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Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Cardinals need patience, not David Price

By David Schoenfield

I once heard John Mozeliak, the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, say that perhaps the most important thing an organization can do is properly evaluate its own talent.

The Cardinals have done this extraordinarily well in recent seasons. Back in 2011, they were comfortable trading Colby Rasmus because they believed Jon Jay could hold down center field defensively and hit enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup. They were right, and they got hot in October and won the World Series. They let Albert Pujols walk as a free agent, believing in Allen Craig. He drove in over 90 runs each of the past two seasons. Last year, they tried the unorthodox move of switching Matt Carpenter from third base to second base, trusting in his work ethic and that his athleticism was better than advertised. It worked out perfectly, and the Cardinals reached another World Series. They trusted rookies Michael Wacha in the rotation and Carlos Martinez for late-inning relief work.

The Cardinals are reaching a similar crossroads right now. Injuries to Wacha and Jaime Garcia and Shelby Miller's struggles have left the rotation a little thin behind Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and workhorse Lance Lynn. St. Louis has been a front-runner in the David Price trade rumors, which of course is different from being the front-runner for actually acquiring him.

My ESPN colleague Jim Bowden just proposed a blockbuster trade idea: The Cardinals acquire Price, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and Joel Peralta from the Tampa Bay Rays for Martinez, Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Peter Bourjos.

We can debate the merits of that deal (Jim suggested St. Louis would do it only contingent upon Price's signing an extension), but even if such a trade discussion were to happen, the key element is how the Cardinals view Martinez, Taveras and Wong. Are these three young players -- two rookies and Martinez, who barely exceeded his rookie eligibility last season -- building blocks for the next generation of Cardinals teams?

It all comes down to proper evaluation. The core of the Cardinals, although not necessarily old, is getting older. Matt Holliday is 34 but is headed to the worst season of his career, hitting .260 with five home runs; Yadier Molina turns 32 next week and has a lot of mileage behind the plate; Craig turns 30 in a few days and is having a bad season; shortstop Jhonny Peralta is 32.

That's an offensive group that could be ripe for collapse in the near future; in fact, it hasn't been good this year as is. The Cardinals are 14th in the National League in runs per game and, despite walk-off home runs the past two days, last in the league in home runs. Even the Padres have more power.

So, although there is concern about the rotation, isn't the offense the bigger problem? That's certainly why Jim suggested a huge deal involving Zobrist and Jennings, but those two aren't impact players like Price and wouldn't drive the offense back to the heights of 2013.

The Cardinals' best chance for improving in the second half isn't in making a big trade but simply getting better production from the guys they already have. Holliday and Molina need to hit better, and Craig and Wong need to hit a lot better. If those guys don't improve, Price isn't going to carry this team to the top. If those guys start hitting, the Cardinals have a good chance of winning the division without trading their young (and inexpensive) players.

But that circles back to evaluation. If the offensive core is starting to age, the Cardinals will need a new wave of talent. Matt Adams continues to make his mark at first base, although I still don't like the 56-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If Mozeliak & Co. believe Taveras will live up to his hype and Wong will develop into a solid contributor, the Cardinals need to keep those guys to supplement the aging veterans.

To me, the Cardinals are in a different position from that of the Oakland Athletics. Billy Beane doesn't know when the A's will be this good again; that gave him added incentive to make the "all-in" trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel while trading away a potential star in Addison Russell. But the Cardinals are about consistent excellence. Their recent World Series titles in 2006 and 2011 also give the club a little more leeway, less need to risk the future for the present. The St. Louis market and payroll allow the team to add free agents the A's can't afford, players such as Peralta.

Plus, with Joe Kelly expected to be activated Friday, the rotation will get another solid starter back. A Wainwright/Lynn/Kelly/Martinez/Miller group is still pretty good, and that doesn't include Wacha, who remains an uncertainty with his shoulder (he hasn't been cleared to start throwing yet).

Then there's this: The Cardinals have 13 games remaining with the Brewers.

Yes, David Price would make the Cardinals better. But I think their smartest solution is patience and relying on the guys they have already. There is enough talent already here to win the division.