War games: comparing the upgrades by the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates


By Derek Helling

The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, arguably the two best teams in the National League this season, both hail from the NL’s Central division. St. Louis has held a semi-comfortable lead over Pittsburgh nearly all season, but the Pirates have played well enough to stay within striking distance of the Cardinals.

Both teams made multiple deals before Friday’s non-waiver trade deadline, mostly for pitching, to try to prepare for a postseason run. Which of these two NL pennant contenders improved more?

For both teams, these weren’t blockbuster deals intended to help push for a playoff spot. Both of these teams will be part of the NL bracket if they simply keep playing at the level which they have been all season. These deals are depth pieces and attempts to find major-league ready injury replacements.

St. Louis acquired right-handed relief pitchers Jonathan Broxton and Steve Cishek along with first baseman Brandon Moss. Both Broxton and Cishek were formerly effective closers earlier in their careers, Cishek more recently than Broxton. There is no discussion about either supplanting Trevor Rosenthal as the Cardinals’ closer, but this does give St. Louis some flexibility when Rosenthal needs rest and a save situation presents itself.

Moss was primarily added as an upgrade to Dan Johnson in the absence of Matt Adams. Mark Reynolds will continue to see time at first base. In the absence of Matt Holliday, it’s possible that Moss and/or Reynolds could also see time in left field as well. When Holliday returns from the disabled list, Moss will probably platoon with Reynolds at first and get at-bats as a pinch hitter in games which he does not start.

Pittsburgh added right-handed relief pitcher Joakim Soria, first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse, right-handed starting pitcher Joe Blanton and infielder Aramis Ramírez. Ramírez will help fill in on the left side of the infield while Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer are both on the disabled list. Morse will give the Pirates an option at first base and a bat off the bench, as will Ramírez when Harrison and Mercer are healthy again.

Blanton and Soria add depth to the Pirate bullpen. Blanton has extensive starting experience, including four starts for the Kansas City Royals this season, and could be a spot-starter if needed. Like Broxton and Cishek, Soria has closing experience and could fill in when called upon in that role.

Here’s how the 2015 season numbers shake out for the four pitchers in question:

  • Blanton – 3.89 earned run average (ERA) over 43 2/3 innings, two saves, seven walks, 42 strikeouts, 3.5 fielding-independent pitching (FIP), 1.191 walks plus hits per inning (WHIP)
  • Broxton – 5.73 ERA over 37.2 innings, 10 walks, 38 strikeouts, 3.59 FIP, 1.354 WHIP
  • Cishek – 4.11 ERA over 35 innings, three saves, 15 walks, 29 strikeouts, 3.54 FIP, 1.571 WHIP
  • Soria – 2.79 ERA over 42 innings, 23 saves, 13 walks, 37 strikeouts, 4.87 FIP, 1.095 WHIP

Blanton and Soria not only have outperformed the combination of Broxton and Cishek by all statistical measures this season so far, but have posted those superior numbers in more innings of work. Advantage Pittsburgh.

Considering the three position players:

  • Morse – .213/.276/.313 in 160 at-bats (AB), 12 walks, 12 runs batted in (RBI), 55 strikeouts, four doubles, four home runs, 1.000 fielding percentage
  • Moss – .213/.283/.398 in 347 AB, 32 walks, 50 RBI, 107 strikeouts, 17 doubles, a triple, 15 home runs, 1.000 fielding percentage
  • Ramírez – .236/.280/.408 in 309 AB, 16 walks, 44 RBI, 44 strikeouts, 20 doubles, 11 home runs, .966 fielding percentage

The most impressive slash line belongs to Ramírez, but Moss has been the most productive of this bunch in terms of producing what actually matters, which is runs. Ramírez’s 15 errors this season have him hinging on defensive liability consideration, but the other two have fielded their positions very well. None of these hitters are going to make a huge difference in a lineup. It’s all about hoping that they can reach their potential.

The hope for the Pirates is that Ramírez will get on base enough to make his diminished defensive play worth putting up with. Given injury situations, they don’t currently have any better options. Pittsburgh isn’t expecting a lot out of Morse, as he has yet to get into a game as a Pirate, and the player who he “replaced” (José Tabata) wasn’t contributing much this season. Anything they get out of Morse will be a net gain.

For the Cardinals, it’s simply a matter of hoping that some runners are on base in front of Moss and he is able to drive them in. A 20-home run, 75 RBI final stat line out of Moss would make him worth the pitching prospect they gave up for him. There is no clear winner for the position players, as the determination on this won’t be made until after the season.

It’s very likely that these two teams will see each other in the postseason. If the season ended right now, Pittsburgh would host the San Francisco Giants in the NL wild card game (for the second consecutive year). The Pirates would then take on St. Louis in an NL Divisional Series if they were to defeat San Francisco.

Which team really improved the most toward their ultimate goal of advancing in the playoffs would be evident then, but we have around 50 games to evaluate these moves before that time comes. Let’s watch and learn.

You can find Derek on Twitter @dhellingsports and join in the discussion @CTBPod or on our Facebook page.

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