Yes, this is 2017, and the team we are watching is the 2017 Cardinals. The club that has been, for pretty much the entire season, a sub-.500 team. A sloppy team. A defensively inept, baserunning-challenged, underpowered mess. A club with exactly one consistently good starting pitcher and zero dependable relief arms. A baseball team that has, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, driven its fans to question what kind of product they’re really supporting.
And yes, that Cardinals club that has been so very, very frustrating in 2017 has just won six of its last seven games, taking two of three from a really tough Arizona club and the first two of a three-game set from the Washington Nationals, who, although currently a little beaten up, have still been one of the very best clubs in all of baseball.
All of which is to say that I really have no idea what the hell is going on with this team this year. They definitely don’t feel like a very good club most of the time; certainly not the kind of ballclub that can survive less than perfect execution in any area and still have a real chance to compete.
And yet, as we sit here on the morning of the second of July, the Cardinals are two games below the .500 mark, but only three and a half games back of the division lead. The Redbirds will play their 81st game of the season tonight on Sunday Night Baseball, and there is no way they will complete the actual first half of the season with a winning record. But they are in no way, shape, or form out of the race.
There’s also reason to believe the Cardinals might, in fact, have a real shot at winning this division. Their real record right now is 39-41, but their Pythagorean record is 41-39. They actually have a positive run differential. Of further interest, if we cruise over to FanGraphs and check out the Baseruns standings, we find that the Chicago Cubs, class of the central, have a Baseruns record of 41-40, with a run differential of +6. The Milwaukee Brewers, real-life division leaders and early-season surprise, should be 43-40 with a differential of +12. The Pirates have been positively awful by the Baseruns metric, with a -51 run differential and a ‘deserved’ record of 35-46. (Yes, that’s right; as brutal as the Pirates’ season has been in many ways, their underlying numbers suggest they’re actually worse than they look.) And the Reds are roughly as irrelevant in the Baseruns standings as they are in the real ones, with a -36 differential and a 37-43 record.
Where do the Cardinals rank according to Baseruns, you ask? Why, a 42-38 record and +20 run differential.
Now, I feel I should state that, just as when people around these parts mocked the Cubs for winning the Baseruns championship of 2015, it doesn’t really matter who’s ahead in third-order winning percentage or Baseruns. Those real wins and losses are, of course, what matter in terms of getting a team into the postseason, and we all understand that. But all those context-neutral stats are helpful, in that we can look at the underlying structures of a team in a way that’s very hard to do when we’re watching them play on the field. We can get a feel for the strength of some of those underlying structures. And by some measures, the Cardinals have actually been the best club in the NL Central this year. That’s maybe not the most prestigious crown, considering how middling and muddled this mess has been. But still, it tells us the Redbirds are healthier at a base level than we might feel most nights.
For instance, I know I’ve commented elsewhere on this blog that I find it strange the Cardinals as a team have six players considered to be ‘starters’ (by baseball-reference, specifically), who have both OPS+ and wRC+ numbers above 105, yet the offense as a whole has struggled to score runs. The Cards rank right around the middle of the pack in wRC+ (varying between 14th and 16th most days, with about a 95 team wRC+), but have been in the bottom quarter in terms of runs. Which of those things is more indicative of what we should see going forward? The one that doesn’t worry about poor sequencing, most likely. (Although I will admit it’s tempting to chalk up the run-scoring woes to the fact most of the Cardinals run the bases like they grew up downstream of Doe Run.)
With all that in mind, this little mini-run of success the Cards have had recently, beating a couple of pretty good clubs in the process, has to at least factor into any decisions the club will make regarding the big Buy vs. Sell question. The Cardinal front office can read FanGraphs just as well as the rest of us, and probably have a pretty good idea of what the club’s underlying level of talent is. Considering how poor the division is, I think Buy is the most likely decision. Not saying I necessarily agree with that; I put forth my own plan as imaginary GM of the Cardinals not too long ago, but barring a major reshaping of the roster as I postulated, I would prefer a moderate short-term selloff to another deadline of moderate upgrades and bullpen purchases. Either go big or reset, I say.
