St. Louis Cardinals sellersZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

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As of this writing, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing legitimately terrible baseball. Despite what the playoff odds say, the Cardinals are looking more like a team who should sell this summer.

In that case, the team could put short-term or non-core pieces on the market for prospects in an attempt to retool for 2019 or 2020 when the current highly regarded prospect class begins graduating and sticking in the MLB. This would not rule out wild card contention in 2018, and it might not even rule out a wild card run in 2017.

Today, I’m looking at the St. Louis Cardinals pitching trade chips, some very hypothetical potential suitors, and how the Cardinals could replace that player in both the short- and long-term. The goal of this isn’t to suggest the Cardinals should sell now, but rather take stock of some players who are candidates to be traded should the Cardinals decide to sell.

The assumptions used in the model are listed below. I apologize for the length of the assumptions, but they’re required for clarity.

  • Projected rest-of-season WAR reflects FanGraphs Depth Charts projections.
  • Projected future season WAR reflects current full season projected WAR using WAR-to-date and FanGraphs Depth Charts projections, which is then aged using a starting pitcher, relief pitcher, or position player average aging curve based on data from 2006-2016.
  • Cost of a win ($/WAR) starts at $9M in 2017 and grows at a 5.5% inflation rate, consistent with team payroll inflation from 2012 to 2016.
  • $/WAR for the current season will be doubled to $18M, consistent with Dave Cameron’s research on market price mid-season fluctuation.
  • Wins now are worth more than wins later, and wins later come with significant risk. Therefore, I applied an 8% discount rate to future surplus value, which reflects this reality. This rate is suggested by The Point of Pittsburgh’s research assumptions. Keep in mind, however, that this rate does not include player specific considerations, and is not based on baseball market data. Some players carry more risk than others, and the actual market discount rate may be higher or lower than 8%.
  • Salaries for 2017 are calculated as (2/3)*2017 salary, reflecting that approximately one-third of the season has passed. Arbitration salaries are estimated using the 25/40/62 rule, also found by The Point of Pittsburgh. Contract data is available on Baseball Reference.
  • Prospect valuations use Ben Markham’s aggregate Top 219 MLB prospect list, in which he assigns estimated dollar values to ranked prospects based on public prospect data.

Michael Wacha

St. Louis Cardinals sellersZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

Michael Wacha tops the list of Cardinals pitching trade chips (by a lot) with a $40.2M present surplus value. The largest contributing factor to this valuation is his young age and the fact that he’s under team control through 2020. Additionally, he has a dirt cheap first-year arbitration salary of $2.775M as precedent for negotiation the next two years.

Despite his injury history, he’s accumulated at least 1.9 WAR in every “full” season since 2014. He’s off to a similar start in 2017 despite his recent implosion against the Chicago Cubs. He’s an average starting pitcher when healthy, and often better.

The huge caveat to Wacha’s valuation, of course, is that injury history. The 8% discount rate very likely underestimates the risk inherent in Wacha’s right shoulder. Team’s might require a discount on present surplus value of up to 25%, consistent with what I found in high-risk long-term deals. In that case, we might be looking at a surplus value of $30M instead of $40M.

A potential suitor for Wacha would probably be in a position where they can shoulder a little more risk to capture Wacha’s upside. They’d need rotation depth to handle the potential for injury or need for extra rest.

Maybe the Mariners, who now find themselves back in the AL Wild Card picture and confirmed their position as buyers when signing Jean Segura to a full no-trade extension. The Mariners have two top 50 prospects with projected values just over $30M. The Cardinals, however, probably wouldn’t want to put a singular bet on one prospect, and the Mariners don’t have any prospects between #38 and #171. So they’re probably out.

What about the Indians? Cleveland’s rotation has largely struggled thus far, and Danny Salazar was recently placed on the 10-day DL. Salazar and Carlos Carrasco have notable injury histories, including significant missed time during Cleveland’s 2017 postseason run. Adding Wacha would give the Indians another quality starter to help absorb the impact of a potential rotation injury or two. If everyone is healthy, Wacha could easily play in the Indians bullpen, already one of the best units in the MLB.

The Indians have seven prospects with projected values in the $10 to $21 million sweet spot for St. Louis. The Cardinals might work on a package to include Triston McKenzie, a 19-year-old right-handed starting pitcher making an impression with Cleveland’s High-A club. The Cardinals could also seek Juan Hillman, a left-handed starting pitcher, to round out the deal or take a chance on young shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang and a lottery ticket-type prospect.

Now, of course, there have been no reports that Cleveland is interested in adding a starting pitcher at this time. Their potential interest is total speculation on my part. However, their rotation has a concerning injury history, and they don’t exactly have any pitching prospects banging on the door in the higher levels of the organization. Mike Clevinger has already had to step up and fill in the Indians rotation and they don’t have much depth behind him.

The Indians would likely be attracted to Wacha’s team-friendly control as well. Lastly, St. Louis and Cleveland have a history as trade partners. More recently, that’s included Brandon Moss in 2015 and Justin Masterson in 2014, but the relationship goes back to 2002. The teams have now made 11 mid-season deals in the last 15 years and there’s another potential match on the horizon.

If the Cardinals moved Wacha, they could fill his spot with Luke Weaver, John Gant, or Marco Gonzales. Jack Flaherty is an attractive name as well given his success in AA and AAA so far this year. I’d pick Weaver, but the Cardinals would have plenty of depth and options to choose from.

Lance Lynn

St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

I have less to say about the next three guys, mostly because trading them makes more sense, their valuations makes more sense, and they have clearer suitors. Next up, Lance Lynn.

