Cardinals and Phillies Swap Edmundo Sosa, JoJo Romero

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve ever played the game 2048, you know the deep satisfaction of sliding things around and making everything look cleaner. Two 2’s become a 4, two 4’s become an 8, and pretty soon you’ve slid your way into a gratifying relaxation. What does that have to do with baseball? The Phillies made a 2048-style trade this weekend, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.

The baseball version of that slide-and-combine game is all about defense. If you acquire a defensive wizard at shortstop, you can slide your existing shortstop to third, your third baseman to first, your first baseman to DH – you get the idea. You can do the same in the outfield. Add a Gold Glove center fielder, and your average center fielder becomes a great right fielder. Your solid right fielder can take over for the guy in left field you’d rather have DH. Adding one defender and sliding can turn a blah defense into a good one. Deeply satisfying, just like 2048.

The Phillies and their porous defense would seem like a perfect candidate for such satisfying sliding, but before the season, they couldn’t actually do it. There were some pesky pieces blocking their natural ability to slide down the defensive spectrum. With essentially three DHs – Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, and Nick Castellanos – and only two landing spots between them, the “slide someone to DH” part of the equation wouldn’t work. When Bryce Harper injured his elbow, he couldn’t play the field, which further jammed up the works.

Slide Matt Vierling off of center, and he simply wouldn’t play, because Schwarber and Castellanos occupy the outfield corners. Slide Bryson Stott from short to third, and where would Alec Bohm go other than the bench? Hoskins couldn’t DH with Harper occupying the position and his bat is too good to leave out of the lineup. The satisfying cascade of defensive improvements simply wasn’t compatible with their roster construction.

The equation changed when Harper sustained a second injury. He’s now expected back in September, which means there’s space in the lineup for one of the team’s three initially-planned DH-type bats to play there. But that’s when the second Phillies problem cropped up: a severe lack of depth.

The Phillies have some holes in their roster. In Jay Jaffe’s Replacement Level Killers series this past week, they showed up four times: at shortstop, third base, center field, and right field. Some of that is just underperformance from stars – Castellanos has been bad this year as an everyday right fielder – but some of it shows their lack of major-league-caliber role players.

Didi Gregorius was well below replacement level at shortstop last year. The Phillies looked likely to replace him with Stott, one of their top prospects, but Stott (who hasn’t exactly hit well himself) is needed every day at second base thanks to an injury to Jean Segura. Johan Camargo, the nominal utility infielder, is really more of a third baseman. When your best infield defender might be Yairo Muñoz, whom Philadelphia signed to a minor-league deal before the season, you’ve messed up somewhere along the way.

Saturday, the Phillies traded reliever JoJo Romero to the Cardinals in exchange for Edmundo Sosa. In a corresponding move, they optioned Camargo to the minors. Sosa immediately becomes the best infield defender in Philadelphia, and in the immediate future, I expect he’ll slot in at shortstop. Gregorius, currently the starting shortstop, is probably more of a bench player (or outright release candidate) at this point in his career; his 67 wRC+ since the start of 2021 says all you need to know about his bat, and he’s well below average in the field.

That one-for–one replacement will shore up Philadelphia’s defense immediately. When Segura returns, though, that satisfying slide will become possible. Stott is below-average at shortstop, but he’d be a good fit for third. That displaces Bohm, but good news: his natural position is first base, anyway. And the hits keep coming. Hoskins could move from first base to DH, his natural position (he can hit, but he simply doesn’t look comfortable in the field). That would be quite a turnaround. A Segura/Sosa up-the-middle tandem is an above-average pairing, and Stott is likely no worse than average at third. In one fell swoop, the Phillies have gone from stretched to stable, and it’s not as though Sosa’s bat will be much worse than Gregorius’. He may not play every day because the Phillies have so many mouths to feed, but when he does, he’ll almost invariably anchor their defense.

The only way to make this game of defensive musical chairs work was with a plus shortstop. Plug in a good defender at second or third, and the defense would improve, but not by enough. A glove-first shortstop was a must. Sure, it cost them an intriguing reliever, but Romero hadn’t exactly set the world on fire this year, and fixing the defense is more important than working out the middle of the bullpen.

From St. Louis’ side, this trade is easy to understand. Sosa is a solid, controllable middle infielder, like seemingly half of the Cardinals’ roster. Tommy Edman is a luxury version of the Sosa role. Brendan Donovan is a bat-first version. Nolan Gorman plays some second base. With Paul DeJong returning from the minors, the team had a logjam in the middle infield. Sosa has no minor league options remaining. Someone was always going to trade for him, because he’s a useful player, but if there had somehow been no market, St. Louis would have been forced to designate him for assignment anyway.

In that context, Romero is a tremendous return. Once a starting prospect with a pile of good secondaries but middling velocity, Romero left that life behind when the Phillies needed bullpen help in 2020. He started pounding a Red Bull before appearances, added 4-ish mph to his fastball, and simplified his arsenal to attack hitters for 1-2 inning stints.

The early returns have been, to be frank, quite poor. You don’t need my expert opinion to know that; the man has a 7.89 ERA and 6.41 FIP in his brief major league career. He’s also returning from catastrophic injury — Tommy John surgery early in the 2021 season, to be exact. But the raw tools of something excellent are there. Want a cherry-picked example? Per Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Comp tool, two of the top four comps for Romero’s sinker are Framber Valdez and Taylor Rogers; Zack Britton checks in at sixth. Lefties with plus sink don’t exactly grow on trees.

More importantly for the Redbirds, Romero has two years of minor league options remaining. The Cardinals are desperately in need of reliever flexibility; while Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos have the back of the bullpen locked down, the rest of the unit is, to put it mildly, in disarray. Nineteen pitchers have made appearances, and that doesn’t count Albert Pujols or Yadier Molina. Eight of those 19 have been replacement level or worse. There’s a constant need for new arms up from the minors to replace whichever reliever is currently gassed and ineffective.

The Phillies and Cardinals are competing for a spot in the playoffs. If you don’t think about it too much, you might assume they’d just as soon drop a brick on their toes as help the other out. But getting something for nothing – if you’re the Cardinals – and fielding a respectable major league defense – if you’re the Phillies – took priority over the zero sum instincts that feel so powerful in a playoff race. This trade won’t turn either team into a juggernaut, but getting every last drop out of your roster is always advisable, and both squads did that here.

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

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1 year ago

JoJo seems like a straight up replacement for the complete incompetence of Drew VerHagen. I wonder why the Cardinals didn’t look more at trying to stretch out Genesis Cabrera into a multi-inning reliever and I think they could’ve gotten more for Sosa if they weren’t so desperate to not lose him for nothing. Overall not the worst trade in the world, but it really feels like treading water for a team that badly needs bulk replacement level innings.