Last night was, in my ever so humble opinion, the worst loss of 2015. And, in spite of there being a relatively smaller number of losses from which to choose, compared to most seasons, that's still saying something. There have been some very, very frustrating losses this year, but being shut out on four hits, facing what should have been a demoralised, increasingly irrelevant, partially dismantled Reds squad the Cardinals have dominated in recent seasons, with Mike F. Leake on the mound, wasting yet another borderline brilliant performance by a starting pitcher (though one with, admittedly, one somewhat large blemish), is a definite low point in a season which hasn't actually seen all that many.
It also threw into sharp relief how vulnerable this offense has been at times this year, and how badly in need of an upgrade the unit is. I know the raw numbers reflect an offense in the middle third of baseball this year (though toward the bottom of that middle third, ranking 19th of 30 clubs in runs scored), and that by many component statistics the offense has been quite a bit better than that even. To wit, the Cards' OPS of .709 ranks 15th, dead center of the league, while their collective on-base percentage of .322 is ninth. They rank fourth in the NL in walks (seventh overall), and are right in the middle of the league in strikeouts, ranked 14th overall with 768. (And that's with giving significant playing time to both Mark Reynolds and Randal Grichuk, who by my calculations account for 88.6% of all Cardinal strikeouts this season.)
They rank 16th in total extra-base hits. They hit a very average number of groundballs. The overall club batting average ranks eleventh, and their .254 average sits almost exactly at the midway point between the Detroit Tigers' league-leading .275 BA and the Padres' (seriously? the Padres still have the lowest batting average in baseball despite picking up all the expensive hitters they could this past offseason? wow, good job, Preller!), MLB low .235. (In case you're wondering, the Padres also have the worst on-base percentage in all of baseball, at .292, eight full points lower than the three teams tied for second worst. Amazing.)
Digging deeper, the Redbirds' advanced numbers are similarly encouraging. Their team wRC+ is 97, good for twelfth in baseball, tied (or virtually tied), with Oakland. Filter out the pitchers and that number jumps to 103, even better, and in a virtual four-way tie from 8-11. Their non-pitcher walk rate of 8.4% is among the top ten marks in the league.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying the Cardinal offense of 2015 is really kind of okay. Not great, certainly, but okay. Through some lenses, it even looks above-average. (Though not in terms of runs scored, which is, sadly, the number that most applies to winning ballgames.)
Side note: I know we are all aware of how brilliant the Cardinals' run-prevention efforts have been in 2015, but I think it bears repeating: this club is a run prevention juggernaut. The three clubs who have allowed 355 runs, tied for third-fewest in baseball this year, are the Royals, Dodgers, and Mets. The Pirates have allowed 350 runs, second-least in the league. The Cardinals have allowed 291 runs. Just think about that gulf for a moment. The Cardinals are lapping the field in run prevention this year, to the point that their lead over the second-stingiest club in baseball is more than 20% of the total runs Redbird pitchers have allowed to cross the plate. That is literally almost unbelievable.
As fair to middling as the Cardinal offense has been, though, this is an offense prone to low-scoring nights. Over the 100 games the Cards have played this season, they've scored three or fewer runs in 50 of those games. They've scored two runs or fewer in 30 contests. One or zero runs? Nineteen times this season the Cardinals have been unable to muster more than a single tally. The reason runs have been so tough to come by in certain contests? I don't know, honestly; it would take a better statistician than I to tease out exactly what hasn't happened in those games where the offense largely disappears. Anecdotally, though, I would say the ballpark doesn't help, as it's playing exceptionally tough this year, but more than anything this remains a high-effort offense, an offense that requires multiple things to go right all in a row for the Redbirds to score a run, much less many of them. The baserunning has been a net negative, as the club neither steals bases nor does particularly well at adding value in other ways on the basepaths. (A big part of that, it must be said, is probably Jhonny Peralta, who is so good in so many other ways we pretty rightly overlook how positively awful he is running the bases.) There isn't a ton of power, particularly of the over-the-fence variety. Injuries have played a big part, as well; losing Matt Holliday for a big chunk of the season and receiving virtually zero production from the first base position as a whole are both real issues.
