There once was a time when the St. Louis Cardinals made big trades at the deadline.
It’s not as long ago as the Skywalker era, but it sure is starting to feel like a goldie oldie around town. I’m talking about the kind of impact deals at the end of July that sparked a second half surge, which resulted in a long playoff run. But let me ask you something: When was the last time the Cardinals had a long playoff run?
It’s been a while, and please don’t mention 2019. They won a series and got swept. That’s not a “long” run. You’d label that a hungry flyover of trophy town. A place the Cardinals haven’t gotten close to in seven years, or the last time the team recorded a win in the National League Championship series.
Last year, they got bounced in the first round-even if that felt like a charity invitation. From 2016-18, there were no playoffs in St. Louis. October was painted blue, one month early. Back in 2015… the Chicago Cubs kicked the Cards out in the first round in viciously upsetting fashion, eliminating a 100-win team inside five games. A shocking yet knowing finality that the Tony La Russa: Leftovers Edition squad was burnt at last.
Slide those two things together-a lack of trade deadline action and leaving the playoff party too early-and you have a boring team.
Every fanbase haunts their phones’ nightmares that final week of July.
“What are they doing?!”
“They traded for who?!”
“Act now, do something, engage!!”
Batteries and phone chargers are the thankless heroes of the trade deadline, a place the Cardinals have snoozed through for several seasons. Forget the offseason. That’s a different ballgame entirely. The midseason decision-making process is what sets the pros apart from the forever up and comers. Improving your team without mortgaging the future. Swaying a rival GM into a deal that looks mostly good for your team. Having the right amount of assurance and trust in the farm system if you do decide to stand pat.
Walt Jocketty, love or hate his heavy foot on trustworthy veterans over potentially good prospects, was a deadly trade deadline assassin. Mark McGwire in 1997 still ranks as his all-time home run. Take or leave his performance-enhancing drugs usage, but Big Mac reframed this franchise. He turned on the lights down by 8th and Clark. I swear once the guy arrived in 1998, the Stan Musial statue looked even more muscle-bound. That was Jocketty’s master stroke. Bringing in proven, reliable talent. No bets. All red. Nineteen years ago, the Cardinals acquired Scott Rolen for a package including Placido Polanco (a cheap hitting machine), Mike Timlin, and Bud Smith. I think it worked out.
John Mozeliak made a great deadline trade of his own back in 2009 with the Matt Holliday deal. The leftfielder rode a long second leg of his career under the lights at Busch, enriching his city presence by working with several local charities. He took over Albert Pujols’ golf tournament after the latter’s trade to Los Angeles. Holliday built a life and second wind in St. Louis, thanks to Mozeliak’s diligence.
Question: What other great deadline acquisition did Mozeliak make?
You could volley with 2014, when the Cardinals acquired then-Boston starter, John Lackey, for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig. The Craig that sprung a few very good seasons in the Midwest didn’t find his way to Beantown. After a lower body injury that went downhill fast in the 2013 World Series showdown with the Red Sox, Craig never found his stroke. Lackey put up some solid years here, but Kelly found a true calling as a late inning reliever with Boston and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Do those two assets define the trade as fair with both teams? Possibly.
The Holliday trade was brilliant. Mozeliak did transfer job titles a few years back, assuming the extra-long desk mantle reading, “President of Baseball Operations.” Yeah, I call that the super-GM. Basically, he’s dealing with a better deck and vantage point. Granted, the Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado offseason trades show his cunning style in big trades. But the inaction at the opportune time is what puzzles me. I am not here saying Mozeliak is a bad general manager. The 2011 World Series win and 2013 World Series appearance rest on his shoulders. But the resistance to engage before the end of July arrives can’t be ignored.
Several teams improved over the weekend. The Yankees acquired Cubs veteran, Anthony Rizzo, along with Texas slugger, Joey Gallo. Rizzo already has two home runs and is settling in well at first base. Look at that. A team getting better. Something the Dodgers did too, picking up St. Louis’s prodigal homegrown baseball-throwing son, Max Scherzer. Los Angeles also picked up Trea Turner, a great shortstop in the deal. The Cardinals wouldn’t be slowed down by those huge moves.
They traded for one of the worst starters in baseball in J.A. Happ. He was something back before I grew a beard. Before Friday could lose its daylight, they acquired former Cub, Jon Lester. He was really something deadly 4-5 years ago. Happ and Lester combined for a -2.9 WAR this season. Oh, goodie.
For a team with a $150 million-plus payroll, a sub .500 record is a sign of decay, not something in the process of growing. Their farm system is stocked, but will they use it properly? Matthew Liberatore, Nolan Gorman, Ivan Herrera, and company could be big-time players here. But what team will they inherit upon their arrival, one of merit or just the mere existence of “competing?”
Here’s the thing. A big trade or two during one of the past few Julys with the Cardinals could have meant something. The idea of a July 30-31 acquisition is pushing your team to the next level, months into the season, when a GM should have good knowledge of their team’s value. Granted, the 2021 club has been hit hard by injury, but the upgrades needed at starting pitching weren’t addressed this past winter. The needs hid behind a huge poster reading, “WE GOT ARENDO!” Now, Happ and Lester are the cure. It’s like passing up every great deli in town for Subway.
Why don’t the Cardinals make big trade deadline deals? When Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikokas get back into the rotation and the bullpen gets more at ease, a couple players could have easily pushed this team into the playoff picture. Once there, who knows? Mozeliak and company wouldn’t know, because the John Lackey trade was their last real big July deal. Seven years ago.
That’s a lot of wasted opportunities–like a general manager telling the fan base, and the team, that it’s not getting any better.
I’ll say it. This operation of midseason inaction isn’t working. Just count your N.L.C.S. wins in recent years.