However, I thought we could take a slightly different look at the process of potentially buying today, and why it’s a more complicated, difficult process than maybe we want to believe on first blush.
What I mean to say is this: if the Cardinals are going to try and buy some upgrades, they have to play those upgrades somewhere. So let’s look at what positions those upgrades might play, shall we?
Just a note: I’m not going to really go into the pitching side of things today, simply because that’s an entirely separate and immensely complicated can of worms. We know the bullpen is shaky and could use some bolstering, but there are arms galore in the minors who are worth a try. The rotation has been great and then terrible and then great and then mediocre, and presents its own little Gordian Knot to try and work out. Wade into the waters of pitching at your own peril, dear readers, for there be monsters. Rather, we’ll stick to the more ordered world of position players.
Okay, we can skip this one. Yadi is starting, Fryer is backing him up. There is zero chance a real move will be made at catcher, so there is no real chance of an upgrade at catcher. Even if the club wanted to bring up Carson Kelly to get him some more major league at-bats, he’s not likely to play enough to make a real difference. So, moving on.
So now we have our first real possibility of an upgrade. The incumbent here is Matt Carpenter, who is currently running a 119 wRC+. He has a 17.3% walk rate, a 20.1% strikeout rate, a .227 isolated slugging percentage, and fourteen home runs. The really amazing thing about Carpenter is that he’s managed to be almost 20% better than league average as a hitter this year while running a painfully low batting average on balls in play of .250. For reference, league BABIP this year is roughly .309, I believe, and Carpenter’s career BABIP is .323. So, he’s running a BABIP 60 points below league average and is still producing at a borderline elite rate. Ladies and gentlemen, the Galveston Grinder is one hell of a hitter.
Carpenter has been worth 1.2 wins above replacement so far this year, as an average fielder at first, a very good hitter, and a really poor baserunner. The rest of the way, the three projection systems all have him between a 117 and 122 wRC+, and like him for between 1.2 and 1.5 more WAR. Personally, I think Carp is a little better than that; the projections have been really slow to buy his power even three years in. But really, they see him as a 2.5-3.0 win player over a whole season. Considering he’s a first baseman now, that’s probably not a bad baseline to look toward.
Now, the real question is what kind of upgrade the Cards could maybe find. Well, I’ll be blunt: they won’t. The two biggest first base names likely to be moved this July are Yonder Alonso and Lucas Duda. Alonso has been a revelation this year for Oakland after retooling his swing to lift and separate (the ball from the ground, I mean), posting a 149 wRC+ in 260ish plate appearances, but his peripherals suggest he’s not really a meaningfully better hitter than Carpenter. He’s been worth 1.9 WAR so far, and is projected for around another 0.7 the rest of the way. Buy into the swing remake and bump that number a bit if you like; Alonso even keeping 100% of his sudden breakout is probably about a 3.5 win player. So, you know, about half a win better than Galveston?
Duda is interesting, in that he’s running a .318 ISO this year, which is over 100 points better than his career mark. He’s been good, but I’m not buying it. He’s the same age as Carpenter, and the Mets will likely be motivated sellers. Again, probably a fairly marginal upgrade, all things considered.
Before anyone says it, no. Eric Hosmer is not available, and also not a good baseball player. So just stop it.
Final Verdict: Going to be awfully tough to find a real upgrade here.
The big question at second base is: how healthy is Kolten Wong going to be the rest of the season? Wong has been inconsistent defensively this season, particularly in terms of errors, but his past track record suggests he should be a plus glove over the long haul. And while the glove has been up and down, his bat has really taken off this year, to the tune of a 122 OPS+ and 0.7 WAR in just about 180 plate appearances. If Kolten is healthy, you aren’t going to find much better on the market.
