The Cardinals are coming out of the All-Star break with a 38-52 record, placing them in last place in the National League Central and 11 games back in the Wild Card race. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently admitted that the club will have to approach the deadline as sellers, focusing on making moves that benefit the 2024 club.
The club has just over two weeks until the August 1 deadline, giving them some time to figure out their plans, but Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a report with some specifics that shine a light on their current plans. Notably, the Cards are uninterested in trading core players like Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Lars Nootbaar and Jordan Walker. They are open, however, to trading pitchers like Jordan Montgomery, Jordan Hicks, Ryan Helsley and Génesis Cabrera, while Jack Flaherty is already generating interest from other clubs. As for what kind of player they are looking to bring in, Goold lists Logan Gilbert of the Mariners as someone they are interested in.
To be clear, there’s no indication that the Mariners have any inclination towards trading Gilbert, but it’s entirely understandable why the Cards would be interested. The 26-year-old Gilbert has made 74 starts to this point in his career, posting a 3.75 ERA with a 24% strikeout rate, 5.7% walk rate and 36.9% ground ball rate. He’s right in line with those figures this year, having a 3.66 ERA with similar peripherals in 18 starts.
More importantly for the Cardinals, Gilbert can be immediately plugged into their rotation and has plenty of club control remaining. He came into this season with one year and 144 days of service time and will finish this season at 2.144. That makes him a virtual lock to qualify for arbitration as a Super Two player this winter, but he will still have four years of club control left, meaning he isn’t slated to become a free agent until after the 2027 season.
The Cards are not planning a deep rebuild but are instead focused on next year’s club, when they have plenty of rotation uncertainty. Adam Wainwright is planning to retire after this year, while both Flaherty and Montgomery are impending free agents. They have also seen some internal options struggle this year. Steven Matz had an ERA of 5.72 through 10 starts before getting bumped to the bullpen, though he recently retook a rotation job after some solid relief work. Matthew Liberatore has decent numbers in Triple-A but a 6.75 ERA in the majors this year. Dakota Hudson has spent most of the year in Triple-A, posting an ERA of 6.00 at that level. All of that leaves Miles Mikolas as the only sure thing for next year’s rotation.
But Seattle wouldn’t give up Gilbert easily. The club is 45-44 right now and just four games out in the American League Wild Card race. Gilbert is a key part of their rotation right now and for future seasons, given his aforementioned years of control. If they were to give any thought to moving him, they would likely have to get back something that helps some other part of their roster in the here and now. They also have Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Bryan Woo in their rotation alongside Gilbert, but Robbie Ray is out of the season while Bryce Miller and Marco Gonzales are currently on the injured list. Subtracting Gilbert from that mix would to be weighed against the benefits of an upgrade elsewhere.
The Mariners have tried to do a buy-sell hybrid before, which was in 2021. They flipped relievers Kendall Graveman and Rafael Montero to the Astros in exchange for Joe Smith and Abraham Toro, while picking up Diego Castillo and Tyler Anderson in separate deals. The move didn’t work out, with the clubhouse apparently not thrilled by the closer suddenly pitching for a divisional rival and the M’s ultimately missing the playoffs.
This year’s trade deadline is generally considered to have a lack of sellers that may force clubs to consider trades between contenders, with each club giving up current major league talent, such as last year’s deal where the Cards got Montgomery from the Yankees for Harrison Bader. A Gilbert trade would be a significantly different beast though, since Montgomery and Bader each had just a season and a half of club control remaining at the time. When factoring in Gilbert’s extra control and the fact that the M’s just got burned on the hybrid deadline strategy not too long ago, it’s hard to view a trade coming together as a likely scenario.
Nonetheless, the interest from the Cardinals is instructive as to what their targets might be. They have a crowded position player mix and may perhaps look to swap someone from that group for some controllable pitching, even if it’s not Gilbert. It remains to be seen which players they are willing to put on the table in such a pursuit, but it seems they’ll hang onto Arenado, Goldschmidt, Nootbaar and Walker.
It’s not a terrible shock to see those names listed as off-limits. Goldschmidt and Arenado are the two most important players on the club, finishing first and third respectively in National League MVP voting last year. Both players also have full no-trade clauses, which would make a deal complicated even if the Cardinals wanted to consider it. The players could always waive their clauses but Goold reports that Arenado has not been approached about doing so and would prefer to stay anyway. There’s been no reporting to suggest that anything is different with Goldschmidt.
Walker was one of the top prospects in the league coming into this year and is faring well in his first season, hitting .283/.347/.457 for a 123 wRC+ thus far. He made the club’s Opening Day roster but was optioned for over a month at one point, meaning he’ll come up shy of one year of major league service here in 2023 and leave the Cards with six further seasons of control. As a consensus top prospect, he could earn that full year by finishing in the top two of Rookie of the Year voting, but he would still be a key part of the club’s future even in that scenario.
Nootbaar, meanwhile, has hit .241/.343/.420 in 226 career games while providing above-average outfield defense. He will still have four years of control remaining after this one and isn’t slated to qualify for arbitration until after 2024.
Just because those names are listed as unavailable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone not named is therefore available, but the club will likely have to move someone. Tyler O’Neill has often been speculated as a candidate since the club has Nootbaar, Walker, Dylan Carlson and others in the outfield mix. On the infield, meanwhile, Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan have somewhat similar multi-positional profiles and have been pushed to the grass with Paul DeJong and Nolan Gorman often in the middle infield. If the Cards have their sights set on an impact rotation addition like Gilbert or someone similar, they might have to make the difficult decision of parting with someone in that group.
Though that situation seems fluid and has many factors, the rental pitching seems much more straightforward. Each of Montgomery, Flaherty and Hicks are impending free agents and seem virtual locks to be moved at this point. Montgomery is a consistent mid-rotation guy, with a 3.75 career ERA and a 3.23 mark here in 2023. He’s making $10MM this year, which will leave about $3.22MM left to be paid out at the deadline.
Flaherty has shown ace upside in the past but was held back by injuries in recent years. He’s not back to those ace levels this year, currently sporting a 4.27 ERA, but he’s at least healthy and effective enough for a rotation job. Hicks, meanwhile, has triple-digit velocity and seems to be finally figuring out how to weaponize it properly.
Helsley and Cabrera aren’t strict rentals and don’t need to be moved at this deadline, necessarily. But given the volatility of relief performance, it’s logical for the Cardinals to consider what kind of return they can get right now. Helsley seemed to take over the closer’s role last year, posting a 1.25 ERA and racking up 19 saves in the process. He has a 3.24 ERA this year but has been on the injured list for the past month due to a strained right forearm. Players on the IL can be traded but his health status might cast a shadow over trade talks. He can be controlled for two more seasons after this one via arbitration. He’s making $2.15MM and will have about $700K left to be paid out when the deadline rolls around.
Cabrera, 26, has been inconsistent in terms of his strikeouts but has always had subpar control. Regardless, left-handed relief tends to always be in demand to some degree. He has a 4.07 ERA in his career but a 4.70 mark this year. He’s struck out 25.7% of opponents this season but walked 13.2%. Like Helsley, he can be retained via arbitration for two more campaigns after this one. He’s making $950K this year, which will leave just over $300K at deadline time.
All in all, there are many moving parts for the Cardinals to consider, making them one of the most interesting clubs to watch in the coming weeks. They haven’t been in the clear seller position in a while, but they seem well-positioned to take advantage of it. Few clubs are in the same category and many of the other clear sellers have far less to offer in terms of players that would be of interest for contending clubs.