The most fascinating aspect of the Jake Westbrook-Ryan Ludwick trade is how two teams assigned completely different values to the same players.
The Padres preferred Ludwick to Westbrook. The Cardinals preferred Westbrook to Ludwick. Yet the three-team deal that also included the Indians made sense for each team involved.
Judging from local media reactions in each city, the trade is toughest to sell in St. Louis, and understandably so: The Cardinals’ offense largely has performed below expectations, and subtracting Ludwick won’t help.
Still, the Cardinals had their reasons for preferring a starting pitcher to a hitter. The decision to turn over right field to Jon Jay, whose major-league resume essentially consists of one hot month, was only part of the equation.
But first, some background.
Interviews with executives from each of the three clubs and others about the trade produced a number of revelations:
The Padres, not the Cardinals, made the harder initial push for Westbrook. In fact, the Cardinals did not express much interest, and the Indians viewed them as a poor trading partner because of the depleted state of the St. Louis farm system.
The Padres’ early objective, unbeknown to the Cardinals, was to acquire Westbrook and stick him in their rotation. But they shifted course in the final days before the nonwaiver deadline, telling the Cardinals: If we can get Westbrook, we would trade him and a prospect for Ludwick.
The Cardinals had two goals in their quest to add a starting pitcher: to complete a trade without sacrificing prospects and to keep their payroll at approximately the same level. Ludwick, earning $5.45 million, was perhaps their only player who could help them achieve both ends.
The Indians were not aware they were involved in a three-team deal until late Friday night, the eve of the deadline.
For the Indians, the basic framework was the same: They were trading Westbrook and cash for Padres Double-A right-hander Corey Kluber. The money instead wound up going to the Cardinals, who also received Single-A left-hander Nick Greenwood from the Padres.
If Westbrook had not agreed to a reduction in his trade bonuses amounting to about $2.3 million, the Indians would have needed to include so much cash that they almost would have lost money in the deal.
The amount Westbrook forfeited is not known, but the union allowed him to take less because he did not actually reduce the value of his contract; he would not have received any bonuses if he had stayed with the Indians.
In the end, the Indians wound up with a better prospect than they might have received if they had traded directly with either club; the Padres were willing to give up more for Ludwick, who is under club control through next season, than they were for Westbrook, a potential free agent. The Padres also believed Ludwick would make a greater impact than Westbrook, a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater.
Ludwick projects to earn $7.5 million to $8 million salary in his final year of arbitration, but the Padres do not necessarily see that as a negative. Attracting free-agent hitters to pitcher-friendly Petco Park is difficult, and the Padres probably would not find better value on the open market.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, took an entirely different view.
Ludwick was sidelined from June 26 to July 23 with a strained left calf. For the first week he was out, Nick Stavinoha mostly played right. But then manager Tony La Russa turned to Jay, who responded by getting ridiculously hot. The Cardinals went 14-10 in Ludwick’s absence, including an eight-game winning streak.
If not for Ludwick’s injury, Jay never would have gotten his chance. And if not for Jay getting his chance, this trade never would have happened.
Do the Cardinals believe that Jay, a left-handed hitter, will continue his torrid pace? Of course not. But Jay, 25, was a career .301/.367/.432 hitter in the minors. He hit at every level, and the Cardinals consider that a good barometer of future major-league performance.
If the Cardinals are right about Jay, they can find a platoon partner for him and get production comparable to Ludwick’s. So, Ludwick’s rising salary actually was a greater issue for the Cardinals than it was for the Padres, even though the Cardinals ranked 12th in opening-day payroll and the Padres 29th.
Jay, a rookie, will be far more affordable than Ludwick going forward. Ludwick, if he had stayed with the Cardinals, would have entered the offseason as a potential nontender, significantly reducing his trade value.
Then there was the pitching aspect.
Right-hander Kyle Lohse is close to returning from a forearm injury. Righty Brad Penny could return from a back problem in September. But the Cardinals were concerned not only about their depth, but also the season-long strain on their top three starters: right-handers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter and rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia.
The addition of Westbrook, who allowed two runs in six innings against the Astros on Monday night in his Cardinals debut, should make it easier for the team to skip Garcia in August. Wainwright, projected to pitch a career-high 247 innings, and Carpenter, projected to pitch 241, also might benefit from breathers.
The three are a combined 35-13 with a 2.49 ERA. Such a level of performance will be difficult to sustain all season. The Cardinals, without adding a starting pitcher, without knowing what to expect from Lohse and Penny, would have been on edge.
So there you have it.
The Cardinals needed Westbrook. The Padres needed Ludwick. The Indians needed a prospect.