While there's no shortage of disappointing teams thus far in the 2023 Major League Baseball season, one squadron "towers" overall when it comes to failing to satisfy pre-season expectations. That would be the St. Louis Cardinals.
Coming off a 93-win season in 2022 and a National League Central title and returning a mix of veteran starts like Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado combined with promising young talents like Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, and Nolan Gorman, the Cardinals were widely expected to barge to another division title. The question was how far they'd advance in the playoffs, not whether they'd be there at all.
As we wind our way toward July, St. Louis is winning at a clip of just .411. If that holds up, then it will be the franchise's worst full-season winning percentage since 1918 (!). These are uncommon straits for a club that hasn't endured a losing season since 2007 and hasn't picked in the top 10 of the MLB Draft since 1998. The presently reality, though, is that even in the lackluster NL Central and with that extra wild-card berth in play, the 2023 Cardinals have poor odds of making the postseason. Right now, the SportsLine Projection System gives them just a 17% chance of making the playoff field.
All of this raises the possibility that president of baseball ops John Mozeliak will undertake a sell-off leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline. While it's not likely to be any kind of deep teardown, the team's somewhat slim chances of being relevant down the stretch mean that some kind of pivot toward 2024, or perhaps beyond, is both likely and in order. So what might such an un-Cardinals approach to the deadline look like? Let's explore that.
The obvious trade candidates
If the Cardinals want to cut bait on the current season without harming their chances next year, then they'll look to trade players in their walk years and those deemed not especially essential to the team's 2024 fortunes. Walk-year trade candidates include lefty starter Jordan Montgomery, right-handed starter Jack Flaherty, and right-handed relievers Jordan Hicks and Chris Stratton. Yes, franchise legend Adam Wainwright is also technically in his walk year, but the Cardinals aren't going to put him in another team's uniform for the first time in his MLB career mere months before his retirement. Of these, Montgomery would probably net the heftiest return package. Hicks, thanks to his huge fastball and vastly better results since changing where he stands on the rubber and altering his warm-up routine, could also be attractive as a high-leverage relief option for a contender. Speaking of which, Hicks picked up a pair of saves during the weekend series against the Mets.
Others in this category include shortstop Paul DeJong, who's an excellent fielder with occasional pop. He has club options for 2024 and 2025 that aren't likely to be exercised regardless of who's employing him after Aug. 1. There's also Tyler O'Neill. He's on the 60-day injured list with lower-back problems, and he may be on the outside looking in when it comes to the Cardinals' crowded-when-healthy outfield situation. If he returns to the active roster in time to get some pre-deadline run, then he could be moved. Injuries and inconsisntency at the plate diminish his value, but he's still got the tools to dream on. O'Neill isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2024 season. For some time, the Yankees have been rumored as a possible fit for O'Neill. On that front, it's worth recalling that last season the Yanks and Cards paired up for the noteworthy trade that landed fly-catcher Harrison Bader in the Bronx and sent the aforementioned Montgomery to St. Louis.
If Mozeliak and company are moved to undertake a deeper reset, then those names above could be complemented by others of the non-earth-shaking variety who are under team control beyond 2023. Tommy Edman or Brendan Donovan, both of whom can man multiple premium positions and provide significant fielding value at all of them, could be moved (but probably not both). Occasional closer Ryan Helsley, assuming he's clear of his forearm troubles in time, is another intriguing trade candidate. He's one of the hardest throwers in all of baseball, and he has a recent history of being a lockdown, late-inning reliever. There might also be a market for Steven Matz as a reliever, but the Cardinals would probably have to kick in some cash to defray what he's owed over the remainder his contract.
It's hard to imagine that the Cardinals leading up to tradin' day part with their corner-infield cornerstones, but if a down-to-the-studs rebuild is the path chosen, then, yes, we should ponder the possibility that Goldschmidt and Arenado are shipped off.
Each has full no-trade protection, which is an impediment but not necessarily an impossible one. In Goldschmidt's case, he's still performing at a high level with the bat, and by reputation he's an excellent leader and a "True North" type of clubhouse presence. He's also signed through 2024, which means he's not a rental but also not under contract through his late thirties (which would be a concern for a first baseman, even a great one like Goldschmidt). He'd have a market and probably net the Cardinals an impressive return.
As for Arenado, this situation is a bit more complex. He's signed through 2027 at a reasonable cost, and the Rockies, his former team, are still on the hook for a sizeable chunk of his remaining commitment. While he's found his level at the plate after a slow start to 2023, there's some real concern that he's declining with the glove. Arenado at 32 isn't especially old, but fielding is often to first thing to go when it comes to decline-phase onset. The best advanced metrics confirm this decline on the part of Arenado, and the possibility that said decline is genuine is part of the calculus when it comes to trading him. All that said, he'd no doubt have a market.
Again, this kind of path seems unlikely in the extreme for St. Louis given that a rebound in 2024 is quite possible provided they invest in rotation help. That said, if the struggles persist then maybe the front office decides a full-on rebuild to build a long-term core around Walker, Gorman, and others is in order. Most likely, though, a struggling Cardinals team at the deadline opts to deal away some walk-year talents and reset for 2024 rather than strip-mining the roster.
This being the NL Central, though, the Cardinals are a prolonged hot streak from mattering once again in the divisional race, and that could flip them into buyers leading up to the deadline. The next month or so will be clarifying for St. Louis, as it will for a number of teams that don't yet have a clear deadline path.