Or “Let’s think about 53 trades”
Last week, I kicked off a series in which I’ll dive deep into the John Mozeliak era of St. Louis Cardinals franchise history. Specifically, I’m looking at the years in which Mozeliak has managed baseball operations, from the end of 2007 through today. As became apparent when interacting with readers on last week’s article about free agency, the scope is huge and hard to simplify. The scope gets even bigger today as we dig in to Mozeliak’s trade history. By my count, the Cardinals have executed 53 trades with Mozeliak at the helm of baseball operations. That’s a lot to cut through. How do you organize that many trades?
There are thirteen deals we can file away as essentially meaningless. We can argue about intent at the time, but these deals had minimal or no effect on either the Cardinals or their trade partner.
- Brian Barton for Blaine Boyer (2009)
- David Carpenter for Pedro Feliz (2010)
- Skip Schumaker for Jake Lemmerman (2013)
- Marc Rzepczynski for Juan Herrera (2013)
- James Ramsey for Justin Masterson (2014)
- Sam Gaviglio for Ty Kelly (2015)
- Tony Cruz for The Other Jose Martinez (2016)
- International Bonus Slot Money for Lane Thomas (2017)
- Josh Lucas for Casey Meisner (2018)
- Breyvic Valera for Johan Meises (2018)
- Patrick Wisdom for Drew Robinson (2019)
- Jedd Gyorko and international slot money for Tony Cingrani and Jeffry Abreu (2019)
- Diowill Burgos for Austin Dean (2020)
Some readers will find the inclusion of the Wisdom trade as controversial given his 2021 to date. All 30 MLB teams have had multiple chances to acquire Wisdom since 2019, and not done so. If it’s a mistake, it’s the same mistake 29 other teams made, including the one benefitting from Wisdom’s 2021 outburst.
Lane Thomas may raise an eyebrow. That he could be bought just for international bonus money should tell you how well regarded Thomas was as a prospect at the time. Anything he provides to the Cardinals is found money.
That leaves 39 trades to evaluate. The remaining deals break down as:
- Generic deadline deals for relievers (qty: 6)
- Selling off assets (10)
- Off-season restructuring (15)
- Trade deadline restructuring (9)
Generic Deadline Deals for Relievers
This is the easiest category, albeit low impact. This table tells the story. For relievers traded, the figure listed is WPA (Win Probability Added). For position players, it’s fWAR.
The position players traded collectively amassed -0.8 fWAR. All are now out of organized baseball. Mujica and Zach Duke were acquired with an additional year of control and their WPA reflects that. It’s the total from their 1.5 seasons in St. Louis. Even with Duke losing a year to injury, those two deals were massive successes. Nicasio’s 11 innings were incredibly effective and cost nothing.
Axford was nothing special, but Blazek was detrimental to the Brewers. Broxton performed poorly and then Mozeliak doubled down by re-signing him for 2016 and 2017. That said, Collymore never reached MLB, and Broxton came along with cash.
The only blemish is Cishek for Barraclough. Cishek struggled and was left off of the playoff roster, while Barraclough had two very good seasons in Miami. A disastrous 2018 torpedoed his total WPA as a Marlin.
Mozeliak hasn’t made this type of deal since 2017, but he’s been successful at them. The players traded away have had almost no impact at the MLB level, which makes the value coming back look like found money. It also negates the lack of value returned from Cishek and Broxton.
Selling Off Assets
You can think of these as either salary dumps, or moving assets on Cardinal teams with low playoff odds. These moves were made with an eye towards future contention and/or salary relief. The salaries shed in this table are reasonable approximations, but not 100% accurate. The net fWAR and salary are calculated using the remaining contract (and their fWAR during that time) for the players dealt at the time of the deal. For arbitration-eligibles like Tommy Pham, it includes what he actually made in those remaining arbitration years.
Mozeliak dumped about $75.5M of future salary in these deals for players who have provided 17.7 more fWAR to their new teams than those acquired by the Cardinals. There’s a to-be-determined component to this. We don’t know what type of long-term value the Cardinals will see from the 2017-2021 acquisitions.
