Mike Matheny

Are the Cardinals waving the white flag? Cubs rivals make another head-scratching move

Are the Cardinals waving the white flag? Cubs rivals make another head-scratching move

The Cardinals continued their recent trend of puzzling and surprising moves Tuesday, just hours before the MLB non-waiver deadline.

St. Louis dealt former star outfielder Tommy Pham and $500K in international bonus money to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for three prospects:

The Cardinals began the day 7.5 games behind the Cubs in the National League Central and sitting in fourth place, having been leapfrogged by the red-hot Pittsburgh Pirates over the last week. 

This is the latest move in a series of interesting decisions for the Cardinals this month that began when they fired their manager, Mike Matheny, right before the All-Star Break.

It continued when ace Carlos Martinez had to go on the disabled list for the second time this year on July 21, then returned for one outing Monday before exiting with a shoulder strain and is now likely headed back to the shelf.

The Cardinals also traded away reliever Sam Tuivailala — a 25-year-old right-hander who has made 68 appearances out of the St. Louis bullpen the last two seasons with a 3.04 ERA and 1.24 WHIP — Saturday in a deal with the Seattle Mariners.

Over the winter, the Cardinals traded away three guys who were formerly considered part of the core (for at least a brief period of time) — Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. 

They also dealt for star outfielder Marcell Ozuna during the Winter Meetings, though he's had a disappointing season (.708 OPS, 13 HR, 58 RBI). 

At first glance, it would seem the Pham trade may be the Cardinals waving the white flag and giving up on the 2018 season while trying to acquire pieces for the future.

But Pham could've been a piece to the future, as the 30-year-old outfielder won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season and is first arbitration-elgible this winter. 

He enjoyed a breakout 2017 campaign, finishing 11th in NL MVP voting while hitting .306 with a .411 on-base percentage and .931 slugging percentage. He also smacked 23 homers, stole 25 bases and scored 95 runs in a 6.2-WAR campaign.

Pham hasn't carried that success over to this year, as he's hitting just .248 with a .730 OPS, 14 homers and 41 RBI in 98 games. Despite the subpar results, he's still hitting the ball with authority on a consistent basis:

Cubs fans might best remember Pham as the guy Jon Lester picked off first base last summer in hilarious fashion.

Pham has also been very outspoken over his Cardinals career, making waves earlier this year with a statement on his long journey through the minor leagues:

It gets even more intense from there, as Pham called out his fellow players' struggles. From the SI article:

“We’re two weeks in, and I’m raking,” he says. “I’m hitting like .400. The big league team was 3–9, and all three outfielders were hitting .200. They tried [Matt] Adams out there, and he’s a great hitter, but he just couldn’t play the outfield. So I’m like, They’re getting the reports every day, they know I’m raking. What the f---? When are they gonna call me up? And then we’re three weeks in. The guys are still struggling, Grichuk, Dex [Dexter Fowler], Piscotty. And I’m still balling! So finally I said, They’re not gonna f-----’ call me up, f--- it, and I zoned out in Triple A. Every day I was just like, F--- this. I’ve made it to the big leagues, f--- it.”

He stopped showing up for early work, daring his manager to bench him, daring St. Louis to cut him loose. Pham’s agents had learned that other MLB teams as well as Japanese clubs were interested. “I’m thinking, [the Cardinals] are not gonna trade me,” Pham says. “They won’t sell me to Japan. What the f---? They clearly don’t believe in me. Let a mother------ leave! And they wouldn’t even do that.” 

The Cardinals may or may not be throwing in the towel on the 2018 season, but when they're selling while the three teams ahead of them are all adding pieces — the Pirates acquired Rangers closer Keone Kela Monday — it sure isn't a vote of confidence for the current roster. 

The haul they got in return for Pham isn't much to write home about, either, as Williams (No. 14) and Cabrera (No. 25) weren't even included in the Top 10 Rays prospects by MLB.com's midseason prospect rankings. Ramirez was not listed among Tampa Bay's Top 30 prospects. 

Williams turns 23 in less than a month and has just a .689 OPS in Triple-A this year. Cabrera, 21, is 7-6 with a 4.12 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 in Double-A. Ramirez, 23, was having a solid season (2.53 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 10.1 K/9) in the Rays system.

Pham's departure clears room in the St. Louis outfield for power-hitting prospect Tyler O'Neill and young sparkplug Harrison Bader.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny took a thinly-veiled shot at the Cubs and Joe Maddon

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny took a thinly-veiled shot at the Cubs and Joe Maddon

MESA, Ariz. - Joe Maddon and the Cubs cornered the market on T-shirts last year.

They even had their own T-shirt provider (Korked baseball) that supplied the apparel for all of Maddon's phrases, from "Try not to Suck" to "Embrace the Target" and on and on.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny certainly was aware, especially as the "Try not to Suck" shirts were banned from Busch Stadium in St. Louis last year for being too vulgar (which created a stir in its own right).

So when asked by St. Louis media Wednesday about the Cardinals' 6-0 record at home in the Grapefruit League, Matheny joked, "I think we have T-shirts somewhere that say something about winning at home."

Upon just reading the quote, it doesn't seem like that much of a shot at the Cubs, but St. Louis Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold draws the parellel between Matheny's comment and the Cubs' affinity for T-shirts:

No, the Cardinals don't actually have T-shirts about winning at home.

I pointed out to Matheny that it was a double poke and gave him a chance to walk back either prongs of it. The media was there, obviously, but the Cubs -- maybe he didn't mean the them. He's got a few players selling T-shirts this season, so maybe it was just a statement on a T-shirt culture.

He just grinned.

Now, the Cardinals were just 38-43 at Busch Stadium last season, a big part of the reason why they finished 86-76 and 17.5 games behind the Cubs.

[RELATED - The Cardinals accidentally trolled themselves, to the delight of Cubs fans]

Ex-Cubs leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler is among the current Cardinals with T-shirt deals in place, as he's revealed over the last few days:

https://twitter.com/DexterFowler/status/839573542853201920 https://twitter.com/DexterFowler/status/839339044156821504

Maddon shrugged off any Cardinals-Cubs drama about the T-shirts, simply saying, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Maddon also said he would buy Cardinals T-shirts if it helps out any chartiable organizations and took the opportunity to pitch KorkedBaseball.com once again.

The Cubs, meanwhile, have some new T-shirts this year:

And their apparel is not limited to just shirts:

Of course, this all comes almost a year to the day that "Try not to Suck" made its debut: