John Mozeliak’s trades: Grim and Grimm-like for the St. Louis Cardinals

Marcell Ozuna #23 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a three run home run in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 7, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Marcell Ozuna #23 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a three run home run in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 7, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

John Mozeliak has not had much success recently with his trades for the St. Louis Cardinals.

When it comes to making trades, St. Louis Cardinals president John Mozeliak operates much like the protagonist from the 1812 Brothers Grimm tale, “Hans in Luck.” Hans begins the story with “a lump of gold as big as his head,” then trades that for a horse, the horse for a cow, the cow for a pig, the pig for a goose, and the goose for a grindstone. Then he loses the grindstone in a stream, leaving him with nothing.

Sound familiar? It should.

The primary difference between Mo and Hans is that the Cards’ prez doesn’t need a six-swap chain to go from a lump of gold to a sinking grindstone. He often needs just two deals to fritter away the initial bounty.

Consider the 2017 deal that sent four prospects to the Miami Marlins for outfielder Marcell Ozuna. That wasn’t a great deal for the Cards, considering that ex-Card farmhands Sandy Alcantara (3.6), Daniel Castano (0.4), Zac Gallen (4.8), and Magneuris Sierra (-1.0) have combined for a 7.8 post-trade WAR while Ozuna mustered just a 3.5 WAR in two years with St. Louis. But it got worse when St. Louis failed to re-sign Ozuna after two years, leaving Mozeliak with nothing to show for his initial investment. Just like Hans.

Now with the Braves, Ozuna is leading the NL in home runs, RBIs, and total bases while the Cards have filled their outfield with Dexter Fowler (.250/.337 with a .754 OPS) and a bunch of guys batting around the Mendoza Line: Tyler O’Neill .175, Harrison Bader .214, Dylan Carlson .214.

Yeah, Mozeliak made a good trade in acquiring Paul Goldschmidt for three young players in December of 2018. Goldy has a 1.7 WAR this year while the three new D-backs have combined for a minus-1.2 WAR. But that deal wouldn’t have amounted to much if Mo hadn’t signed the first baseman to a five-year deal five months after acquiring him.

The follow-up move makes or breaks a lot of deals, and Mo, partly due to ownership stinginess, struggles with that. A lot of not-terrible trades have been spoiled by not signing the acquired player or subsequently dealing him for little or nothing.

Take a look at the 2014 swap of Shelby Miller to the Braves for Jason Heyward (plus throw-ins). That would’ve been a fine swap — if Mozeliak had been able to resign Heyward for far less than the eight-year, $184 million contract the outfielder signed with the Cubs after just one year with the Cards. Instead, the Miller-for-Heyward deal meant just one St. Louis season for the Gold Glove right fielder.

Miller’s arm troubles would derail his career, but that doesn’t mean the pitcher, who’d just turned 24 at the time of the trade, wasn’t a highly valued commodity in the fall of 2014. In fact, a case could be made that the Cardinals should have received more than just Heyward for Miller.

After one good year with the Braves (6-17 record but a 3.02 ERA), the right-hander was flipped to the Diamondbacks for gold-plated youngsters Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson, plus one other. In essence, the Braves traded Heyward, who probably would have bolted through free agency after one year, and ended up, one trade later, with two fine young starters.

Mozeliak engineered another Hans-like trade sequence when he traded outfielder Jon Jay to the Padres in December of 2015 for infielder Jedd Gyorko and cash. Gyorko hit 61 homers in his first three St. Louis seasons, then was dealt to the Dodgers in July of 2019 for pitcher Tony Cingrani, who is out of baseball now, and a low-minors pitcher. With the Brewers this year, Gyorko, 31, has nine home runs — more than any Cardinal — and an .866 OPS.

The December 2017 trade of outfielder Stephen Piscotty to the A’s was rightfully celebrated as a compassionate swap, allowing the outfielder to be closer to his mother, who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Piscotty, traded for infielder Yairo Muñoz, had an excellent 2018 season in Oakland (.821 OPS, 2.9 WAR) before tailing off in 2019 and so far this year.

Muñoz was a competent two-year reserve who batted .273 with a .331 on-base percentage, but then St. Louis released the player after he left spring training, who is still just 25. Now with the Red Sox, Munoz was playing the outfield and batting .333 in 45 plate appearances before going on the IL a week ago.

Some of Mozeliak’s deals have simply been trainwrecks. In July of 2017, he dealt pitcher Marco Gonzales to the Mariners for outfielder Tyler O’Neill. Gonzalez has a 7.5 WAR with the Mariners while O’Neill, currently batting .178, has a 2.1 WAR with the Cards. In August of 2017, he shipped pitcher Mike Leake, cash, and international bonus slot money to the Mariners for a light-hitting minor-league infielder, Rayder Ascanio, who remains buried in the bush leagues.

Leake, 31, had a 4.7 WAR in three years with the Ms and will likely be back in the majors after sitting this season out.

Salaries had something to do with the Leake and Gyorko deals. Leake was making $12 million his last full year in St. Louis, a hefty sum for a pitcher who went 9-12 with a 4.69 ERA, and that salary would rise to $15 million and $17 million over the next two years, part of which the Redbirds would continue to pay after Leake left. Gyorko was making $13 million in 2019, although $5 million of that was being paid by the Padres.

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Still, it’s sad when a franchise that has ranked second or third in baseball attendance from 2016-2019 cuts ties with useful players in order to save a few bucks.

The most painful Mozeliak trade may be the July 2018 deal that sent Luke Voit and international bonus slot money to the Yankees for Giovanny Gallegos and Chasen Shreve. Gallegos (2.2 WAR) has been a nice player for the Redbirds, but Voit currently leads the AL with 21 homers. Sloppy follow-up has depreciated this deal as well.

No one paid much mind to Shreve, who had a 3.78 ERA and a dreadful 1.560 WHIP in limited action with the Cardinals, but since leaving in free agency, the lefty is having a decent year with the Mets. His 4.07 ERA isn’t so hot but Shreve has struck out 34 batters in 24.3 innings and has a tidy 1.151 WHIP.

Other trades may yet pan out, including the January 2020 deal that sent Randy Arozarena and Jose Martinez to the Rays for a highly regarded minor-league lefty Matthew Liberatore and another prospect. Right now the Cards could use Arozarena, a 25-year-old outfielder who is batting .278 with a 1.050 OPS for the Rays, who have the AL’s best record, but it’s possible that Liberatore will be the better player in the long run.

At this point, all fans can do is hope Mozeliak has learned some lessons and won’t be trading youngsters for players (Heyward, Ozuna) that he’s doomed to lose in free agency, and won’t follow up so-so trades or signings with bad deals that result in fair-to-good players (Leake, Munoz, Randal Grichuk, Gyorko) being dealt for next to nothing.

Next. Harrison Bader has earned a spot in 2021. dark

We can also hope that Mo isn’t as blithe about his broken trades as Hans, who considered himself “lucky” to be “free from every burden” and “leaped gaily along” after losing everything.