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Cardinals should be buyers

The team doesn’t have a great record, but they still have a shot and shouldn’t sell absent a disaster.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

A lot can change over the next month, but as things stand right now, the Cardinals should look to be buyers as the team moves toward the trade deadline. When John Mozeliak announced the coaching staff moves and letting go of Jhonny Peralta on Friday, he indicated he would give the team the next 4-6 weeks before deciding what direction to go. He also noted that he wasn’t against rebuilding. I am very much against rebuilding.

The Cardinals still have a very good team. If you are looking at the talent level currently on the team compared to the rest of the National League, the Cardinals are still one of the better teams and if you strip out sequencing luck, the team should be a game over .500. FanGraphs Depth Charts puts the Cardinals as the fourth-best team in the National League, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and Washington Nationals. If you’re the fourth-best team in a league with five playoff spots, you have a reasonable expectation of making the playoffs if you play like that all season long. The Cardinals problem is their record thus far.

Given the current talent level on the Brewers and the struggles of the Cubs, the team still has a 15%-20% chance at the division. In terms of the wild card, the two teams with the best shot are out west in the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. Those teams have banked a ton of wins and project to win around 90 and 87 games, respectively. That gives the Cardinals another 15%-20% chance to win the wild card. Overall, the Cardinals chances of making the playoffs about one in three. Given a 26-32 start, that’s not too bad.

The Cardinals do have some pieces to sell if they chose to do so. Over the weekend, Ben Markham went over the names: Lance Lynn, Seung Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, maybe Michael Wacha or Jedd Gyorko. It’s reasonable to think that the first three might net a back-end top-100 prospect, perhaps more. Lynn would net a draft pick if the Cardinals chose to keep him, which means the team doesn’t have to trade him whether they are contending or not.

Getting more prospects is certainly a good thing, and a one-year sale to reload for 2018 isn’t the worst outcome, but the team should still be buyers, especially if they can take on players with control beyond this year. As we’ve talked a lot about, the Cardinals have a good problem in lots of quality players, but it is a bad problem when it comes to finding upgrades. Ben Godar discussed the problem most recently assessing how the Cardinals are built.

Taking off from Godar’s work, to illustrate the Cardinals problem in upgrading, here are the Cardinals top-8 position players in terms of playing time the rest of the season with their FanGraphs projections before yesterday’s game, how those projections work out over 600 plate appearances, and how long the team has those players controlled.

Name AGE Projected PA FG Projected WAR FG Projected WAR/600 Controlled Through
Yadier Molina 34 348 1.7 2.9 2020
Jedd Gyorko 28 380 1.7 2.7 2020
Matt Carpenter 31 401 1.7 2.5 2020
Kolten Wong 26 331 1.3 2.4 2021
Aledmys Diaz 26 375 1.4 2.2 2021
Dexter Fowler 31 375 1.3 2.1 2021
Stephen Piscotty 26 361 1.1 1.8 2023
Tommy Pham 29 298 0.8 1.6 2021

In terms of our best guess at the current talent level of the Cardinals, we’re talking about an average of 2.3 WAR/600 which is roughly an average player and every player is between 1.6 and 2.9. Of those players, the only one who isn’t a clear starter going forward is Pham, so if you are looking for an upgrade, you could go out to left field, but it would need to be a sizable upgrade.

Take a good player like J.D. Martinez or Todd Frazier. They would fit right in talent-wise with the current group, with a 2.6 and 2.5 WAR/600 projection going forward, respectively. That’s not going to provide much of an upgrade unless Jedd Gyorko can be utilized as a super-utility player. Even on the bench with Greg Garcia, and potentially Randal Grichuk, the Cardinals have decent backups.

That group—with perhaps the exception of Pham—can all be penciled in to the 2018 lineup right now with pretty reasonable expectations of having roughly the same projection. That’s a pretty good base, but is desperately lacking a star level player. Someone above is going to have to lose their spot, likely in a trade in order to provide the Cardinals with a meaningful upgrade, either this year or next.

So if the argument for selling is to accumulate more prospects in order to trade for a star in the offseason, that makes some sense, but the team is still in contention. If the team can’t upgrade on the position player side, they could opt for the rotation. Bullpen pieces are often expensive and the Cardinals have the pieces, either in St. Louis now, or in minor league rotations to fix most of the bullpen problems. The Cardinals will probably get a low-cost bullpen arm like they do every year without giving up much in terms of prospects.

There aren’t easy solutions. If the team felt good about the prognosis of Sonny Gray or Jose Quintana, they could move on those guys once an inevitable injury in the rotation occurs. The Cardinals have the system to make big moves, and if the move is available, they should pull the trigger. If it’s not available, you try to contend with what you have.

It really isn’t exciting to see a team get close to contention and then add just a bullpen arm. Hopefully the trade market materializes to the point where there might be some very good players with control beyond 2017 available soon. If the Cardinals are anywhere near contention, they should not sell.

They might not be able to buy what they are looking for, but that doesn’t mean the only options are buy or sell. Most of the rentals out there likely wouldn’t materially increase the Cardinals chances of success. Buying is prefered, but holding is acceptable if the team still has a reasonable shot at the playoffs. Opportunities for postseason play isn’t a given despite the last two decades in St. Louis. Potentially contending seasons shouldn’t be wasted even if it feels like the team isn’t very good. Getting to the playoffs provides a chance at a championship.