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The myth of the Cardinals aging core

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A much discussed topic this offseason, the Cardinals are viewed as an aging team despite evidence to the contrary.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

That Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Jhonny Peralta are getting older is not new. That is how time works. Also not a new concept for the Cardinals is a sens of their core. The concept of a core player has been a malleable one over the years. Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina have been called core players, but so has Jon Jay. That is not a knock on Jon Jay, but a core player is not always synonymous with best player. It often is, but it is not necessarily the case, and so it is with the Cardinals this year. They have an aging core, but those players are not necessarily the best the Cardinals have to offer.

Back in 2011, after the Cardinals lost out on Albert Pujols, Derrick Goold wrote on the concept of a Cardinals' coreplayer as the team searched for players to step up in place of the departing Pujols. He noted the concept's ability to change depending on the situation:

Manager Tony La Russa would not throw the term "core" around lightly. To him, the "core" was the tight nucleus of players that the team and the clubhouse orbited around and was held together by La Russa. Some days, La Russa would use the word "core" to describe the players invited to join his leadership counsel. Other times, La Russa would use "core" to describe players who received preferential treatment — whether that meant days off, spot in the lineup, or, say, the ability to call hit-and-runs from the batter's box. Just saying. At times, the "core" that La Russa referred to also included players who had the benefit of a multi-year contract.

When the term core has been discussed this season, I think we would put the following five players in that core:

  • Yadier Molina
  • Matt Holliday
  • Adam Wainwright
  • Jhonny Peralta
  • Matt Carpenter
That list is where the concept of the aging core comes from. Those five players have been very important to the Cardinals success, and heading into this season, all five are on the wrong side of 30 as Carpenter turned 30 in November. However, it is less clear that people are talking about Carpenter in the "aging" sense given he just came off a five-win season and projects very well going into this year.

Focusing in on those first four players, we see decline, we see aging, but we also do not see much in the way of expected production. The impetus for this post was a Grant Brisbee piece where he ranks all teams in one of four quadrants that I would sum up as follows: win now and later, win now and not later, lose now and win later, lose now and later. The Cardinals were put into that second quadrant, implying that the team's window is closing.

He started off his discussion of the Cardinals quite well:
Prospect rankings are considered. The most important component to the young talent/aging axis, though, has to do with the major league core. The Cardinals, for example, have young outfielders, a young second baseman, and several young pitchers.
This is a really good start, and the next part has some truth to it, but misses the mark a bit:
But Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are all old or getting there, and those three have been really, really important to everything the Cardinals have accomplished over the last few years. So they're bumped up into the top-right quadrant.
Those three players have been very important to everything the Cardinals have done over the last few years, but last year that trio combined for 707 plate appearances, 28 innings, eight home runs, and 3.1 wins above replacement. For a 100-win team, those three did not mean a lot when it came to production. When considering leadership, their value can be immense, but that value is there regardless of their on-field abilities. It is the past production and current leadership that makes them core players. Now all three could have very productive seasons, and that would be fantastic, but in their present state, they are no longer being counted on to carry the load.

Compare the four aging core players to their expected production. The list below shows the ranks in ZiPS and Steamer600 (which assumes a full season) on the Cardinals' this season.
  • Adam Wainwright (2, 5)
  • Yadier Molina (4, 5)
  • Jhonny Peralta (6, 7)
  • Matt Holliday (14 ,9)
According to the FanGraphs Depth Charts, the Cardinals are projected to get around 40 WAR. The players above account for just 11 of that 40 WAR. When considering above-average players, the Cardinals have eleven players projected for at least two wins which makes seven players not in the core group above. None of the players above are projected for more than 3.5 WAR and Peralta and Holliday are set pretty close to average.

Now consider the following players:
  • Matt Carpenter, Age-30 (1, 2)
  • Carlos Martinez, Age-24 (3, 1)
  • Michael Wacha, Age-25 (5, 6)
That list does not include Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Trevor Rosenthal, Kolten Wong, or even Jaime Garcia, still just 29 years old and newly signed MIke Leake, just 28 years old. The Cardinals "core" might be aging, but the team's best players are getting younger. After the Cardinals lost Jason Heyward, I discussed the Cardinals' ability to compete in 2016 and produced the following chart.
Cardinals WAR by age

Since then, the principal modification has come in the form of signing Mike Leake, but that does not make the team any older. The Cardinals do indeed have an aging core of players how have been incredibly important to the Cardinals' success, and hopefully they can be important to the Cardinals' success again this season. However, they do not need to be the Cardinals' star players. Something closer to average is expected of this aging core. A younger group is already present and ready for major contributions.

The decline in production from Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina along with injury concerns for Adam Wainwright make it seem like the team is aging with a closing window, but that ignores the rest of the team. For those aging players, their window is closing. The same can't be said for the Cardinals. The future is wide open.