Trading Prospects Has Not Hurt the St. Louis Cardinals

photo: Sandy Alcantara (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

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Brian Walton

On Saturday, I wrote about a media report that the St. Louis Cardinals are reluctant to trade for a player in the final year of his contract. Given the team has also been spurned by free agents (and at least one major acquisition target with no-trade protection) in recent history, if true, this stance would make the already-tough challenge to find a difference-making hitter even more difficult.

I was planning to write a Part 2, anyway, but my resolve was locked in when a long-time member of The Cardinal Nation’s message board community expressed surprise over my view.

“…usually minor league aficionados tend to be prospect hoarders and reluctant to trade them (prospects) away,” gscottar wrote.

While prospects are my bread and butter, I am not an extremist about them – or anything else. Like in so many things in life, the challenge is finding the proper balance and adjusting to maintain it. Prospects are a means to an end, which is – and always should be – to win championships, not just come close to the playoffs.

Here is my reply to the reader’s comment above.

“I have said for years that the team has lacked a true offensive threat – ever since Albert Pujols left – a hitter the opponents fear who can win a tight game late and can lead the Cardinals to a long winning streak single-handedly. I thought they had that in Giancarlo Stanton. I don’t think Marcell Ozuna measures up. No one in the farm system is anywhere nearly close enough to count on. The Cards are rich in quantity but low in highest quality. So, trade or free agency seems the only near-term answer.”

Having set the stage, let’s get into the details that helped me come to the above conclusion.

First, I want to come back to reasons why the perspective of “walk-year fear,” the primary focus of Part 1, may exist. I see two key issues, which are related:

  • One and done – Likelihood the player will not remain with the team for more than one year.
  • Acquisition cost of the player – Especially trading away prospects who may become MLB stars later.

I will cover the first briefly, then dig deeply into this fear of being burned later by trading away prospects.

One and done

As I noted in the Saturday column, the Cardinals have to accept the fact that the good old days of players taking hometown discounts on long-term contracts before they hit free agency – just for the privilege of remaining in self-titled “Baseball Heaven” – are over.

Jason Heyward (USA TODAY Sports)

I think the Jason Heyward experience got them there, but the needle is now stuck all the way to the right.

The Cardinals have to be comfortable that the acquired player is significant enough in stature that he can truly make a difference in his one committed year.

In today’s world, it has to be assumed that he will enter free agency no matter what. This is not new. For the Cardinals, it began as far back as 2009, when mid-season trade acquisition Matt Holliday tested the open market before eventually signing with St. Louis in January 2010.

Instead of choosing to avoid walk-year players, the Milwaukee Brewers have adapted to the changing times by embracing these impending free agents – with positive results. What do the 2018 NL Central Division champions know that the Cardinals do not?

Acquisition cost

Zack Cox (USA TODAY Sports)

Here is where I really want to focus. In the past, the Cardinals have been exceptional, and I truly mean exceptional, in giving up prospects who did NOT become impact major leaguers. My firm belief is that they can make more of these kinds of trades and still be far ahead in the big picture.

But, no one ever bats 1.000. Even if they were to make a mistake or two down the road and give up a future star, it should be expected, not feared. If the trade was needed to get the right Major League player to lead them to a title, it would all work out.

I suspect the Cardinals are currently too worried about making a mistake trading away young talent, thereby limiting their ability to take a bold move. They need to be willing to give up prospect quality to get MLB quality. Like it or not, the currency of the realm across the game is prospects.

Below, I will show in detail that trading away prospects has not hurt the Cardinals over the last decade – and therefore, they can and likely should do more of the same to help close the obvious gap between third place and first.

Prospect trading history

Over the last decade (since December 2008), there have been 16 trades in which St. Louis dealt away a total of 21 prospects for 16 major leaguers.

I will summarize this data in several views. The raw trade details are included at the end.

Ranked prospects

At the time those 21 prospects were traded, 12 of them (57 percent) were among The Cardinal Nation’s top 11 prospects in the Cardinals system. Four others were ranked lower than no. 11 and five were unranked.

# of prospects traded Count Top 11 Other ranked Non-ranked
Total 21 12 4 5

Quick summary: More than half of the prospects traded away by the Cardinals were among the very best in the system at the time.

