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BenFred: Cardinals didn't let Juan Soto check-swing stall upgrades to their pitching

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Yankees starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery throws during the first inning of the team's game against the Red Sox on Friday, July 15, 2022, in New York.

Paralysis was not an option.

If the prospect-valuing Cardinals were going to swim in the deep end of the Juan Soto waters, where desperation will drown pragmatism every single time, then they had to be honest with themselves about their limits and proactive about pursuing other plans to improve this team outside of a Soto grand slam.

The chance of Tuesday’s trade deadline coming and going without generational talent Soto slipping into a Cardinals uniform was always high, at least to those who did not allow themselves to be misled.

Attempting to cite the space between the dots that were being connected kind of reminded me of pointing out an NFL expansion team was not going to be a part of the Rams relocation settlement.

No one wanted to hear it.

When it became clear the Padres, whose prospect ambivalence is the polar opposite of the draft-and-develop Cardinals, were in desperation mode for Soto, those familiar with how the Cardinals view their farm system, especially this edition of it, took a doubtful stance.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Tuesday that he knew Monday night that Soto to St. Louis was not happening. That suggested the two finalists Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo mentioned were the Padres and probably the Dodgers. No one should be surprised. The same two rivals battled down to the bitter end for last season’s big trade-deadline additions before the Dodgers shipped out prized prospects to the Nationals for Trea Turner and Max Scherzer. The Cardinals are not the only team struggling to keep up with the Padres and Dodgers at every trade deadline. The Dodgers can point to postseason success that backs it. The Padres, not so much.

Mozeliak picked a very good time to shoot very straight Tuesday. He said the Cardinals’ fade from the Soto conversations came down to their unwillingness to give up as much as the Padres. Simple as that. No reason for spin. No reason for lingering, either, as Mozeliak had three new pitchers to introduce as tangible proof the Cardinals did not let the Soto stuff distract from their pitching plans.

Why the Cardinals didn’t distance themselves publicly from the Soto topic when they knew they were out, I don’t know. It would have been a wise move. They preferred to let the world think they were still in the mix. That helped amplify fan outrage when Soto was officially bound for San Diego.

Those still suffering from Soto Mania will dismiss this due to their anger, but Mozeliak and his front office squad improved manager Oliver Marmol’s team before this deadline. Even without Soto, this was the Cardinals’ most aggressive deadline in terms of results since the addition of John Lackey in 2014. That tells us something about how tame the Cardinals have grown at the time of the year when heavyweights load up. But when a rotation that was short on legitimate arms and desperate for competitive innings added two starters (Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery) with three-something ERAs along with a workhorse reliever (Chris Stratton), this team’s biggest weakness — a lack of quality starting pitching and the tax it was putting upon the bullpen — has been bolstered. And that’s before one of the current starters — it should be Andre Pallante because of how solid he was out of the bullpen before the need for rotation helped thrust him forward — shifts back into the bullpen and strengthens it as a result.

Comparing the Cardinals’ additions of southpaw starters Quintana and Montgomery to last season’s better-late-than-never, bargain-bin deals for castoff veterans Jon Lester and J.A. Happ would be a disservice to the truth. These guys don’t need to be fixed. They just need to do what they have been doing for the Pirates and Yankees, respectively, and no one should be surprised if the groundball-getters do what they do better in front of a Cardinals defense that ranks among the top three in the game. As a bonus, the prospect obsessed can celebrate the Cardinals keeping their prized prospects safe and sound. A Harrison Bader jersey buyback might be required, though. His fans, and there are many, have to realize he’s a speed-based player with concerning foot problems. There was some surprise in New York the Yankees took him for Montgomery.

The Cardinals stopped short on starting pitching again entering this season. They should have signed Scherzer but talked themselves out of it again. They left themselves open to being forced to fix their mistakes at the deadline, and that’s what this was. These were solid trade-deadline moves that could become big ones. They stopped a bit short of big ones. And that’s not a Soto reference, either. Miami’s Pablo Lopez went untraded. Same for Giants starter Carlos Rodon. Both were available for the right price. No team out there agreed to pay those prices. Perhaps that means the prices set were unrealistic?

I asked Mozeliak if he would be comfortable with Quintana and Montgomery starting a playoff game. That it had to be asked captures the line these pitching additions straddle.

“I mean, obviously, when you get to October, you will decide who’s hot,” Mozeliak said. “But we definitely feel like these guys could take the ball in the postseason game.”

Years from now, we will be able to analyze if not selling the farm for Soto was shortsighted or shrewd. More immediate is this team’s improved chance to prove it can win a division and do more than briefly dip a toe into the postseason. Before Soto hit the market and dominated headlines, the one thing most everyone agreed about was that the Cardinals needed arms. The acquired ones can help the Cardinals reach the postseason. Maybe they can do more. And that territory, whether you love it, hate it or have grown tired of it, is precisely where the Cardinals front office wants to plant its flag. Mozeliak is as candid about it as his team’s exit from Soto Mania. Get in. Hope to get hot. Get ready to do it again next year.

It’s Mozeliak’s way, as evidenced by this team’s unique definition of an aggressive trade deadline.

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