It was nearly two years ago to the day that I wrote Would you trade your top draft choice as speculation of a Shelby Miller for Roy Oswalt deal spread across blogs and twitter timelines faster than the wildfire currently burning in Colorado. At that time, the Cardinals were in playoff purgatory, neither clearly heading towards postseason nor falling out of contention. The outcome of the that season would be largely determined by a brutal 2-8 road trip in August, where the Cardinals played some of the most uninspired baseball in decades. At the trade deadline, however, I would have gladly supported that deal. Roy Oswalt would be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and post a 7-1 record with an ERA under two. He struggled last year through some injury issues, but is back pitching with another division leader, and helping them work their way towards another division title. Shelby Miller has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues.
We are two years removed from that awful summer slide, yet the Cardinals find themselves in nearly the same situation today. The difference is that in between, the team won a World Series championship, and the taste of that amazing 2011 postseason lingers in the back of Cardinals fans throats as we long for more. And now.
With nearly half of the Cardinals starting rotation on the disabled list without anything that even resembles a timetable for returning, there is reason to be concerned as the temperatures start rising (both physically and metaphorically). To compound things, the bullpen, which had been stellar in the last two months last year, seems to have becoming quite porous, unable to hold leads or keep the games close in the final innings. It is not the malady of any one pitcher, but something of a communal funk. That suggests some retooling might be in their future before even considering fixing the rotation.
Don’t be surprised when you start hearing the name “Matt Adams” in rumors and trade speculations. As with Shelby Miller two years ago, a bit of perspective might help you come to terms with this, should it actually happen.
And it might, and that would be OK. For the right player or players.
July 24, 2009 – Shane Peterson, Clayton Mortenson and Brett Wallace for Matt Holliday
At the time, this trade was received with mixed emotions. On one hand, Matt Holliday was THE big name player about to enter the free agency market. Cardinals fans were ecstatic about seeing the gargantuan left fielder hitting behind the best player in baseball, Albert Pujols. He got off to a quick start which helped turn that excitement into a genuine fevered frenzy.
On the other hand, Brett Wallace was a name that we had heard over and over since being drafted in the first round back in 2008. He was only 22 years old, a rising star and the top prospect in the Cardinals farm system. A minor league system that was not highly regarded by other teams, thanks to a glut of players like Nick Stavinoha, Brett Wallace, Zack Cox, Matt Hamilton and a seemingly endless supply of short singles hitting outfielders like Shane Robinson, Adron Chambers, Jim Rapaport, Aaron Luna, Tyler Henley, Daryl Jones. It is certainly not a fair evaluation of the Cardinals system as a whole, since each affiliate had developed a team style of baseball that was producing league championships at nearly each level. That same system also produced Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay – we have just learned how valuable each of those players are. But there are no Mike Trouts, Bryce Harpers or
Mike Giancarlo Stantons down there either.
The 2009 season played itself out and thanks to the addition of Matt Holliday, the Cardinals found themselves in postseason, abruptly ending with a most disappointing sweep by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The turning point in the series might have been a defensive miscue by Holliday in Game Two, which led to a Dodgers rally. In the span of less than five minutes, a most promising win turned into a horrific loss, and all momentum going into Game Three was lost.
Things turned somewhat negative in Cardinals Nation after the series, not because of the ball that Holliday lost in the lights, but thanks to the prominent news story for the next three months – whether or not Matt Holliday would resign with St. Louis. Throw in the dark spectre of the upcoming Pujols contract extension talks and you have enough negative energy to defeat Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Force from Star Wars. All of a sudden, there was concern that the Cardinals had just emptied out their farm system for a two month rental, with nothing to show for it.
But Holliday did sign, and Brett Wallace was soon traded to Houston, where he has failed to stick in the major leagues. Shane Peterson seems to have plateaued at the AA level, back to Midland in the Texas League after finishing 2011 in Sacremento (AAA). Clayton Mortenson has fared a bit better, now pitching long relief in mostly a mop-up role with the Boston Red Sox.
Any way you look at this deal, it has been a good one for the Cardinals. Even if the Cardinals did bid against themselves following the 2009 season, Holliday has been everything we expected him to be – both good (at the plate) and not so good (in the field). The real measure has been in the post-Pujols era where Holliday has very quietly shaken off a rough start and is significantly outperforming his former teammate. He currently sits at .300 / .383 / .498 with 18 doubles, 12 home runs and 47 RBIs, including a June of .345 / . 430 / .536 with 10 of those 18 doubles. In other words, the old Holliday is back – if the old Holliday really left. Don’t you know that Angels fans would love to see anything close to that out of their new $250M man. Throw in that the Cardinals have Holliday locked up during his prime years, as opposed to the last half of the Pujols contract, and this deal looks even better.
Remember it all started with trading away the one player that fans knew in the minor league system: Brett Wallace. The can’t miss prospect, as if there such a thing.
