Cardinals Improve by Adding Lackey, Subtracting Craig

Wondering if the Cardinals felt good about Michael Wacha‘s shoulder or Shelby Miller’s general existence? Wonder no more, because less than 24 hours after picking up Justin Masterson from Cleveland, they’ve now added John Lackey from Boston, for the not-insignificant price of Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.

Yesterday morning, the St. Louis rotation looked something like this:

  1. Adam Wainwright
  2. Lance Lynn
  3. Joe Kelly
  4. Shelby Miller
  5. Carlos Martinez / Marco Gonzales

Now, it’s potentially a bit more like this:

  1. Wainwright
  2. Lynn
  3. Lackey
  4. Masterson
  5. Miller / Martinez

Is that better? It’s certainly different.

Lackey, of course, has experienced something of a career rebirth after an awful 2011 and lost 2012 in Boston, providing 326.2 innings of 3.55 ERA / 3.74 FIP (and almost six WAR) since the start of 2013. Kelly, over the same time period, has missed nearly three months with a hamstring injury and given 159 innings of 3.06 ERA / 3.99 FIP baseball; he is, of course, nearly a decade younger and can’t be a free agent until 2019.

Since returning from that injury, he’s been awful, allowing at least four earned runs in three of his four starts. Long-term, there’s at least a chance that he’s a relief pitcher, since he doesn’t miss a ton of bats despite throwing hard, doesn’t have elite control, and absolutely requires a solid defense behind him in order to turn his grounders into outs. He’s a useful young pitcher, to be sure, but in an organization as full of young pitching as the Cardinals are, he’s not someone you can’t live without.

Were this simply “which pitcher is more likely to help the Cardinals this year,” it’s Lackey, pretty clearly, though perhaps only by about one WAR, which is the difference in their projections. Is that worth it? Maybe it is, because the Cardinals are 2.5 games out in the NL Central, yet in third place. The playoff odds have the Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates as all pretty even odds to win the division, and you can argue that with Milwaukee having played terribly this month, St. Louis sees themselves as the favorites.

If one extra win not only gets the Cards from being out to being in, but from being in the one-game playoff to being a division winner, then yes, getting a single extra win is absolutely worth it — and they also get the benefit of Lackey’s insanely valuable $500,000 contract for 2015, though it seems likely they’ll need to work something out with him rather than have him actually pitch for that amount. (For those unfamiliar, the Red Sox added a clause saying they’d get an extra year of Lackey for that price if he missed time with elbow surgery, which he of did.) If you buy into “playoff experience,” well, Lackey has that too, winning titles with the Red Sox last year and with the Angels in 2002.

Of course, it’s not just Lackey for Kelly straight-up, because the Red Sox also get Craig, one of the NL’s better hitters over the last three seasons, but who has been a total disaster this year. Craig has $26.5m guaranteed through 2017, is already 30, and has been absolutely atrocious this season. (81 wRC+, -0.4 WAR.) This can’t be seen as anything but an indication that the Cardinals considered his woes all but unfixable, and didn’t want to spend real money on a player who was contributing nothing, so it’s maybe also less that the Red Sox “get” Craig than it is the Cardinals don’t have to deal with him.

So when that math is factored in, Craig actually moves to the other side of the equation. The trade is really something more like:

Cardinals get 1.5 years of Lackey, $1.75m, 2013 fifth-round P Corey Littrell and the luxury of not paying Craig
Red Sox get Kelly and the prayer of finding 2011-13 Craig

Which is valuable, really. The Cardinals have a better rotation than they did yesterday, and they may have improved their offense — 17th with a 99 non-pitcher wRC+ — by subtraction,  no longer needing to play Craig in the hopes that he’d rebound. Now, the Cardinals have opened up room for top prospect Oscar Taveras, who had been kicking around on the big league bench recently. There’s no guarantee that Taveras contributes, of course; he hasn’t yet, and Dave laid out nicely why he’s a risky player. If he doesn’t step up, then Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos (or someone like Randal Grichuk) are suddenly both starting outfielders, which isn’t a great situation, but again, Craig wasn’t getting the job done, either. The offense they get out of right field from here on out almost certainly can’t be less than it was before.

There’s also this: in the playoffs, in a short series, Martinez probably goes back to the bullpen. If Wacha can make it back this season, maybe he’s best utilized as a short reliever. Trevor Rosenthal is still there. Seth Maness and Pat Neshek are still there, and Randy Choate and Sam Freeman and Gonzales and Kevin Siegrist, too. A big part of last year’s postseason success was that bullpen, and that had been lessened somewhat this year by having some of those guys in the rotation. Now, they can move back, and that ripple effect improves the entire staff.

If Craig bounces back in Boston, this is going to look bad, that they gave up on him after four lousy months after several quality seasons. But it’s hard to look at Craig right now and think that he’s going to be the key part of a Cardinals team that badly wants to get another ring for aging players like Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday while they still have time. Lackey makes them more likely to win this year than Kelly does, and is probably more valuable in 2015 as well. Not having Craig makes them more likely to win than having Craig does. A huge part of this depends on what Taveras does, of course, but that’s unavoidable. This is one of those trades that seemed shocking at first, but the more you think about it, the more it makes plenty of sense for both sides.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or

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8 years ago

Surprised the Cards haven’t dealt Shelby Miller yet….

8 years ago
Reply to  FeslenR

It may say something about how the rest of the league views him. Like Craig, Miller’s one who, undoubtedly, has much less trade value than a year or so ago.

8 years ago
Reply to  chuckb

Miller has not destroyed his value, but it was so high at the end of last season that it is a bit of a head scratcher. He is still roughly a league average SP under team control.

Antonio Bananas
8 years ago
Reply to  james

He’s 23, a former top prospect, and had better peripherals than Kelly. So if you had to trade Joe Kelly or Shelby Miller, you’re trading Joe Kelly.