Edmonds for Freese is the biggest success, netting Mozeliak 7.3 fWAR while shedding $4.6M over the life of Freese’s Cardinal career. That basis alone would make it a success, but Freese added to the value by becoming an October legend. It’s one of the better trades, probably top 15, in franchise history.
A few of these get undeserved grief. Mercado rode a career high in HR/FB% to 400 average-ish MLB plate appearances and has been worth -0.5 fWAR since, with Torres’ and Capel’s contributions still TBD. Adams gave the Braves a modest 1.1 fWAR, with Yepez just 23 years old and having a great season in AA/AAA.
I wasn’t exactly sure where to put the Voit deal but here it is. There are questions about whether or not Voit could have performed the same had he stayed, and it’s fair to wonder whether or not they properly valued him in the trade. That said, the objections are overstated. Gallegos has been a top 20 MLB reliever since 2019, and his cost is kept down in arbitration by his role. Voit’s been a 3.1 fWAR/600 PA player since the trade- solidly above average, but Gallegos’ contributions wipe some of that out.
The Pham deal looked wonky at the time and has continued to look bad. Unless either Justin Williams or Genesis Cabrera break out, that deal will go down as a mistake. Leake and Fowler were more of the free agency mistake variety (see last week’s article). When they were dealt, the contracts were underwater and on-field talent wasn’t coming back in return.
Selling off assets has not been Mozeliak’s strength. The Pham, Rolen, and (to a far lesser degree) Voit deals have been his sell-off nadir, and 2017-2018 was not a great window for the franchise. At this point, we have to wait to see if Yepez, Cabrera, Williams, Capel, and Torres can close some of the gap in those deals.
At the end of every season, the braintrust gathers, identifies areas that need to improve, and determines whether or not they can get there via free agency or work out a trade. Then they execute it. Usually, the Cardinals are looking for trade targets who can help immediately, although there have been a few cases that could be classified as selling off assets- the previous category. The reason I’ve included them here instead is that they feel more like roster consolidation moves, part of a restructure. Reasonable minds can disagree.
That’s quite a roller coaster. Let’s cover the easy ones first.
- The Theriot deal was insignificant and would’ve gone in the meaningless pile if he hadn’t been an every day player for a World Series winner.
- It’s hard to fault Mozeliak for the Greene deal, as the emergence of Gregerson in San Diego was a surprise. The emergence of any minor league reliever anywhere can never be assumed. Greene’s situation was exacerbated by unforeseen social anxiety issues.
- The Brendan Ryan trade was a net negative, but Ryan’s value was tied up in his glove, and he may or may not have worn out his welcome by crossing the more intense components of the franchise. Gambling that Cleto would compensate wasn’t wise, but the value lost was inconsequential.
- Grichuk and Bourjos were worth 1.9 fWAR more than Freese and Salas over the remainder of their contracts and cost $13M less. That was a great deal for Mozeliak. Freese was the gift that kept on givin’, Clark.
- Heyward and Walden’s value in Cardinal red outweighed Miller’s and Jenkins’ output elsewhere before their contracts ran out, and only cost slightly more money- basically the amount of Walden’s hasty extension. Admittedly, part of that is because of Miller’s arm woes before his pre-free agency years ran out, but that’s part of the gamble. Young pitchers aren’t reliable. Mozeliak gambled and it paid off. It’s also worth noting that Heyward addressed an enormous hole in RF following the 2014 season. This was a good deal.
- Gyorko cost more than Jay but his production more than made up for it, one of Mo’s better deals in this category.
- No matter what you think of Gant, getting his 280 cromulent innings to date for Jaime Garcia’s last season on his contract has been a win.
- Until two months ago, the Adolis Garcia trade would’ve been in the meaningless category. Like Wisdom, Garcia was on waivers before his 2021 outburst. If this is a Cardinals mistake, it’s one that every other team made. It’s possible that the Cardinals failed in unlocking Garcia’s value- the Rangers apparently worked with him on a shortened swing. Still, there was a roster crunch component when Garcia was dealt. It’s hard to feel too bad about this trade given that no other team wanted him even 5 months ago.
