“Smithers, there’s no way I can lose this bet. Unless, of course, my nine all-stars fall victim to nine separate misfortunes and are unable to play tomorrow. But that will never happen. Three misfortunes, that's possible. Seven misfortunes, there's an outside chance. But nine misfortunes? I'd like to see that!"
— C. Montgomery Burns
A series of misfortunes can certainly sink even a super-team. I was in the stadium Opening Day of the 2007 season, when just after raising the World Series banner, Chris Carpenter threw a few feeble innings, then left the game and the season due to injury. That team looked pretty thin even before the season started, built more along the "Stars & Scrubs" model, so when one of the stars went down on Opening Day... It was clear it was going to be a long year.
The most sobering thing about the 2017 Cardinals and their lackluster performance is that we can't really point to any major "misfortunes" that befell this team. Nobody was stricken with gigantism or fell into a bottomless hole. Well, except Jhonny Peralta.
The Cardinals have ranked in the bottom half of the league in both the number of days and the number of salary dollars spent on injured players in 2017. Kolten Wong and Stephen Piscotty have missed a few weeks, but that's about it.
The team that has taken the field for the Cardinals this season has been by-and-large the team the front office expected it to be in Spring Training. And that team is not very good.
This is how their projected WAR for this season (including both their current value and expected rest-of-season) matches up with what was projected preseason:
The underperformance is striking, and virtually across-the-board.
On the one hand, the fact that the whole team is playing below projections does lend credence to John Mozeliak's assertion that there are underlying issues with the team attitude and culture. That argument basically goes "we have the assets, the assets just aren't performing."
The conclusion from that is pretty simple. But while Mozeliak has allowed that Matheny is at least partly responsible for this perceived culture problem, he's always quick to qualify that and say it's not his problem alone.
Now believe me, I'm always on-board to blame Matheny. To whatever extent a problem with the team's attitude and culture is real, that's just another reason to throw on the enormous Fire Matheny pile. But I don't believe that's the whole story.
I don't think this team is built to compete for a playoff spot this season, and certainly not next season.
Ask yourself this: Which position players on this team can you reasonably expect to be better next season than they were this season?
Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler are all at an age where we should expect some degree of decline. Jedd Gyorko and Tommy Pham are a bit younger, but wouldn't you say we are probably seeing them at their peak right now?
Kolten Wong and Stephen Piscotty are the only two I would say are fairly likely to perform better next season, both due to some injury issues this season and the fact that they are maybe slightly on the right side of the aging curve at 26. But I also think we've seen enough of them to pretty much know what we're getting. They might go from a 2 WAR season to a 3 WAR season, but we're not expecting All-Star caliber breakouts at this point.
That leaves only the shortstop position and I guess Paul DeJong. (We'll always have 2016, Aledmys.) DeJong's power certainly plays, and he's only 23, so if you told me you expected him to be even better next season, I suppose I wouldn't call you crazy... but his profile is just a little too Grichukian for me to believe he can do this consistently.
Down on the farm, I wouldn't be surprised to see Harrison Bader earn a spot in St. Louis, but again, I think we're talking about a 2-3 WAR player there. Carson Kelly will be in a time-share with Molina. I think Mags Sierra is at least another year away.
If this year's Cardinals are the 78ish win team they look to be, that's an even bleaker 2018 squad. I don't know if it's the entire philosophy or just this collection of players, but Mo's "Raise the Floor" approach, crafting a lineup of league-average players at every position, is not working.
The upside of that approach is that, while the sum total of this team does not look playoff-worthy, there are no massive holes with sub-replacement-level players in the lineup. So they have the opportunity to upgrade basically everywhere.
The remaking of this ballclub should begin this week, at least with the team trading away its pending free agents. If they can trade from their minor league depth to upgrade at literally any lineup position, they should do it. If the midseason premiums for such a trade are too high, no big deal, they can wait on that until the offseason. Let's be honest, it's basically the offseason right now anyway.
As I said last week, the Cardinals should be buyers and sellers. Every now and then, I still see someone who says the Cardinals should just stand pat. Do you really believe this team is good enough?