Lynn is on the last year of his contract and, following his age-30 season, is set to get his first big free agent payday. While he’s explicitly indicated he’d “love to stay” with St. Louis, the Cardinals have yet to offer him an extension and are more likely to let him test the free agent waters. If they decided to hold him through the season, they could make him a qualifying offer and potentially receive a draft pick as compensation if he walked.

It was just reported this morning by Bob Nightengale that the Houston Astros are looking to add a starting pitcher. They “really believe this can be the year,” which means they’re very likely to be in the market for a one-year rental. Enter Lance Lynn.

Lynn has proven himself as a rotation workhorse and looks back to form. His velocity is mostly back and both his K% and BB% are trending in the right direction, which should help quell any concerns following his 16 month recovery from Tommy John surgery.

St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

The Cardinals would likely only get two pieces back in a deal involving Lance Lynn. As the centerpiece, they might target Franklin Perez or Forrest Whitley. Both Perez and Whitley are 19-year-old pitches in the lower ranks of the Houston system and project as potential No. 3 starters. If so, they’d be perfect replacements for Lynn. The Cardinals would likely seek another low-value prospect to complete the deal. Left-handed relievers Reymin Guduan or Ashur Tolliver might make sense.

St. Louis could replace Lynn in the short-term the same way as I suggested they’d replace Wacha. Lynn’s workhorse durability might be tough to match, but we’re dealing with about half a season. The Cardinals could easily fill those innings without putting too much stress on young arms.

Trevor Rosenthal

St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

The Cardinals former closer and current setup man Trevor Rosenthal is another attractive piece if the Cardinals were to sell. The Washington Nationals have already been searching for bullpen help for a few weeks, and rightfully so: by WAR, Washington’s bullpen has been third worst in the MLB and as a whole has performed below replacement level.

The Nationals have had particular trouble with the closer role. Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley already have both held and lost the job. Koda Glover took over the role on May 21st, but his 6.43 ERA since then doesn’t indicate he’s ran with the job. The Nationals are almost a lock to win their division, but establishing their bullpen will be key for a postseason run.

Rosenthal is off to a fantastic start this season with a 2.91 ERA and even better 2.06 FIP. His 0.7 WAR ranks in the top 30 among 173 qualified relievers despite having made only 23 appearances, tied for 99th among that same set.

Additionally, Trevor Rosenthal is under team control through next season, so he wouldn’t be just a one-year rental. While his salary is fairly high for an arbitration-eligible reliever, he is still expected to provide about $14M in surplus value over the next two years. He carries significant upside as well, having surpassed 2.0 WAR twice in his career. The St. Louis Cardinals might be further enticed to move Rosenthal after seeing the huge returns for relievers near the 2016 trade deadline, a history which suggests an overpayment relative to surplus value is possible.

The Nationals farm system took a huge hit this offseason when they traded for Adam Eaton. Thus, they wouldn’t have much leverage if they’re buying bullpen help. Erick Fedde, a 24-year-old right handed pitcher in AA, could make sense for St. Louis. While his surplus value is about $4 million higher than Rosenthal’s, the Nationals lack of mid-high end prospects and desperate need for bullpen arms makes it likely he’d be included in a deal for a reliever. The Cardinals would likely ask for an additional PTBNL.

For the Cardinals, dealing their best reliever from a struggling bullpen might signal that they’re giving up on the season. However, promoting Luke Weaver to the rotation and assigning Michael Wacha to the bullpen might help mitigate the loss of Rosenthal. Jack Flaherty could potentially slot in the bullpen as well, which would give him valuable MLB experience while also protecting him from overexposure.

Seung Hwan Oh

St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

The current closer for the St. Louis Cardinals might be the likeliest player to be traded this season. He’ll be a free agent after this season and has expressed interest in potentially playing for another MLB team. The Nationals would probably be interested in Oh as well, in addition to other MLB teams looking for a back-end relief help.

There were some early season concerns about Oh’s ability to miss bats this year, and some of those still persist. However, after struggling in the season’s first weeks, Oh has posted a 1.21 ERA and 2.71 FIP since April 17th, looking much more like he did in 2016. His strikeout rate over that period is 25.3% which, while significantly lower than last year’s 32.9% mark, is still strong and is trending in the right direction.

Since Oh is only under contract through this season, he has less value than Trevor Rosenthal despite having a similar ROS WAR projection and similar 2017 salary. A surplus value of about $10 million indicates he won’t retrieve even a top 150 prospect unless a team overpays. The Nationals would likely have to include Fedde to acquire Oh, and it’s hard to imagine they’d be willing to pay that much.

Another potential trade partner might be the Arizona Diamondbacks. They are currently employing 40-year-old Fernando Rodney as their closer, and he’s sporting a 5.82 ERA and 4.04 FIP. They don’t have much prospect depth to deal from, but St. Louis might have interest in Anthony Banda or Taylor Clarke. Banda would likely be included with only a PTBNL, while Clarke would require another prospect in the 200 to 300 range.

Should the Cardinals move Oh and keep Rosenthal, they’d likely slide the latter into the closing duties. The extra spot in the bullpen could again be filled by Wacha or Weaver, although in this situation I think it’s more likely they’d promote Weaver or another minor leaguer to a bullpen role if Wacha is healthy and performing as a starter.

So, should the Cardinals really sell?

The St. Louis Cardinals are in the midst of a seven game losing streak. Their 26-32 record puts them in fourth place in the division, 4.5 games out of first. They’re 8.5 games out of the second wild card spot. But it’s still only June 9th, and there’s more than 100 games left to be played. It’s hard to imagine the Colorado Rockies or Arizona Diamondbacks keeping up their current pace. This will very likely be another season where 87-ish wins earns a playoff berth.

So, right now, it’s too early to hit the panic button. If the Cardinals are in a similar position come July, then they can start seriously consider pulling the trigger.