By Rob Rains
The Cardinals have spent the last two months trying to stabilize a pitching staff riddled by injuries and sub-par performances and that approach didn’t change in advance of Friday’s major-league trade deadline.
In acquiring J.A. Happ from the Twins and Jon Lester from the Nationals, the Cardinals added two veterans with long resumes – but also with a lot of doubts about their most recent performances.
In his five starts in July for the Twins, the 38-year-old Happ was 1-3 with a 9.22 ERA, allowing 28 earned runs in a combined 27 1/3 innings. In his last six starts for the Nationals, since June 25, the 37-year-old Lester was 2-3 with a 7.11 ERA, allowing 20 earned runs in 25 1/3 innings.
The Cardinals sent John Gant and Double A left-handed reliever Evan Sisk to the Twins for Happ. For Lester, the Cardinals traded outfielder Lane Thomas, who seemingly had run out of chances to play in St. Louis.
In a trade deadline oddity, Gant and Happ had to merely walk from one side of Busch Stadium to the other to complete the trade as the Twins were in town to begin a three-game series.
While the two additions arrive with questions, John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, said in a zoom session with the St. Louis media that he believes the experience and veteran leadership Happ and Lester will bring to the rotation could have multiple benefits.
“I hope it makes us better,” Mozeliak said. “It allows someone like an (Johan) Oviedo to continue to develop and not do it at a major-league level or in that pressure cooker. It will allow him to grow at a more natural pace.
“When putting a major-league team on the field sometimes it’s nice to know you are running someone out there who has been there and done that. I think now we see that.”
The Cardinals have more of a history with Lester than Happ. Lester has started 439 games in his 16 years in the majors, 21 against the Cardinals.
“He’s someone that understands the game,” Mozeliak said. “For him, seeing what was happening in Washington, he wanted to go someplace that was still trying to compete. He had some familiarity with us as well and I think he was excited to join the Cardinals. He seemed pumped about coming here.”
Mozeliak acknowledged that there were other starting pitchers who were dealt before Friday’s deadline the team might have been interested in, but not at a price the Cardinals considered higher than they wanted to pay.
“We also wanted to try to do it (add pitching) in a way that we wouldn’t be giving up a lot of future talent,” Mozeliak said. “That was something that was sort of critical in our decision making. Needless to say today we felt like we took a couple of steps forward without having to sacrifice our future.
“We still believe in this team but we also still believe in where we are going next year. That was critical in our decision making.”
Mozeliak said the Cardinals did not consider including any of their top five minor-league prospects in any potential deal.
For the season with the Twins, Happ was 5-6 with a 6.77 ERA in 19 starts in which he averaged a little more than five innings per start. Lester was 3-5 with a 5.02 in 16 starts for the Nationals, averaging just under 5 innings per start.
With both at least temporarily joining the rotation, the Cardinals will have four left-handers among their five starters, along with Kwang Hyun Kim and Wade LeBlanc. With Adam Wainwright the other starter, Kim will be the youngest of the group at 32 years old. Happ and Lester will become the 28th and 29th pitchers the Cardinals have used this season, not counting Matt Carpenter, and the 11th and 12th starters.
The Cardinals went into Friday night’s game with a 51-51 record, 9 ½ games out of first in the NL Central and 7 ½ games behind San Diego for the second wild-card spot. An off-day on Monday will allow the team to reset the rotation following starts by LeBlanc on Friday night, Jake Woodford on Saturday night and Wainwright on Sunday.
It remains to be seen what the rotation will be once Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas complete their current minor-league rehap assignments. The Cardinals are still projecting that both will be ready to pitch by mid-August. The team is scheduled to play its first of 13 remaining games against the division-leading Brewers on Aug. 17.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks is when we had quality starting pitching we’ve ended up with a more positive outcome,” Mozeliak said. “We’ve got two months. We’ll see what happens.”
Gant started the year in the rotation but struggled with his control, like many of the Cardinals pitchers, and was moved to the bullpen. He was facing a third year of arbitration this winter, with a possibility he either would have been traded then or not offered a contract for 2022.
Thomas, 25, has struggled ever since breaking his hand with he was hit by a pitch late in the 2019 season. He had COVID during the 2020 season and did not play well early this season with the Cardinals, although he did play better at Triple A, posting a .265 average with four homers and 20 RBIs in 113 at-bats.
With the Cardinals starting outfield set with Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson, finding at-bats for Thomas at the major-league level would have been difficult, and he certainly will have a better opportunity for playing time with the Nationals.
Sisk, 24, was the Cardinals 16th round pick in the 2018 draft. He was at Double A Springfield after beginning this year at Class A Peoria and overall had 46 strikeouts in 32 innings, averaging 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
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Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports