(This story was first published July 20)
CINCINNATI — Since the Big Bang of Big Data in baseball, teams like the Cardinals have invested millions and manpower to exponentially expand the amount of information they can accumulate and evaluate when making player decisions.
The larger the harvest of info, the less reliant teams are on outliers, on emotion, and the more risk-aware and “data-driven,” as the Cardinals call themselves, they can become. The sheer quantity of statistics and analysis straining their servers has recently prompted the Cardinals to upgrade how they store data. A team trying to get faster, stronger, and deeper no longer applies only to the roster. It could be IT. Bigger is better. And so it has been curious this month as each team in the National League Central described how the coming few weeks could determine the direction they head — buy, sell, stand pat — at the July 31st trade deadline. Talk about small sample sizes.
They were resting the season on a sliver of the schedule.
So much in the balance in so little time.
“What I meant by that is if you’re still hovering around .500 and nothing much is different in that time, what do you do to change the team?” said John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations, this past week when asked about this short decision window. “If you go six, seven games and you’re about where you started, then do you want to deploy resources if you’re still around .500? Will that move you? What are you willing to spend on incremental improvements? What can we do to change the team at that point? I’m not sure we have an answer today.”
Mozeliak, general manager Michael Girsch, and their staff of analysts and scouts have discussions about that dilemma scheduled for Monday (July 22), nine days before the deadline. They are in a vise of their own making — fewer prospects to move, a relatively fixed roster, underperforming or injured stars, and subpar results in the standings. Once again, they are a muddle in the middle.
The market offers its usual array of helpful relievers, an intriguing set of starting pitchers, no surefire boost for an offense, and one powerful newcomer. For the first time, the July 31st trade deadline is a deadline, hard and fast. Teams will not be permitted to make deals from their major-league roster after that day. That has already accelerated the pace of trade talks in baseball, but, as Mozeliak said: “More urgency does not mean more volume.”
With six wins in their first eight games since the All-Star break, the Cardinals (50-46) started Saturday with a hold on a playoff berth, edging Philadelphia for the National League’s second wild card. They have otherwise orbited .500 for 2 ½ months. They have the third-best run differential in the NL Central, the third-fewest runs allowed, and the second-best record, 2 ½ games behind the Cubs (53-44).
While they orient their compass, the Cardinals will play a part in pushing two division rivals onto a path. The Reds and Pirates started the second half within five games of first place. The Cardinals have already taken a series from the Pirates and have another starting Monday, and this weekend they can nudge the Reds deeper into last place. The snugness of the division has all of the front offices sounding similar.
“We want to win now, but we also want to rebuild the system,” Cubs president Theo Epstein told The Athletic.
“The focus will be to improve the club now and for the foreseeable future,” Reds president Dick Williams echoed in the same outlet.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington called the upcoming schedule “an important stretch of games for us against teams we’re chasing.” And Brewers general manager David Stearns, whose club won the division in 2018, told Milwaukee reporters his team “can learn a lot in two weeks. It’s an important stretch to us.”
The Cardinals have used Trade Deadline Mad Libs, too.
But they’ve also sounded like a team in search of an identity as much as a direction.
“It’s a little trickier than in the past because what would you do to change?” Mozeliak said. “We need to be more productive offensively, no question. There’s not that one glaring need to do something at a specific position or that we need to add for a specific role. It’s one of the harder teams to say, ‘This is how we can improve,’ because what you want to say is, ‘Improve as a whole team.’”
In similar binds before, Mozeliak has practiced his “arbitrage” — dealing from the major-league roster to add to it. In 2011, a wild three-team trade sent Colby Rasmus to Toronto for a package with Edwin Jackson and Octavio Dotel, both of whom contributed to a World Series win. In 2014, on a tearful trade deadline day, Mozeliak dealt two clubhouse favorites, Joe Kelly and Allen Craig, to Boston for starter John Lackey. That move proved fruitful in 2015 as Lackey was a key part of a 100-win team. In both cases, the Cardinals moved a starting and struggling player to create playing time for another — Jon Jay (2011) and the late Oscar Taveras (2014).
Presented past major-league moves as a model to reshape this year’s team, Mozeliak explained how he doesn’t “see anybody on the current roster that we’re looking to move.”
The Cardinals explored offers for pitcher Carlos Martinez at the trade deadline a year ago, but are not aggressively doing so now that he’s become their closer. A year ago, the Cardinals reduced their depth in the outfield with trades — including one that sent Tommy Pham to star in Tampa Bay — but aren’t as eager to do so with Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill, banking instead on their upside, multiple sources confirmed. The Cardinals will explore interest in pitcher Michael Wacha because he is a free agent at the end of the season. This is an opportunity to get a player in return before he walks and free up a spot on the 40-man roster.
The question Mozeliak kept circling back to during an interview and will again in conversations with his front office was this: “What do you change?”
The Cardinals’ offense has wheezed with a .721 OPS — 25th in the majors — and a sluggish slugging percentage of .403. Some of the best hitters the Cardinals could acquire are already in their lineup — if Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong and others return to their career norms. The bullpen has the second-best ERA in the NL (3.93) and even without fireballer Jordan Hicks, has proven nimble and reliable. The Cardinals have remained interested in Giants closer Will Smith since trying to deal for him this past winter. The rotation, after a sturdy stretch to start July, has a 4.24 ERA and is decidedly average.
The Cardinals saw the rotation as their engine to contend, but an official agreed with the premise that a “substantive” addition would be a starter. An upgrade in the rotation would give the Cardinals a steadier staff and trickle-down improvement to the bullpen. It would narrow the gap on the leading NL teams and could boost their look in October.
It’s also where this trade market offers the most options with the highest name recognition. The Cardinals have evaluated Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner and his no-trade power as a possible target, while Marcus Stroman has the added appeal of control for the 2020 season, as does Texas lefty Mike Minor. The jumble in the standings has teams like the Giants, Rangers, and Cleveland, with righthander Trevor Bauer, uncertain sellers. Undecided is a popular word in baseball these days.
After the deadline, teams that acquire impact tend to use the same word, too.
“It’s kind of re-energizing,” said outfielder Dexter Fowler, a member of the Cubs in 2016 when they added All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman at the deadline. “It shows that the front office is invested. You get a top-tier guy who is going to help your ball club and any way you look at it the team is invested in win-now.”
The Cubs have already added an All-Star closer this season in free-agent Craig Kimbrel. The Cardinals made their biggest recent trades in December. The past three July deadlines have passed without a significant addition. It’s not a coincidence they have also missed the playoffs those three seasons, or that ownership and the front office started this season by saying a fourth consecutive year would be unacceptable.
Asked in an email if those stakes increase the pressure on the Cardinals’ trade deadline test they are about to take — add, subtract, both, neither — Mozeliak wrote how “there is always pressure in this business, but we all want to make the right decision and not do something simply to say we did something.”
Regardless of sample size — four games, four weeks, or these past four seasons — the outcome the Cardinals want to avoid is the team they are in the coming weeks is the team they’ve been for several seasons.
“I think you know who you are at this point,” Mozeliak said. “The question really is: Do we start getting more of who we are, do we start showing that? If we do, then we have a lot of optimism for our team. We don’t know where we need to go to change our team. Not yet. Our team just has this feel of ‘step it up.’ Step up to who you can be.”
The trade deadline invites a commitment to who they intend to be.
Pick a side.
Break from the middle.
If not all in, at least lean in.
Going into the trade market isn’t always about rewarding a contending team for what it already is. Moves at the deadline can still take a team, acknowledge what it is — and then change it for the better.