With three teams within 2.5 games of eachother, the National League Central figures to have one of the closest and exciting division races down the stretch. That’s why it was surprising to see none of the teams involved in the race — Milwaukee, St. Louis and Pittsburgh — go hard after any significant upgrades at Thursday’s trade deadline.
Sure, improvements were made — specifically in St. Louis — but even those were made more to replace what had been lost to injury than improve over what they already had.
The Cardinals got the ball rolling a day early, trading a solid-but-unspectacular prospect in James Ramsey to Cleveland for Justin Masterson on Wednesday. The deal for Masterson is reminscient of a deal the Cards made in 2010 with Cleveland for Jake Westbrook — at the time, Westbrook was struggling and not looking like a former All-Star, putting up an ERA of 4.65 in 21 starts before the trade. Westbrook saw better luck in St. Louis, posting a 3.48 ERA in 12 starts to close out the year.
Masterson has struggled mightily this year, just as Westbrook did in his final months with Cleveland. His 5.51 ERA would be the second-highest in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify, although his fielding-independent numbers suggest his ERA should be much closer to 4. Opponents have a .350 BABIP against him this year. His career average in that department is .306. It’s likely going to come down in St. Louis, and that’s before they fix whatever’s been ailing him, as they tend to do there. And all they had to give up was Ramsey, an outfielder whose upside seems to be that of a fourth outfielder and barely cracked most Top 10 lists for the Cardinals’ (admittedly stacked) farm system.
The bigger pitching acquisition was John Lackey on deadline day. Lackey becomes the Cardinals’ second-best starter behind Adam Wainwright, giving them a workhorse starter when everyone outside of Wainwright and Lance Lynn has struggled to go deep into games. There’s also the postseason experience, if you’re into that kind of narrative, something the Cardinals know all too well after losing to him in the deciding game of last year’s World Series.
The biggest benefit to adding Lackey isn’t even for this year’s stretch run — it’s the fact that they now hold an option on him for next season at just $500,000, and they didn’t give up anyone from their minor league system to get him. Joe Kelly and Allen Craig go to Boston, which frees up a rotation spot for Lackey and gives Oscar Taveras the chance to start every day while getting Craig’s struggling bat out of the lineup.
Masterson and Lackey are two very solid adds for a Cardinals rotation that was starting to look a little thin, but they’re also moves that get them back to where they were before Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia went down with injuries. Even with those two in the rotation, the Cardinals were trailing the Brewers in the division, and the Redbirds didn’t do much of anything to fix what’s truly been holding them back this year — the offense that’s scored only 393 runs, second-lowest in baseball to only San Diego.
Of course, the Brewers have question marks of their own, which is why they saw their division lead slip from 6.5 games to being tied with the Cardinals just a couple days before the All-Star break. The back of the bullpen has been shaky, with closer Francisco Rodriguez surrendering nine home runs this season and lefty Will Smith starting to show signs of overuse. The free-swinging lineup also had three regulars posting OBPs near or below .300 — Mark Reynolds, Jean Segura and Khris Davis. Reynolds and Davis have at least been hitting their fair share of home runs, but it’s been a lineup prone to long scoring droughts.
After finding the asking price on high-leverage relievers too steep (thanks, Angels, for setting that bar with the Huston Street trade) and flirting with the idea of David Price or Jon Lester despite not having any top level prospects to offer, the Brewers decided to at least help a sorry bench and give Davis a platoon partner by dealing for Gerardo Parra. Hitting .259/.305/.362 for Arizona this year, Parra’s not going to solve a ton of problems for the Brewers, but he’s at least a better fourth outfielder option than Logan Schafer (.183/.267/.288) was, and pairing him with Carlos Gomez in the outfield means teams are going to have a lot of trouble getting extra bases on balls hit to the gaps.
With the Cardinals and Brewers making moves, the Pirates chose to do…nothing. It was a little surprising, since they’ve at least made minor moves the past two seasons to ensure they would stay in contention, but it’s also consistent with their philosophy of not mortgaging what could be a very bright future for short-term success. They were rumored to be interested in Jon Lester, but not to the point of trading any of their top outfield prospects. They could have maybe done something to tweak the lineup, but the Bucs already carry the highest on-base percentage in baseball, and if they keep putting men on, sooner or later they’re going to start scoring more runs. Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole should be back soon, anyway, and the Pirates have been keen on August waiver deals in the past.
It’s probably safe to assume that at least one of the three teams in contention for the division title will make a minor deal in August, if not all three. But the interesting thing here is that none of the three caved into the pressure to make a big splash in such a close race, and staying consistent with recent history, all three preferred to keep their best prospects.
It would’ve been easy for the Cardinals to entertain a Taveras-for-Price blockbuster. Milwaukee could’ve given up Jimmy Nelson and a few other prospects in the low minors for Jon Lester. The Pirates could’ve done the same with Josh Bell, Marte, or any of their flamethrowing right-handers in the minors. None of the three GMs wanted to give up six years of control on a prospect when such a close race means they could find themselves in a distant third place before the end of August, and not when there are so many head-to-head games left to play.
The Cardinals play the Brewers 10 more times this season, and the two teams start a series tonight in St. Louis. The Brewers and Pirates play six more times, as do the Pirates and Cardinals. With the Cardinals dealing for two guys who only play once every five days and the Brewers adding a bench player, the division race is going to be decided on the field largely by guys who were already there, not deadline deals.