Although it was expected for a long time, the St. Louis Cardinals officially entered the Twilight Zone when they became sellers ahead of the MLB trade deadline. One of the most consistently successful franchises in baseball was forced to build for the future and forgo the present by dealing away key contributors like Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks  and Paul DeJong.

It was unpleasant, but ultimately the only practical decision the organization could make. This roster overhaul was seen as a one-off designed to maximize return value on expiring contracts, gain some financial flexibility and replenish the farm system. They are obviously determined to to regroup and return to the postseason picture in 2024. But that looks like a mistake given what we know.

These are not the same Cardinals. Although another dismal campaign in the National League Central seems unlikely, so too does jumping into playoff and World Series contention in the immediate future. This colossal disappointment of a season has put the franchise in a deeply vulnerable state. Sure, St. Louis could bring back the players it traded in free agency, but who is to say that this team can correct its 2023 mistakes.

There are plenty of growing pains ahead for players who will soon be making their MLB debuts. Such a transition period is not conducive to keeping an expensive star over the age of 30.

However valuable he may still be, Nolan Arenado does not fit the current trajectory of the franchise. If this season is not just a fluke but a sign of more adversity to come, then the Cardinals will regret not trading him.

Why Cardinals should have traded Nolan Arenado at deadline

Just to be clear, I am not singling out Arenado here. Paul Goldschmidt should also have been dealt. Now, of course they can't be traded for nothing. The right offer has to come along. Though, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak could have been a bit more aggressive to get something done.

St. Louis discussed an Arenado deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier in the week before management decided to walk away from negotiations. Based on what transpired today with the Dodgers and Eduardo Rodriguez, it is possible that they could have been desperate enough to up the ante. But that is hard to do when talks have stopped.

This is the third year with Arenado and Goldschmidt both on the team and it has amounted to no advancement beyond the NL Wild Card round. Enough time has been afforded to see if this duo could lift St. Louis over the top. No blame can be assigned to them, though. We are coming off a season in which they both finished in the top five in WAR. Stalwart production has continued this year. And yet, St. Louis is going backwards.

Times could be changing in St. Louis

Long-term contracts do not serve their intended purpose if a front office is embarking on an uncertain path characterized by considerable turnover and prospect development. Things could go beautifully, with the Cards bouncing back right away. Their history and culture suggest as much. The tides might finally be turning, though.

While they wait to find out, the value of Nolan Arenado could diminish. Aside from a tough 2020 season, the eight-time All-Star is a pillar of consistency. He is on track to belt 30 or more home runs and have 100 RBIs for the eighth time in the last nine years (would been tough to do in 2020 even with 162 games). Arenado has also proven himself capable of hitting away from Coors Field and is one of the best defensive third basemen in the history of the sport. He is building a strong case for Cooperstown.

Those guys are extremely difficult to trade, but they should earn substantial return value. Arenado's greatness might not be enough to propel the Redbirds forward. Eventually, he will lose a step. The advanced metrics indicate he is falling off a bit in the field. He had 16 outs above average in 2022 before falling to just 1 in 2023, per Statcast. That is the lowest of his career. The 32-year-old's strikeout rate is also rising, with him already having six more than he had all of last season.

Nitpicking? Maybe so, but Arenado's value might not be higher than it is right now. Trading him or other great players only makes sense if it can jump-start a stagnant franchise. St. Louis is not at that level yet, but a 20th-ranked farm system, according to FanGraphs, forebodes potentially trying times ahead.

Multiple minor leaguers should be promoted very soon. The organization's top prospects, shortstop Masyn Winn and pitcher Tink Hence (now that's a baseball player's name) are doing well, but an adjustment period will probably be needed when they arrive in the MLB.

Nolan Arenado was brought into to be a vital component of a title contender. There is a whole offseason to come, but that does not look like a realistic outlook for the 2024 Cardinals.

Time will tell if holding onto the two-way talent through the 2023 MLB trade deadline was a misstep on their part. Though, it would unfortunately fall right in line with the rest of this stunning season.