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2018 MLB Trade Deadline: Are the St. Louis Cardinals going to be buyers or sellers?

The Cardinals have had one of baseball’s most perplexing seasons, and it’s hard to predict what they’ll do at the deadline.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

As we approach July 31, we will preview what each team is projected to do in advance of the non-waiver trade deadline. For a complete listing of our previews, click here.

St. Louis Cardinals: 51-50, 4th in the NL Central

The Cardinals have arguably been the most difficult club in baseball to read this year. They’re a game over .500 and are fringe contenders for a wild-card spot, and they seemingly have the talent to stay in the race. But they’ve lost key contributors such as Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, and Adam Wainwright for extended stretches this year due to injury, and other players expected to make major contributions — among them Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, and Greg Holland — have either struggled all season or endured horrific slumps for prolonged periods. First baseman/outfielder Jose Martinez has been a major revelation offensively, but has posted a horrific -1.3 defensive WAR as graded by Baseball Reference through Tuesday.

Perhaps because of all that frustrating underperformance — reports of clubhouse havoc undoubtedly influenced things as well — the Cardinals fired manager Mike Matheny on July 14. We still don’t really have any idea of what this team is primed to do at the trade deadline, but the managerial change may shed a bit of light on what direction they’re going. While chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak made it clear that they were hoping to salvage the 2018 season by installing longtime minor-league manager Mike Shildt as the interim bench boss, they may determine that that possibility is just as likely if they sell off some pieces and add younger players as it’d be if they just keep the same cast. It’s almost impossible to envision the Cardinals doing a full-scale teardown, but it’d be interesting to see if a 2016 Yankees-style reload is in store.

What moves have they made so far?

After designating right-handed reliever Josh Lucas and infielder Breyvic Valera for assignment at the end of spring training, the Cardinals managed to get players back in return for both. They traded Lucas for A-ball starting pitcher Casey Meisner, a former third-rounder, on March 31. They dealt Valera — who would go on to be part of this month’s blockbuster Manny Machado trade — to the Dodgers on April 1 for slugging minor-league outfielder Johan Mieses.

The Cardinals took the baseball world by storm on Opening Day, signing closer Greg Holland to a one-year, $14 million deal. Unfortunately for St. Louis, that deal hasn’t worked out, as the three-time former All-Star has a 7.92 ERA, 2.24 WHIP, and no saves through his first 32 appearances wearing the Birds on the Bat.

The Cards lost right-handed reliever Preston Guilmet, who made just two big-league appearances during three days with the big-league club, on waivers to the Blue Jays on June 9. They claimed lefty reliever Tyler Webb off waivers from the Padres on June 29, immediately assigning him to Triple-A Memphis.

The Cardinals’ most significant moves of the season came as they shook things up in the dugout last weekend. At just after 10:00 p.m. following a Saturday night loss to the Reds, the team announced the firing of Matheny, along with hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller, promoting Shildt from bench coach to interim manager while plucking veteran coaches George Greer and Mark Budaska (hitting coaches) and Pop Warner (bench coach) from within the organization to fill out the staff. Whether the changes result in the Cardinals turning into a resurgent contender or falling further in the standings in the second half, these moves seem to signify that ownership and the front office are willing to shake up the team’s existing culture in a substantial way, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive they are at the deadline.

Who could they trade (or acquire)?

The player on the Cardinals’ roster who has most frequently been discussed as a trade candidate this summer is Jose Martinez, who has been one of the club’s most valuable offensive contributors but has struggled so much defensively that he’s often been relegated to the bench in recent weeks — though he has the second-highest OPS+ on the team, he just went through a stretch where he started only three out of a stretch of 10 games in National League ballparks before bouncing back to start the last four at first base.

While fans and media alike have suggested that Martinez might bring back some decent value on the trade market, there’s little evidence to suggest that that’s actually the case. Consider, for instance, the case of 2017 All-Star Corey Dickerson, who was dealt from the Rays to the Pirates in February in exchange for fringe prospect Tristan Gray and veteran reliever Daniel Hudson. Though Pittsburgh picked up $1 million of Hudson’s $5.5 million salary, it’s arguable that the Rays actually experienced a net financial loss from the deal, as they’re paying Hudson $4.5 million not to pitch after releasing him in March, while Dickerson is making a reasonable $5.95 million with the Pirates.

There are a few differences in the situations, as Martinez’s $560,400 salary is more of a bargain than Dickerson’s, and Tampa put itself behind the 8-ball by designating Dickerson for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot as spring training was getting started. But in many ways, they’re very similar; they were both controllable players, with Dickerson having two arbitration years remaining, and Martinez a pre-arbitration year next season plus three arbitration years after that. While you’d think that might make Martinez a bit more valuable, the fact that he’s 30 years old (a year older than Dickerson) probably nullifies things from an age/control standpoint. Last year, Dickerson was extremely valuable at the plate, hitting .282/.325/.490 with 27 homers. Similarly, Martinez has hit .296/.360/.468 with 13 home runs this season. Though Dickerson has improbably turned into one of the best left fielders in the majors in 2018 — at least judging by metrics — he was regarded as a poor defender prior to the trade and had posted a career -8 defensive runs saved. Likewise, it’s obvious Martinez is not highly regarded at first base, and though he could probably be hidden at a corner-outfield spot under normal circumstances, the Cardinals don’t have room for him there with so much invested in Ozuna and Fowler (and Harrison Bader playing well when given the opportunity).

