The St. Louis Cardinals left their Spring Training complex in Jupiter, FL in March as near unanimous favorites to win the National League Central in 2014, and for good reason.
They brought with them a starting rotation as deep as any in the majors, a farm system stocked with power bats and power arms, a talented and balanced roster lacking any albatross contracts, and a low payroll relative to their peers with flexibility if needed.
While there were certainly some potential flaws in their setup - as many as six positions were to be manned by different players than in 2013 - what made the Cardinals such presumptive favorites was the talented depth they had as fallback plans. If rookie 2B Kolten Wong failed to impress, he could be replaced with steady veteran Mark Ellis. If either Allen Craig or Matt Adams failed to hit like in 2013 or faced defensive issues with their position changes, the Cardinals could call up Oscar Taveras, the top hitting prospect in the minors. If a top young pitcher faltered or got hurt, another one from their highly touted stable could be brought up to fill in.
The Cardinals will have played exactly half a season after their game against the Los Angeles Dodgers Friday night, and the 80 games in which they've played so far have shown exactly why the Cardinals were such overwhelming favorites in the Central. In reality, not a whole lot has gone right for them in 2014. The 3.79 runs per game they score ranks 26th in the majors and 13th in the NL, their team's .367 SLG % also ranks 13th in the NL, their 46 HR ranks dead last among NL teams, and a recent rash of pitching ailments has sent a pair of starting pitchers to the DL while causing another two to miss starts.
Still, the Cardinals sit six games over .500 at 43-37, and a season that hasn't gone the way they'd hoped for in the box scores still has them in possession of a Wild Card spot. The team will certainly be BUYERS as the trade deadline approaches, and there may be no team in baseball in a better position to swing a big deal than St. Louis.
A healthy St. Louis rotation needs no augmenting, but unfortunately that's not the scenario the team is up against right now. Jaime Garcia's injury troubles have continued to plague him, and aggravation to his surgically repaired left (throwing) shoulder landed him on the 15-day DL earlier this week. Fellow starter Michael Wacha, the MVP of last seasons' NLCS, hit the 15-day DL the same day with an apparent stress fracture in his throwing shoulder, and Shelby Miller was forced to exit his most recent start with a lower back issue and is a question mark for his next start. Even resident ace Adam Wainwright was shelved for a start earlier in June with elbow tendinitis, though he's since returned to the rotation with his usual success.
The team's collective 3.09 ERA from their starters to this point is tied with the Dodgers for the best mark in all of baseball, but it will be hard for them to continue to replicate that with the injury troubles continuing to mount. They're currently counting on Carlos Martinez's transition from the bullpen being formidable enough to fill one open position, and Joe Kelly should be healthy enough to return to the rotation in the next two weeks after having been on the 15-day DL since late April with a hamstring issue.
St. Louis could still field a quality 5 man rotation with Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Miller, Martinez, and Kelly while Wacha and Garcia recover should the health consistency improve, but the Cardinals have the high-end prospects in their system to swing a trade for any of the top arms reportedly on the market. They've been rumored as suitors for Tampa's David Price, and while his presence next to Wainwright would form one of the best 1-2 pitching punches in baseball, the Cardinals would likely have to surrender one of Martinez or Taveras along with additional prospects to get a deal done. That may cause them to dip into the next tier of available starters along the line of Kyle Kendrick or Jason Hammel, or they may simply choose to give Tyler Lyons another shot at proving himself at the big league level.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
The Cardinals' bullpen strategy will be tied directly to the health of their starting pitchers and any potential rotation trade scenario, largely due to the importance placed on Carlos Martinez's electric right arm. The talented young right-hander has made 50 of his 53 career appearances in the majors as a reliever over the last two seasons despite 67 of his 68 career minor league appearances having been starts, and while the Cardinals see his long term future as a key cog in their rotation, they had been counting on the 22 year old as the go to right-handed option in their bullpen for 2014. As was mentioned before, injuries to other arms have thrown a wrench in those plans, and Martinez has been gradually stretched out as a starter over his previous two appearances and, if successful, may be counted on as a starting pitcher for at least the next few months of the season.
That would open a rather large void at the back end of the St. Louis bullpen, one that John Mozeliak would be keen to fill. Another right-handed reliever to help Seth Maness and Pat Neshek hand the ball over to closer Trevor Rosenthal would be on the GM's to-add list, though the healthy improvement of former closer Jason Motte could mitigate the importance of reaching too deep into the pockets for that move. Joakim Soria of the Rangers might cost more in prospects than the Cardinals would be willing to surrender, but his impeccable control and 12.3 K/9 would fill the void left by a permanent move to the rotation by Martinez. The Padres' Joaquin Benoit would also be another qualified addition.
St. Louis could also look to improve on their left-handers in the pen, as 38 year old Randy Choate has been pressed into more action than they'd like (and is on pace to throw his most innings since 2010). The forearm and shoulder injuries that have sidelined Kevin Siegrist for a month will also help determine the Cardinals' trade interests, as having him back gives their pen a hard throwing strikeout pitcher from the left side that few teams match up well against. If he's to be out for an extended period, however, a play for a guy like Miami's Mike Dunn could help reduce the dependence on Choate.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
When the Cardinals placed 2B Kolten Wong on the 15-day DL a week ago, it became the second stint this season in which the club was without the player penciled in as the everyday 2B for 2014. Wong began the season in a bad slump before eventually being sent to Triple-A Memphis to get a few things sorted out, and after hitting well initially after being recalled, he's battled a nagging shoulder injury that sapped his production before being shut down. At just .228/.282/.304 on the season in 171 PA, his production hasn't been what St. Louis had hoped for when they moved Matt Carpenter back to 3B to open a spot for him. The production from the veteran brought in to be his backup, Mark Ellis, has been even worse, and the 37 year old has struggled to just a .197/.286/.230 line in 143 PA. As a result, the Cardinals have the second worst OPS from 2B in the majors, and targeting an upgrade could be in the cards.
Ben Zobrist is the biggest potential name on the 2B trading block, and he'd be a natural fit in the Cardinals organization. While he's not having his best season, Zobrist still provides solid OBP ability, a good switch hitter, and the kind of positional versatility the Cardinals have an affinity for (see: Carpenter and Craig, for instance), and with an option is under contract for a relative pittance given his track record. Zobrist will be in high demand, however, so the club could seek an out-of-the-box rental like Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera (who hasn't played a lot of 2B recently), instead.
While it's a long shot, the club does have the prospects to spare should they choose to pursue a blockbuster with Philadelphia for Chase Utley, though the probability of that seems slim.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate