Little Ado About Nothing: The Cardinals Make it Happ-en

There are some big trades percolating around baseball today. Trea Turner and Max Scherzer were merely the opening salvo; the Cubs have gone into full everything-must-go mode, José Berríos got swapped for two top 100 prospects, and the Phillies are shelling out for multiple starters. It’s a time for big trades — unless you’re the St. Louis Cardinals, who mostly shuffled the deck chairs on Friday in a trade with the Minnesota Twins. Our analysis of the acquisition of Jon Lester is forthcoming, but that’s not all they did. You’re gonna want to be sitting down for this one, because it might put you to sleep, and that would be dangerous if you were standing:

J.A. Happ (pronounced “Jay”, just for value) is not what you’d call a great pitcher, at least this year. His 6.77 ERA could have told you that — but if you hate ERA for some weird reason, what about his 5.40 FIP, 5.28 xFIP, or 17.3% strikeout rate and 1.9 HR/9? He’d been interesting in previous years — lefty starters with control tend to be valuable — but as his velocity went, so did his effectiveness, leading to this year’s horror show.

That’s not to say there’s nothing redeemable about Happ; even in a greatly reduced state, he’s an innings eater, having completed seven innings four times this year in 19 starts. That’s useful for the Cardinals, because their bullpen is a castle made entirely of brutal, gut-wrenching walks. With so few arms to choose from, the top three relievers have been worked hard, and injuries have decimated their rotation; even after acquiring Happ, it prominently features Wade LeBlanc, with four reasonable starters on the shelf at the moment (Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, likely gone-for-the-season Carlos Martínez, and definitely gone-for-the-season Dakota Hudson).

With Happ (and Lester) in tow, the Cardinals won’t have to rely on Johan Oviedo, who doesn’t quite look ready for prime time. They can lean a little less on LeBlanc and Jake Woodford, who have had their own struggles. To be clear, though, this isn’t a good solution — it’s upgrading from a 2 out of 10 to a 3 out of 10, or something along those lines. The Cardinals weren’t likely to make the playoffs before this trade, and they’re still unlikely to make the playoffs after it.

To acquire Happ (and have the Twins pay the balance of his salary), the Cardinals sent one of the biggest culprits of Walkapalooza, John Gant. Gant has posted a below-average 16.2% strikeout rate this year, which is unremarkable. He’s also posted a 16.2% walk rate, which is downright outrageous. Add in the five batters he’s hit, and he’s been a major culprit in the Cardinals’ one-team campaign to keep on-base percentage high. He’d lost prominence in the bullpen in favor of T.J. McFarland and Justin Miller, which is a sentence you never want to see.

Gant will likely forever be most notable for his hilarious batting line — he’s notched only two hits, but both of them were home runs. That’s how you bat .035/.035/.140, a delightful-looking slash line. Pitching-wise, the Twins are likely hoping they can rebuild his command and take advantage of his unique changeup, which he throws with a Vulcan grip. He’s been down quite a bit of velocity this year in addition to being wild, but perhaps some maintenance and a change of scenery could turn him into — well, into a younger, right-handed J.A. Happ, if they’re lucky. He’ll reach free agency after 2022, so they’ll need to act fast!

Evan Sisk is also in the deal, and he’s the kind of prospect you’d expect to see in a trade involving J.A. Happ and John Gant. A 16th-rounder in the 2018 draft, he’s a relief-only arm who is putting up a solid season for Double-A Springfield this year after looking solid in A-ball in 2019. He’s also a lefty, which gives him a higher floor for relief, because every team always needs another lefty arm to throw out there.

If Sisk works out, it will be on the strength of changes he made during 2020. He throws a low-90s sinker as his primary pitch, up from 86-89 in 2019. He complements that with a solid curveball and a cutter/slider-type breaking pitch that sits in the mid-to-upper 80s. If it all works out right, that’s a lefty bullpen arm — but the realistic expectation for him is organizational depth who can fill out the back of a roster in case of an injury emergency.

If I have to grade this one, I’ll give both teams a C on general principle. Nothing was ventured. Nothing was gained. The Cardinals aren’t noticeably better, but they’re also not sacrificing much. The Twins… well, I guess I’d rather have organizational depth than a sketchy innings eater given that their season is already over, so they might as well have pulled the trigger. It’s hard to imagine them spending much time on this trade with all hands on deck for Berríos, but it’s definitely fun to imagine some mid-level analyst furiously arguing for Sisk rather than some other mid-level reliever. The Cardinals’ deadline has underwhelmed, but hey, not every move can be a winner, or even make a meaningful change in the fortunes of either team involved.





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

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HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Cards also picking up Jon Lester. Near as I can tell he’s basically there to make sure Happ isn’t the worst guy in the rotation

John Church
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John Church

Can’t wait to see the equally exciting analysis of the Jordan Ludlow, Jake Marisnick, and Austin Davis trades. I get not every trade can involve a current/former All-Star (and we’ve been spoiled with those this year), but there’s been a sizable amount of deck chair shuffling among marginal players this year, too.