Why Cardinals’ recent surge likely won’t change John Mozeliak’s trade deadline plans

ST. LOUIS — Sandy Alcántara’s middle-middle changeup ricocheted off Nolan Gorman’s bat at 105 mph and soared far over the center-field wall at Busch Stadium on Wednesday afternoon for a three-run home run, extending the Cardinals’ lead over the Marlins to 4-0 in the bottom of the first.

Even though there were eight more innings remaining, Gorman’s swing seemed to have decided the game. The Cardinals, in an extreme change of events, have found their swagger. They are more confident and they seemed assured, even when deploying a bullpen game against last year’s National League Cy Young Award winner, that they’d string together another win as long as they kept their cool.

Sure enough, less than three hours later, the Cardinals were high-fiving their way through another victory line after a convincing 6-4 win.

At 44-53, they are playing their best baseball of the season. Their victory on Wednesday not only wrapped up a sweep of the Marlins, but it provided a season-high fifth straight win. St. Louis has won eight of its last 10 games and is less than 10 games under .500 for the first time since June 9. The Cardinals are beginning to slowly ascend the division standings, moving out of last place and into sole possession of fourth for the first time since May 28.

“Defense, I’ll start with that,” manager Oli Marmol said to reporters after the game. “This is what it’s supposed to look like. I think we’ve done a much better job on the bases of being smart and not just aggressive. There are times where we’ve been behind in games and you have to almost take a passive approach because you can’t make outs. That’s hurt us as well. Being in every game, having a lead, has allowed them to be more aggressive on the bases, like going first to third. And our pitching is doing what we expected them to do. They’re actually giving us a chance, both the rotation and the ‘pen.”

The recent pitching has been the catalyst for the Cardinals. The rotation-headlining trio of Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas has not lost a game in July. The replenished bullpen, which now features JoJo Romero, Dakota Hudson, Ryan Tepera and Zack Thompson, has been much more consistent as well. Nolan Arenado has helped pace an already steady offense. He went 6-for-11 in the series (including a walk-off three-run homer in the 10th inning in Tuesday’s 5-2 win) and drove in eight runs.

The Cardinals, after four months of disaster and turmoil, are finally beginning to look like what they envisioned in spring.

But will their recent surge be enough to change how the front office is approaching the Aug. 1 trade deadline? Don’t count on it.

“Would performance, wins and losses, change our direction? I would say probably not at this point,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said prior to the series, after reiterating that the Cardinals would indeed sell at the deadline. “I think where we are and where we are in the standings, it’s going to make it very difficult to change that. It’s not to say that if we win eight straight, we might take a pause and think about how you do something. But I would say from our standpoint on how we’re thinking about using our energy and time right now, it won’t change.”

St. Louis is in a precarious position. They know their only shot to reach the postseason is through the division. Normally, talks of the postseason for a team that won just 38 games in the first half are nonexistent. But in the National League Central, where only 11 games separate the first-place Brewers and last-place Pirates, anything can happen. The Cardinals could easily go on a run over the next two months and thrust themselves into contention.

But to wager on that — and thwart the club’s best chance to revamp its pitching in the organization (a change that’s been a long time coming) —seems impractical. The front office has seemingly determined that they’ll need to utilize the trade deadline in order to boost their chances of being competitive in 2024 and beyond. As Mozeliak said Monday, pitching is the focus.

The Cardinals are entertaining offers on a good portion of their roster, but are only interested in returns that will land either major-league talent or prospects that will be ready for the majors next season, according to multiple industry sources. Mozeliak remains high on his core of position players and believes he can build around the majority of the group currently on the active roster.

Instead, the Cardinals are turning to parting with players who will be free agents at the end of the season, or who are nearing the end of their arbitration years. Flaherty, Montgomery, Jordan Hicks and Tyler O’Neill (who is set to be activated off the injured list on Thursday) all fit that mold and are the likeliest of candidates to be traded. But that doesn’t rule out players like Dylan Carlson, Alec Burleson or Gorman, all whom have substantial team control and sweeten any potential return.

“We have to remain open-minded,” Mozeliak said Monday. “We have to approach this as doing what we think is best for the organization. I don’t want people (in the clubhouse) to think everybody is up for grabs, because it’s not. We do like a lot of the pieces we have, but we understand there is going to have to be addition for us to compete next year.”

After one of their most miserable first-half performances in the last five decades, the Cardinals have accepted things must change. Less than two weeks of good baseball won’t have them reversing course.

(Photo: Jeff Curry / USA Today)

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