Early Wednesday afternoon I was notified that the St. Louis Cardinals had acquired right-handed reliever Juan Nicasio from the Phillies in exchange for minor league infielder Eliezer Alvarez. “Why now?”, was my first reaction. On the surface the reason for the trade is pretty obvious. This move helps a bullpen that has been in disarray since Trevor Rosenthal hit the DL. But with the move coming post-deadline, it means that Nicasio is ineligible for the postseason, should the Cardinals find a way in. Add to it that the team gave up a well regarded prospect in exchange. Those aspects add intrigue to a pretty low-key move, so I decided to dive a little deeper.
The Build Up (or lack thereof)
The Cardinals seemingly misplayed the waiver-free trade deadline on July 31st. Reportedly they were aiming at relievers with additional years of control as opposed to rentals. In the end they failed to acquire any at all. They then found difficulty – either in having a desirable pitcher reach them or finding a willing trade partner – on the waiver wire in August. It was poor form, as relief help has been a clear need all season long. (Side note: my biggest gripe is that one would believe that the team could have gotten a similar reliever for Alvarez at the July 31st deadline and had him for 2 months and eligible for postseason, but I digress.)
Pittsburgh had declined to trade Nicasio to an NL contender in July and August, when they were still on the outskirts of the race. They chose instead to place Nicasio on outright waivers in the last days of August. Their hope was that he would be claimed by an American League team. When I saw he had been placed on waivers, I thought it would be a perfect fit for the Cardinals. At the time they were at or maybe 1 game over .500, if the non-contenders passed on him, they could have had an outside chance at claiming him. Unfortunately, the lowly Phillies swooped in. They then turned and traded him to the Cardinals a week later.
What the Cardinals are Getting
Nicasio is a solid right-handed reliever that can be used in a setup role. In 67 appearances this season he has a 2.79 ERA and 61 strikeouts. After struggling as a starting pitcher for Colorado to start his career, Nicasio has settled nicely into a relief role. Since 2014, when he was first shifted to the bullpen, he has a 3.48 ERA and has a solid 10.1 K/9 across 178 games as a reliever. Compare that to the his career 5.11 ERA and 7.2 K/9 as a starting pitching. The Cardinals are grabbing someone that can be very useful to them and hopefully settle the bullpen over the final 3 weeks of the year as the team pushes for a playoff spot.
What they Gave Up
This was the biggest area of intrigue surrounding the trade. Eliezer Alvarez is a 2B that had a big year for Low-A Peoria in 2016 and then a so-so, injury shortened season for AA Springfield this season. His line reads like this: 210 AB’s, .248/.318/.390 with 19 XBH and 9 steals in 12 tries. He is seen as a flashy glove man, able to make dazzling plays while sometimes botching the more routine variety. He has some pop in his bat. For more information on him check out Kyle Reis’s write up on him within his prospect rankings. Kyle had him ranked as the Cardinals 21st overall prospect, and other outlets had him ranked similarly. That seems like a high price to pay for 3-week rental reliever.
Why I Think They Did What They Did
This is purely my own opinion, and I may be right OR I may be many, many miles away from the Cardinals’ thinking. I have to believe that the organization has soured on Alvarez. With an injury shortened season and with his prospect status, he seemed like a fit to be sent to the Arizona Fall League. When the rosters were announced last week, we learned that the Cardinals did not elect to send him there. In hindsight, it may have been a tell. Perhaps he didn’t take the steps they wanted him to take this year and they simply didn’t view him as much of a prospect anymore.
He was added to the 40-man roster last off-season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. As I looked into last week, there will be plenty of shuffling with the 40-man in the coming months, and protecting a fringe prospect may not have been something they wanted to do. With Kolten Wong settling in at 2B for the big club and a handful of utility infielders (Greg Garcia, Breyvic Valera, Alex Mejia, Tommy Edman) progressing ahead of him, and Alvarez likely to be repeating AA at age 22-23, he became more expendable. So with all of that in mind, they may have been planning to designate him for assignment this winter anyway, likely losing him for nothing.
Honestly, I’m just trying to rationalize why they gave up a solid prospect.
Nicasio, on the other hand, had clearly caught the eye of the Cardinals. In a fairly thin free agent market for relief pitching, he was likely going to be a target of the team this winter. So in the end, the Cardinals traded a prospect that (MAYBE) they were going to cut in 2 months anyway, to acquire a pitcher that helps them immediately AND they get a window of time to negotiate exclusively with him before he hits the open market. I fully expect them to sign Nicasio to a multi-year extension between now and the end of October. Because they acquired him now, the free agent market won’t dictate their offer to him. This move is as much about 2018 as it is 2017.
But again, this is all speculation.
Wrapping it Up
Short-term, this was a good move by the Cardinals. Although belated, they needed to add relief help. Now, the major pitfall is that he will not be eligible for postseason play, because he was not in the organization as of August 31st. So, should the Cardinals make the tournament, the bullpen will lose a big piece. Hopefully we would see Sandy Alcantara develop as a weapon over the next 3 weeks. Perhaps Michael Wacha would be shifted from the rotation to the bullpen during the playoffs. That’s thinking too far ahead. Right now, the most important thing is simply reaching the playoffs. The addition of Nicasio certainly helps the cause.
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