It was clear that something had to be done to change the identity of the Cardinals this winter. Beginning with sparking an offense that yielded over 160 fewer runs last season from the year before, to finding a new direction in the wake of the premature loss of Oscar Taveras, the Cardinal offseason has taken on a more urgent tone that could have been predicted just not too long ago.
The challenge of finding such a vital fit in a short period of time is clearly a challenge that was not being taken lightly, as the club shook things up in a major way by acquiring outfielder Jason Heyward along with pitcher Jordan Walden for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. It is a blockbuster trade in both the parts and the significance of it, and continues the theme that very few are safe in the Cardinal core these days.
The deal was a deal that was born of both necessity and uncertainty as the Cardinals faced a very uncertain situation about how to proceed in right field. On side of the coin there was the prospect of going forward with Randal Grichuk, who started the majority of the postseason and flashed promise at both the plate and in the field, albeit sporadically. There was also the option of putting top prospect Stephen Piscotty into the mix as well, who hit .288 and drove in 69 runs for the Memphis Redbirds last summer.
Yet the prospect of leaving a spot in the everyday lineup that will need to be heavily leaned on to two developing potentials had its obvious pitfalls, so the call to action seemed more prevalent to solve outside of the organization. Yet the complication in play was to not overcommit to any one free agent property in the name of blocking any of the internal options that have shown obvious promise. In a year where none of the free agent options were overly enthusing for the Cardinals situation, it became clear that if a trade could be wrangled, it would fit the bill best.
And on Monday afternoon that is exactly the route that John Mozeliak took, in trading away one of the team’s best young arms in Miller and a promising, although oft-injured prospect in Jenkins to land Heyward and Walden.
On the incoming portion, two immediate needs are filled. Heyward becomes the obvious choice in right and also offers the potential of being a variably used tool in the everyday lineup as well. He has had success as both a leadoff and second batter, which offers options for the placement of Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong to be more variably used as well. In the field, he is perhaps the premiere right fielder in the game, winner of two Gold Gloves, including the 2014 nod in right.
Walden offers a late inning option that can work in a setup role, where he has thrived in his career thus far. He dials up his fastball regularly in the high 90’s and has experience as both a setup man and closer. He has 38 career saves, although over the past few years his impact has been in the bridge to the ninth inning, where he has notched 34 holds for the Braves since 2013. His acquisition fills the need for a versatile late inning reliever that was opened up when Pat Neshek reached the open market following the year.
On the other side of the deal are the departing properties, mainly Miller. Long held in the esteem of being a major part of the Cardinal rotation’s future, there is no doubt that despite his up and down performances, he was a tough chip to part with. Since joining the Cardinal rotation in 2013, the 24-year-old righty had a record of 25-18 with an ERA of 3.40. Opposing batters managed only a .236 average against him in 2014, the 11th best mark in the National League. However, he often struggled with his control and commanding a second pitch off of his fastball was an area of his development that has continued to lag as well.
Yet regardless of this, it still had to be a deal of the utmost essential nature for Miller to be moved in the name of completing it. The Cardinals have long been possessive of their home grown talent, and more than anything else, the service years of contract control they bring. But in order to acquire Heyward, they dealt a combined 10 years of control years to get a definite one from Heyward and one from Walden as well. Add in the inherent value that the team places on its young arms, and the urgency that the club felt in completing this swap is clear. This was a move the team felt was of the utmost importance to complete, and they went outside of their usual box in order to secure it.
But in reality, perhaps the dynamic of the Cardinal approach to talent acquisition is just in the middle of a continuing shift from where its norm was previously. Over the last calendar year, they have issued a large free agent contract to Jhonny Peralta which was off the beaten path of the times, traded from its established core in David Freese, Allen Craig, Joe Kelly and now Miller, and are now continuing to bring in more foreign properties to help push a team that was nearly completely dedicated to growing from within over the top.
In many ways, Miller and Heyward represented the same idea for each of their now former clubs: former top prospects that had stagnated in regards to their original purpose, and now were of best off as chips to bring in newly need quantities from outside. For the Cardinals, it is a continued walk down a new, but necessary path and as resounding of a statement possible that the status quo is reshaping itself in real-time. Stay tuned.