Though the St. Louis Cardinals have the resources to make a blockbuster deal for an ace starting pitcher such as the Rays’ David Price or Jon Lester of the Red Sox, general manager John Mozeliak’s apparent preference was for a middle-of-the-rotation arm to slot in behind Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn.
On Wednesday, with just over 24 hours to go until MLB’s July 31 trade deadline, the Cards got their man in right-hander Justin Masterson. St. Louis acquired the 29-year-old from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Double-A outfielder James Ramsey. Masterson is currently on the disabled list for right knee inflammation, but is scheduled to be activated on Saturday. He’ll face the Brewers in his Cardinals debut at Busch Stadium.
However, Mozeliak didn’t exactly add a sure thing to the Cardinals rotation here. Masterson has arguably been one of the American League’s best starters in two of the past three years. But he’s slogging through his worst season, and the timing couldn’t be worse for him with free agency awaiting this winter.
In 19 appearances, Masterson has a 5.51 ERA while allowing 106 hits in 98 innings. With 93 strikeouts, his rate of 8.5 Ks per nine innings would be the second-best of his career if it maintains. But it’s down from 9.1 Ks per nine last year. Of greater concern are the 56 walks Masterson has allowed. His current walk rate of 5.1 per nine frames would be his highest since becoming a full-time starting pitcher five seasons ago.
Masterson’s velocity is also down from last season, with his average fastball dropping from 91.6 mph to 89.1 and slider dipping from 83 mph to 80.3. Even his changeup is being thrown with less velocity than in previous years.
The Cardinals are obviously hoping that Masterson’s downward trending numbers are due to his right knee injury. Pitchers probably shouldn’t be judged on the performance of minor league rehab assignments, as the priority is likely rebuilding arm strength and stamina or finding the feel of certain pitches. But allowing seven runs and nine hits in 11.2 innings with 10 strikeouts and eight walks seems to justify raising an eyebrow.
Yet the Indians and Masterson didn’t feel a third rehab start was necessary, and planned to start him on Friday against the Rangers. That would’ve been after the trade deadline, so a chance to showcase Masterson for teams interested in him wasn’t possible.
Is it possible that Cleveland’s front office pushed Masterson’s schedule back so that pursuing clubs would have to make a deal based more on clean medical information and good faith? (Following a five-day pitching schedule would have put Masterson in line to pitch Wednesday, though Monday’s off-day pushed Corey Kluber’s next start back.) We may soon find out.
Mozeliak is obviously willing to take the risk, especially since he didn’t have to trade an elite prospect like outfielder Oscar Taveras or pitcher Carlos Martinez to get Masterson. Ramsey, 24, was St. Louis’ first-round draft pick in 2012 (No. 23 overall) and listed among the organization’s top 10 prospects before the season. He’s fulfilled that ranking by hitting .300 with a .916 OPS, 14 doubles, 13 home runs and 36 RBI at Double-A Springfield.
But the Cardinals are loaded with outfielders at the major league level, along with Taveras, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty knocking on the door for an opportunity. If Mozeliak could afford to give up a highly regarded prospect, it would be one of his outfielders. The Indians assigned Ramsey to Triple-A Columbus, which indicates where he stands in the Tribe’s minor league system compared to his status with the Cardinals. That’s a decent return for a pitcher Cleveland was content to lose to free agency.
Though it appears that Mozeliak got the mid-rotation starter he was seeking, there is still plenty of ammunition to pursue a deal for Price or Lester if the Cardinals want to boost their starting staff even further. As mentioned, St. Louis has at least one top outfield prospect to include in a blockbuster package, along with pitchers like Martinez, Marco Gonzales and Tyler Lyons — or maybe even a major league arm, such as Shelby Miller.
But if you’re in the Cards’ position, perhaps you feel that a major deal isn’t necessary. St. Louis is two games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and a half-game away from a wild-card spot. If Masterson is healthy and productive and Michael Wacha is able to return in September, the Cardinals’ starting rotation is one of the best in the league. The hope from there is that a lineup that hasn’t performed to expectations so far this season begins to produce some offense.
Of course, Mozeliak could get some help at second or third base if he wanted. The pieces are there to make that happen.