On the other hand, if Kolten isn’t going to be on the field consistently, then maybe you look around. Asdrubal Cabrera is not a shortstop, but is still an average hitter and wants out of New York. If the price was right he might not be a bad choice as a utility guy. Howie Kendrick is running a 134 wRC+, but that’s on the back of a .433 BABIP. And no, he’s probably not a true-talent .433 BABIP guy. He’s also almost 34 and not much of a defender anymore.
If you want a name that’s really interesting as an infield trade target, try on Jed Lowrie for size. The long-time Athletic (with a little break in there), has been outstanding this year, showing his customary plate discipline and some resurgent power, with an ISO that’s jumped up to .197 this season from a kind-of-amazing .059 last year. (In his defense, Lowrie battled several nagging injuries in 2016, I believe.) He’s a fairly mediocre defender, but can legitimately play all three infield spots (and could probably stand at first, I would imagine), and has been a very solid hitter for most of his big league career. The A’s are seemingly trying to transition to Franklin Barreto, their top prospect, at second, so Lowrie will probably be available.
Plus, when was the last time you saw a team with two guys named Jed/Jedd on it? That has to be worth something.
Final Verdict: If Wong is healthy, you aren’t going to find an upgrade. If not, Lowrie would seem to be the best option. He might not be a bad idea as a utility guy, either, although that’s a pretty low priority in terms of upgrades.
Oof. Up until now, we’ve been talking about pretty marginal upgrades. Shortstop, though, is one area where you could legitimately make a transformative move.
Aledmys Diaz came into the season as the incumbent, but he’s been very bad, with defense that’s still really only acceptable if he’s hitting, and hitting that would only really be acceptable if he was a good fielder. Diaz has been worth half a win this year, but that’s pretty much entirely positional adjustment. His BABIP is a little low at .283, but considering how horribly his plate discipline has eroded, I’m not sure it should even be that high. Awful lot of lunging at low and away sliders for soft pop flies.
The complicating factor here is Paul DeJong, who I personally don’t think is quite ready for prime time, considering he’s walked exactly twice in over 100 plate appearances. He could really use some more time to season and develop, I think, especially in terms of that plate approach. However, that power that was so enticing coming out of college is very real, and while he looks a tad bit stretched at short to me, he’s not any worse than Aledmys. He hits the ball hard, and he hits the ball in the air. That’s a hell of an enticing combination, especially for a guy with a chance to stick up the middle. Should his audition for the shortstop job take precedence over the club trying to improve?
Adeiny Hechavarria was the most likely shortstop to be traded, and he’s already been traded. He’s also pretty mediocre. I’ve already stated my own preference would be to kick off the roster remake by blowing the Angels away with an offer for Andrelton Simmons, but they’ve somehow been better without Mike Trout than with him, and are sort of in contention. So, you know. I’d still go for it, but it’s complicated.
You want a short-term upgrade? Zack Cozart is your guy. Above-average defender at short, even nearing his 32nd birthday, and running a 149 wRC+ this year. (No, that’s not a typo.) There’s some luck in that number, for sure, but Cozart is legitimately one of the best shortstops in the game right now, and a free agent after the season. What it would cost to get him, and how likely a deal within the division would be, are both good questions, but he would be a legit upgrade.
Final Verdict: Shortstop is probably the position you could make the biggest impact, but the targets are very limited, very expensive, or both.
I already made Josh Donaldson the centerpiece of my personal roster remake, and I stand by that. Here’s the thing, though: Jedd Gyorko has been really, really good. His offensive line is being buoyed by a .341 BABIP, but he’s also improved his walk rate dramatically over years past and trimmed his strikeouts a bit. In the field, he’s looked very good at third base. In other words, there is absolutely nothing to complain about when it comes to Jedd Gyorko, starting third baseman. He’s been worth 2.1 wins already this year, and he’s projected for 1.1-1.3 more. That actually feels a little low, but even if we go with it he’s a 3-3.5 win player.