How many made it and how many made a difference?

  • Of those 21 traded prospects, two-thirds reached the majors (14).
  • Of the 14, just five delivered a positive career fWAR.
  • Of the 14, their aggregate career fWAR is just 5.2.
# of prospects traded Count Pos fWAR Neg fWAR Total fWAR
Reached MLB 14 5 9 5.2
Did not reach/TBD 7
Total 21

Quick summary: Only five of the 21 traded prospects delivered a positive fWAR in the Majors.

Which losses hurt the most?

Of the 14 prospects who reached the majors, just two have delivered more than 1.0 fWAR over their career.

MLB players >1 fWAR Career fWAR
Luke Gregerson 8.8
Kyle Barraclough 2.3

As readers already know, Gregerson is back with St. Louis, having suffered an injury-wrecked return in 2018.

Excluding Gregerson and Barraclough, the other 12 prospects to reach MLB accrued a total of a negative 5.9 fWAR.

Overall conclusion: Other than the two relievers, losing the other 19 prospects via trade did not significantly matter – and even the two standouts are hardly perennial all-stars or future Hall of Famers.

What about the really big deals only?

Matt Holliday (Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

One could assert that other than the Heyward deal, only two of the remaining 15 trades were for significant assets – the Marcell Ozuna acquisition last winter and the Matt Holliday deal in 2009.

The total fWAR of the players traded away in those two transactions are currently a negative 2.7 fWAR. In other words, the Cardinals appear to have won these trades in a landslide.

OK, to be fair, the jury is still out on the prospects included in the Ozuna deal. However, note that neither Sandy Alcantara nor Magneuris Sierra were among the contenders for the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Award. They may still have MLB runway in the future, or perhaps they will not, with Alcantara having the best chance, in my opinion.

As you will see below, three of them were top 11 Cardinals prospects when traded 12 months ago. Even so, honestly, have any of the four (including Zac Gallen and Daniel Castano) been missed – even for a second? Think about it.


Two other players included in the aforementioned trades were excluded from this analysis because they were no longer prospects, but were already established major leaguers. Shelby Miller (7.7 career fWAR) and Chris Perez (0.5 fWAR) are listed in the table below for completeness, however.

Trades during this decade that did not include the Cardinals giving up prospects for major leaguers were also excluded.

The raw data

Transactions are listed from newest to oldest. “Pros. rank” is where the players were positioned on The Cardinal Nation top prospect rankings when traded. “Career fWAR” is the aggregate of the players’ Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs. This includes any time with St. Louis, if applicable.

Date Trade with For Major Leaguer Sent prospects Pros. rank Career fWAR
12/14/17 Miami Marcell Ozuna Sandy Alcantara #7 0.1
Magneuris Sierra #8 -1.5
Zac Gallen #11
Daniel Castano
9/8/17 Philadelphia Juan Nicasio Eliezer Alvarez #16
7/31/16 White Sox Zach Duke Charlie Tilson #6 -0.6
7/31/15 Milwaukee Jonathan Broxton Malik Collymore #22
7/30/15 Cleveland Brandon Moss Rob Kaminsky #3
7/24/15 Miami Steve Cishek Kyle Barraclough 2.3
11/17/14 Atlanta Jason Heyward (Shelby Miller 7.7) MLB
Jordan Walden Tyrell Jenkins #11 -1.0
7/30/14 Cleveland Justin Masterson James Ramsey #8
8/30/13 Milwaukee John Axford Michael Blazek -0.6
7/31/12 Miami Edward Mujica Zack Cox #5
7/31/11 Dodgers Rafael Furcal Alex Castellanos -0.4
11/30/10 Dodgers Ryan Theriot Blake Hawksworth #8 -0.3
7/24/09 Oakland Matt Holliday Brett Wallace #2 -0.8
Clayton Mortensen #11 -0.9
Shane Peterson 0.4
6/27/09 Cleveland Mark DeRosa (Chris Perez 0.5) MLB
Jess Todd #4 0.1
12/4/08 San Diego Khalil Greene Mark Worrell #33 -0.4
Luke Gregerson #24 8.8

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