The St. Louis Cardinals will be one of the most interesting teams to watch ahead of the 2023 MLB trade deadline. Should the Cardinals' trade goals be focused on improving the team's chance to win this season or rebuilding the roster for the future? There are strong arguments to be made for St. Louis to become a seller or a buyer when the time comes.
The Cardinals are 27-37 after the first 64 games of the 2023 season. St. Louis sits in last place in the NL Central. The Cardinals have fallen well short of expectations. Playing nothing like a World Series contender through 40% of the regular season, it would make sense for the Cardinals to explore moving their best players at the 2023 MLB trade deadline. It might be time for a fresh start in St. Louis.
Maybe the Cardinals shouldn't give up on the season just yet. St. Louis' playoff hopes are far from over because it plays in the National League's weakest division. The Cardinals are seven games out of first place in the NL Central. The first-place Pittsburgh Pirates are 13-21 in their last 34 games. The Milwaukee Brewers are a flawed team that can be caught.
St. Louis has some time to decide in which direction it would like to go. The 2023 MLB trade deadline is set for Aug. 1. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has indicated that the team's play over the next few weeks will determine if the Cardinals sell or add major-league talent this summer.
Starting pitching is clearly the Cardinals' biggest need. Only three NL teams have scored more runs than St. Louis. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is the reigning NL MVP. Third baseman Nolan Arenado finished third in the voting and has been among the league's best hitters since May started. The Cardinals' rotation has a 4.57 ERA, ranking 11th out of 15 NL teams. No one on the staff has an ERA better than 3.74.
Let's take a look at a pair of early MLB trade deadline candidates that the Cardinals could consider pursuing.
Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox
With the White Sox expected to be the biggest sellers at the 2023 MLB trade deadline, starting pitcher Lucas Giolito has garnered most of the attention. Because Giolito is headed for free agency and Chicago is well below .500, there's a good chance he'll be traded to a contender. Even if the Cardinals turn their season around, it probably wouldn't make much sense for them to outbid other teams for a rental. Instead, St. Louis would be wise to trade for a player who can help them in 2023 and beyond.
Michael Kopech fits that description, given his age, production and contract status. Kopech is just 27 years old and under team control through the 2025 season. Kopech's 4.33 ERA isn't overly impressive, but it's largely the result of a poor start. Kopech had a 2.75 ERA in May, allowing just 4.5 hits per nine innings. He surrendered four base runners and two runs in his first June start.
Kopech likely wouldn't come cheap. With a little bit of luck, the White Sox could trade their top veterans this summer and be able to compete when Kopech is still in the prime of his career. It's a trade the Cardinals should explore, especially if Chicago indicates that it's open for business.
Shane Bieber, Cleveland Guardians
Shane Bieber might have the best resume out of all the starting pitchers who could realistically be available before the MLB trade deadline. The Guardians' ace is only three seasons removed from winning the 2020 AL Cy Young award with a minuscule 1.63 ERA. Bieber finished seventh in the 2022 AL Cy Young race and has a 3.22 ERA for his career. The 2023 season has been a down year by Bieber's standards, yet his 3.57 ERA is better than any pitcher in the Cardinals' rotation.
Bieber isn't under a long-term contract. He's also not a rental. The 28-year-old won't become a free agent until after the 2024 season. Theoretically, the Cardinals could acquire him this year and potentially explore moving him at the 2024 trade deadline if they don't become contenders. There's plenty of speculation around MLB that the stingy Guardians will find a way to move Bieber this summer because they won't sign him to a long-term contract.
Adam Wainwright is in the twilight of his career with a 5.97 ERA. Jack Flaherty hasn't been a reliable starter in four years. Bieber would bring playoff experience to St. Louis. A Cardinals' trade for Bieber would also give St. Louis an ace. Without one, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals making any kind of playoff run, even if they can manage to win a poor NL Central and sneak into the playoffs.