- It’s too early to judge the Arenado deal, but it would take a LOT of production from Gomber and Gang™ for that trade to be a Mostake.
In the “slightly more complicated” range, we have the 2018 Grichuk, Piscotty, and Diaz deals that seemingly didn’t work out. However, that trio has been worth 11.5 fWAR total across 3.5 seasons. Take away Piscotty’s 2018 (3.2 fWAR) and you’re left with 8.3 fWAR in about eight player seasons, plus this year’s half season for the trio, and one 2+ fWAR season among them (Grichuk in 2018). The problem is that the players acquired gave the Cardinals next to nothing. The Cardinals saved ~$52.3M in future salary by dealing that trio- that’s good!- and avoided the 11.5 fWAR for those ten and a half player seasons (not a big loss!). Simply identifying another contributor or two out of their return packages would have flipped the script. These deals weren’t that bad and were a standard deviation of variance away on any of the prospects from being good deals. Moreover, Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham’s emergence that season coupled with the Marcell Ozuna acquisition made these players superfluous.
Now let’s address the three big ones. Randy Arozarena’s October 2020 coming out party had everyone’s hackles up. With some distance from those dark days, we can see that Arozarena has 1.9 fWAR in 422 PA through Wednesday, putting aside the 2,000 fWAR he had in 20 games last October. He’s been useful (about a 2.7 fWAR pace), and there may be more in store. That said, until Matthew Liberatore arrives and does whatever he’s going to do in St. Louis, any analysis of this deal is incomplete. It admittedly doesn’t look good so far, but Liberatore will have some say.
The Ozuna trade was mostly a failure, and the root cause was one of two reasons. Either the organization was unable to help Ozuna reach his 2017 (143 wRC+) or 2020-2021 (134 wRC+) heights, or they undervalued their pitching prospects. Both of these things are understandable. Ozuna had performed that way before. From 2014 to 2016 in Miami, he was almost exactly the player he was in St. Louis so perhaps it’s not fair to level that charge at the franchise. Some level of production from Alcantara was to be expected- he was BA’s #70 prospect. He’s beaten that by becoming one of the most exciting young arms in the game. The problem is that Gallen has also taken a step forward, providing 3.7 fWAR and drawing raves for his pitchability. In other words, he has outperformed his raw stuff. Signs were there before the trade, as he ascended the organization quickly. Ultimately anything that could go wrong with this trade, did. Ozuna underperformed while Alcantara and especially Gallen have performed well beyond their expectations. Usually when you deal two pitching prospects, particularly one outside of the top 100, you don’t expect them both to breakout as they have. TINSTAAPP and all that.
The Goldschmidt trade is still developing but early returns are a failure. His 2020 was in line with the player the Cardinals hoped to acquire, but 2019 was his worst season since 2012. This season has been below even that, with Goldschmidt on a 2.4 fWAR pace. In the meantime, Carson Kelly has provided 3.9 fWAR behind the plate. Weaver’s experience has been half Zac Gallen (a pitchability-inspired breakout) and half Shelby Miller (injuries limiting his value since early in 2019). It’s all been worth 2.8 fWAR in 156 innings, and his FIP and xFIP are very similar to what he was in St. Louis. The Kelly/Weaver combo alone- let alone whatever Andy Young becomes- have had more value than Goldschmidt to date for arbitration prices, all while Goldschmidt was paid a premium. Technically he was only under contract for one year when the deal was made, but the extension was clearly part of the calculus. There’s a decent chance this balances out a little bit moving forward if Goldschmidt can put up a vintage 5 fWAR season and if Weaver’s injury woes continue. And in fairness, the Cardinals needed the Goldschmidt trade, or one of that caliber, and Kelly, Weaver, and Young all represented organizational excess. Overall, though, this isn’t a good look, primarily because Kelly’s approach changed in a new organization (trading more K’s for more walks and power) in a way that pushed the package value higher.
