Cardinals Add Quintana and Stratton to Patch Pitching Holes

Jose Quintana
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I have a history with Malcom Nunez. I started writing about baseball in 2018. I was a long-time Cardinals fan, but knew basically nothing about the outer reaches of the farm system, like many lifelong but inherently casual fans. And I was drinking from the firehose of second-wave sabermetrics; I’m inherently biased to think statistics can help me make sense of the world, and the language of numbers was a familiar and welcome sight in my baseball analysis.

Nunez set the DSL on fire that summer. He hit .415/.497/.774, which hardly sounds like a real baseball line. He had more extra-base hits than strikeouts. This was the new hitting god the Cardinals deserved, the next heir to the Pujols mantle. Doing that at age 17 when I was just learning the ropes left an indelible impression in my mind. I heard explanations for why he shouldn’t be a top prospect — he was a man among boys, he was bound for first base, there wasn’t much development left in him, he was simply so far away from the majors — but in my heart I didn’t really believe them.

I’ve changed. These days, I understand completely why factors like that are important context, and often more important than the numbers themselves. I know not to trust such a short sample, or at least to discount it heavily in my mind. Nunez has been a perfectly fine prospect — 18th-best on the Cardinals, per The Board — but not the world-beater I dreamed up four years ago. He’s played the entire season at Double-A Springfield, and while he’s put up an above-average batting line at first base, his best highlights have been on the receiving end of some crazy Masyn Winn throws. Still, when I see Nunez’s name, some small part of my brain still goes “ooh, that guy’s great!” So when the Cardinals traded him yesterday, I had to write about it.

The full deal: St. Louis sent Nunez and swingman Johan Oviedo to the Pirates in exchange for José Quintana and Chris Stratton. It is, in many ways, a standard trade of currently useful pitching for potentially interesting players. It’s also a move that shouldn’t stand on its own. Let’s break down each part.

For the Pirates, this was a pretty easy one. Quintana bounced back in a major way this year. His 3.50 ERA would represent his best mark since 2016, and the peripherals agree he should be an above-average pitcher. He was in Pittsburgh in the first place to find a place to bounce back, signing a one-year, $2 million deal this offseason in an attempt to show he still has major league stuff. At only 33, the answer seems clear enough for now: he can provide valuable innings at the back end of a major league rotation.

That’s not very useful in Pittsburgh, but it’s extremely useful in St. Louis. The Cardinals are smack-dab in the middle of the playoff chase, one game out of the last spot at the moment. They’re getting colossal seasons from their two infield studs, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. The rest of the position player core has been solid. The big holdup? The rotation has been capital-A Awful. Steven Matz is likely out for the year and had a 5.70 ERA before that. Jack Flaherty is likely done as well. Dakota Hudson is walking nearly as many batters as he’s striking out. Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas have been solid, but they don’t provide the ace-level highs that can make up for the rest of the unit, even with rookie Andre Pallante impressive so far. Playoff teams aren’t generally 25th in baseball in WAR produced by their starters.

Quintana represents a meaningful upgrade merely by being average. The Cardinals just need innings; they need to have five starters instead of four plus a rotating spot starter of the week. The Jordan Hicks experiment is over, and Matthew Liberatore doesn’t look ready yet; going outside the organization was the obvious choice.

I think Quintana will be perfectly adequate in this role. He’s mostly been better than that in his career; prior to a fluke tendon injury (slicing open his thumb while washing dishes) that cost him most of the 2020 season, he’d accrued a career 3.73 ERA over 1,500 innings of work. He looked rusty in a swing role in 2021, then righted the ship this year, and he’s doing it the same way as always: with excellent command and a sneaky fastball that explodes on hitters, despite uninspiring raw movement numbers. He’s roughly a league-average starter, perhaps a bit better than that, and that’s a huge upgrade for St. Louis.

Speaking of huge upgrades to problem units: the Cardinals’ bullpen has been roughly average this year, but that’s misleading. Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos have combined for 2.7 WAR; the rest of the ‘pen has accrued -1.0. In other words, they’ve collectively been atrocious, and for one obvious reason: an aggregate 15.5% strikeout rate. The Cardinals are 24th in baseball in bullpen strikeout rate as a result, despite a closer who runs a 42.4% strikeout rate.

Stratton isn’t some infinite-strikeout savior, but he’s the kind of pitcher the Cardinals have sorely missed in relief this year: a league-average arm who can soak up mid-leverage innings so that worse players don’t have to. His 5.09 ERA so far this year is uninspiring, but his other stats are more or less the same as in the previous two years, when he pitched to a 3.70 ERA. His fastball velocity is down half a tick, but velocity has never been his calling card. He pairs that cutter-ish fastball (huge spin, less movement out of it than you’d expect) with a giant, two-plane curveball, and throws those two pitches a combined 80% of the time. He’s also under team control next year, which doesn’t hurt.

If you’re counting on Stratton to pitch the eighth inning for you in a playoff game, you’re probably doing something wrong. The Cardinals aren’t, though; if things go according to plan, he’s more of a sixth-inning and occasional seventh-inning type, and that rainbow curve makes him a useful pitcher to bring in against spin-challenged mashers. That’s the kind of pitcher that teams frequently develop internally, but the Cardinals didn’t this year, and wisely (in my opinion) went outside the organization to get it.

I’ve already waxed poetic about Nunez; even if he’s not the dynasty-anchoring masher of my past imagination, he looks likely to contribute as a decent major league hitter without much defensive value. Oviedo, the other player the Cardinals traded, is part of the reason they need Quintana and Stratton. The Cardinals hoped he’d function as either a multi-inning reliever or a back-of-the-rotation starter, and he certainly has the tools to do it: a nasty slider that he throws a ton, and a fastball that sits 94–96 mph but with lackluster movement. He hasn’t quite been able to put it together at the major league level so far and feels like a pitch design change candidate.

Keeping Oviedo and Nunez would have been preferable, but having a functioning pitching staff matters more. The Cardinals are historically good at developing players of their caliber, and while having more bites at the development apple is good, it’s a lower priority than fielding a playoff-caliber team. My one gripe with this trade: it seems like one that you would do to set up, say, a Juan Soto acquisition. Going the budget route in patching up a weak point is only attractive to me if you’re splurging elsewhere, but there aren’t any “elsewhere” splurges left. Having nice bit players is nice, and worth more than my past fever dreams of a nuclear-level Nunez. Having nice stars is better, though — something the Cardinals have so far fallen short of accomplishing this deadline.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Either rental starters aren’t what they used to be or no one was buying Quintana’s 2022 resurgence. Even if you go by ZiPs projections he looks like a solid #4 starter to get you through the year. I’d argue this looks like a bigger pickup than JA Happ was last year, even with the benefit of hindsight.

Getting Stratton is a pretty good get too. I get that he’s had some rough outings but the underlying metrics have been very good for a while. He’s the kind of guy who the Astros like to scoop up and optimize. Whether the Cards will do that, or whether any team would,

Oviedo could be a decent reliever, but he’s on the 40-man fringe so trading him is NBD. Nunez is filler. I would think a team like the Twins would have outbid them on a deal like this but if they’re not sold on Quintana then I guess you take what you can get.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Oviedo *IS* a decent reliever and not on the 40-man fringe at all! Meanwhile, Stratton has not been very good this year. The reason Nunez was the only other cost to get Quintana was because the Pirates also got the better relief pitcher, especially when you consider the remaining years of team control.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lanidrac