I'm going to begin an article discussing the major decisions the Cardinals will make between now and July 31st with a scene from Back to the Future II. (You know, the one whose 'Cubs finally win the World Series' prediction was off by one year.) Simply put, everything has gone to hell. Doc Brown and Marty return from 2015 to find that 1985 is nothing like the world they knew. Doc explains to Marty that one event (Marty allowing a sports almanac from 2015 to travel into 1955) must have been altered to spawn a skew in the timeline, creating an alternate reality for everyone else. Essentially, the butterfly effect messed up everything.
Okay, but what does this have to do with anything?
Individual moments in time, many of them out of the franchise's control, have made significant ripples regarding the fate of the Cardinals. Believe me, this passage is as tough for me to write as it probably is for you to read. I could beat around the bush and mention events such as Rick Ankiel's breakdown in Game One of the 2000 NLDS. However, such attempts would be futile; we are all aware of the exact point in time I am referring to: October 26th, 2014, 6:40 PM St. Louis time on the Sosúa-Cabarete freeway in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.
I write this article with the knowledge that today, June 19th of 2017, would have been Oscar Taveras' 25th birthday. It makes me feel sick thinking of his death in terms of its impact on the Cardinals. A man of just 22 years payed for a single mistake he made with his life. As difficult as it is to view that fateful car accident through the prism of this year's trade deadline, or anything exclusive to baseball for that matter, it's a necessary task when evaluating the current state of the Cardinals.
The John Mozeliak regime, headlined by scouting directors Jeff Luhnow and his successor Dan Kantrovitz, entered 2013 with the consensus top farm system in all of baseball. The club was just two seasons removed from a World Series championship, coming off the second of four consecutive trips to the NLCS, and would win 97 games that year en route to another National League pennant. The St. Louis Cardinals were the model organization.
Of players with at least 100 plate appearances for the 2013 team, only Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina remain. The core of Molina, Matt Holliday, and Adam Wainwright has entered its twilight phase. But this was to be expected, and the Cardinals were prepared for the next chapter in the franchise's storied history.
The organization was loaded with top-flight pitching prospects including Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Tyrell Jenkins, and would add Marco Gonzales and Rob Kaminsky with the club's two first-round draft picks in 2013. On the position player side, Kolten Wong was poised to be a very productive everyday second baseman. Matt Adams was ripping AAA pitching to shreds with a .624 slugging percentage in 2012. Carson Kelly, Patrick Wisdom, and Stephen Piscotty had formed a logjam at third base. But the crown jewel of the prospect class was Oscar. The surefire superstar. The next Pujols. The next Bonds. The first Taveras. El Fenomeno.
Miller and Jenkins were both dealt to Atlanta in the Jason Heyward trade, John Mozeliak's reaction to the void left by Taveras' passing. The trade essentially boils down to the Cardinals exchanging two assets for one six-win season out of Heyward and a compensation pick which turned into Dakota Hudson (or maybe Dylan Carlson–St. Louis held two consecutive selections.) The move wasn't a train wreck, though. Heyward helped the Cardinals capture 100 wins and the NL Central crown in 2015, plus the team snagged an extra draft pick when he left for Chicago the following winter. But the point is: the death of Taveras forced the Cardinals to expend value to fill a sudden hole, value that otherwise would have been diverted elsewhere. The butterfly effect.
Whether Wacha is better suited as a mid-to-back-end starter or a member of the Cardinals bullpen at this point in his career can be debated. But that's a discussion for another day. The drool-inducing stuff that he displayed down the stretch in 2013 hasn't materialized into the frontline pitcher we hoped he would become. Matt Adams' tenure in St. Louis culminated in a disappointing finish with his departure last month. It remains to be seen how we will view Kolten Wong years from now. As much as my previous article sang his praise for the adjustments he has made at the plate this season, I'm not willing to proclaim that 179 plate appearances with a BABIP 66 points above his career average makes him the core player the Cardinals envisioned.
