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One Day Until the Deadline

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No trades so far. And if they don’t care, why should we?

Arizona Diamondbacks v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

So what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a bad case of constipation. The Cardinals just can’t seem to get things moving in any direction at all, and are probably going to waste this trade deadline opportunity this year. I know some people will be glad to see them do nothing and go for it, but to me that would be almost unforgivable from this front office. And I say that as someone who has been on the side of John Mozeliak and Company at pretty much all times, even when I’ve disliked a particular move. This front office is as smart, and as good, as pretty much any in baseball.

And yet, here I am, one day before the non-waiver trade deadline, and I’m beginning to have serious doubts about the direction the organisation is headed. Like it or not, in ‘contention’ or not, this is a .500 baseball team. Now, admittedly, Pythagoras thinks the Cardinals should be 54-50 instead of 51-53. Lord BaseRuns of the Hemwickshire BaseRuns, a noted mathematician in his own right, likes the Cardinals even more, seeing them as a 56-48 club. We would probably feel quite a bit differently about this baseball team if they were 56-48 right now, and that’s about what the underlying stats tell us their talent level is this year.

But here’s the thing: they’re not 56-48. They’re 51-53. This team is currently a below .500 squad with a bullpen that, average though they may project in the aggregate, cannot seem to stop losing games. The offense has plenty of average to above-average pieces, but seems to have a misfire that leads to fewer runs scored than should be the case on a near-nightly basis. Part of that, of course, could be the fact the team’s manager will not stop penciling the club’s worst hitter, a 35 year old catcher who just recently went public with griping about one goddamned day off — which should give all of you out there who think that keeping Carson Kelly around so that he can gradually take over for Molina over the next couple years is a good idea at least some pause — who is running an 80 wRC+, into the fifth spot in the lineup. But even without Yadi killing off rallies left and right from his unquestioned perch in the middle of the order, the offense has just had a miss in it all season.

The Cards’ front office built a club that should have won 85-88 games again this year. Maybe even a little more than that, depending upon how well the pitching held up. It was a club that was always going to be right around the edges of contention, a club that was seemingly waiting on things to get moving in the right direction again but never really bottoming out. It was also a club where a handful of things were going to have to right for them to be good. Now, that’s the case with most clubs, outside of last year’s Cubs or this year’s Dodgers, super teams where even if nothing really goes right they’ll be good, and if everything does go right they’ll win 100+ games, the way the Dodgers probably will this year. (And actually, not everything has gone right for Los Angeles; it’s just that a few things have gone so right that they’ve turned into this juggernaut.)

But for the Cardinals of 2017, those things that needed to go right for them to really be serious contenders have almost all gone wrong. The rotation has been outstanding, but the early-season baserunning woes cost the club a couple games. The bullpen has lost far more games than the overall quality of the talent should have. Seung-Hwan Oh went from one of the best closers in the game to a marginal ROOGY seemingly overnight. Your big bullpen investment, buying a multi-purpose lefty weapon in Brett Cecil, has been a bust so far. Cecil was one of the best relievers in baseball for two months, but mostly did so keeping 5-3 deficits right where they were. He’s had horrible timing as to when he’s sucked. The defense has been shaky at times, okay at others, but has still cost the club games.

The encouraging thing is that most of these issues seem to be moving in the right direction. The defense has been much stronger, particularly since Paul DeJong took over shortstop from Aledmys Diaz. I personally had my doubts about DeJong ever playing short at even an acceptable level when the move was first made last year in the Arizona Fall League, but having seen him at the position for a couple months, I think Paul DeJong might not just be an acceptable shortstop, but a pretty good one. Seriously.

The baserunning has been much better since Mike Shildt took over as third base coach, even if it’s still not ideal. Personally, though, I’m okay with the club being a bit too conservative on the bases, so long as they’re not making a ton of outs. Yes, yes, Mr. McCarver, I realise you’re very upset that Matt Carpenter didn’t try to score on that line drive single to right-center, but that doesn’t mean you can disturb everyone else in the rec room by screaming at the television. Now take this and be quiet for a while. Maybe take a nap or something.

Even so, this is a baseball team with a whole bunch of complementary players, and no real stars. I thought Stephen Piscotty’s upgrade to his plate discipline and on-base skills could propel him to middle of the order stardom, but that hasn’t happened. His power has seemingly disappeared, and he’s just flat-out not hitting the ball as hard this year. And now he’s had multiple injuries. Kolten Wong’s discipline has taken a big step forward, but he’s made the exchange by hitting for less power as well. His defensive issues this year don’t concern me long term; he’s been a very good glove every year up until this one, and I think he will be in the future. But the guy who hit 23 home runs in just over 1000 plate appearances in 2014-2015? I don’t think that guy is coming back. That’s probably fine; Wong getting on base at a 38% clip probably fits his skillset better than the low-walk higher-power version we saw a couple years ago. But it still means you’re getting virtually zero power from second base now. Jedd Gyorko has been excellent defensively this season, and has put up a solid batting line (buoyed largely by a BABIP of .324, which is completely out of Jedd’s career range), but he’s not a middle of the order bat. Again, if Jedd Gyorko in hitting sixth for you, you’re in pretty good shape. If he’s your cleanup guy, you’ve got issues. Dexter Fowler gets on base and has shown the best power of his career this year, but he’s a horrible defender in center field, refuses to move off the position, and can’t stay healthy. And you’re stuck with him for four more seasons after this one.

