The Cardinals have laid claim since their rotation was bitten by injuries that they needed some way to fill innings. After two trades Friday, they got their innings.
The club added a pair of low-risk, veteran left-handed starters just ahead of the 3 p.m. CT Trade Deadline, landing Jon Lester from the Nationals and J.A. Happ from the Twins as the Cardinals try to fortify their rotation until Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty can return from injury. In doing so, they gave up three players — including two who have seen time in the Majors this season — in order to try and remain viable in 2021 without sacrificing ‘22.
“We wanted to try to do it in a way that we wouldn’t be giving up a lot of future talent; that was something that was sort of critical in our decision-making,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said prior to Friday’s series opener against the Twins. “Needless to say, today we felt like we took a couple steps forward without having to sacrifice our future.”
Cardinals get: LHP Jon Lester
Nationals get: OF Lane Thomas
Cardinals get: LHP J.A. Happ, cash considerations
Twins get: RHP John Gant, LHP Evan Sisk
The recipe the Cardinals strove for was no secret. Lester, 37, and Happ, 38, own 31 combined seasons in the big leagues, with a history of providing innings. The results haven’t come for each this season in spades; Lester owns a 5.02 ERA and Happ a 6.77 mark in conjunction with allowing the most earned runs in the Majors this season (74).
“Wainwright asked me today how old I was,” Happ joked.
But St. Louis hopes they’re able to play better in Busch Stadium, where Lester has utterly dominated in his postseason career, most famously in his second of two wins over the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, and later with the rival Cubs. Both veterans are free agents after the ’21 season.
The Cardinals’ rotation, until Mikolas and Flaherty return, features four left-handers and its youngest starter (Kwang Hyun Kim) is 33 years of age. Wade LeBlanc is the second youngest, as he is set to turn 37 on Aug. 7.
“It’s two guys that can take advantage of this ballpark — obviously it’s a pitcher-friendly ballpark,” Mozeliak said. “But it also brings a little bit of veteran leadership as well into that clubhouse, and guys that have had success at a high level.”
Mozeliak added that the Cardinals woke up Friday with a deal they thought would be made, only to see it ultimately fall through. He said it was not for a position player, though the Cardinals had been linked to Rockies shortstop Trevor Story in rumors, and that none of the club’s top five prospects were ever on the table in discussions.
And doubly important in these moves is that the Cardinals don’t feel like they have to develop some young pitchers in the “pressure cooker” of the Majors, as Mozeliak described it. Johan Oviedo was optioned to Triple-A Memphis this week and appears primed to remain there. Jake Woodford’s outlook is to be determined after he starts Saturday’s tilt against the Twins.
To land the lefties, the Cardinals gave up John Gant to the Twins, an often-wild but productive swingman under control through 2022, and left-handed pitcher Evan Sisk, who was a late-game reliever for High-A Peoria and Double-A Springfield this season. Outfielder Lane Thomas, 25, who had bursts of excellence with the Cardinals but struggled to build a consistently productive output, was sent to Washington.
That the Cardinals found themselves in this position — in search for rentals to paper over this year as opposed to a splashy move — was not expected at the outset of this season. They believed in their depth this spring more than they had in years past, but it got tested quickly, with Mikolas and Flaherty enduring months-long injuries, though they are now around the corner from a return. Carlos Martínez may not return this season.
The club ultimately went 10-17 in a treacherous month of June, and even though they played a better brand of baseball in July, an 11-10 record in the month entering Friday was not enough to warrant selling the farm to improve in 2021.
Mozeliak did say that the club looked into moves this week that could help in 2022 as well, but the inflated prices in the lead-up priced them out.
“You saw what the price was to get that type of player. And for us, it just didn’t make sense,” Mozeliak said. “Ultimately, we did turn to more of getting through the 2021 season and that’s where we settled.”
No deals for a position player garnered much traction at this Trade Deadline, Mozeliak added.
But it was not lost on St. Louis that the day they made a pair of additions to the Major League roster, the rival Cubs traded away three of their franchise cornerstones within a span of 24 hours.
“You have one team that’s turned the page now to 2022 and there’s a few of us that are still worried about 2021,” Mozeliak said.