One of the five most important players on the current roster who could determine the Cardinals' future is Jose Martinez, who has struggled as a first baseman. (USA Today Sports)

By Rob Rains

The trading deadline will soon appear on the horizon and as it starts to rise the Cardinals must face the reality that it is going to be hard to know what they need until they know what they have.

Whether they want to admit it or not, the injury that will keep Alex Reyes out for the rest of the season was a crippling blow to the Cardinals’ playoff chances this season.

The inconsistency that has plagued this team since the beginning of the year does not appear to be going away any time soon. There isn’t one move the team could make that would suddenly make them a more serious playoff contender. Every time it seems the biggest need is offense, the bullpen springs a leak. As good as the starting pitching has been for the first half of the season, there are now cracks in the rotation.

The most consistent aspects of the Cardinals’ performance so far this season has been abysmal defense and poor baserunning, two areas which were supposed to improve with the off-season changes to the coaching staff. Part of the defensive woes, of course, can be blamed on players being out of position because of the tradeoff of trying to have the team’s best offensive players in the lineup, a strategy that hasn’t worked.

As John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch and the Cardinals’ braintrust survey the landscape of this team, they should come to the conclusion that this month is the time to begin building for 2019 and beyond. To decide what they need, they need to give increased playing time to their young up-and-coming players, so decisions can be made about how much they can be counted on for next year and beyond.

If this means bruising a few egos and keeping higher-paid players on the bench, so be it. There is a misconception among some Cardinals’ fans that the team’s ownership group doesn’t care if the team wins as long as 40,000 or more fans are regularly showing up at Busch Stadium, but that isn’t the case. Going with more younger players for the rest of the season is actually a commitment to the future, and to building a winning team.

As the Cardinals begin trade discussions, there really should only be a very select few players not included in those conversations.

The strength of this team in 2019, and beyond, will be the foundation of good young pitchers, led by Jack Flaherty, Reyes – who should be healthy next year – and Jordan Hicks, with the next wave of pitchers such as Dakota Hudson and Ryan Helsley coming fast. Austin Gomber belongs in that group too. Whether they will be starters or relievers is not important at this point.

Matt Carpenter has recovered from an awful start to this season, and Paul DeJong is returning in a few days. The team needs Kolten Wong’s defense at second, and has to believe his offense at some point will bounce back to where it has been in the past, which is good enough if the other seven position players are doing what they are supposed to be doing at the plate.

Yadier Molina has enjoyed a quality season and shows no sign of slowing down, which is good news for the Cardinals but bad news for Carson Kelly, who remains one of the best catching prospects in baseball and is now hitting better at Memphis – but there is no point in bringing him back up to the Cardinals now if all he is going to do is sit on the bench.

Harrison Bader might not have hit as well as the team would have liked, but that should come with experience. His defense, speed and energy might be the best on the team. Tyler O’Neill deserves a chance at some consistent playing time the rest of the season, to see if he can make the adjustments necessary to have the same kind of power-hitting success in the majors that he has had in Triple A.

Making a commitment to find out what some of these young players can do if they are consistently in the lineup the rest of the season is the only way the Cardinals can find out what they have, and thus decide what moves they need to make next winter heading into 2019 and beyond.

There are two players the Cardinals should desperately try to move, Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil, but their contracts will make that extremely difficult. The most-likely options are to just admit the bad decisions to sign them and eat what is left on those deals and move on, or try to swap one bad contract for another team’s bad contract and hope you get lucky with the new player. Mozeliak did find somebody, the Mariners, to take Mike Leake last summer after agreeing to pay a good portion of his contract, so maybe there is some hope that could happen again.

At this point in the season, there appear to be five players other than Fowler and Cecil whose futures are the most important decisions the Cardinals face in determining the makeup of the team going forward.

Here is the rundown:

Jose Martinez – It has become obvious to all by now that Martinez is not a first baseman. It’s not his fault, but the instincts and defensive skills just aren’t there. It was a noble experiment, and worth the try, but now it’s time to move on. His defensive miscues, even if they don’t show up as errors in the box score, have more than off-set the positives he has provided offensively.

