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The Cardinals are in the playoff hunt, but stayed quiet at the trade deadline

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The Cardinals might regret playing it safe.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Cardinals were relatively quiet at the trade deadline, despite the fact that they are in the thick of a division race. They are 2.5 games behind the Cubs and were in first place as recently as August 1st. They are currently only half a game back of the last Wild Card slot, though the Mets’ inexplicable recent hot streak has them projected as the more likely winners of that second spot.

I can understand a Cardinals fan being frustrated by the team’s lack of activity at the trade deadline, even though earlier this year they traded for Paul Goldschmidt, who has been good but disappointing. Nolan Gorman is one of the game’s top prospects, but there is risk in his profile due to his swing-and-miss and questionable third base skills. He would be too much to pay for a rental, but maybe not for a Noah Syndergaard.

I thought Dylan Carlson could bring back at least a decent rental, especially since he is not too far off from the majors, but who knows how these discussions played out behind the scenes. If I were John Mozeliak, I would have seriously considered trading him for the likes of Robbie Ray or Mike Minor, especially since they would be more than just rentals, but I am guessing their respective teams were asking for more than that.

The Athletic’s Mark Saxon reported that the Cardinals were interested in Zack Wheeler, but balked at the asking price of Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill. I understand that Wheeler has taken a step back from a breakout 2018 season that saw him post a 3.41 RA9 and about 4 WAR, but the upside could still be there. His strikeout and walk rates are actually a bit better than last year’s rates. It appears that he has gotten burned by the Mets’ poor defense and the juiced ball. He has already allowed more home runs (17) than he has all of last year (14).

The Cardinals’ rotation has been adequate overall, but it could have used a Zack Wheeler. If he could add just one extra win throughout the rest of the season compared to the alternative, in a tight playoff race that could make all the difference in the world. Trading Bader or O’Neill for Wheeler would have been an easy decision if I were Mozeliak, but even if one wants to argue that it would be an overpay, I think it would be worth it to try and snap the four-year playoff drought of a perennially successful franchise. Hedging against the possible departure of soon to be free agent Marcell Ozuna is not a good enough reason to hang on to those players.

It comes down to what BP’s Craig Goldstein wrote about yesterday: generally speaking, GMs have become too risk averse. I can understand playing it safe when your ceiling is the Wild Card, which is fairly derided as “half a playoff spot” and “the Coin Flip Game,” but the Cardinals have a shot at the division, even if their odds are not that great. It also needs to be mentioned that this situation could have been avoided in the first place, as discussed by Craig Edwards of FanGraphs.

As for how the team is currently, let’s start with the offense... which is not great. They are tied with the lowly Blue Jays for 21st in baseball when adjusting for league and park effects. Of the hitters with at least 200 PA, only three are above average hitters: Paul DeJong (107 wRC+), Paul Goldschmidt (112 wRC+), and Marcell Ozuna (115 wRC+).

Matt Carpenter just came off the IL after recovering from a foot injury, but he has taken a shockingly big step back at the plate. He still walks a lot, but he is hitting only .212/.315/.364. His .297 wOBA is a whopping 78 points lower than last season. I am actually just as disappointed in this as Cardinals fans probably are, because he has been one of my favorite hitters to watch since 2013.

Thankfully, the position players do make up for some of this on defense, ranking sixth in the league with 51 DRS. Bader, of course, is still an outstanding defensive center fielder despite the fact that he can’t hit enough to stay in the majors (he was sent down last week), and DeJong and Kolten Wong might be the best defensive keystone in baseball.

The Cardinals’ bullpen has been pretty good, too. Giovanny Gallegos has been the star of this group, and he has been one of the best relievers in baseball, in fact. He has a 2.09 RA9 with excellent peripherals, sporting a 37.8 K% and 5.7 BB%. John Brebbia and Carlos Martínez have also been pretty effective. Flamethrower Jordan Hicks would also be mentioned here had he not blown out his elbow. John Gant has a 3.02 RA9 but his peripherals are subpar, and he has benefited from a .245 BABIP.

The Cardinals are a good team, but they might have played it too safe at the trade deadline, not to mention the other ways they could have improved the team before that as discussed by Edwards. If they miss winning the division or a Wild Card by a game, their passivity will come back to haunt them.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.