Ryan Helsley Could Be Best Trade Chip For St. Louis Cardinals

Currently in another down year, Cardinals players are drawing interest. Ryan Helsley is one that could be an especially attractive trade chip.

Ryan Helsley
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 16: Ryan Helsley #56 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum on April 16, 2024 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

A year after the St. Louis Cardinals finished last in the National League Central, they are off to one of the worst starts in the sport, which suggests that what’s typically a model franchise is likely reaching a crossroads.

Perhaps before admitting that, they’ll try dismissing manager Oli Marmol, although that would seem to be delaying the inevitable. At some point soon, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak is probably going to have to admit that the Cardinals missed their window to win with Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt.

Part of admitting that may mean considering trade offers for Goldschmidt. However, Goldschmidt is a pending free agent and will turn 37 in September. He’s also off to a brutal start, so there’s a lot limiting the former NL MVP’s trade value. The Cardinals might still trade him if he wants to go to a contender, but there’s definitely an argument for keeping Goldschmidt and either hoping he’ll accept the qualifying offer or return in 2025 on a short-term deal.

As for Arenado, the Cardinals might still think they can win with him as a part of the solution, even as the 33-year-old ages beyond the height of his powers. It’s also fair to wonder just how much value he would have on the trade market. Arenado is owed $52 million between 2025 and 2027, which would have been a bargain for him a few years ago. But Arenado failed to win a Gold Glove for the first time in his career last season, and his 29.5% hard-hit percentage so far this season is concerning when compared to the 35.7% mark he’s averaged in his career.

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There is a scenario where the Cardinals acknowledge that they need to at least retool their team, but still move forward with Goldschmidt and Arenado, at least for the remainder of the season. That doesn’t, however, mean they wouldn’t still have one of the top trade candidates on the market.

If made available, 29-year-old closer Ryan Helsley would become one of the most-coveted pieces on the trade market, particularly if other relievers like Mason Miller of the Oakland Athletics and Ryan Pressly of the Houston Astros aren’t moved.

Ryan Helsley is a Massive Cardinals Trade Chip

Since the start of the 2022 season, Helsley’s 1.63 ERA is second among qualified relievers, trailing only Evan Phillips of the Dodgers. His 2.22 FIP is second only to Matt Brash of the Mariners. And, you guessed it, his 4.3 fWAR is second among relievers over the same period, behind only Emmanuel Clase of the Guardians, who has been worth 5.0. Brash is out for the year with Tommy John surgery, and like Phillips and Clase, is employed by a first-place team. There are so few elite relievers in the sport, and even fewer on non-contending teams, which would increase the interest in Helsley if the Cardinals are truly out of things.

The most obvious team in need of a closer is the Baltimore Orioles, who are without Felix Bautista for the season and have gotten, at best, mixed results from Craig Kimbrel, who will turn 36 later this month. Yennier Cano and Helsley would be an elite one-two punch at the back end of Baltimore’s bullpen as they pursue a World Series title in 2024. It would also set up the Orioles to have baseball’s best bullpen next year when Bautista returns from his own Tommy John.

As Just Baseball’s Aram Leighton noted, the Orioles still possess arguably the best farm system in the sport, with the organization particularly deep in terms of young position players. With so many controllable talents already at the MLB level, general manager Mike Elias could deal from the surplus of positional talent to acquire a star closer like Helsley.

Other teams that could be in the market for a star late-game reliever like Helsley include the Dodgers, Rangers, Yankees and Braves. If Mozeliak was offered someone the Cardinals believed could be a future mainstay in the lineup or starting rotation, it would be hard to pass that up.

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Sure, Helsley is still under team control for one more season after 2024, but a closer is a luxury on a bad team. And after failing to trade either Goldschmidt or Arenado when they would have fetched the biggest return, the Cardinals may be inclined to cash in Helsley, knowing your elbow and/or shoulder can only throw the ball at or around 100 mph so many times before needing surgery.