Our buddy, Dennis, from over at Pitchers Hit Eighth, said it perfectly on Twitter
Getting too possessive of a prospect has been many a team's undoing.
Throw in this gem from Branch Rickey
Trade a player a year too early instead of a year too late.
Both of these were certainly true about the Wallace/Holliday trade. Let’s look at some others.
Dmitri Young – 4th overall pick in 1991
After allowing Jack Clark to slip away in free agency (ok, he was actually pushed, but that’s another story), the Cardinals started looking for another big (and cheap) bat to put at first base. Dmitri Young fit the bill. At the time. He peaked as high as #12 on the Baseball America’s prospect list, heading into the 1993 season as a 19 year old. Young was a five tool player: hitting, hitting, hitting, hitting and hitting. He would eventually make it to the big leagues with the Cardinals, essentially as a September callup in 1996. He was actually activated at the end of August to be post-season eligible and did play in the NLCS. Young was traded to Cincinnati following the 1997 season where he would have several good years with the Reds. The “can’t miss prospect” pretty much did. A good player with a career in which he should take pride. A franchise first baseman – nope.
Joe Hague – 1966.
Joe Hague is a fascinating story, especially as it eerily parallels that of Matt Adams. Hague was drafted by the Cardinals in 1966. The big lefty (for the era) quickly became the Cardinals top first base prospect, hitting for power and average as well as being a plus defender at the position. After trading away Orlando Cepeda following the loss to the Tigers in the 1968 World Series (The exception to Branch Rickey’s rule as it turned out) , the Cardinals auditioned several players at first base. Joe Torre, Bill White and young Joe Hague took turns with Torre getting the most playing time. In 1970, Richie Allen took over at first base, which meant that Hague would move to the outfield – not his best position. Hague would still show off some power at the plate, but the hitting consistency we had seen in the minors escaped him at the major league level. Like Dmitri Young, Hague went on to a fine career, but failed to become the next Bill White or Orlando Cepeda.
There are other examples – Jim Lindeman, who had one monster spring training, which cost the Cardinals many productive years from Andy van Slyke. Goerge Kernek was a huge first baseman in the 1960s, rushed to the major leagues to take over for Bill White. Perhaps he was moved up too quickly as he lasted for just 30 games over two seasons. That lead to the early 1966 trade for Orlando Cepeda, and we know how well that one worked out for the Cardinals. In fact, since 1985, only John Mabry, Dmitri Young, Albert Pujols, Daric Barton, Brett Wallace and Chris Duncan have seen any real major league playing time at first base. Most of them were drafted at other positions and became first baseman out of necessity. Only Chris Duncan was drafted as a first baseman, and he played mostly in left field.
The moral of this story is that first baseman are not drafted nor cultivated. They are generally the inevitable placement for a bat that you want to get into the lineup that comes with a glove that you don’t. There is a second, and perhaps more important subtext. Discovering Albert Pujols was a complete fluke. They happen. Repeated attempts to draft another one have led to a rather long line of disappointing players who failed to live up to their considerable hype. Meanwhile, other teams have found Brett Lawrie, Eric Hosmer, Billy Hamilton and the aforementioned Harper, Trout and Stanton.
What of Matt Adams ?
We’ve certainly heard his name, and thanks to a most unfortunate injury to Lance Berkman, many more have been able to see what the fuss is all about. Adams is a big strong kid and can hit the ball with authority. Unlike a lot of his his post-PED peers in the Cardinals farm system, Adams has a pretty compact swing and gets his bat through the strike zone quickly and without a lot of extra commotion. That leads to some pretty serious power, but it also suggests that he might be able to hit for average as well. His minor league career numbers compare favorably to those of Prince Fielder (another one dimensional player at first base). Our buddy Dennis, quoted earlier, suggests something more like Larry Walker, and that might be more fair on the hitting side of things – but Walker had a part of his game that Adams doesn’t – the ability to play in the outfield.
Why would the Cardinals consider trading away such a valuable prospect ?
Because he is blocked more ways than a weekend marathon of Hollywood Squares. For Adams, there is only one position that he can play, first base. Do you know who else can play first base ? Lance Berkman (currently injured), Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Tony Cruz, Steven Hill. If we get crazy with this, throw in Daniel Descalso. While Carpenter, Molina and Cruz (and Descalso) are more of a utility option and not for an every day lineup, Lance Berkman and Allen Craig are certainly every day first basemen. While Berkman is nearing the end of his career, Craig is just starting his – and a most impressive start it has been. Craig has demonstrated an ability to produce consistently at the major league level, especially in big games. Ironically, Craig was drafted as a shortstop. No, seriously. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
To put it bluntly, the Cardinals need Allen Craig’s bat in the lineup and there is really no better place for him to play than first base.