What the Cardinals have this season -- and what they have had for the last few years running now -- is an offense that requires a chain of events. Multiple players in the Cardinal offense have to link up with walks and base hits and whatever else they can muster to matriculate runs across the plate. And that's not the worst thing in the world; the Redbirds have managed to accumulate a fair number of hitters who should be able to do that linking just fine. However, when one or two of those links -- especially if those links happen to be really important ones -- struggle, the chain just never comes together. Kolten Wong is hitting just .230, with an OBP of .302 and very little power, in the month of July. We all know about the struggles of Matt Carpenter, who since the beginning of June is hitting just .181 with a .253 slugging percentage. To Carpenter's credit, he is still getting on base at a .308 clip, which isn't great, but looks positively sterling in between those other two numbers. Yadier Molina has been a below league-average hitter overall this season, and has a sub-.300 OBP in July. The less said about first base as a whole the better.
And so, as the trade deadline rushes toward us, it would seem the Cardinals have a definite need. They need offense, preferably of the powerish variety, and probably at first base. And at this moment, I'm convinced they should probably do absolutely nothing to address that need.
Let me tell you why.
The Kansas City Royals have decided that, for better or for worse, they are going capital A capital I All In this season. First they dealt for Johnny Cueto. And Johnny Cueto, an admittedly excellent pitcher who nonetheless only has two months left on his contract, cost them three young pitchers, with a combined eighteen possible years worth of major league control. Brandon Finnegan is probably a reliever, but could be a very, very good one. Kevin Siegrist level, roughly. Maybe he's a starter, even. Not to my eye, but maybe. Cody Reed is a monster upside play; a mid- to high-90s lefty with a wipeout slider who still needs a whole lot of work. And John Lamb is one of my favourite post-hype sleeper prospects this year, a former top arm in that GOAT Royals prospect crop of a few years ago who has really learned how to pitch post TJ surgery and has seen his stuff steadily improve over the last two seasons, to the point I think he could pitch in the middle of a major league rotation right now. The durability is obviously still a concern, but this is a very, very good pitcher.
And again, that's what the Royals gave up for two months of Johnny Cueto. And no draft pick coming back, either.
Then yesterday, the Royals picked up my favourite piece on the trade market (theoretical David Price excepted), dealing for Ben Zobrist, all-world supersub. In the hands of the Cardinals, I'm sure Zobrist would have been less Mr. Versatility and more Mr. First Base, but I would have been completely fine with that. I like the idea of a plus fielder anywhere on the diamond applying his full abilities to first base, honestly, and regardless, Ben Zobrist can fucking hit. Admittedly, he may not be quite the same guy who put up an 8.6 WAR (!!!) season with the Rays back in 2009, but this is still a player walking in better than 12% of his plate appearances this season, and striking out in less than 10%. He looks to be having a bit of bad BABIP luck this year (.277) and is still putting up a wRC+ of 125. In other words, Ben Zobrist is awesome, I wish the Cardinals had him, and I hate that the Royals do instead.
And also, Ben Zobrist is a two-month rental, same as Johnny Cueto. New draft pick rules mean no pick coming back when he leaves, since you can't qualifying offer a player you trade for during the season. So, two months of Ben Zobrist is what the Royals get.
For that privilege, the Royals gave up Aaron Brooks, who is a throw-in sort of player, a depth pitcher (which, admittedly, the Athletics have shown an ability to get more out of than the typical organisation), and the guy who really shouldn't be listed first in any kind of serious analysis of this deal, and Sean Manaea, who just happens to be the top prospect overall in the Royals' system and the kind of high-upside arm that you just flat-out don't see moved all that often these days.
The Toronto Blue Jays upgraded (marginally), from Jose Reyes, who admittedly hasn't been all that great this year, to Troy Tulowitzki, who also has been much more mediocre in 2015 than his typical historic greatness. Two talented but injury-prone shortstops, one about 1.0-1.5 wins per season better than the other, trading places. Oh, and the better one is also two years younger, which is good, and signed through the 2020 season, when he will be 35 years old, with a body that hasn't produced a full major league season since 2011. Which is bad. He's also owed gobs and gobs of money. Which is also not so good.
You would think, given the Blue Jays upgraded some but not a lot, took on a huge amount of financial risk, and tethered themselves to a player for an additional three full seasons beyond the guy they already had (which isn't always a bad thing, but in this case feels very risky), that they wouldn't have had to sweeten the pot a whole lot to get the deal done. After all, the Rockies acquired a valuable asset, got out from under one of their massive contracts that seems to be handicapping them (though I personally feel that's pretty lame, considering the amount of money floating around in the game right now for pretty much every team), and shortened up their window of commitment, which, considering where they are as a franchise, is a big deal. So, you know, maybe one good prospect would be enough, and then whatever the Rockies could flip Reyes for in return for Tulowitzki. It sounds light, but it's hard to overstate just how damaged Tulo's value is by his injuries and really large contract.