And therein is the tough part: unless you really are acquiring a player the level of Donaldson, there aren’t that many third basemen on the market who represent a legit upgrade over Jedd. Todd Frazier will be available, and could be a bounceback candidate from a .214 BABIP so far this season, but he’s also older than Gyorko and looks like he’s lost a step or two defensively. I wouldn’t hate Frazier, but I also wouldn’t give up that much for a marginal upgrade. The O’s aren’t trading Machado, and the Rockies aren’t moving Arenado. Mike Moustakas is probably staying put in Kansas City the rest of the year, and is going to be about a three win player this year. Basically, if you want to make a third base splash, it’s Donaldson or bust.
Final Verdict: Third is my favourite spot to make a huge move, but short of an MVP candidate, getting a meaningful upgrade on Gyorko is going to be difficult.
I’m lumping left and right field together here; any player you would want for one could certainly be moved for the other, I would think.
We all know the stories of the players taking at-bats for the Cards in the corners; Tommy Pham is exciting but fragile, Randal Grichuk is exciting but inconsistent, Stephen Piscotty is consistently unexciting, and Jose Martinez is just fine as an extra outfielder.
Personally, I’m inclined to stick with Pham and Piscotty as my starting left and right fielders, respectively, but I can understand anyone who points to those spots as areas to upgrade. The Marlins are likely to move at least one of their three outfielders this July, with Yelich likely the most expensive, Stanton the most complicated due to his contract, and Marcell Ozuna maybe the most intriguing overall. Ozuna has had issues in the past in terms of his conduct and conditioning, but he’s doing tremendous things this year. He’s been worth two and a half wins already this season, and is projected as high as 1.7 more the rest of the way by Steamer. He’s rocking a .243 ISO and a 149 wRC+.
Unfortunately, there are a couple caution flags on Ozuna; his numbers are being helped by a .351 BABIP and a 27.0% HR/FB rate. Both of those are very unlikely to continue; see Grichuk, Randal 2015 (.365 BABIP), and Gyorko, Jedd 2016 (24.4% HR/FB). If we bring those numbers down, Ozuna starts to look an awful lot like....Tommy Pham. Both guys put the ball on the ground more often than is ideal, both strike out about 20-25% of the time, and both bring speed and power that make up for their other shortcomings. Pham walks and strikes out a little more than Ozuna, and I personally think is a better fielder. Ozuna has hit the ball crazy hard for much of the year, though, so he’s intriguing.
I really like Christian Yelich, but boy, he really hits a lot of ground balls. (58.4% GB rate in 2017.) While the game seems to be moving toward more balls in the air and more power, Yelich is hitting the ball at low angles as much as ever. And, unfortunately, that means his power has basically evaporated this year. He’s still too good to be a buy-low candidate, and so would cost an arm and a leg. The defense in left is really good, average in center. Overall, would he be worth the king’s ransom he would cost?
And then, of course, there’s Giancarlo Stanton, who would give the Cardinals the legitimate middle of the order bat they seem to lack. Stanton is actually making more contact this year, but has also traded in some fly balls for grounders. And for Giancarlo Stanton, that’s not what you want to see. He’s a very good defender in right field, is still only 27 years old, and is one of the more prolific power hitters we’ve seen in the game over the past half decade.
The problem, really, is the contract. Stanton’s mega-deal is set to run for ten more seasons after this current one, although there’s also an opt-out after 2020 that just further muddies the waters. Plus, if we’re being honest, Stanton is a very good player, but not a great one. He’s carrying a 128 wRC+ this season, and has been a 1.5 WAR player so far in 331 plate appearances. ZiPS likes him for 1.6 more wins this year, while Steamer sees him being worth 2.1 more WAR the rest of the way. So in other words, he’s....a 3-3.5 win player. Son of a bitch. (Now, maybe you believe there is significant upside left for Stanton if he could get away from the toxicity of Miami. I won’t discount that possibility, just because he occasionally looks like such an impressive player, but I’m also slightly skeptical he’s much more than what we see.)