To a lesser extent, guys like Matt Adams and Brad Miller have been in similar situations to Martinez over the last year-plus and have not brought back much value in return. And with the prioritization of defense in baseball during this decade, even in the American League, plus the fact that Martinez is already into his 30s, it’s hard to see the Cardinals getting back a return that will ever replace the offensive value Martinez provides, even if it’s as pinch-hitter or part-time player.

As things have taken a downward turn for the Cardinals this month, there have also been rumors about the team moving another Martinez: Carlos, their 26-year-old ace. Martinez has had an odd season, as he’s been limited to 17 starts due to lat and oblique injuries and posted a 6.75 ERA during a rough June. When healthy, though, he’s one of the better starters in the National League, and he has a solid 3.39 ERA and 1.39 WHIP this season. He’s also under contract at $11.7 million per season through 2021, with a $17 million club option for 2022 and an $18 million club option for 2023. That’d make him an ultra-valuable trade commodity if the Cardinals decided to move him.

With that said, it seems extremely unlikely that Martinez will actually be dealt prior to the deadline. If Mozeliak’s statement last week that “I don’t envision us moving pitching,” per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wasn’t enough, the fact that Martinez is currently on the DL with a mild oblique strain probably limits his value even further with the deadline approaching. The Cardinals seemingly would have to be totally swept off their feet to move their top starter. After all, their farm system is still very good, and it’d really only be worth moving an effective, affordable starting pitcher if they were going to get back a young player with a very strong chance of developing into a superstar.

With the state of the franchise in flux right now, it seems that only a couple players should be totally off the table in trade talks right now: career-long Cardinal Yadier Molina and probable MVP candidate Matt Carpenter. However, the Cardinals’ roster is very young for the most part, and they’ve got a lot of talented players that would probably only become trade candidates in a deal for a franchise-altering superstar; while they’ll likely explore the possibility of making a deal like that over the winter, there’s almost no chance they’ll make that type of trade in the coming weeks — not with the team in fourth place right now.

Others beyond the two Martinezes who could perhaps become trade candidates fall into two different groups: Players with a history of success who have underperformed this year and could be moved elsewhere for a change of scenery, and strong performers who could be dealt if the Cardinals ultimately end up moving Carlos Martinez and want to hold a mini-firesale. Players who would fit into the first category include outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler and relievers Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, and Tyler Lyons. With that said, the first five players listed there will be extremely hard to trade due to their salaries and their poor performance this season. Closer Bud Norris, who had a strong first half but has a 5.06 ERA in July and has largely become unpopular among fans due to reports about him being a clubhouse cancer, could also fit into that group and is perhaps the most likely player on the team to be moved before the deadline.

All-Star starter Miles Mikolas, who is a free agent after next season, and infielder Jedd Gyorko, who has a club option for 2020 but could hit free agency after 2019, would be guys who would have trade value if the Cardinals trade Carlos Martinez and decide to make their youth movement even more of an aggressive one. Again, though, the odds of moving Martinez are seemingly minimal, and they’ve already got enough young players that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to trade established veterans for unproven minor-leaguers. If players like Mikolas and Gyorko are going to be dealt, it’ll likely be during the offseason, when it makes more sense for the Cardinals to trade them for players with big-league experience.


It seems quite possible that the Cardinals will end up moving Jose Martinez before the deadline. It’s very unlikely that they’ll get anything substantial in return for him — baseball is overflowing with talented first basemen and corner outfielders, and the returns for similar players have been extremely underwhelming over the past year-plus — but Martinez doesn’t look to have a clear spot in the team’s future plans. If they can 1) get a younger player or two back for him, 2) clear a big-league roster spot for a more defensively-adept player like Tyler O’Neill or Patrick Wisdom, and 3) do Martinez a good deed by sending him to a team where he can DH or at least play a corner outfield spot, it’d make some sense.

The return for Carlos Martinez would have to be extremely impressive for the Cardinals to bite at an offer for their 26-year-old ace, and it doesn’t seem as if any contender this year will be willing to do what it takes to pull off a deal. In order to sway St. Louis, it’d likely require at least one player with superstar potential, if not two — think the return of elite prospects Michael Kopech and Yoan Moncada, plus potential future big-league starter Luis Alexander Basabe, that the White Sox got for Chris Sale in the winter of 2016.

With the prices for controllable relievers reportedly sky-high and more high-profile rentals like Zach Britton and Brad Brach likely to be costly, Norris could perhaps be a reasonable alternatives for contenders that are looking for incremental bullpen upgrades. Because of the fact that he’ll be a free agent after the season anyway and could fetch them a mid-level prospect, Norris seems like a guy that the Cardinals would be likely to trade if the right offer presents itself.