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Or: Why the Cardinals Really Can’t be Done Just Yet.

2nd Annual Pedro Martinez Charity Gala Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images for Pedro Martinez Charity

Author’s Note: Yes, I did initially promise #30-21 of the prospect list today, and that was still the plan when I was finishing it up yesterday, but I had an idea for an article that I wanted to get out sooner than later, before the Cardinals potentially make any more moves. Thus, you’re going to get two prospect list installments back to back from me, on Wednesday and next Sunday morning, with 10-1 still coming on the morning of New Year’s Eve. But this one I wanted to get out now, as opposed to in a few days’ time. — Aaron

So the Cardinals left the Winter Meetings, having accomplished a couple things. They added a useful piece to the bullpen in Luke Gregerson, who may not be the answer, but is certainly an answer. They moved Stephen Piscotty on to Oakland, his childhood team, the club right in his backyard, consummating what I think a lot of us had hoped would ultimately happen. It was nice to get a pair of talented infield prospects back; I like Schrock in particular, and plan on writing both he and Munoz up in a supplemental at some point here soon. Better than that, though, was to see something authentically, unabashedly good coming from sports. John Mozeliak can play down the family angle and call it a tie-breaker if he wants; bottom line, I honestly believe there were literally only two clubs the Cards would have traded Piscotty to: the A’s and that team across the Bay who also just missed out on a new right fielder.

And, of course, the Redbirds came away from baseball’s big swap meet with a Marlin outfielder. No, not that one. No, not that one either. Marcell Ozuna. Who is awesome, by the way! He’s improved his plate discipline numbers over the last couple years, and he showed a new, unprecedented level of power (for him, I mean), last season.

There is risk in Ozuna, yes, in that 2017 could be an outlier. A fluke. A career year. He could go back to being the same solid-but-not-exceptional player he was for most of his time in Miami, and the Cards might still not have a star, even having paid for one.

On the other hand, betting on a breakout as opposed to a fluke from a 26 year old is the kind of risk the Cardinals need to take on if they’re going to push themselves forward. There’s reason to believe Ozuna’s 2017 might be a breakout, as well; we obviously have to look at his elevated (.355), batting average on balls in play as likely to regress in the future, but if we go deeper we can be optimistic, as well. Statcast provides us with some context for just how hard Ozuna hits the ball; he ranks twelfth in all of baseball in average exit velocity (min. 150 batted ball events), with a 90.8 mph mark, sitting just below Manny Machado and tied with J.D. Martinez. Cutting it down to just line drives and fly balls he ranks thirteenth at 96.4 mph, just below Machado and Paul Goldschmidt, and above such luminaries as Ryan Braun, George Springer, and Gary Sanchez, all of whom have well-deserved reputations as slayers of el beisbols. (Also, weirdly, just above Kendrys Morales, who seems to have hit the ball awfully hard in 2017 for someone with a 97 wRC+.)

In other words, we shouldn’t expect Ozuna to replicate his BABIP of 2017, but he truly did hit the ball remarkably well this past year, and hitting the ball extremely hard is about as good a sign as you’re going to find in terms of future production, particularly when found in a player who has legitimately improved his approach at the plate.

Someone in the comments the other day called the Ozuna trade a ‘half measure’, which I tend to disagree with, at least in one sense. If you’re calling the trade a half measure because you think Ozuna is barely an upgrade, then I disagree. He’s a risk, sure, but I really do believe that’s exactly the sort of risk the Cards can and should take at this point. The potential payoff with Ozuna is substantial. On the other hand, if you think Ozuna is a half measure because he’s not quite enough to get the Cards over the hump, then that I can agree with. They don’t need to make a lot of moves still, but they do need to make more all the same.

And therein lies the one real downside I see with the Cardinals getting Marcell Ozuna.

See, here’s the thing: Giancarlo Stanton, the Cards’ initial target this offseason, was signed for at least three years, and as long as a decade. In other words, if they had gotten Stanton, they would have been picking up an anchor for the lineup for a long, long time. If they had held out for Christian Yelich, his contract ran for five seasons (including an option year, I believe). So half a decade of maybe not a lineup anchor, necessarily, but one of the better all-around outfielders in baseball.

Both of those were long-term solutions. Yes, it would have been important to utilise resources to build winning teams around either player, but in both cases you had time. Time, in fact, was on your side.

The real downside to the Ozuna trade is that Marcell Ozuna is under control for two years. Now, that’s better than a one-year rental, obviously, and I think fairly substantially better. But....two years is still tough. And slightly dangerous. Let me explain.