Beyond the Marlins’ outfielders, J.D. Martinez stands out as the biggest name likely to be moved. Since going to the Tigers, Martinez has been an offensive force, and is laying waste to all he sees so far in 2017, to the tune of a 162 wRC+. Martinez is not much of a defender, but he would very much be the middle of the lineup force we’re talking about for the Cardinals. Admittedly, his 30.7% HR/FB rate is going to fall, but he’s also making hard contact over 50% of the time. The guy just kills baseballs.
The issue with Martinez is that he’s a free agent after this season, and I have a hard time seeing the Cards go all-in for a rental this year. Sure, they might look like the best club in the NL Central by some measures, but that doesn’t mean this is the sort of club you push all your chips in trying to win a championship this year.
Justin Upton still hasn’t turned 30 and is running a 125 wRC+ this season, but he strikes out an awful lot and could opt out after 2017. If he doesn’t opt out, he would make $22 million a year through 2021. Again, how much better than current options?
Jay Bruce? No thanks. Curtis Granderson? Maybe, but is a 110 wRC+ a big upgrade? He can still fake it some days in center field, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts Tommy Pham is better in center than the Grandyman at this point.
As much as I’ve always like Andrew McCutchen, I really don’t see the Pirates trading a franchise icon to a division rival. Besides, he looks better now than he did for awhile there, but he’s also clearly not the physical marvel he was a few years ago. I do still really, really like Andrew McCutchen, though, for the record.
Final Verdict: Judge for yourself. How much are you willing to pay for one of the above outfielders, when weighed against how large an upgrade they would actually represent over Pham/Grichuk/Piscotty? Pham, even slumping recently, is carrying a 123 wRC+ and has made his presence felt in all phases of the game. Piscotty, somewhat amazingly, has been an above-average hitter this year (108 wRC+), despite it feeling like a really tough season for him. His walk rate and on-base abilities are elite, even with a lowish BABIP and a power outage working against him.
Martinez would be the obvious upgrade, but who do you replace and how much do you pay for a pure rental?
I won’t simply ignore this one the way I did with catcher, but honestly, it’s only marginally more likely to be a targeted area. The Cardinals went out and invested heavily in Dexter Fowler this offseason, and while he has not been the defender they hoped he would be this year, he’s been an outstanding addition to the top of the lineup. He’s hitting for more power than ever, and has a 112 wRC+ despite a brutally low .266 BABIP (career: .338).
And on days when Dexter Fowler doesn’t play in center, you have Tommy Pham to do so. Hell, there’s an argument one could make that Pham should start in center, and Dex should learn left. Or, maybe the Cardinals should just tell Dexter to back up ten feet the way he did last year with the Cubs....
Bottom line: center field is not a problem, and not a position you’re really likely to upgrade. Mike Trout becomes available, hey, go for it. But Fowler’s been worth almost a win and a half in less than 280 plate appearances. So, in other words, about a 3-3.5 win player, most likely.
Frowny face goes here.
Final Verdict: Center field is not really a spot the Cards are going to be looking to upgrade, and probably shouldn’t be. It would have to be a very, very good player to really move the needle over Dexter/Pham in center, and I’m not sure that guy is out there this year. Lorenzo Cain could be that player, but I think the Royals are holding onto their chips.
So there you have it. That, in short, is the anatomy of a ballclub that is very, very hard to upgrade, while simultaneously not really being all that good. The most glaring hole is at shortstop, especially if you don’t think the Paul DeJong audition is worth spending time on, but shortstop is also just a tough position to fill period, even in this brave new world. Catcher has been, so far, an area of real opportunity, with Yadi putting up a wRC+ in the 80s, but does anyone really believe you can do anything about his playing time?
Too long, didn’t read: the Cardinals are in a little better shape than it probably feels like, but not much. And I really have no idea where they go to make a true difference on this roster.