Greg wrote about the winners and losers in the division at the deadline, but I wanted to hone in on one particular trade and its potential impact on the division. The Cardinals curious decision to trade one of their best hitters in order to acquire a fourth starter.
The Cardinals went into the trade deadline essentially even with the Reds in the standings and needed to improve two things their hitting and the back of their starting rotation. While the front end of their rotation ranks ahead of almost anyone in the NL (Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia have FIPs of 3.74, 3.41, 3.03) they were using below replacement level filler in the fourth and fifth spots.
Once Brad Penny suffered his annual injury that includes multiple setbacks (to be fair the Cardinals got two months out of him and his injury spares them the shame of doing what they did for this next guy) and Kyle Lohse his (seriously 4 years and $40 million, STL is banned from pitching contracts) the Cardinals were using the likes of Blake Hawksworth (5.15 FIP), Jeff Suppan (5.53 FIP), and something called P.J. Walters (6.89 FIP). Without question it would be hard to win a division with 40% of your games being started by those type of pitchers.
On the other hand their offense is a hot mess itself. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday are still great hitters, but not having their normal super human years. Colby Rasmus continues his emergence as a star (.371 wOBA) and Jon Jay has had himself an impressive first month. After that the Cardinals are a collection of below league average and below replacement level hitters that make scoring runs a difficult proposition.
Ryan Ludwick was the Cardinals fourth best hitter before the emergence of Jay, and he had the added bonus of being a somewhat established player. His .354 wOBA with solid defense in right field was one of the rare bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming lineup. When runs are hard to come by it is difficult to justify losing this type of player.
The Cardinals decided though that they wanted to sure up the back half of their rotation, and also provide themselves with a little insurance should Garcia wear down as his innings add up. They targeted Indians starter Jake Westbrook and were able to bring him in. In the very same deal though they sent Ludwick over to the Padres.
Now nobody would be foolish enough to deny that adding Westbrook helps the Cardinals a ton. Having him as their fourth starter makes their rotation deeper and when Lohse returns soon they will be rid of the replacement level crap. Moving from the AL to the NL should boost Westbrook’s numbers as will playing behind a pretty decent defense (especially now that Rasmus will get to play center field). Their rotation will give them a great chance to win every single day and probably require minimal run support most of the time.
The question is can the Cardinals offense provide that run support. Jon Jay’s .425 wOBA is nice to look at now, but nobody thinks it can last. He has a .432 BABIP right now despite only producing a 16.8% line drive rate. The league will catch up to him and if he falls off a cliff the Cardinals are left in a bad spot. His potential replacement would be Allen Craig who posted a .890 OPS at AAA this season but struggled in his very limited MLB time so far.
St. Louis’ problem is that they have complete offensive black holes starting at three positions right now. Catcher Yadier Molina (.285 wOBA) does get a slight pass for his ability to control the running game, shortstop Brendan Ryan and second baseman Skip Schumaker (.253 wOBA, .298 wOBA) don’t get that same pass. Even though Ryan is a defensive star, his bat is so putrid that it kills the team every time he starts. Perhaps good health from rookie David Freese can move the league average Felipe Lopez over to take one of the two spots which would at least help a little.
The point remains though that the Cardinals removed one of their most valuable bats from a lineup that needs every solid bat it can get. They fell in love with a hot, luck infused month from an otherwise unspectacular rookie and sold off a valuable piece for two months of a back end starting pitcher. It isn’t a strategy that ends well most of the time. No matter how good a team pitches they need runs, and unless Albert Pujols turns on his bat to a level even he doesn’t reach the Cardinals are going to be hoping for a lot of unexpected performance.
Meanwhile the Reds just sat and watched. Armed with their ace Edinson Volquez back from his injury/steroid suspension and the best offense in the NL the Reds might now be the favorites in the division. Should they bolster their bullpen down the stretch with phenom Aroldis Chapman, things will be that much scarier. Even though they didn’t go out and get the extra starting pitcher they could have used, the Cardinals misstep helped them anyway.
The NL Central is probably going to come down to a battle of Reds pitching and Cardinals hitting, and I would say advantage Reds in that battle and advantage Reds the rest of the way.