The Cardinals, at this moment, are a team on the upswing. Now, I know there is a substantial segment of the fanbase that would scream bloody murder at such an assertion; these are mostly the same people buying wholly into the narrative of the linear downward trend, i.e. World Series —> NLCS —> NLDS —> Missed playoffs —> barely above .500. They would likely argue that such a clear, obvious line that a dolt like me is far too in the pocket of the organisation to admit to would suggest that next year the Cards will win 79 games, and in five years the stadium will collapse in on itself like a dwarf star, drawing the miserable husk of the city of St. Louis into it, crushing everything down into a tiny cube that still won’t attract any free agents.

However, if we actually look at the facts and trends, 2016-17 looks like a fairly clear transition period for the franchise, the frustration of which was exacerbated by the rise of a Cubs team which has been constructed in a very smart and highly sustainable way. Still, looking at the Cards’ farm system, we see a wave of high-quality pitching prospects beginning to really wash up into the top levels of the minors, bringing with it a promise of renewal. The depth on the farm is somewhat stunning, even if the organisation has, admittedly, struggled to develop star-level players over the past handful of years. Part of that, of course, is losing the prospect with the best chance of that star upside to a tragically bad decision, but there has also been some bad luck and some overly conservative drafting along the way as well.

The Cards have seemed a little slow to pull out of this transition period as well, a fact not helped by Alex Reyes missing a season due to elbow surgery. Reyes emerging in 2017 would have felt very different compared to being pushed back a year as the franchise cast about for upside plays. Overall, though, the future is looking very bright again; Carlos Martinez is a high-quality arm who still has some room for growth, Reyes will be ready this season to begin his tenure properly with the big league club, Luke Weaver seems to have rediscovered the stuff that made him such an intriguing prospect his sophomore season at Florida State and shown greater swing and miss potential than many (including yours truly), gave him credit for, and Jack Flaherty made it to the big leagues last year at just 21 years of age. He wasn’t quite ready yet, but he also isn’t that far off, either. It’s possible that the Cardinals, by the end of 2018, could look a little like the Cubs of 2015, when their great project truly began to pay dividends, only with pitching prospects rather than young hitters.

Here’s the slightly worrisome part about the Ozuna deal, though: in making the trade for Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals parted with some young talent, which could have matured and added to the swelling wave this coming year, but that’s not the real problem. As talented as Sandy Alcantara is, and as much as I personally like Zac Gallen to develop into a devastating Tyler Clippard-style swiss army knife of a pitcher, the fact is the Redbirds got Ozuna done without sacrificing their truly elite prospects, much less the guys they’re going to have to rely on in the immediate near-term. Rather, the concerning part about the Ozuna deal is that two-year control window the Cards have.

Two years just isn’t a very long time.

Now, it’s possible the Cardinals could keep Ozuna longer than two years. Maybe they called up Carlos and suggested to him that while he was throwing his buddy Marcell a birthday party, he should maybe ask in a roundabout way if he’d be willing to sign a long-term extension prior to free agency. Or, maybe once he does become a free agent the Cardinals just sign him anyway, a la Matt Holliday circa 2010. But for now at least, we have to assume Ozuna will be a Cardinal for just two years.

It’s likely, but not guaranteed, that the Cardinals just traded for a new best player when they got Ozuna, or at least a new best position player. He’s projected for more wins above replacement in 2018 than anyone else on the current roster, after all. Now, ideally, Ozuna wouldn’t be your best player; in a perfect world, Tommy Pham would consolidate the gains he made in the second half of the season, what with the 15% walk rate and sub-20% strikeout rate and .200+ ISO, and Matt Carpenter with a healthy shoulder would maintain his 17.5% walk rate of 2017 but post a BABIP closer to his career mark of .321, rather than 50 points below that, and Marcell Ozuna would just be the guy who drives in the best 1-2-3 on-base punch in baseball. But there’s a pretty good chance that Ozuna is the best player on the Cardinals now. And, again, is here for two years.

By trading for Ozuna and his two-year commitment, the Cardinals absolutely accelerated their own upswing, and they moved their window of contention up. They could have held on to all their assets this offseason, waited to see if Jose Martinez was for real, or if Tyler O’Neill could carry his late-season improvements from 2017 over into ‘18, or if Jose Adolis Garcia is closer to what he looked like before he was signed, or closer to what I think he might turn out to be. They could have done that, and the club still would have improved. That pitching wave might have come rolling fully in by the end of 2018, and perhaps O’Neill comes up midseason and slugs 22 homers in 330 at bats, and Paul DeJong shows improvement in his plate approach without giving up much power, and the Cards of 2019 would have looked really, really intriguing. The PR hit probably would have sucked, but the talent matriculating up the ladder would have brought the people back, I believe.

But they didn’t do that. They cashed in some value now, in order to move that window up. In doing so, however, they also set themselves a deadline. And that deadline is two years.

