With two trades for grizzled lefty starters in the final hour before Friday’s trade deadline, the Cardinals may not have bettered their season as much as staved off the worst.
In separate deals, the Cardinals acquired Jon Lester and J. A. Happ to add immediate innings and experienced seasoning to a rotation that has been running at a deficit for two months. The Cardinals acquired Happ and cash to cover his salary from Minnesota for righthander John Gant and minor-league reliever Evan Sisk. Happ, already in town with the Twins, joined his new team in time for batting practice at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals sent outfielder Lane Thomas to Washington for Lester, a Cubs legend who has foiled the Cardinals twice in October.
By acquiring two lefties with a past to address a glaring need in the present, the Cardinals really revealed more about their view of a coming future — and how some focus is shifting.
“Landed some pitching that would give us some stability and some experience,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, in a Zoom with St. Louis media. “You think about the last few months — it seemed to be when we weren’t being able to get (starters deeper) into games (it) really had an adverse effect on us. That was certainly one of our goals. We always wanted to try and do it in a way that we wouldn’t give up future talent.
“We took a couple of steps forward without having to sacrifice our future.”
As the season’s one and only trade deadline approached, peers wondered whether the Cardinals, idling at 51-51 and more than eight games out of a playoff spot, would be buyers or sellers, and in a way they straddled both. They used two players on their active roster with marginalized roles to acquire two veterans who can fill vacancies.
The rest of the market seemed to move at extremes. The last hour before the deadline saw deals finalized that sent Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to Los Angeles and former MVP Kris Bryant to their rivals, the Giants. In 24 hours, the Cubs dismantled their abbreviated dynasty, cornerstones and all. The Cardinals’ rival traded All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel crosstown to Tony La Russa’s White Sox. First baseman Anthony Rizzo went to the Yankees in a trade Thursday and started for them Friday. Javier Baez followed Rizzo to New York but took the offramp to Queens as the Mets’ centerpiece acquisition. Bryant, the fresh face of the Cubs turnaround and 2016 title, turned the lights out as the last to leave.
All 15 National League teams, buyers or sellers or shedders, made a trade in one of the most compelling and frenetic deadlines in memory.
The Cardinals felt they had a trade in place for a starting pitcher Friday morning before it came apart. They had contact with Colorado about acquiring shortstop Trevor Story, but like so many other conversations they ended with the asking price. Dating to June, the Cardinals had engaged the Twins in talks about their starting pitchers — discussing All-Star Jose Berrios or Michael Pineda, and obviously Happ. The Twins wanted a haul for Berrios. They got it. Toronto traded two of its top five prospects, including Austin Martin, one of the top 20 prospects in all of baseball.
Protecting top prospects
The Cardinals carved a deep moat around their top prospects — Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore and Jordan Walker, to name three — and that kept them out of the bidding for several starters who were signed beyond 2021. Texas, which once had interest in Cardinals’ shortstop/pitcher prospect Masyn Winn, dealt All-Star righthander Kyle Gibson to the Phillies with closer Ian Kennedy for a package of players that included Spencer Howard, a top-30 prospect in baseball per Baseball America.
“When you’re looking at premium talent and what was being asked for in the market it was just not (for us),” Mozeliak said. “For us, it just didn’t make sense. You can argue how you view our top five prospects at the minor-league level. We didn’t feel like moving any of them made sense in these deals. We did turn toward getting through the 2021 season and that’s where we settled.”
While holding onto their youth, the Cardinals aged their rotation.
Wade LeBlanc, who started Friday, will turn 37 next month and will be the fourth-oldest member of the five-man rotation. Lester, 37, and Happ, 38, join Adam Wainwright, 39, and lefty Kwang Hyun Kim, 33. Until the return of injured pitchers Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas, the Cardinals will have four lefties in the rotation in a division that has three rivals with OPS less than league average against lefties. Lester, who the Cardinals will pay close to $670,000 for the remainder of the season, will join them on Sunday. He requested the chance to celebrate his son’s birthday Saturday. He is 3-5 this season with a 5.02 ERA, and in 16 starts for the Nats he averaged 4 2/3 innings per start with a 1.593 WHIP.
Happ will be on turn, if needed, by Tuesday. The lefty was 5-6 with a 6.77 ERA for the Twins this season, averaging five innings per start. He’s coming off a bruising July that included allowing nine runs in three innings in his most recent start and 16 runs in 10 innings against Detroit. In his previous 14 starts, he has an 8.74 ERA and has allowed 19 homers in 70 innings. The Cardinals have attempted to sign or trade for the Illinois native multiple times in the past decade, and Mozeliak mused about getting Happ and Lester in “obviously a pitcher friendly ballpark.”
“I never feel like I got into a rhythm that I like to get into, and that’s nobody’s fault but my own,” Happ said. “Haven’t been as consistent as I like and what I’ve been most of my career. I feel like I’m still capable of getting much better results and helping this ball club. Hopefully get a fresh start. Turn that page and start a new one.”
So much of what’s been written about the Cardinals’ inability to generate momentum, to sustain a winning streak centers on a pitching staff cobbled together from trades, waiver claims and midseason free-agent grabs. The Cardinals rejected questions all spring about the benefit of adding a veteran starter on the one-year deals like Happ and Lester signed with aspiring contenders Minnesota and Washington, respectively. In June, after Jack Flaherty tore his oblique muscle, the Cardinals explored several trades, but again bet on their own depth. They turned early to Gant, who sidestepped traffic and still had the lowest WHIP of big-league pitchers involved in the Cardinals’ trades, and ultimately to rookie Johan Oviedo, who is winless.
‘Still believe in this team’
Striking out on adding a pitcher earlier or proactively will be one of the bigger whiffs of the season — one the Cardinals couldn’t undo and felt they could not address at an acceptable cost until Friday.
“Throughout the course of the season, we’ve had injuries and we had to push people, we had some performance questions in terms of what we thought we’d get out of individuals,” Mozeliak said. “Net net, we were at the trading deadline and we thought if we could add some veteran leadership and stability to our rotation, it made sense. That’s where we ended up.”
That also means one surging team that made a major acquisition Friday was the Cardinals’ Class AAA affiliate. Memphis will now have Oviedo in its rotation for the foreseeable future – developing in the minors not in what Mozeliak called the “pressure-cooker” of contention.
The Cardinals hope that will help Oviedo in the future, so he and they can thrive.
For now, they made moves to survive.
“For us, we still believe in this team,” Mozeliak said. “But we also believe in where we’re going next year and so that was critical our decision making.”