Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Cardinals improve, but is it enough?

In separate trades, the Cardinals supplemented their starting rotation, acquiring right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The moves were quintessentially Mozeliakian, as the GM followed his typical script by accurately identifying needs then fulfilling those needs with solid but not blockbuster (or bank-busting) transactions. The only question will be whether they’re enough.

As with the wintertime transactions, in which the team’s needs were fairly perspicuous and Mozeliak addressed them, the needs of the mid-summer version of the team were written on the wall. After Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha succumbed to injuries, to say nothing of Shelby Miller’s untimely aberration, the starting staff was obviously not deep enough to take an offensively-challenged team to the playoffs. Masterson and Lackey (a curious pairing of names, to be sure), fit the bill and effectively take the place of Carlos Martinez and Kelly in the rotation for the rest of the season. How much more effective? Let’s look at rest-of-season fielding-independent pitching (FIP) projections for the four pitchers:

Pitcher ZiPS Steamer
Martinez 3.75 3.48
Kelly 4.02 4.14
Masterson 3.74 3.53
Lackey 3.88 3.76

So yes, the Cardinal rotation is better, by only by a slight margin.

As for the offense, it was a matter of addition by subtraction. The Cardinals jettison the perplexing 2014 campaign of Craig and offer right field fully to prospect Oscar Taveras, who,  we should note, Mozeliak opted to keep after rumored deals involving the team’s top prospect for top-end pitchers like David Price. Craig wasn’t showing any signs of regressing to his career norms of .343 OBP and .460 SLG (possibly related to declining bat speed, as we recently wrote), but manager Mike Matheny was reluctant to completely bench the 2013 All-Star, perhaps out of a kind of loss aversion. Still, a player with Craig’s resume would seem a steep loss. But since the club trading a player tends to have more knowledge about the player than the team receiving him, we have to assume that the Cardinals know something more about Craig’s state and his chances of rebounding than the Red Sox do.

It’s also worth noting that recent performance matters, namely in the case of Matt Adams. As of the spring of 2013, Adams was persona non grata and had no future with the team. Yet he has been the team’s best hitter in 2014, leading the club with a .362 wOBA. Ironically, his performance made Craig (who had the lowest wOBA on the team) — and not himself — expendable.

Ultimately, the Cardinals, including Craig, have only themselves to blame for the trade becoming necessary, not to mention the shabby handling of informing the traded players, who found out via media channels. Two lost starting pitchers are hard to replace, but if their offense had performed even close to their production last year — they’re currently 21st in MLB in wOBA — Mozeliak might’ve stopped after the Masterson trade. In the end, the Cardinals’ much-heralded pitching depth was illusory, and instead their outfielders — as evidenced by James Ramsey fetching Masterson and Craig becoming superfluous because of Taveras and Memphis’s Stephen Piscotty — provided the surplus. The team overvalued Martinez’s ability to contribute this year and forced itself to have to go outside the organization to seek help. It’s a fair amount of clubhouse pain to endure — Craig and Kelly were popular, and the team has seldom traded players from the active roster — for a marginal upgrade. It hardly seems like a clinching pair of moves, a la Oakland’s bold plays for Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija. But with five playoff spots per league, the bar to aim for is low these days. The game is to spend just enough to make it over the bar and enter the postseason lotto. With Lackey and Masterson, John Mozeliak has slightly increased the Cardinals’ odds of getting a ticket.

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