As Major League Baseball’s trade deadline approaches and the baseball world focuses its attention on Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, the St. Louis Cardinals have ratcheted up their attempts to acquire the young slugger.
Multiple sources have described negotiations between the clubs that includes Cardinals slugging second baseman Nolan Gorman, and a rejoinder from the Nationals that includes starting pitcher Patrick Corbin in an attempt to shed salary.
Gorman, 22, made his major league debut this season and has nine home runs in 53 games. He has, however, slowed at the plate recently, batting just .193 with a .266 on base percentage since June 1.
His vulnerability to high fastballs has resulted in 51 strikeouts in his last 154 plate appearances, but his defense has been steadier than expected at second, where he was moved before the 2021 season, thanks to the Cardinals’ acquisition of third baseman Nolan Arenado.
Though he’s since graduated from the list due to his big league experience, Gorman started the year as the 29th-ranked prospect in all of baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. Some adjustments to his swing once he reached the majors were expected, and the Cardinals have been encouraged that his defensive progress hasn’t slowed even as he’s worked through a fallow period at the plate.
Widespread industry speculation had previously described the Cardinals as a leading possibility for a match in a trade for Soto because of their large amount of high-ceiling talent in the system. Indeed, finalizing a deal would certainly require the inclusion of other top prospects, such as 2020 first rounder Jordan Walker.
It’s believed that St. Louis, in a gambit to avoid losing both Walker and shortstop prospect Masyn Winn in the same deal, pivoted to Gorman as their preferred trade piece.
Corbin led MLB in losses in 2021 and is in the lead in the same category this year, posting earned run averages of 5.82 and 6.02 respectively. A double edged sword, given those numbers, is that he also reliably takes the ball every fifth day; he made 31 starts last season and leads all big league pitchers with 20 starts this season.
The Cardinals, who will likely be without Steven Matz for most of the remainder of the season and who face Jack Flaherty’s uncertain availability, could benefit from that stability if it provides passable results.
Even as Corbin has struggled to maintain spin and velocity on his slider — this season is the first season since 2016 in which it’s not his most frequently thrown pitch — he has maintained those characteristics on his sinker. That implies strength and health, and could suggest that in the capable hands of Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux and his staff, some corrections could allow Corbin to revert to at least a league-average starter.
League average, of course, is a low bar when it comes to acquiring a player who has approximately $70 million owed to him in the two and a half seasons remaining on his contract.
That the Nationals are seeking to include him in a deal with perhaps the greatest trade chip in modern MLB history suggests either their belief that Corbin can’t be salvaged under his current circumstances or a desire to push the Cardinals to enhance their offer.
Soto’s availability, once viewed skeptically throughout the industry, is now certain. After turning down a 15-year, $440 million contract extension offer, it’s a fait accompli that he’ll be traded before reaching free agency.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported Tuesday that there’s a widespread belief in the industry that potential new buyers would prefer that deal happen sooner than later, so as to allow them to take over the team with a clean slate, rather than a looming public relations disaster.
Trading Soto now, when he could assist a team through three potential runs through the postseason, maximizes his value. And, if it allows the team to escape the financial commitment to Corbin, all the better from a financial perspective.
Though pitching is the club’s primary need, the availability of a player of Soto’s caliber changes the equation for the Cardinals. He compares favorably to some of the game’s all-time inner-circle Hall of Famers, and at 23 and playing in a bad situation, is widely expected to improve dramatically over the period under which he would be controlled by a new team.
The Cardinals, too, have an established history of trading for superstars and then convincing them to sign contract extensions once they’ve experienced the organization. Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Matt Holliday and Paul Goldschmidt all fit that description, and each of the first four will be awaiting Goldschmidt in the club’s Hall of Fame once he reaches his time for induction.
Whether Soto joins them is a question that will likely be answered in the coming days. The Cardinals, for now, are trying.
Six weeks ago, that might have seemed impossible. Six days from now, it may well be a reality.