Who was in this mystery “multiplayer blockbuster trade?”

Evan Longoria takes an at bat for the Rays on June 30, 2017. (Credit: Keith Allison)

On Tuesday night, Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com posted an article talking about the history of the Tampa Bay Rays’ pursuit of Randy Arozarena, who has been the breakout star of this postseason. So far this postseason, Arozarena has the rookie record for home runs in a postseason and is knocking on the door of the rookie record for hits as well. He’s clearly been the central cog of the Rays’ offense on their charge to their second World Series berth.

Last winter the Rays acquired Arozarena, Jose Martinez and traded back in the competitive balance round of the MLB draft in exchange for their #3 prospect Matthew Liberatore and catcher Edgardo Rodriguez. The further we’ve gotten from that trade, the more obvious it becomes that Arozarena, who had lit up the minor leagues for the Cardinals in 2019 and outperformed their top prospect Dylan Carlson across the same levels, was the centerpiece of the return for the Rays.

According to Ken Rosenthal on the World Series broadcast last night, the Cardinals generally viewed Arozarena as similar in potential to Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader, so they took the opportunity to get a front-line left-handed pitching prospect for a player they clearly didn’t value. Why do I say they didn’t value Arozarena? Well, if you want an example of what the Cardinals thought of their former prospect, he was sent back to Springfield to start the 2019 season when there wasn’t enough room in the outfield in Memphis, where he should have been. They even hardly played him last year in the Majors while he performed in every opportunity they gave him and the starter at his position struggled so bad he was demoted.

Perhaps the moral of the story for rival front offices should be that if the Rays ask for a player twice, that you should probably not only keep him, but immediately pencil him into a larger role. The Rays do this enough that I wonder how they keep their front office staffed and there isn’t a revolving door.

But the most interesting part of the article may be a paragraph where the Rays talk about trying to acquire Arozarena once before, at the 2017 Winter Meetings.

At the Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in 2017, the Rays and Cardinals had one of those talks and almost pulled the trigger on a multiplayer blockbuster trade, though neither Ibach nor anyone else with either team would divulge the principals who would have been involved. One thing for certain was that Arozarena would have been a smaller piece in that deal had it gone through.

I decided I would go back and look at the Rays’ roster that year and see who might have been involved in such trade talks, and then it hit me: This was the winter of Stanton. At the winter meetings that year, the Cardinals were deep into trade talks with both the Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton and the Rays about acquiring Chris Archer, Alex Colome and Evan Longoria or some combination of them.

The Cardinals’ interest in Colome was well documented, as they had approached the Rays about him before. Derrick Goold would later report in January that the Cardinals were more focused on Archer and the interest in Colome was overstated. Their interest in Longoria, whether they actually wanted him or were taking him on as salary relief to lower the prospect cost, is unknown.

That winter was a wild ride for Cardinals fans as the organization looked as prepared to be aggressive as required to improve their team after failing to reach the postseason for the second year in a row for the first time in John Mozeliak’s tenure atop baseball operations in St. Louis.

On December 8th, the Cardinals officially swung-and-missed when Stanton exercised his no-trade clause to veto trades to both the Cardinals and the Giants, both suitors for Longoria as well. Six days later, the Cardinals acquired their consolation prize from the Marlins in Marcell Ozuna and finalized the deal to send Stephen Piscotty to the Athletics while reports that the Cardinals could finalize a deal with the Rays for Colome and Longoria seemed almost like it was a done deal. Then on December 20th, the Rays dealt Longoria to the Giants while Colome would stick around until the next summer before being dealt to the Mariners.

But for the days around the Ozuna trade and until Longoria finally went to the Giants, that trade felt incredibly tangible. Like there was no way it wasn’t going to happen. You had Colome and Archer both following Cardinals’ related accounts on Instagram and the buzz around it was bigger than anything before it or after in Mozeliak’s tenure. It was even rumored at one point that the Longoria trade was key to get Stanton to accept his trade to the Cardinals.

I just compare that to the Jason Heyward trade where the first indication that a trade might happen was the announcement in my inbox.

The match for the Cardinals and Rays was good. The Rays were looking for salary relief and the Cardinals needed help on offense and defense while also needing a closer after Trevor Rosenthal had Tommy John surgery that summer.

Colome, 28 at the time, had been the Rays’ closer the previous two seasons and had a 2.63 ERA and 84 saves. He looked like a better answer than Rosenthal had been over the previous two seasons.

The Cardinals’ interest in the 31-year-old Longoria was a bit more confusing. Longoria hit .261/.313/.424 with 20 home runs and a 97 wRC+ and had 5 years and $86 million remaining on his contract. But in 2016, he had been a 4.5 WAR player with a 123 wRC+. It’s hard to know how much of an upgrade he would have been over Jedd Gyorko, who had posted a career best season with the Cardinals in 2017.

The Cardinals still had the pieces to make a major move as they had managed to acquire Ozuna without giving up any of their MLB.com Top-5 prospects — though that’s worth reconsidering in hindsight as the three pitchers given up in that deal Zac Gallen, Daniel Castano, and Sandy Alcantara all appear to be MLB caliber starting pitchers — and more established MLB players like Randal Grichuk had been mentioned by the Rays beat writers as a player of interest. Obviously we now know that Arozarena likely would have been involved, but beyond that there’s not much of what I’d consider reliable information on the Cardinals side of the trade.

But then just as quickly as it looked like the Cardinals were ready to be a big mover and shaker in the offseason, they went quiet. Ozuna would be their final major acquisition of the offseason with their only other major move being dealing Grichuk to Toronto in January.

The result was continued struggles into 2018. Mike Matheny would be fired on July 14th and after a historic August rally under Mike Shildt, the team still failed to find the postseason for the third time in a row, matching the longest such streak of the current ownership group.

In many ways the Cardinals’ inability to solve those offense problems continues into today. Ozuna’s two years in St. Louis were a disappointment compared to expectations as he never become the reliable middle of the order force that was hoped.

And three winters later this team is still waiting for an intervention on offense.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.

Retired-ish blogger. I’ve written about the Cardinals and baseball since 2010. World record holder for most hitless at-bats in an inning.