Martinez really can’t be moved to the outfield, either, which basically only leaves one option – find an American League team in need of a DH and get the best player you can get in return. Martinez will turn 30 a week before the trading deadline, so it is not like time is on his side either. The Cardinals have at least two options to replace Martinez at first, one as simple as moving Carpenter back to his best position. Another, a little more creative, would be to try to convince Molina to play there more often, which would free up more opportunities for Kelly behind the plate.

Moving Molina to first would not take him away from working with the pitchers – he could still make mound visits from there – and might be a win-win for everybody if he would agree to do it two or three times a week.

Carlos Martinez – His last two starts, including Monday night in Arizona, have been more encouraging, but the larger body or work still creates some doubt about Martinez’s future and whether he truly is or can become the ace of the staff that the Cardinals projected him to be. He has enough experience now that the Cardinals should know what kind of pitcher he is, and whether he is someone they can expect to deliver a shut-down performance each time he takes the mound. That is what a team should expect from a number one starter but that doesn’t appear to be the case with Martinez.

If the Cardinals want to shake up this team, trading the 26-year-old Martinez would do it. He has a team-friendly contract which would no doubt to be attractive to suitors. The price should not be cheap, and it would take a blockbuster deal to move him – say as part of a package for Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado. Putting him in those discussions would have to be something the Rockies would consider, now or in the off-season.

Tommy Pham – The Cardinals wanted Pham to go out this season and repeat his success from last season. Pham openly talked about his quest to become the first 30-30 player (home runs and stolen bases) in team history. Whether it’s because he puts so much pressure on himself, or more of his well-documented vision issues, or something else, it hasn’t happened.

Pham got off to a great start and there were suggestions he could become an All-Star this year. Then came May and June, when he hit a combined .197, and that talk disappeared. What is hard for the Cardinals to determine is which Pham they can expect for the rest of this season and, perhaps, beyond – the one from last year or the one from the last two months.

Pham also is hurt by the fact he doesn’t really have much projection left. He will be 31 next year, and the Cardinals have outfielders such as Oscar Mercado stacked up in the minor leagues just waiting for a chance. Perhaps moving Pham to another team before the deadline would create that opportunity.

Marcell Ozuna – After a slow start, Ozuna – the centerpiece of the Cardinals’ off-season acquisitions – has played better, including setting a career-high for RBIs in June. The problem the Cardinals face with Ozuna is not the short term, it’s the long term, and deciding how much they want to invest in making him a big part of that future.

Ozuna will turn 28 after this season and is in the prime of his career. He also is eligible to become a free agent after the 2019 season. Have the Cardinals seen enough of Ozuna to want to invest in a long-term deal that will keep him from hitting the free agent market? That seems to be debatable.

He is one player who could bring back a wealth of talent in a trade, whether it’s before the deadline or over the winter. If the Cardinals are serious about making changes to the team and planning for the future, they have to at least listen and consider the offers that no doubt will come from other teams. As is the case with Pham, there are players such as Mercado, Randy Arozarena and Adolis Garcia just waitng for their chance at the major-league level.

Luke Weaver – Weaver’s lack of success this season has been somewhat baffling after he ended 2017 on a high note and followed that up with a good spring training. He has struggled with efficiency, and his high pitch counts have forced him out of games too early on a regular basis.

Although it seems like Weaver could benefit from a short re-set in Triple A, it appears that he will remain in the rotation for now. Michael Wacha should be back before the end of the month, however, and if Weaver’s performance doesn’t improve he could be the odd-man out.

His performance so far this season has not instilled a lot of faith that Weaver can be projected into the future rotation, either, especially with so many other options coming soon. Only 24, the Cardinals definitely are not going to give up on Weaver but if his name comes up in trade discussions, the Cardinals should not to be afraid of making that deal.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains