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The St. Louis Cardinals And The MLB Trade Deadline: An Appeal For Patience

The St. Louis Cardinals have a lot of prospects, and a chance to contend. But maybe they should be patient ahead of the 2012 MLB Trade Deadline.


The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals may be the 2012 Cardinals' worst enemy.

That 2011 club rose from the dead in late August, exceeding everyone's expectations in the process and reinforcing the idea that, in sports, anything is possible. It's also given baseball fans a rallying cry come the July MLB trade deadline, urging their favorite team not to give up so easily on the season because—hey, look what might happen.

But dreams are just that. The 2011 Cardinals happened. So did the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays, a team that needed to reel off five straight wins to close the season just to clinch a playoff spot. A team that charged into said playoffs on the strength of a game-162, 12-inning walk-off victory. And, riding that momentum, they took Game 1 of the ALDS against the terrifying Texas Rangers behind the left arm of 22-year-old rookie Matt Moore. The team couldn't lose.

Until they did. In three consecutive games. A season's worth of hard work, not to mention two months' worth of momentum, washed away in the course of four days in early October.

Maybe the more important case study from 2011 was the San Francisco Giants. Unlike the Cardinals and the Rays, the Giants did not make the playoffs last season. No inspired run. No September magic.

What the Giants did do, though, was take their best shot at a playoff berth. On July 27, the Giants agreed to send pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to the New York Mets in exchange for Carlos Beltran. And Beltran performed as advertised, posting a .920 OPS after the trade but also missing 13 games in mid-August due to injury. The Giants missed the playoffs by four games.

Wheeler, on the other hand, has established himself as a top prospect. The No. 52 prospect on Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein's list prior to 2011, Wheeler came in at No. 30 this year. He's putting up great numbers for the Mets' AA affiliate, and it seems only a matter of time before he's starting for the big club.

This is a cautionary tale. Not every prospect reaches his potential (and Wheeler still might not.) And when a team wins the World Series, like the Cardinals did in 2011, trading young talent like Colby Rasmus is justified as a necessary sacrifice. It may not be fair to judge a trade on results, but hey, it's a results-driven league. John Mozeliak is a genius and Brian Sabean is a goat.

The Cardinals are, on paper, talented enough to make a run at another World Championship. But inconsistency and injuries have found them in the middle of the pack in the NL Central. While there's certainly enough time left to break out and separate themselves from the pack, both the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates look to have enough offense and pitching, respectively, to stick around until the end.

As the trade deadline approaches, the Cardinals are in that very dangerous spot between contender and pretender. An underwhelming division and the advent of a second wild card will tempt the Cardinals to go for it; their fans will see no reason why they shouldn't. But part of being a good general manager - and I think John Mozeliak has proven that he's better than many - is knowing when to shove all the chips into the middle of the table and when to fold your hand.

This is an argument, not for the latter, but for a level-headed assessment of your 2012 St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals are in a unique position, maybe the most enviable position of any team in the majors. They've got a roster capable of winning this year and a minor league system ready to help them win for many years to come. It's a far cry from the system in the early 2000s, when poor drafting and yearly attempts at contending left the system bare. The Cardinals, as an organization, are looking up.

Maybe fixing the Cardinals' 2012 problems is as easy as acquiring a LOOGY, a mid-level starting pitcher and a bullpen arm. The Texas Rangers thought Mike Adams might be the missing piece for their bullpen in 2011. In exchange for Adams, the Rangers sent two pitching prospects, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland, to San Diego. Adams couldn't help get the Rangers to the promised land. Erlin and Wieland were the No. 2 and 5 prospects, respectively, in Goldstein's ranking of the Padres' system before 2012. Even bullpen pitchers come with a cost.

The problem is that the Cardinals system seems to have a noticeable divide between untouchables and those whom other teams would prefer not to touch. In a lot of minds, Shelby Miller, Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong and Tyrell Jenkins profile as above average major league players. Matt Adams, Zack Cox, Trevor Rosenthal and Jordan Swagerty have a chance to be. Everything after is fairly pedestrian, players who may not be suitable as throw-ins in a trade, let alone centerpieces.

What would a trade package for a worthwhile return look like? Do you include Miller or Taveras and cross your fingers that they don't become superstars? Do you trade Wong and continue to search for a long-term answer at second base? Do you move Adams, Cox or Rosenthal and begin stripping what is widely considered one of the five best minor league systems in baseball?

Jeff Luhnow made the point that as a member of the front office responsible for drafting players, sometimes you recognize that the best way a prospect can help his club is as part of a trade that fills other needs. Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks writes a feature entitled "Prospects Will Break Your Heart." There are endless examples of prospects dealt early in their careers who didn't pan out. If you're looking for reasons to wave off the notion that prospects are valuable entities, you don't have to look far.

But teams certainly remember the ones who got away. Jeff Bagwell was one. John Smoltz was, too. (The Smoltz trade, from Detroit to Atlanta in exchange for Doyle Alexander, may be the best example of when well-intentioned trades go wrong. Alexander was fantastic after the trade, going 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 88.1 innings down the stretch for the Tigers. He was better than anything the Tigers could have imagined they were getting in the deal. Unfortunately, they still lost to the Twins in the ALCS. Smoltz went on to become, well, Smoltz.)

It's an admittedly conservative approach, holding onto prospects when the opportunity to win is within reach. It's also probably an unpopular one. But those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The Cardinals do have a chance to reach the mountaintop again this year, but they've also got the possibility to fall apart, deal or no deal. Sometimes you've got to know when the odds are stacked against you. And as someone who would like to see the Cardinals have success that extends beyond this October, the right play this time might be no play at all.