This season and upcoming offseason are filled with conflicting feelings and opinions. Last Monday, Joe Schwarz discussed why he believed rooting for the Cardinals was more routine than thrilling. Ben Markham, in a bit of a counterpoint, talked about how the Cardinals run of success has spoiled fans somewhat. Last Wednesday, red baron tried to determine what went wrong, pointing to luck and poor fundamentals. There is much to disagree with and much to agree in those pieces. Ultimately, the Cardinals fielded a good team this past season that didn't do quite enough to reach the postseason. Regardless of the moves the team makes in the offseason, the team will be good next season, too, and importantly, they will give themselves a chance to compete again.
To begin with, let me say I enjoyed watching the Cardinals this season. While the team's poor defense and baserunning cost the team the most this year (and perhaps poor managing a distant third, unless you blame the manager for the first two), even with those two poor aspects, the team was good enough to make the playoffs and suffered some bad luck in not qualifying for the wild card. Part of the fun of cheering for a team like the Cardinals is knowing that the team has a good chance to win every night out, and that the win or loss will matter.
The corollary to the wins and losses mattering in the regular season carries over to the offseason. It can be fun to speculate about what the Cardinals will look like in 2018, 2019, and 2020, but part of the beauty of watching a contending team (and I might have said something like this before), is that the moves made in November and December matter in April and May, which means they matter in September, and often in October. As we move away from the 2016 season and to the offseason, it is fortunate for Cardinals fans that the steps they take now matter for contending next season. That is not true for all teams.
Over the coming months, we will talk a lot about potential and actual moves and how they will affect the Cardinals moving forward. The Cardinals will have opportunities to make moves that will affect the team marginally, the type of moves that could make the difference between 86 and 87 wins, and they will have the opportunity to make big moves--the kind of moves that could take an 86-win team to 90 wins or perhaps 95-100 with a little bit of luck.
Before we get to those moves, a short reminder: the Cardinals are good already. Right now, with Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Aledmys Diaz, Jedd Gyorko and Jhonny Peralta in the infield, and Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk in the outfield, the Cardinals have a collection of roughly 2- to 3-win players for 7 positions from those eight players. Even adding Brandon Moss or Matt Holliday doesn't really change the calculation. We can argue here and there on individuals who might be higher or lower, but on the whole, they are probably around 2-3 wins per 600 plate appearances, either in 2016 or their likely projections for 2017.
A bunch of average to slightly above average players doesn't seem good, but keep in mind that 2.5 WAR from 8 positions plus one win from the bench puts a team in the top-third of baseball. Even 2-wins from eight players and nothing from the bench keeps a team out of the bottom third. Eight three-win players plus two wins from the bench puts a team in the top five. The Cardinals could take the field right now with the players they have and be competitive. That isn't to say they shouldn't make moves to get better, but let's not pretend like the team needs some sort of massive overhaul.
On the pitching side, it appears that Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, and Alex Reyes are penciled into the rotation with Michael Wacha and Luke Weaver in the background with the Lyons, Cooney, Gonzales still present as options even if the Cardinals choose to move Jaime Garcia. With five rotation members projected to put up around 2.5- to 3-win seasons, the lower end would put the Cardinals in the top-half, with the upper number putting them near the top-5.
The Cardinals are already good, and assuming Jaime Garcia's option is not picked up or he is traded, the Cardinals payroll will sit around $20 million to $25 million below what it was this past season. The team has payroll room. The team has plenty of prospects or young major leaguers to trade to make a major move. Last season, the Cardinals basically lost the offseason, missing out on their top free agent targets and ended up paying nearly $100 million for a league average starter.
Despite the poor offseason, they still put together a team that was in contention until the final day of the season and with a little less bad luck, would have won 90 games. Almost all of the good parts of that team are already under contract for next season with most of them likely projected to perform as well or better next year. All of the Cardinals moves should and will come under scrutiny for their wisdom or lack thereof, but if you are worried that if the Cardinals do nothing, they will fall apart, don't.
The Cardinals are fine, and not in a "this is fine" kind of way. They can and should get better this offseason, but this isn't a team in need of an overhaul or a rebuild. The team has an almost unparalleled collection of average to a bit above average players, and that is a really bizarre position to be in. It makes the team difficult to upgrade, but it also gives the team an enviable base to start with. Along with payroll flexibility and a solid farm system, the Cardinals have the resources to, and should, make a splash (more on that in a future post), but the team's run of success over the past two decades doesn't appear in a hurry to end in 2017, no matter what how the offseason turns out.