ST. LOUIS -- With the trade deadline a little more than 24 hours away, the Cardinals entered the market Sunday, acquiring lefty reliever Zach Duke from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Triple-A center fielder Charlie Tilson.
The deal came shortly after Andrew Miller, perhaps the best lefty reliever on the market after Aroldis Chapman went to the Cubs, was traded from the Yankees to the Indians.
In Duke, the Cardinals get a 33-year-old pitcher who has reinvented himself. After breaking into the league in 2005 with an eye-popping rookie campaign (8-2, 1.81 ERA in 14 starts) for Pittsburgh, Duke struggled to put together strong seasons as a starter as his career progressed. Over 159 starts for the Pirates he went 45-70 with a 4.54 ERA.
In 2011, he transitioned to the bullpen in Arizona and be began to turn things around. Since then he’s gone 13-8 in 244 appearances with a 3.21 ERA and a .238 batting average against while bouncing around the league. St. Louis will be his seventh team.
Cardinals fans will remember him from his 2014 campaign in Milwaukee, when he posted a 2.45 ERA and struck out 74 in 58.2 innings for the Brewers.
This season in Chicago, he’s leading the league in appearances with 53 and holds a 2.63 ERA, 42 strikeouts and a 2-0 record.
The lefty gives the Cardinals flexibility in the pen, as Duke is effective enough against righties to avoid being limited to a specialist role.
This season, he’s faced righties as much as lefties and has held them to a .182 average. In fact, over the last three seasons, righties haven’t hit better than .245 against him in any year.
Duke is effective in pitching to his defense, getting an extremely high number of ground balls from his curveball and changeup. He also boasts a heavy sinking fastball, a cutter and a slider. The latter two pitches are his best swing-and-miss offerings. Lefties whiff on the slider 17 percent of the time, righties miss it 26 percent of the time. The cutter is right behind those marks, being whiffed on 15 and 24 percent, respectively.
The 33-year-old is the prototypical trade deadline target for GM John Mozeliak. Though not a headline-maker, Duke is a steady arm with a durable history in the bullpen. He limits damage, has versatility and brings a veteran presence to a very young relief corps. Given the run on relievers in the trade market Sunday morning, the Cardinals made the practical move of getting a small-but-necessary piece for a low ask.
Charlie Tilson was a second-round pick in 2011 for the Cardinals and after getting fully healthy this season, has thrived in Triple-A Memphis. Considered by some to be the fastest player in the entire organization, the 23-year-old is hitting .282 for the Redbirds with 16 doubles, eight triples and 15 stolen bases. He plays a strong defensive outfield and has a little power, belting four homers on the year.
Tilson, along with recent draft pick Harrison Bader, was part of a rising Memphis outfield that has several players projected to have a shot at regular MLB work in the future. However, with Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk all under club control and several other players on the cusp of consideration, the Cardinal outfield was already crowded.
That logjam, plus the baseball axiom that it’s always advantageous to get a proven major league talent in exchange for a prospective minor league one, made the trade an easy one to make for the Cardinals. For reference, both Chapman and Miller netted four prospects each.
Duke will take Tilson’s spot on the 40-man roster, and a corresponding move will be made Monday to add him to the 25-man roster. The Cardinals will likely make two other moves on the 25-man Monday, as Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Moss are expected to return from the disabled list for the series in Cincinnati.
Duke is under contract through 2017 and is owed $5.5 million next year.