals. When they signed Matt Carpenter to Miles Mikolas to extensions, that left only Marcell Ozuna as an in-his-prime player in the walk year of his deal. Carpenter, a slugging left-handed batter with some defensive versatility would have been an ideal candidate to trade for prospects if that was the route the front office wanted to go. Instead, they doubled down on the veteran player.
Why? Because St. Louis isn’t a veteran club that’s starting to slide downhill. Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Jordan Hicks, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Austin Gomber are all still rising talents with years of control remaining. Would it make any sense to trade just arrived major leaguers for guys in the high minors? A rebuild project is designed to turn back the clock years, not a few hours.
So, if the idea of starting over is off the table, what can be done to make more incremental improvements?
You can probably scratch the idea of going out and spending big money to sign some free agent help off the to-do list. Yes, Dallas Keuchel would help the starting rotation. But extensions for Paul Goldschmidt and Carpenter took away a lot of 2020 payroll flexibility, and the Cardinals don’t like to commit to multi-year contracts for free agent pitchers, anyway. Even if they saw the obvious need for rotation help, I’m not sure the Birds would be convinced that signing a pitcher who is still sitting on his rear end in late May would be ready to jump in and make a difference before it was too late.
That basically leaves the trade route.
While the offense has been hit or miss lately, where would you try to add to it if you could land a productive offensive player? Catcher Yadier Molina is the heart and soul of this team. He’s not going anywhere. Goldschmidt is parked at first base for the next half a decade, Kolten Wong is locked in at second, DeJong has a long-term deal at short and Carpenter is going to be around at least three more years at third. The outfield is overcrowded as it is. A guy like Bryce Harper might have been a difference maker, bit is there anyone the Birds could land in trade who would be much better than what they already have?
The rotation is the obvious place to add. Not only are all the starters under performing, they’re also not eating many innings, which is hurting the bullpen.
It appears the most practical and effective way to improve this team over where it stands right now would be to try to trade some depth to acquire a front of the rotation starting pitcher. Rumors have been flying about concerning San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. But the lefty put the Cardinals, along with every other competitive team that needs a starting pitcher in the majors, on his limited no-trade list to try to drive up his leverage.
A more likely target might be a New York Mets starting pitcher, either Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard.
Syndergaard has been uneven this year. One of his worst games actually came against the Cardinals, who tagged him for six runs — four earned — on eight hits over five innings. But he’s 26 years old and has has been a dominant hurler up to this point in his major league career, compiling a 40-26 record with a 3.11 earned run average. His biggest issue is staying healthy. deGrom is older, but he’s probably a safer bet (though he did sign a 5-year extension with a full no-trade cause earlier in 2019). He’s struck out 75 batters in 58 innings so far this season and has an ERA of 3.72.
The Mets are 23-25, not too much worse than the Cardinals in the standings. But they’re trying to compete with the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, so their road to the playoffs has a lot more potholes in it than St. Louis is likely to face. So talk is already swirling about the New Yorkers becoming sellers, and if they did, the outfield is the Mets’ biggest need and the Birds’ largest surplus.
Yoenis Cespedes is out for the season after surgery to repair a badly broken ankle suffered while he was already on the injured list. From the sounds of it, the situation may be career threatening. In the meantime, New York has Juan Lagares batting .207 with a .289 on-base percentage and a .310 slugging average as its center fielder. Wouldn’t it make sense for both teams to trade one of the Mets’ top pitchers to St. Louis for a young hurler and either Tyler O’Neil, who has eight homers in Memphis after being sent down a couple of weeks ago, or Harrison Bader, who lost his starting job back to Dexter Fowler? Could something like this already be in the works after St. Louis curiously called up outfielder Lane Thomas to a team already crowded with outfielders who can’t find their way onto the field?
A front of the rotation starting pitcher might not help the Cardinals score runs more consistently. But, as I mentioned earlier this week, it not only saves the bullpen, but also improves every slot in the rotation because the current starters all get pushed back one spot -- and the worst one falls out of the mix. If the Birds can hold down the other team, it will take less runs to win so, by improving one thing, it makes the whole team better.