Instead, the Blue Jays gave up a top 50 overall prospect (though one I personally am much lower on than most, but that's kind of beside the point), and two potential monster power arm lottery tickets. Three system top 20 prospects for a fairly marginal upgrade, with a whole lot of bad risk on the contract. That's rough.
What I'm saying, in case you haven't figure out yet, is that this is still, in spite of things moving a bit of late, very much a seller's market, in which the few teams with legitimate assets on the market can extract enormous value from the legions of clubs in contention looking to make that one upgrade they think could put them over the top.
Consider, for a moment, the Ben Zobrist deal, since that seems the most analogous to what the Cardinals might be looking to do for Adam Lind. Now, I'm not saying Adam Lind is as good as Ben Zobrist; he most definitely is not. However, Lind has been a consistently above-average hitter, particularly over the last three seasons, in which he has posted wRC+ marks of 131, 141, and 134. He's not much of a baserunner, and his defense obviously knocks his value down a bit, so he's really only been about a league-averageish sort of player, but the bat is legit. He's also available for next season at an extremely affordable rate, via a contract option, so there's some extra value there that brings him closer to Zobrist.
Now, what the Royals gave up in the Zobrist deal was Sean Manaea, who I'll get to momentarily, and Aaron Brooks, a fairly solid Triple A starter who has made a handful of major league appearances, without yet having been able to establish himself as having a ton of value. Tyler Lyons is probably a better version, but not an unreasonable comparison. So we'll start there. I would say Sam Tuivailala, but Brooks profiles as more of a starter, so Lyons feels better to me. Lyons also has more service time accrued, so the values are not completely dissimilar.
As for Sean Manaea, well...he could be something special. He's a big, physical lefty with three 55 or better grade pitches who has struck out at least 27% of the hitters he's faced at every minor league stop so far in his very brief minor league career. He's had some injury concerns to this point, including a hip injury in college that pushed him well down draft boards from where the stuff would have dictated, and his control comes and goes, but still. This is upside, in a big, big way. You want a comp from the Cardinals' farm system? Easy: Alex Reyes. Same huge stuff, same high ceiling, same iffy command numbers. They even have similarly worrisome health issues. Want a better comp for who Sean Manaea actually reminds me of? Okay, how about another big lefty with outstanding stuff who was traded to the A's about a decade ago now: Gio Gonzalez. Again, that's the level of talent we're talking about here, even if said talent comes with some fairly legitimate concerns.
So I ask you, El Vivi Birders: would you give up, for one reasonable year and two months of Adam Lind, Alex Reyes and Tyler Lyons? Because that's approximately what it appears it would have taken. If you think Tyler Lyons is too valuable for an Aaron Brooks stand-in, we could downgrade Reyes to Rob Kaminsky, likely the second-best pitching prospect in the Cards' system right now. (Marco Gonzales is in that limbo state of me not thinking of him as a prospect, even though he officially still is, I believe.) That's the kind of return you're probably looking at to upgrade first base, from the disaster it has been to a guy who, at his very best, is probably a ~3.0 win player, with back problems, and who is old enough and mediocre enough you might hesitate to make the qualifying offer to, since he might just accept it.
Which leads us back to the title of my post today. If that is the cost the Cardinals can legitimately expect to pay in this market for an offensive upgrade, then I can understand why there are reports floating around that Mo and Co. are still looking at possible relief pickups. The market is so limited this season that, at least to this point, the teams doing the selling are extracting ridiculous returns from the buyers. Perhaps that changes in the next two days, but I kind of doubt it. And if that is indeed the case, then I would be completely fine with the Redbirds taking their value where they can find it, with maybe another Steve Cishek-level deal in the offing. After all, if you can't add runs, and you can't expect your starters to prevent them at any better a rate than they already are, then maybe trying to lengthen the bullpen even further, trying to turn every playoff game into a six-inning affair, isn't a terrible way to go, particularly when your chances of making the postseason are so incredibly high already.
Every year, we come to the trade deadline, and I hope for crazy, franchise-altering deals to happen. And most years, I am disappointed. But that rarely ends up being a disappointment, if you take my meaning. I have to think, looking at what the cost has been for the few assets moved so far this year, that the Cardinals are likely going to disappoint me (or maybe us), again. And that will absolutely not be a disappointment.
Though it sure would be nice if the club started hitting better.