Let’s throw in a couple of additional wrinkles. Matt Holliday is under contract through 2016 (club option for 2017). In two or maybe three years, if the National League does not adopt the Designated Hitter rule, Holliday could very well find himself playing first base, ala Orlando Cepeda or Jack Clark. Although less likely, if injuries continue being an issue, David Freese could also be destined for the less hot corner just to keep that potent bat in the lineup.
Alton Brown, of the television series Good Eats, always said that there is only room in the kitchen for one unitasker – the fire extinguisher. The same can also be said of the modern baseball team. Without the DH, you can really only afford one uni-tasker (one dimensional player).
But wait, what about Zack Cox ? That’s where Rickey’s Law comes into play. Cox’s production has fallen each of the last three seasons. He may well be Brett Wallace 2.0, and if that is the case, his stock was much higher last year when he carried the prospect label, thanks in large part to Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong, Ryan Jackson, Matt Adams, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, John Gast and Shelby Miller. Like Adams, Cox appears to be largely blocked by players already contributing. Unlike the Adams case, those players are short on service time (Freese) and we expect to see them with the big club for several more years. Perhaps helping Cox stay in the Cardinals system is a lack of third base depth, in the event that David Freese’s injury woes continue.
Zack Cox could be a part of a Rafael Furcal like trade, perhaps for a right handed reliever that has some short term upside. But don’t expect a Colby Rasmus, Brett Wallace or even a Chris Perez type of deal.
Uncle Bud’s Monkey Wrench
Before 2012, this would be a rather simple scenario. A new playoff spot introduced in each league makes this much more difficult for the buyers at the trade deadline. It will turn a couple of teams from fence sitters to buyers, many more sellers to fence straddlers, waiting to see what happens in early August – hoping that their deals will then clear waivers. The pool of available trading partners is much smaller now than it was a year ago, and the smart teams are not going to wait until the last week to make their move. Throw in Matt Adams (and Zack Cox) limited positions, and the trade partner almost has to be from the American League. Right now, that means Oakland, Seattle, Kansas City, Minnesota, Toronto and maybe Detroit. In the National League, Philadelphia remains an interesting possibility – out of contention with a big free agent-to-be (Cole Hamels).
There just aren’t enough sellers, and while it was very early in the morning and I don’t know that I made it to every class, my college Economics professor said that in this situation, the seller has the leverage and it will take more effort from the buyer to make a deal. That means the Cardinals will have to put more into a deal than in years passed. Let’s be honest – the Cardinals don’t have all that many players that other teams are interested in. I know that’s hard to accept, so let’s look at this another way.
Which Cardinals are untouchable (for whatever reason).
That is a pretty short list. Joe Kelly, John Gast, Trevor Rosenthal, Kolten Wong and maybe Ryan Jackson. It’s not because they are the future faces of the franchase, but that they are far more valuable to the Cardinals than any player they would likely receive in a trade. One other player on this list might be Oscar Taveras. While there are no Mike Trouts in the Cardinals farm system right now, Taveras might be the closest to that type of multi-tool player.
Zack Cox, Bryan Anderson and Mark Hamilton along with pitchers Brian Broderick and Brandon Dickson have become the players that Branch Rickey warned us about – more valuable last year than right now. Cox and Broderick both have time to turn that around, but neither are the type of player that other teams covet. They could be parts of a deal, as Shane Peterson and Clayton Mortenson were in 2009, but not the principles.
Right now, the Cardinals need a couple of upgrades and they don’t have a wealth of players to offer in a seller leveraged marketplace. The two that they do have are Shelby Miller and Matt Adams. Of those two, Adams is the one the Cardinals can most easily do without in the future. It doesn’t lessen any of the things we’ve said in praise over the last two years, and it might be hard to watch him become a star with another club, but he is the only quality part that the team can afford to trade away.
And this is the most likely scenario……. and many Cardinals fans are not going to like this……. the front office does nothing and goes into the last two months with the team they have right. With a rookie manager and a disabled list that looks like an All Star lineup card, maybe this is the time to take a wait and see attitude at the deadline. Just maybe they can steal an NL Central title or one of the two Wild Cards and back into something special. Or maybe they can make a small deal here or there for another Octavio Dotel instead of the blockbuster like last year that fixed nearly all of the problems at once.
There is one more possibility, and it will not be very popular. It might not be Matt Adams that is dealt, but our other left handed hitting first baseman, Lance Berkman. The Cardinals veteran first baseman is a good clubhouse presence and clutch performer when healthy. Perhaps a team that needs a summer rental of a first baseman or designated hitter that happens to have an excess of pitching might emerge as a trade partner or part of a creative three team deal, like the one John Mozeliak crafted last year.
There is only one thing that we can count on. The next series is against a divisional rival who is thinking the exact same thing as ours. Instead of worrying about July 31, our attention needs to be focused on the next three games and cheering our team onto another important series win.