Today is the day to wax poetic. The baseballs will be thrown. The baseballs will be hit. The baseballs will be caught. Today it is all about the baseballs. Fill the comments with haikus!
There's two major shifts going on at a high level within the Cardinals roster. The first is what we hope will be an ongoing culmination of the farm system as triumphant. This is a club that will feature talent raised in the minors at every position except right and left field on opening day. Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay are all products of the Cardinals farm system to a large degree. The rotation this season, led by Wainwright, will include Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller as a farm-centric pitching staff.
It's a pretty stunning change from a few years ago. Go back just 5 years and see a rotation filled in by free agents: Kyle Lohse, Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro. The lineup included 4 position players from free agency: Adam Kennedy, Cesar Izturis [/shudder], Troy Glaus and Ryan Ludwick. This was the vision that Bill Dewitt, John Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow had 8-9 years ago. A team led by the farm system. That doesn't mean a cheap team (witness Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright) and it doesn't mean a bad team (more on that below) but it does mean a team that is supplemented by free agency rather than crafted by free agency.
I don't always read Fangraphs articles but when I do,
I drink Dos Equis I usually find an interesting tidbit. There was a particularly poignant one made about long term contracts though it was in reference to the San Francisco Giants and Buster Posey. It referenced this Baseball Prospectus post that studied multi-year contracts of free agents relative to players that signed either extensions or their initial contract with their current team (Albert Pujols is an example of the first, Adam Wainwright or Yadier Molina the second). The conclusion was this:
The real difference in production seems to come at the end of deals, indicating that the primary cause of this appears to be asymmetric information, whereby teams are using intelligence they have about their own players and using it to determine who is likely to perform better. This seems to be a function of being able to detect both declining performance as well as health.
The fact that teams signing their own player receive more value (WAR) from those players relative to teams signing other teams' players is important. (I find the claim to asymmetric information regarding health to be a bit of a cop out but also an unfalsifiable one.) This is the path forward for the Cardinals. Develop through your farm, lock up the premier talent, fill in at the margins via the farm or free agency. It makes one wonder if we aren't seeing the dawn of a new generation of single-team players. That issue may no longer be about loyalty so much as an economic and performance argument for the teams.
Back to this not being a bad team though. In addition to seeing the farm system come to the fore, there's been another less obvious shift. This isn't a team built around one player any more. In part that's because that one player (Albert Pujols) left. It's also symptomatic of a better farm system. This is a team that now relies much more heavily on depth than a single one or two players to power the day. If there's a phrase for the 2013 Cardinals, it is "risk management". The Cardinals could be stronger up the middle behind Molina, Descalso/Carpenter, Kozma and Jay but there are more than adequate backups for those positions within the organization right now.
There is no injury that blows a hole in the Cardinals chances this year. The Cardinals have already absorbed what is, arguably, the worst body blow they could have been dealt with the loss of Rafael Furcal. They've replaced Chris Carpenter with relative ease. This is what it looks like when your club has depth. Could other organizations lose their starting shortstop and a #2 pitcher while remaining essentially unchanged in the projected standings? Maybe a few, but not many.
This week, ESPN put out there magazine with a preview of the 2013 season. Feeling a bit masochistic, I decided to peruse it. What I found was a layout utilizing Dan Szymborski's ZiPS for team win totals and those totals were interesting. Each team was shown with a high and a low (probably correlating to a probabilistic level of performance: 10% & 90%? 20% & 80%? Unclear.). Within the NL Central, the Cardinals pretty clearly trailed the Reds.
Reds: 86 to 97
Cardinals: 83 to 90
Brewers: 74 to 84
Pirates: 72 to 82
Cubs: 72 to 80
Setting aside the little bear schadenfruede, this division is the Reds, followed by the Cardinals followed by everybody else. The Brewers probably crept up a win or two with the addition of Lohse but they remain a pretty clear third tier team. What does this mean for the Cardinals? It means that, on paper, they're probably fighting for the wild card spots. That fight could get dicey. The second place of the Braves/Nationals on paper looks poised to capture one wild card spot. Then the Phillies, Giants and Diamondbacks all project to be around the Cardinals in terms of wins.
(The Dodgers have the largest spread in the NL of 15 games projecting to win between 83 and 98 games. The Marlins have the second highest spread of 14 games ... projecting to win between 60 and 74 games.)
So the Cardinals have a relatively tight band, as far as ZiPS is concerned. (Seriously, Szymborski, what are those win values connected to in your model?) They also have a significant amount of competition to make the playoffs. If you are someone who likes to analyze moves at the margins of a team -- Jason Motte, Ty Wigginton, Oscar Taveras -- this is your kind of season. With luck, the Cardinals will have the resources to make a move mid-season ... because it looks like a mid-season move will be warranted.
Tonight baseball is back even if the match-up looks like a slaughter. Tomorrow the Cardinals are back. All the prognosticating and projecting ends. It doesn't matter what the Cardinals look like on paper because tomorrow what matters is what they look like in real life. We move from a priori to a posteriori in baseball. The long wait is over. Winter is not coming. Baseball is.