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Deadline dud: Cardinals' search for starting pitcher runs out of time

End of season Cardinals press conference

John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations for the St. Louis Cardinals, at a season-ending press conference last October. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes,

All the Cardinals’ front office insisted it wanted was a reason, a purpose to go into the trade market as a buyer and add for impact. The current team responded with an inspired stretch of baseball, its best in months, and a hold on first place in the division.

Executives got more than they could have hoped.

At Wednesday’s trade deadline, they got less than could be believed.

For the fourth consecutive July the Cardinals failed to complete a substantive move to strengthen their roster for a run at a division title, and the consequences could be severe. This year’s trade deadline, which passed Wednesday at 3 p.m. St. Louis time, was the last chance for teams to move major-league players, meaning August is no longer open to Christmas Eve shoppers. The Cardinals chased all sorts of deals for a starting pitcher – short-term adds, long-term fits, lefties, righties – because an innings deficit looms, and they aren’t sure how to fill it.

Unable to agree on a trade before the deadline, the players that got themselves into first place on July 31 are going to have to be the players that keep the Cardinals there.

“There is a high level of frustration for even us that work up there,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “You spend seven straight days in a room trying to work on something (and) you tend to want to see some success or something come out of it. We answer to people. We have to be responsible for the decisions that come out of there. We just didn’t feel like we could get there.

“It had to be for the right person, and we never got there.”

In the waning hours of trade talks, the Cardinals did send infielder Jedd Gyorko, a slice of international cap space, and cash to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They received lefty Tony Cingrani, a pitcher who won’t throw a pitch for them this season (or maybe ever), and 19-year-old pitching prospect Jeffry Abreu. Like Gyorko, Cingrani is on the 60-day injured list, but he won’t be returning in the near future, as Gyorko will. Cingrani, who had shoulder surgery, will be a free agent at season’s end, and his contract helped LA balance its luxury tax issue. The Cardinals as a result had a slight net reduction in payroll.

By Wednesday evening, as Fredbird wore a Santa Claus outfit but carried no gifts and TUMS representatives threw out a ceremonial first pitch, the Cardinals were left with a stunning reality: They spent weeks trying to add a significant pitcher only to acquire, on deadline day, a pitcher who, by design, won’t pitch for them.

Asked if he could understand the fans’ perception that the front office was too complacent or not responsive enough at the deadline, Mozeliak said: “I cannot come up with an excuse that will make that go away.”

Mozeliak referred to the market as “upside down” because fourth-place teams were shopping in the same aisle he was. Cincinnati and the Mets added two of the best starters available, Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman, respectively. Also, sellers seemed to want to use the boiling point of the new one-deadline rule while buyers were just as cautious, prospect-protective, and risk-averse as they were with two trade deadlines.

The hours leading up the deadline had the Cardinals texting, calling, and ultimately sending out a few “Hail Mary” offers for a starting pitcher. The Cardinals engaged in talks with the Mets about Zack Wheeler, a pending free agent, and according to a source the Mets wanted a package of players that included an everyday outfielder. The Cardinals balked at the idea of building a deal around Tyler O’Neill or Harrison Bader. The Cardinals had similar difficulty finding matches with Arizona about Robbie Ray and Texas about Mike Minor because other teams fixated on the Cardinals’ top prospect, Dylan Carlson, and their top potential slugger, Nolan Gorman. Neither Ray, nor Minor, nor Madison Bumgarner, another pitcher of interest to the Cardinals, were traded at the deadline.

The Cardinals did not pursue Zack Greinke, the Arizona ace who went to Houston in Wednesday’s blockbuster, because they believed Greinke would block a trade to the Cardinals, and, in the end, they didn’t have the caliber of prospects the Astros used to complete the trade for the Cy Young Award winner.

The Cardinals’ minor-league system has been thinned by trades and underperformance, leaving other teams to circle back again and again to Carlson and Gorman as key parts to any deal with pitchers Johan Oviedo or Junior Fernandez as complementary talents.

“The asks were very high,” general manager Michael Girsch said. “There were a decent number of starting pitchers who were widely assumed to be available and widely assumed to be traded this trade deadline who ended up not moving. As that became more real, it became more obvious maybe these prices are just what they are. Every team was willing to move players at the right price. The question is whether they could get the price they needed, and a lot didn’t.”

The Cubs, a game back of the Cardinals at the deadline, added infielder Tony Kemp and hitter Nicholas Castellanos at the deadline. Kemp was at Busch Stadium on Wednesday, and Castellanos, an answer against lefthanded pitching, is set to arrive Thursday. Eventually he’ll likely face Drew Pomeranz, a lefty reliever the Brewers acquired from San Francisco.

Without an added starter, the Cardinals must find another way to cover innings. In 50 of their first 106 games and eight of 18 games since the break, the Cardinals starter has not pitched more than five innings. A reliable rotation is a cornerstone of many contenders, and the Cardinals acknowledge they may have to get creative to bridge the innings gap and avoid further straining the bullpen. That could mean pitchers splitting starts or carrying a true long reliever. Either way, Mozeliak said the lack of a move at the deadline does send another message to the roster.

“You also hope that people can step it up,” he said.

The past three seasons, the Cardinals’ relative inactivity at the trade deadline has been a prelude to an absence from October and the club’s longest stretch outside of the postseason in Gorman’s lifetime. Not one of those teams was within four games of first place at the deadline, let alone in first.

This team gave the front office the wins it wanted.

So it’s fair to ask if the front office, on Wednesday, took a loss.

“I think that’s TBD,” Mozeliak said. “I feel like the moment you do a deal we all have opinions of it. And then over time, those opinions change. It’s going to be no different than today. You can look back on this and say, ‘You know, Mo, I told you so.’ Or you can look back and be like, ‘Huh, you were right.’ Who knows?

“The point is if we do make the playoffs it’s not going to look like this is a horrible day.”

Cardinals fans make a Twitter meal out of a trade-deadline nothingburger

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