Randal Grichuk

Why the Cardinals traded Randal Grichuk in January 2018

On January 19, 2018, the Cardinals’ outfield carousel took its next spin, as they traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Blue Jays for relief pitcher Dominic Leone and starting pitching prospect Conner Greene.

The move came just a month after the Cardinals traded Sandy Alcantara, Daniel Castano, Zac Gallen, and Magneuris Sierra to the Marlins for Marcell Ozuna. With Ozuna penciled into left field beside Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler, Grichuk had been expected to move into a fourth-outfielder role.

At the time of the trade, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Grichuk was a perfect fit for the job due to his ability to play all three outfield positions while providing power off the bench. At the same time, however, he added that, “when you have somebody like Harrison Bader and even someone like Tyler O’Neill, all of those guys have that ability to do that.”[1]

Originally the 24th overall pick of the Angels in the 2009 draft, Grichuk came to St. Louis alongside Peter Bourjos in the trade that sent David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels. Grichuk made his major-league debut with the Cardinals as a 22-year-old in 2014, then enjoyed arguably his best season in St. Louis in 2015, batting .276/.329/.548 with 17 homers and 47 RBIs in just 350 plate appearances.

In 2016 and 2017, Grichuk bounced up and down between St. Louis and Memphis. Though he hit 46 homers over those two years, he also struck out 174 times in 858 at-bats, a rate of over 20%. As a result, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jeff Gordon described Grichuk’s tenure in St. Louis as “teasing Cardinal Nation for 3 ½ years by mixing supersonic homers with rally-killing strikeouts.”[2]

“There were just a lot of ups and downs during that time where I felt he struggled to find that traction,” Mozeliak said. “We always thought from a baseball tools set, he was quite gifted. But the game is based on performance.”[3]

Not only were Ozuna, Pham, and Fowler blocking Grichuk from a starting role, but the Cardinals were ready to move onto their next generation of outfield prospects. Harrison Bader, a third-round draft pick in 2015, made his major-league debut in 2017 after hitting 20 homers in Memphis that season. Meanwhile, Tyler O’Neill, whom the Cardinals acquired from the Mariners in a trade for left-handed starting pitcher Marco Gonzalez, had hit a combined 31 home runs in 2017 between Triple-A Tacoma and Memphis.

Grichuk said the Cardinals’ crowded outfield situation kept him looking over his shoulder, worried that if he didn’t play well enough he wouldn’t be in the next day’s lineup.

“That wasn’t good for anybody’s confidence or anybody’s state of mind stepping into the box,” he said.[4]

In Toronto, he was expected to become the Blue Jays’ starting right fielder, replacing departed free agent Jose Bautista.

“It’s sad leaving St. Louis, but for my career it’s the best move,” Grichuk said. “We played in Toronto a few years back and I loved it. I loved playing indoors. The city seemed really nice and I enjoyed the few days I was there. I’m excited.”[5]

In his column reacting to the trade, Gordon suggested that the Cardinals could have used Grichuk as a fourth outfielder and upgraded their bullpen with a different move.

“Odds are, Grichuk would have gotten plenty of work for the Cardinals this season had he stayed put,” Gordon wrote. “He may never become more than a .240-type hitter, but he can be (an) asset hitting at that level. He is a strong defensive outfielder capable of playing all three spots. He can hit mistake pitches into the 618 area code and he runs well when he does reach base. … So what was the rush to move him? Sure, the Cardinals would love to get Jose Martinez some at-bats after his breakout season. But that breakout came after he spent a decade kicking around the minors, so he is not a sure thing to repeat his offensive heroics.”[6]

“Randal Grichuk was somebody we always had a lot of hope for,” Mozeliak said. “(But) as we started to really think about 2018 and you realized with the acquisition of (Tyler) O’Neill and Harrison Bader doing what he did last year, we really felt like we had (the outfield) covered. And, of course, Jose Martinez can play the outfield. If we were looking for playing time for Grichuk, it just didn’t seem like it was going to be a great fit. Ultimately, we just decided that if we could move him, would we be able to acquire an arm that we felt could make a difference in our bullpen? Once we identified that (in Leone) and also getting someone we perceived as a prospect, we thought this made sense.”[7]

Indeed, both teams were dealing from a position of relative strength. Originally a 16th-round draft pick by the Mariners in 2012, Leone went 8-2 with a 2.17 ERA as a 22-year-old rookie in 2014. He struggled in 2015 and 2016, as the Mariners dealt him to the Diamondbacks and the Blue Jays then claimed him off waivers ahead of the 2017 season.

