Should the Cardinals Have Given Up Kelly and Craig for Lackey?

Lackey to the Cardinals will have farther reaching implications than most fans realize...

Yesterday, the Cardinals made another bold move to bolster their ailing rotation. They added John Lackey (and minor leaguer Cody Littrell and some cash) from the Red Sox in exchange for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig. While the Cardinals did give up a lot of talent, and Craig’s bat was an especially high price to pay, this deal is even shrewder than it appears at face value.

Certainly Lackey is a good veteran arm who is an upgrade over Kelly and has more postseason experience than him. But the Lackey deal has a cascading effect with far-reaching consequences, and it’s a deal like this that makes me think that John Mozeliak is the best GM in the game.

After two injury-plagued seasons, the biggest concern surrounding Lackey was his arm health as he approached free agency after the 2009 season. So when he signed his contract with the Red Sox in December 2009, the Red Sox included an option that would trigger if he missed any significant time. He pitched terribly in 2011 as a result of ligament damage, had Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2012. Since his return in 2013, he’s made 50 starts with an ERA of 3.55, a welcome return to form for the veteran.

But the option that triggered means that he’s controlled next year, and will pitch for the paltry salary of $500,000. This gave him tremendous added value to the Red Sox as a trade chip and gives the Cardinals financial flexibility moving forward.

With his health problems firmly in the past, the Cardinals have a top-of-the-rotation veteran pitcher who will make the league minimum next year. This season, Lackey is 11-7 with a 3.60 ERA, a 1.231 WHIP, 7.6 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9. His xFIP is 3.56, which indicates that his performance this year can be expected to stay the same or even get slightly better with a move to the NL. His ERA+ is a respectable 108, and perhaps most importantly, he's made 21 starts with 137.1 innings pitched.

It's important to note that the Cardinals have only had three starting pitchers maintain their health this season: Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and Shelby Miller. Michael Wacha is having shoulder problems, Jaime Garcia had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, and Kelly spent three months on the DL with a hamstring issue.

On top of that, Miller hasn’t pitched particularly effectively, with a 4.20 ERA and a 4.76 xFIP. He’s walked 4.3 batters per nine and struck out only 5.9 per nine, terrible numbers for a top prospect phenom. Kelly also has pitched to a 4.37 ERA and a 7.32 ERA since returning from the DL on July 11. That’s a far cry from the 2.69 ERA he put up as a swingman last season. He’ll be given the opportunity to rediscover his form in Boston’s rotation, but he wasn’t being much help to a contending Cardinals team.

The Cardinals needed a pitcher to help stabilize their rotation this season. This weekend, the Cardinals will presumably set their rotation with Lackey, Wainwright, Lynn, Miller, and Justin Masterson, who is supposed to come off the DL tonight. That also allows Carlos Martinez to presumably shift back to the bullpen full time, which should hopefully help him and his 4.74 ERA also.

There's never a guarantee in baseball that an injured player returns, and the risks are especially high with shoulder and thoracic outlet problems. The Cardinals needed a hedge against Garcia and Wacha in case one or both of them can’t return next season. Cardinals fans will remember how thoracic outlet syndrome ended Chris Carpenter’s career. Lackey made an especially appealing trade target because his contract gives the Cardinals the financial flexibility to add yet another pitcher if the need arises.

What About Offense?

The Cardinals also need to generate more offense. They sit second-to-last in the NL in runs scored with 393. They've hit the least home runs in the NL with 69. They’re seventh in batting average, sixth in OBP, and 12th in slugging percentage. Much of their success this season has been due to the rotation’s ability to not completely implode, and the bullpen’s dominance.

The biggest problem with their offense has been the logjam in the lineup at first base and the outfield. Manager Mike Matheny had to find playing time for Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, and Oscar Taveras, who are all outfielders. In addition to them, Allen Craig can play right field as well as first base. But first base primarily belongs to Matt Adams who, limited to that position and hitting .315 with a .843 OPS and 12 home runs, is the only Cardinal with a batting average over .300. Matt Holliday plays every day in left field, so Matheny essentially had to find playing time for four outfielders in two spots or bench one of his best bats.

Allen Craig, signed to a long-term deal through the 2017 season (2018 team option), is in the middle of a huge down year, batting only .237 with a .638 OPS. His contract and his potential to break out of his season-long slump warranted him playing time, but his defensive limitations and management’s desire to give top prospect Oscar Taveras playing time made Craig expendable. With Craig gone, right field belongs to Taveras and center field is being manned by a Jay/Bourjos platoon.

The hope is that, with playing time, Taveras will blossom into the player his track record suggests he can be. Taveras hit .318 with a .502 slugging percentage at Triple-A, but has struggled to a .208 batting average in the majors thus far while riding the bench most days. He will be given the opportunity to seize right field now, and in a perhaps telling sign, in his first start after the trade last night he hit a two-run homer.

With Craig gone from the lineup, the Cardinals should get the equivalent of a major acquisition - their top prospect contributing. The lineup becomes more stable with a set outfield and first baseman, and the entire team’s offensive output (and right field defense) will improve as a result.

For a team with playoff aspirations, Lackey gives the Cardinals a good 1-2 punch atop the rotation with Wainwright. The rotation was the biggest area of need for the Cardinals, but perhaps more importantly, they managed to swing a trade that accomplished three things. They improved their rotation both this year and next, added to their lineup by subtraction, and gave themselves financial flexibility moving into the offseason.

The Red Sox got young cost-controlled pitching and offense that they hope can bounce back from rough seasons so far, and if they do, then the deal will look very good for the Sox. But as things stand, Cardinals fans have to like the trade that John Mozeliak pulled off. It’s very clear that, in many ways, some more subtle than others, the Cardinals are a better team because of it.