ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — The trade deadline was a wild ride across Major League Baseball Friday, with big-name players changing hands at a breakneck pace in the final hours before the window for deals closed at 3 p.m. Central Time.
Over the past two days, superstars Kris Bryant, Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Javier Baez, Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo all found new teams in one of the more active trade deadlines in recent memory. The stars aligned for a whirlwind trade period when under-performing teams like the Cubs, Nationals and Rangers definitively turned their attention toward the future, leaving contenders like the Giants, Dodgers, Mets and Yankees more than happy to accommodate.
The Cardinals’ deadline was more reserved than many of their counterparts. St. Louis took a couple of fliers on veteran lefty starting pitchers J.A. Happ and Jon Lester, but stayed out of the deep-end of the trade pool. Based on a nugget dropped by Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak in his post-deadline Zoom conference with reporters, however, the Cardinals were nearly among that list of teams to come away with a shiny new toy Friday.
“When we got in this morning, I thought for sure we were going to end up with someone,” Mozeliak said when asked Friday about some of the other deals the team explored. “And that didn’t happen, so we ended up where we were.”
Trevor Story is one name that comes to mind for Mozeliak’s reference to a mystery player pursued by the team, but Mozeliak later stated the aforementioned player the Cardinals felt they were close to acquiring was not a position player. A quality shortstop and good friend to Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado from their days in Denver, Story ultimately stayed put with the Rockies through Friday’s deadline despite his status as an impending free agent after the season.
As the market for trades exploded across the sport in recent days, Mozeliak described the team as unwilling to meet the asking prices that were flying around for more significant deadline acquisitions.
“One of the things that we were focused on was to try to see if there could be something that we could key on for 2022 or beyond,” Mozeliak said. “But as you can see, that wasn't really something that was available. I mean, there were a couple players that were moved that had that control. But I think you saw what the price was to get that type of player. For us, it just didn't make sense. You can argue how you view our top five prospects at the minor league level, but we just didn't feel like moving any of them made sense for these types of deals. So ultimately, we did turn to more of getting through the 2021 season and that’s where we settled.
“Clearly, when you’re looking at premium talent, what was being asked for in the market, it was just not something where we were looking to give up one of our top five prospects.”
On the pitching side, the Cardinals ended up with Happ and Lester, veterans on expiring contracts, rather than players with additional years of team control like Jose Berrios or Kyle Gibson. Berrios—who was scheduled to pitch against the Cardinals Friday night at Busch Stadium before he was sent from the Twins to the Blue Jays—was one of the more significant pitchers to move at the deadline.
Though Berrios is a legitimate ace-caliber arm that will bolster the Blue Jays’ rotation, the price was high. Toronto sent Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson—ranked No. 16 and No .68 respectively on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects list—for Berrios.
In terms of St. Louis prospects, we’re talking guys like Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore—significant names. The Cardinals simply weren’t willing to subtract from their future to that extent.
“We really went into this trying to land some pitching that would give us some stability and some experience,” Mozeliak said. “You think about the last few months, it seemed to be like when we weren’t able to get deeper into games, it really had an adverse effect on us. So that was certainly one of our goals. We also wanted to try to do it in a way that we wouldn’t be giving up a lot of future talent. That was something that was critical in our decision-making. Obviously, today we felt like we took a couple steps forward without having to sacrifice our future.
“Overall, we still want to compete. Hopefully we can get on that run and make a little noise still in the Central.”
The Cardinals lingered on the periphery of the movement at the deadline. St. Louis sent Gant in the deal for Happ, a curious move on the surface when you compare Gant’s ERA this season (3.42) to Happ’s (6.77). But in offering him in this move for a stop-gap veteran starter, the Cardinals revealed that Gant didn’t factor into their future.
Though the 28-year-old right-hander had a strong start to the season in the St. Louis rotation, command issues caught up to Gant and left him in no-man’s land on the roster. Due a raise in arbitration this winter from the $2.1 million he’s making this season, Gant was a prime non-tender candidate in St. Louis. Instead, he’ll go to a rebuilding roster in Minnesota looking to prove his worth to a new team.
In Happ, the Cardinals got an experienced starter who was an All-Star as recently as 2018. During the shortened COVID-19 season in 2020, Happ made nine starts and posted a 3.49 ERA for the Yankees. The 38-year-old has struggled tremendously this season, posting a 6.77 ERA overall and a 9.22 mark for the month of July.
Though he struggled to explain his poor performance this season, Happ described Friday his excitement to use his new opportunity with the Cardinals as a fresh start.
“I never feel like I quite got into the rhythm that I’d like to get into—and that’s nobody’s fault but my own,” Happ said. “I haven’t been as consistent as I’d like and what I’ve been for most of my career. I certainly feel like I’m still capable of getting much better results and helping this ball club. I don’t know quite how to explain some of the struggles, but that’s part of the reason why there is excitement for me. Hopefully get a fresh start, maybe help turn that page and start a new one.”
The Cardinals also surrendered minor-league pitcher Evan Sisk in the Happ deal. Sisk had decent numbers between High-A and Double-A this season, but at age 24, would be described by most analysts as a non-prospect.
St. Louis’ move for Lester comes arguably with an even less substantial acquisition cost, as the Cardinals gave only Lane Thomas for the rights to Lester over the final months of the 2021 season. Thomas fizzled in his early opportunities with the Cardinals this season, which relegated him down the pecking order in the club’s outfield matrix. In using Thomas to nab Lester, the Cardinals extract what little value Thomas had remaining and acquire another pitcher that could help them in the present without sacrificing meaningfully from the future.
Though Lester’s season has been uneven, with a 5.02 ERA in 16 starts for the Nationals, he adds another element of proven experience that the Cardinals rotation has been lacking since the injuries to Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas.
“Obviously we know a lot of him,” Mozeliak said specifically of Lester, who the Cardinals faced in the 2013 World Series and repeatedly from 2015-2020 when he was a member of the rival Cubs. “And that does help, but it’s also just someone that understands the game. I think for him, seeing what was happening in Washington, he wanted to go to a place that was still trying to compete. From my understanding, there were a couple teams that looked a lot like us that had some interest in him. But I think he had some familiarity with us as well and I think he was excited to join the Cardinals. I can say when I spoke to him, he seemed pumped about coming here and recognized that we’re still trying to fight for something.”
Another benefit of Friday’s moves for the Cardinals is the impact it has on the organizational pitching depth. Throughout this season, the team’s lack of depth has forced St. Louis to push inexperienced arms like Johan Oviedo into a rotation role prematurely. Now, Oviedo can continue his development in Memphis as the Cardinals rely on veterans to propel their season forward.
The recent numbers for Happ and Lester don’t inspire much confidence, but the reclamation project avenue has worked out decently to this point with Wade LeBlanc. In their two newest left-handed additions Friday, the Cardinals see a window for a change in scenery to present an awakening for their respective careers
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