That’s sort of a good synopsis for this whole category. There’s plenty of good, plenty of bad, but overall it’s not a good look because of recent events. The emergences of Gallen, Kelly, Alcantara, and Garcia to a lesser degree, coupled with Goldschmidt and Ozuna failing to meet expectations have tipped the scales. There’s also a decent amount of pressure on Liberatore to produce. Arenado has the potential to reverse some of it and is certainly off to a good start.
Trade Deadline Restructuring
For the most part, these are deals made at or near the trade deadline with an eye towards improving a contender. There’s one exception (Marco Gonzales for Tyler O’Neill), but it doesn’t exactly fit in the other categories either.
It’s been a long time since Mozeliak made any of these deals, which is more a testament to the way the game’s economics have changed and that the Cardinals haven’t been much of a lock for October from 2016 through 2020. It’s one thing to refine a team in July with an eye towards October when you have high playoff odds. Doing it with low playoff odds is folly.
Mozeliak’s work in this realm has been exemplary. An injury to DeRosa made the deal less productive from Mozeliak’s standpoint, but they also shed the overpriced arbitration years for A Closer™. The package for Holliday amounted to almost nothing for the A’s, and the net WAR added doesn’t include the value Holliday provided over the course of his free agent deal 4 months after his trade to St. Louis.
The Lackey deal was highway robbery. The Rasmus deal was a gamble and I’m not sure I’d consider it wise to trade a well-regarded cost-controlled young player for a bunch of expiring reliever contracts. But it at least gave the team future salary relief from Rasmus’ arbitration years. Most importantly, the army of mediocre pitchers provided just enough to help the franchise win a World Series. Every other trade worked out in the positive even while shedding future payroll except O’Neill for Gonzales.
The verdict on the O’Neill deal is obviously still to be determined. The Cardinals have 3.5 remaining cost-controlled years for O’Neill to erase the 5.4 fWAR deficit he has with Gonzales. With the way he’s performed in the first half of 2021 and as much as Gonzales has struggled this season, it’s entirely possible O’Neill could reverse this trade’s fortunes by the end of 2022, health permitting.
All 53 trades is a lot to digest, even ditching the unlucky thirteen. Through 2016, the organization under Mozeliak did very well on the trade front. There were missteps (Rolen, Khalil Greene, Brendan Ryan) and a crazy gamble in 2011 that paid off because of October. The Greene deal was understandable and it’s worth noting that the centerpieces in the other three trades had quarreled with LaRussa. There were also some huge success stories in that timeframe. Matt Holliday, John Lackey, Jedd Gyorko, Edward Mujica, and David Freese (twice!) returned incredible value to the Cardinals.
It took a turn after that. Most of it’s forgivable (Adams for Yepez; the Grichuk/Piscotty/Diaz 2018 trio) but some of it is impossible to ignore. I’m sure folks are tired of hearing about it, but the Pham deal was bad. There’s no sugarcoating it. The combination of development in their new organizations (Alcantara, Gallen, Carson Kelly) and slide with the Cardinals (Ozuna and Goldschmidt) has made those two particular trades look bad in hindsight. It’s not as if Ozuna and Goldschmidt in St. Louis were that much out of line with a reasonable projection. It’s more the leap forward taken by Gallen, Alcantara, and Kelly, coupled with the $130M extension for Goldschmidt. They were aggressive trades but it was more risk than they had historically absorbed and it went south on them. It also feels disingenuous to criticize considering they needed star-quality players, and they went out and got them.
The steps taken by departing players in recent years in other organizations are also troubling, if overstated by an impatient fan base. I’m sure the Cardinals knew Voit could hit, particularly at Yankee Stadium, but I’m not sure they understood the magnitude. Kelly and Adolis Garcia both changed approaches in new organizations and found new levels of production. Gallen has proven to be much more than a lottery ticket or throw-in, while the Marlins successfully bridged Alcantara’s raw talent to top-end production.
As for the rest, a lot depends on how much they can get out of Genesis Cabrera, Justin Williams, Juan Yepez, Tyler O’Neill, and Matthew Liberatore and Nolan Arenado most of all.