It wasn't that long ago that the Cardinals' farm system was thought to be taking a step backward. After a run at the beginning of the decade that was consistently toward the top of baseball, producing stars like Carlos Martinez, Oscar Taveras, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Kolten Wong and Michael Wacha -- which earned them Baseball America's top farm system in the sport in 2013, the same year they made the World Series -- the Cardinals were in the bottom half of most prospect rankings just two years ago. Before last season, Baseball Prospectus had the Cardinals with the 19th-best system in baseball, tellingly, behind every other team in the National League Central. This was supposed to get even worse with the draft penalties leveled against the organization in the Astros hacking scandal. There was a worry among many Cardinals fans, particularly after two consecutive years of missing the postseason, that the salad days of yore were over.

And yet here we are, just days after the Cardinals were thwarted in their attempts to trade for Giancarlo Stanton, with the team at the absolute center of nearly every major transaction of this Hot Stove season, almost entirely because of their load of prospects. Marcell Ozuna is headed to St. Louis to bat fourth and play left field for two years and give the team its best power bat since Albert Pujols , but what is most remarkable about that trade -- the biggest the Cardinals have made since trading for Jason Heyward two years ago -- is that it might just be the beginning … and maybe not even the biggest trade they make.

The Cardinals are in on Manny Machado, on Josh Donaldson, potentially even on Chris Archer, in a potential trade with Tampa Bay that could end up expanding into something involving Archer, Alex Colome and/or Evan Longoria. They've even traded Stephen Piscotty -- considered one of the Cardinals' top two prospects just 12 months ago -- to Oakland in large part just because they want him to be closer to his ailing mother. The Cardinals are remaking their entire franchise this week, and they're doing it entirely through their trove of prospects. You can rebuild a farm system faster than you think, and if you're willing to dig deep into it, your roster can look dramatically different overnight.

Look at the Ozuna trade. Ozuna has two years at reasonable arbitration prices left on his contract, which made him more likely to bring in prospects for Miami than Stanton (because of all the money left on his deal) but less prohibitively expensive, talent-wise, for St. Louis than Christian Yelich. So the Cardinals went out and got him without giving up a single one of their top 100 prospects, of which they have five. If you dream on Sandy Alcantara, you can see him turning into Alex Reyes Lite someday, but the Cardinals have Alex Reyes, the actual one, right now. Magneuris Sierra gave the Cardinals a brief spark last season -- their best stretch of the season was when he was in center field -- but you can knock the bat out of his hands and he's not nearly as good of a base stealer as his speed would suggest. Zac Gallen, the third prospect in the deal, is a No. 4 starter at best, something the Marlins need but the Cardinals won't even notice is gone. And the fourth prospect, Daniel Castano, isn't even in the Cardinals' top 30 and is younger than Reyes but still only in Low-A.

That's a lot to give up if that's all you have in your system. But the Cardinals' farm system has such depth and flexibility -- and much redundancy in starting pitchers and outfielders -- that they can trade away all those guys and not really make much of a dent. That's particularly important because Ozuna is a terrific addition to the Cardinals' lineup but, all told, probably isn't quite enough on his own to bring the Cardinals to the level where the Cubs are. (It's also worth remembering that the Brewers finished ahead of the Cardinals last year, too.) If Ozuna duplicates his 2017 season, he might be, but the Cardinals can't count on that. They want more.

Do they want Machado? If the Orioles are serious about trading him -- and there's an argument for keeping him -- the three teams widely considered to have the pieces to get him are the Yankees (whom the Orioles don't want to trade with), the White Sox (a rebuilding, and thus quite quixotic, option) and the Cardinals. If the Cardinals don't want to go that direction, they've looked into Donaldson, though the Blue Jays don't appear like they want to trade the pending free agent. And then there's that Rays option, which could bring one, two or even three players.

The Cardinals have all these options, again, because of their prospect depth. Looking at the Cardinals' top 30 Prospects on MLB Pipeline, they could conceivably give up two top pitching prospects along with another outfield bat and still have multiple top 100 prospects and still have redundancies in their outfield. Think about what, say, Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader (or Tyler O'Neill) and Randal Grichuk would get them? It'd probably get them Machado (if the Orioles are bent on trading him, which is increasingly unclear), or Colome/Longoria. If they went after Archer, too, they could throw in a Luke Weaver or even a Reyes. And they'd still have plenty of pitching.

The Cardinals have always been loath to trade away prospects or to sign big free-agent contracts, in large part because they haven't had to; they've been able to make the playoffs year after year by being conservative and hoarding their talent. But the Cubs, and to a lesser extent the Brewers, have forced their hand. It now appears to have all been building up to this week, when the Cardinals at last converted all that prospect depth into big league power.

The Cardinals have gotten fortunate too, like all teams. Tommy Pham turning into an MVP candidate last season gave them all sort of options they weren't expecting. (If they had known he'd do that, one wonders if they would have ever signed Dexter Fowler, who is still really good, in the first place.) The emergence of Paul DeJong and even Jedd Gyorko gave them unexpected options, as well. But luck is still the residue of design, and the Cardinals have done their best to design all of this. They have been prudent and judicious … until now. Here are some options for the Cardinals' lineup next season, depending on which deal they make:

Donaldson/Machado:

1B Matt Carpenter
CF Tommy Pham
3B Manny Machado/Josh Donaldson
LF Marcell Ozuna
RF Dexter Fowler
SS Paul DeJong
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong

Bench: Jedd Gyorko, Jose Martinez, Harrison Bader, Greg Garcia, Carson Kelly

Rays trade:

1B Matt Carpenter
CF Tommy Pham
RF Dexter Fowler
LF Marcell Ozuna
3B Evan Longoria/Jedd Gyorko
SS Paul DeJong
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong

Bench: Jose Martinez, Harrison Bader, Greg Garcia, Carson Kelly

That's a team that can compete with the Cubs. And their system would still essentially be intact. The Cardinals are leaping into action right now, but it is not happening suddenly. It has been building for years. The Cardinals always have a plan. This week is its culmination. Strap in.

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