What do teams whose best players are going to leave in two years do? They go all in. They basically have to. One year left, maybe you consider moving the player, though usually even at one year left the club is more likely to hold and then try to flip at the deadline, rather than trading early, but one year you at least consider the sell. Two years, though, you go for it. You go all in. You don’t have time to do anything else.

And if you trade for a new best player for just two years, you had better go all in, otherwise you just wasted half of the value you paid for.

So the Cardinals, in trading for a two-year rental (again, still way better than a one-year rental), set themselves on a course by which they simply cannot wait on the rest of the system to mature and organically push their team forward. This is now a club with a deadline. You have to win while you have Marcell Ozuna (perhaps even moreso if you have designs on extending him, in which case you have to sell him on a chance to win in St. Louis, meaning you’d better have a good club now, rather than soon), seeing as how he’s your best player and all.

The real problem, then, becomes the pitching. The Cardinals have, all offseason, stated they like their rotation. They have no real designs on substantially remaking said rotation. Now, if the Rays decided to get totally crazy and deal Chris Archer to the Cards for a bargain prospect package because they just really hate the Cubs, then perhaps something could be worked out. But failing something like that, it appears the Redbirds have, to this point at least, considered the signing of Miles Mikolas to be the big addition to the rotation for 2018.

I think it’s worth reposting something I went through awhile back, which is the Steamer projections on the Cardinals’ projected starters.

  • Carlos Martinez: 4.0 WAR in 202 innings.
  • Michael Wacha: 2.8 WAR in 167 innings.
  • Luke Weaver: 2.7 WAR in 155 innings.
  • Miles Mikolas: 1.9 WAR in 120 innings.
  • Jack Flaherty: 0.7 WAR in 70 innings.
  • Alex Reyes: 1.3 WAR in 74 innings.
  • Adam Wainwright: 2.0 WAR in 171 innings.

It’s worth noting that John Gant projects for an ERA and FIP right around 4.00, which is pretty effing solid for a guy projected into a swingman role.

The elephant in the room here, of course, is that Adam Wainwright projection, which looks very optimistic for a 36 year old coming off an elbow cleanup. If the Cardinals really could get two wins out of Waino in ~170 innings, then they really have no problems with the rotation. Unfortunately, that feels like a sandcastle with the tide coming in.

But even if we take Waino out, look at those top six. Every one of them projects as an above-average major league pitcher. The innings are a problem, yes, but think of how the Cards’ rotation could look by the end of 2018, when Reyes has reestablished himself as a force, Carlos has taken his place at the table of the best in the game, and Mikolas has won both Comeback Player of the Year and the Paul F. Tompkins Award for Best Moustache. That rotation heading into 2019 could be...magnificent.

Oh, wait, that’s right. We can’t wait until 2019. There’s a deadline coming. Damn it. Forgot.

See, here’s where we run into the problem with that two-year window. The Cardinals, by acquiring one win-now talent to push their window up a year, have essentially dictated that now they have to make further moves in order to try and make that narrow window worth it.

A Christian Yelich deal would have given the club more time to let the system mature just a bit more and begin to bear its own fruit. A Stanton trade would have been more complicated, either requiring immediate action or promising a decade of chances to win with a great if not historic (you know, ‘cause he wasn’t sooo good as to opt out), slugger in the middle around which to build. Ozuna, though, is both rocket fuel and call to arms, both creating and demanding further quality so as not to waste what limited time you have.

This is, it should be said, not an entirely unique situation; it’s the risk all teams run when they decide to begin pushing their chips into the middle in order to seriously compete. By forcing the window open wider, you always run the risk of shortening the time it stays open. Somewhere in the story editor, there’s a piece I started back in July called “How Dynasties Die” about the Cardinals of 2013 and the Cubs of the present; I hope to get back to it at some point this offseason.

For now, though, we have a Cardinal team that just made a move to inject some quality into the mix. And because of that, they can no longer afford to wait. To wait now, to hope for further maturation, to let that wave of pitching build on its own and begin to crest, is not really an option. So long as the Cards made no moves at all, they could have continued making no moves, and let the next winning club (hopefully), grow on its own. Now, though, they’ve broken the seal and made that first move. They cannot not make a second. And maybe a third. And in making those moves, will they end up shortening their window which is just now beginning to open?

The Cardinals have two years to win while Marcell Ozuna is a Cardinal. The first big investment dictates there must be more. They weren’t good enough before, but could afford to wait until they were. They still aren’t good enough now, but are closer, but have less time, and cannot afford to wait, and cannot simply be done this offseason.

The true failure at this point would be to fail to properly recognise the conundrum into which they’ve worked themselves, and try to simply let it play out. That would be a waste of both talent and time, one of which they’ve spent and the other of which they now have very little.

I don’t think the Cardinals are done this offseason, by any stretch of the imagination. Having given themselves a boost and a time limit, they simply cannot afford to be.