A year ago, just before the non-waiver trade deadline, I wrote something really dumb.
Perhaps you remember the column. I know many Red Sox fans do. It began, “The Red Sox should trade their best prospect, infielder Xander Bogaerts, to get Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee.”
My argument was that adding Lee would give the Sox their best chance of winning the World Series. And I’ll admit now, part of my motivation was to tweak the notion that every top prospect is a precious, untouchable commodity.
Needless to say, I used the wrong prospect as an example — the Red Sox not only won the World Series without Lee, but they also did it with Bogaerts playing a significant role.
And now, nearly a year later, that column is on my mind as I ponder how the Cardinals should respond to injuries to two of their starting pitchers, left-hander Jaime Garcia and righty Michael Wacha.
The Cardinals are so deep in young talent they could acquire virtually any available player they wanted, including Rays left-hander David Price. But if the Rays’ requirement for Price includes outfielder Oscar Taveras — and the Cardinals believe in Taveras as a player and a person, believe that he is their Bogaerts, their George Springer, their Gregory Polanco — then St. Louis should just say no.
Teams need to think twice about trading potentially elite sluggers; the lack of offense in the game becomes more of an issue each season. The Cardinals alone are down more than a run, from 4.83 per game, first in the NL in 2013, to 3.77 per game, 13th this season.
Of course, you never know exactly how teams view their prospects — or even their veterans, for that matter. Wil Myers was untouchable, until he wasn’t. The Rays acquired the outfielder for right-hander James Shields in a seven-player trade on Dec. 9, 2012. Presumably, they would want the same type of elite prospect for Price — and more.
Shields was owed $23.75 million over two seasons at the time the Rays acquired him. The team that lands Price also will get him for two pennant races and at roughly the same money, though he would in that team’s uniform for less time overall.
Price, if a trade went down tomorrow, would command an obligation of about $25 million — $7 million for the rest of this season plus $18 million next season, in his final year of arbitration before free agency.
Many rival executives contend that the Rays’ market for Price will be limited because of his 2015 salary, which some believe may be closer to $20 million. Finances, to be sure, are part of any trade equation. But as club revenues continue to soar, I’m guessing that more than one or two teams could figure out a way to pay David Freakin’ Price.
Price, who on Wednesday became the first pitcher with five straight 10-strikeout games since Johan Santana in 2004. Price, who leads the majors with a 144-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio and whose Fielding Independent Pitching metric suggests that his 3.63 ERA could be headed lower.
So: Why not the Cardinals?
They’re not generally big spenders — their $111 million Opening Day payroll ranked 13th in the majors. But they can lop off $13.75 million next season simply by declining to re-sign their potential free agents, second baseman Mark Ellis and relievers Jason Motte and Pat Neshek — and even more if they non-tender arbitration-eligible players such as outfielder Peter Bourjos.
The math is not quite that simple — those players would require replacements, while others would receive raises. Whatever, I seriously doubt that money would be the primary obstacle in a Price deal, at least not the money owed Price. No, the primary obstacle would be the Cardinals’ reluctance under general manager John Mozeliak to part with high-end, cost-efficient young talent.
That’s hardly a criticism — Mozeliak’s acumen is evident from the Cardinals’ four playoff appearances, two National League pennants and one World Series title in the past five years. None of those accomplishments was achieved, however, by leveraging the future for short-term solutions. The Cardinals hoard their young talent, and it serves them well.
That said, the team’s current predicament is troubling — beyond Garcia and Wacha, right-hander Adam Wainwright recently missed a start with a sore elbow and righty Shelby Miller left Tuesday night’s game with back spasms, though he expects to make his next start.
If further pitching injuries occur, the Cardinals might not view their season as salvageable. As it stands, they could do nothing — or deal for a lesser starter and/or infielder — and still be in decent shape.
Wainwright, surging right-hander Lance Lynn and righty Carlos Martinez (potentially) could form a strong top of the rotation. Miller, a well-rested Wacha (assuming he returns) and even righty Joe Kelly (who is working his way back from a strained left hamstring) would give the Cardinals plenty of options.
Then again, goodness gracious, imagine a right-left punch of Wainwright and Price.
The duo would trump the Brewers’ Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse and, if the Cardinals reach the postseason, prove a worthy counter to the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson and/or the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
If the Cardinals were to trade Taveras, they could justify it by saying that they still would still have Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and James Ramsey — three other young, if less talented, outfielders. At the moment, the Cardinals can’t even create playing time for Taveras, who is back at Triple A. So, it’s not as if they would damage their major-league club this season.
Could the Cardinals get Price without losing Taveras, by offering, say, Martinez, Grichuk or Piscotty and a third quality piece? Perhaps, but the Cardinals seem to hold Martinez in high regard, viewing him as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter. And some other club — the Dodgers with outfielder Joc Pederson, for example — could build a better package.
The Angels, sources say, would love a shot at Price but might not have the pieces to get him. The Pirates’ farm system is the best in baseball, according to Baseball America. The Mariners had interest in Price last offseason.
Even an AL East rival such as the Jays should not be dismissed. Sure, the Rays would face Price for the rest of this season as well as the next. But the Jays potentially would face each of the prospects they traded to Tampa Bay for six years — risk for both sides.
I could be wrong. Goodness knows I’ve been wrong before. But I just don’t see a Taveras-for-Price deal as the Cardinals’ kind of play.