That's not to say the 2013 class was an utter failure. Carlos Martinez has been an A-C-E of late. (Over the past 365 days he trails only Max Scherzer in fWAR among NL starters.) Stephen Piscotty currently owns a career wRC+ of 119. Carson Kelly transitioned from third base to catcher and is currently rated as the best catching prospect in Major League Baseball. Trevor Rosenthal has established himself as a quality closer (though even his value was likely capped when the Cardinals confined him to the bullpen.)
The Cardinals blueprint for future success was as clear as any team in baseball. The days of Pujols, Molina, Holliday, and Wainwright would seamlessly give way to the days of Miller, Wacha, Wong, Martinez, Rosenthal, and Taveras.
The Cardinals aren't in a Marty-and-Doc-return-to-1985 firestorm, but FanGraphs' playoff odds give them only a 12% chance to win the division and a mere 6.4% shot at a wild card spot. Their record against teams at or above the .500 marker is 14-27. The Cubs finally ran down the Cardinals in the standings last season, and it's unlikely that this year's 31-37 club will surpass the Cubs. The Pirates and Brewers have jumped the Cardinals in Baseball America's annual farm system rankings, with Cincinnati and Chicago right on St. Louis' tail.
Mozeliak has hinted at giving consideration to selling this deadline, and unless the Cardinals begin to turn things around I think he should seriously explore selling. I wouldn't call the current pipeline elite by any measure, but intriguing is a word that I would deem more appropriate. We have already seen Carson Kelly, Magneuris Sierra, Paul DeJong, Luke Weaver, and Alex Reyes make their Major League debuts with prospects like Delvin Perez, Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader, and Sandy Alcantara on the way. If the team isn't realistically going to chase a championship this year, wouldn't it make sense to help restock for future runs?
This article was titled The St. Louis Cardinals Face an Organizational Predicament because the next question would naturally be, "what does selling look like with this team?"
The Cardinals are not going to move Matt Carpenter this July. I would bet that the Cardinals value him higher than any potential buyer, plus his value on the base paths and in the field would hamper your potential return. If you were absolutely certain that Jedd Gyorko's production over the past calendar year isn't sustainable, perhaps you could justify what would be construed as selling high on him, but I don't view this as a very realistic scenario.
Who does that leave for the Cardinals to move? Pennant-chase rentals Lance Lynn and Seung-Hwan Oh in addition to a year-and-a-half of Trevor Rosenthal. In all likelihood St. Louis would be in trade talks with teams who need pitching help but aren't willing to pay the price of a Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, or Chris Archer. Maybe Mozeliak bundles a few of his chips for a lower-tier top one-hundred prospect or deals them separately for a couple top two-hundred pieces. But would that address the Cardinals' problem? The main criticism of their current farm system is that it's filled with B and C prospects but not higher-end A guys.
The Cardinals won't be able to sneak a qualifying offer by any of their impending free agents so standing pat this deadline and collecting a compensation pick next June won't be an option. Of course, the other side of the coin would be buying. This could mean two things: 1) The prototypical John Mozeliak trade deadline where the Cardinals add a middle reliever or two, but for the most part, stick it out with their current roster; or 2) Further depleting the organization's prospect pool to land (probably an outfield) bat.
Let me be clear, I'm not opposed to pursuing a player like Marcell Ozuna (under team control through 2019) so long as the asking price isn't excessive. But ask yourself: what impact would the difference in value between Ozuna (or a LOOGY or whoever St. Louis was to hypothetically acquire) and the package it would take to acquire him have on the Cardinals? Then ask yourself: is that difference in value also worth letting players like Lynn and Oh walk this offseason for virtually nothing?
The Cardinals shouldn't "Trust The Process" and blow up the entire team for years to come. They also shouldn't empty out the farm system for a big bat that slightly closes the gap between them and seriously contending again. But as the calendar moves along and the Cardinals drift further below .500, it may be a smart idea for them to evaluate their chances this season and gain whatever value they can.
You made it! Thank you so much for reading.
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