In Toronto, Leone enjoyed a bounce-back campaign, becoming one of the American League’s most effective set-up men with a 2.56 ERA over 70 1/3 innings. For the Cardinals, who recently had lost Seung-hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal from their bullpen, Leone represented a potential answer in the back end of their bullpen.

“We hear very good things about his makeup,” Mozeliak said. “We hear he’s very competitive. He should be a high-leverage pitcher.”[8]

Though the Jays didn’t want to part with Leone, they had the bullpen depth to overcome his departure. Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin suggested that Joe Biagini, Al Alburquerque, and Carlos Ramirez could fill the role Leone had been projected to play in 2018.[9]

“We were definitely working from a position of depth and we had multiple teams contact us about that,” Atkins said. “Now we’ll have to look and backfill for Dominic. He had an incredible year for us. We expect him to have another incredible year and it will be for another team. It was a very tough loss for us. It’s the overall depth and guys that are in our system that we feel strong about that can help – then some of the players that are in the market as well.”[10]

Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Greene represented a project for the Cardinals’ development staff. A seventh-round pick in 2013 out of Santa Monica (Calif.) High School, Greene posted a 5.29 ERA over 132 2/3 innings for Double-A New Hampshire and was named to the Eastern League all-star team in 2017. Baseball America ranked him as Toronto’s seventh best prospect.

“When you look at him, you’re not going to like his numbers, but he’s a legit 95 to 98 (mph) type,” Mozeliak said. “He could give us some versatility as a starter or reliever.”[11]

Green was primarily held back by his lack of control. In 501 1/3 minor-league innings, he had walked 226 batters while striking out 377. However, his arm strength led Mozeliak to compare Green to Alcantara, whom the Cardinals had just traded as one of the key pieces in the deal for Ozuna.

“Same sort of arm strength,” Mozeliak said. “When you look at their stats, Sandy’s been a little better. But too high a walk rate and too low of a strikeout rate – odd for someone who throws hard.”[12]

The Cardinals never did solve the Greene puzzle. In 2018, he posted a 4.09 ERA between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. That November, the Royals selected him off of waivers. In 2021, Greene made 24 combined appearances for the Orioles and Dodgers, posting a 7.11 ERA over 25 1/3 innings.

Greene started the 2022 season in the Orioles’ minor league system before he was released in June. He pitched for Caneros de Los Mochis in the Mexican League in 2023.

Leone pitched two seasons for the Cardinals, posting a 4.50 ERA over 24 innings in 2018 and a 5.53 ERA in 40 2/3 innings in 2019. In November 2019, the Cardinals released him. Since then, he has pitched for the Indians, Giants, Mets, Angels, and Mariners.

Grichuk spent four years with the Blue Jays, batting .243 with 90 homers and 257 RBIs over that span. In 2019, he posted career highs with 31 homers and 80 RBIs, though he hit just .232/.280/.457 that season. In March 2022, the Blue Jays traded him to the Rockies, and at the 2023 trading deadline the Rockies traded him and C.J. Cron to the Angels for two prospects.

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[1] Todd Eschman, “Cardinals deal Grichuk to Toronto in effort to bolster the bullpen,” Belleville News-Democrat, January 20, 2018.

[2] Jeff Gordon, “Rush to make this deal seems a little puzzling,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Grichuk Traded To Jays,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.

[4] Laura Armstrong, “Outfield pieces fall into place,” Toronto Star, January 24, 2018.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Grichuk Traded To Jays,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.

[6] Jeff Gordon, “Rush to make this deal seems a little puzzling,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Grichuk Traded To Jays,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Grichuk Traded To Jays,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.

[9] Richard Griffin, “Deeper but no closer with Grichuk,” Toronto Star, January 20, 2018.

[10] Richard Griffin, “Deeper but no closer with Grichuk,” Toronto Star, January 20, 2018.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Grichuk Traded To Jays,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Grichuk Traded To Jays,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2018.