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The Cardinals are not built like a playoff team

For years, the front office has prioritized “raising the floor” over acquiring blue chip talent. Can that work?

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Last year was the first full season since 1976 that the Cardinals haven’t had a single player worth at least 4.0 Wins Above Replacement. For context, that’s where Fangraphs draws the line between a “Good Player” and an “All-Star.”

The lack of star power was not some quirk or bit of bad luck: It was done by design. I even wrote about it before the season started, when ZiPS projected (accurately it turned out) that no player would crack the 4 WAR threshold. This year’s ZiPS projected Carlos Martinez to reach that mark, but nobody else.

For several years now, it’s been clear that John Mozeliak’s strategy is to raise the team’s floor - stockpiling 2-3 WAR players - rather than acquire (pay for) blue chip players.

What I’ve long wondered is... can that work?

I recently stumbled on a piece that Casey Boguslaw wrote at RO Baseball last offseason which looks at the historical precedent for this kind of no-superstar club. Boguslaw looked at every team/season in the two Wild Card era and counted up the number of players on each team in three categories: Blue Chip (6+ WAR), Red Chip (4-6 WAR) and Yellow Chip (2-4 WAR).

By this measure, the 2017 Cardinals project to have 11 “Chip Players,” ten Yellow and one Red. Of the 150 team/seasons in the study, only 25 have managed that many total Chip Players, and all but six of those made the playoffs.

Three of those six teams that didn’t make the playoff despite having 11 Chip Players had no Blue Chip players, including the 2016 Cardinals.

Only three teams had 11 or more Chip Players and just a single Red Chip player, as the 2017 Cardinals are projected to have: The 2016 Pirates, the 2015 Yankees and the 2012 Oakland A’s. One of those teams missed the playoffs, one lost in the play-in game, and one lost in the Division Series. They averaged 86 wins.

A team constructed like the Cardinals is designed to - at best - squeak into the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Sure, once you’re in the playoffs it’s largely a toss-up, but in the most recent era of baseball, no team built like this has won even a single postseason series.

That being said, Boguslaw’s study does make it clear that having many average-plus players is still more valuable than having a few superstars and nothing else. But the evidence suggests that Mozeliak’s strategy to raise the floor has serious limitations when your ceiling is so low.

As the great Grant Brisbee has put it, the Cardinals have managed to create a number of 2-3 win players “out of sticks and sand” in the recent past. A few, like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter, have even pushed past average into star territory... if only for a few seasons.

But if you set aside a few jackpots from less-heralded internal options, and the 2015 acquisition of Jason Heyward, the team has been light on top-tier talent for years, and there’s little evidence they’ve even prioritized acquiring blue chip type players.

The strategy seems to be to stockpile these Average-Plus players and hope that a few may rise to the level of 2013/2015 Matt Carpenter, or 2013 Allen Craig. But while they’ve had some luck with that in the past, my concern is that these guys are also pretty close to slipping below average and even into replacement level territory.

Take any position player on the current Cardinals roster. How confident are you that they will remain a solid starter for the next two years? Three years? Beyond?

It’s pretty easy to imagine any of them - Carpenter, Piscotty, Diaz, Wong... taking a bit of a turn south and going from a decent starting option to something more like a platoon player. We’ve already seen it with Grichuk and Peralta.

Of course, we’ve also seen the benefit of The Mozeliak Doctrine, which is Grichuk and Peralta being replaced with players like Pham and Gyorko, who maintain that broadly average production. But that feels like a recipe to maintain a .500 team more than it does a formula to generate a true playoff contender.

Until the Cardinals expend some resources in an attempt to acquire a true blue chip player, I expect they will remain consistently, even relentlessly, average.