The only true star position players on this club are Matt Carpenter, whose overall line this year is still being hampered by terrible batted-ball luck but is getting on base at a tremendous clip even so (but who is also going to play 2018 at 32 years old, and isn’t the most spry individual in the game right now), and Tommy Pham, who is absolutely 100% a five-tool player with star-level skills. The problem with Pham? Still has a degenerative eye condition that puts his career on a knife’s edge at all times, still has an injury history longer than my arm, and is 29 years old. You can plan around a 29 year old with Pham’s physical issues for two more years, maybe three. You cannot plan on him five years out. If there were no health concerns, then sure. But when you’re talking about a player who has to be this diligent about his contacts and has had trouble staying on the field even aside from the eye problems? It’s a miracle he’s giving you what he’s giving you. Enjoy, be thankful for it, but don’t plan on it half a decade from now.

You’ll notice the star(ish)-level players on the position side for this team are mostly in their declines. Yadi is getting older and so are his knees. His defense has been very good this year, which has been refreshing to see, but the bat isn’t getting better at this point. Carpenter is past his physical prime and already had old player skills to begin with. Pham should stay somewhere near this level for a while if he can stay healthy, but that’s a pretty big ‘if’. Dexter Fowler, the club’s big signing, is 31 with a chronic foot problem.

And as for the guys on the upswing age-wise, they all have question marks. Piscotty’s contact has degraded. Wong gets on base but has very little pop. Paul DeJong, as exciting as he’s been to watch, has perhaps the worst approach at the plate of any player I’ve ever seen, non-pitcher division. (Which is weird; I remember seeing him a little at Illinois State, and he was a fairly patient hitter. I have no idea what happened to turn him into the hacker he is today.) Randal Grichuk’s plate approach is one of the worst I’ve ever seen, non-DeJong division. People were riding high on Grichuk’s 137 wRC+ a couple years ago, and didn’t want to hear people like bgh or myself (and plenty of commenters, too), talk about how unsustainable it was. Well, we’re now working on almost 500 plate appearances of league average last year and close to 300 of 88 wRC+ hitting this year. Randal Grichuk is a painfully mediocre baseball player, no matter how exciting he might look from time to time. Harrison Bader? I love the hustle, I like the pop, I think the defense in center plays fairly well. But he’s cut from the same mold as DeJong and Grichuk. You aren’t going to score runs if no one is ever getting on base, even worse than you’re going to struggle to score runs if guys are getting on base but there’t no power in the lineup to help drive them in.

And then we have Carson Kelly, who might be a star as an average to above bat playing very good defense behind the plate, but when is he going to play? I will give Mike Matheny all the credit in the world for helping make the transition from himself to Yadier Molina a relatively painless one. Guess what? I don’t think that’s going to happen going from Molina to Kelly. If you’ve got a blowup over one day off, do you really expect a graceful transition period?

So who, I ask you, is going to take a step forward and become a star from that group? Is there one true breakout candidate among the bunch of them? DeJong’s ability to play short and power give him a pretty high floor, I think, but there’s still a chance his plate approach is just so bad that it short-circuits everything else about his game. He’s probably the one I would bet on, though, just because 30 homer power and solid defense (if not better), at shortstop is a hell of a place to start.

Now, second question: if there isn’t a star among that group, and the club’s best players (hitting side, again), are also some of the older players on the team, what makes anyone think this club is moving in the right direction? Who on this club is going to be meaningfully better next year? And if the answer is, “Well, probably no one,” then why would you ever hesitate to make changes?

The trade deadline is tomorrow. The Cardinals need to pivot, and they need to do it sooner than later. And yet, nothing has happened, and I doubt anything will. Lance Lynn, the easiest and best trade chip you possess, is still starting today’s game as far as I’ve heard. Trevor Rosenthal, the reliever with the big K rate who should fetch a mint on the market, isn’t raising his trade value for other teams; he’s just convincing the Cardinals how indispensable he is, apparently. They’re locked in to mediocrity at position after position, and seem disinclined to make a big move to shake up the roster wholesale, rather than making marginal moves to raise the floor of the club, which is how we got here in the first place.

I enjoyed 2011. I really did. It was a great ride. You don’t bet your paycheck on a single number in roulette, though. This team needs to be smart and recognise they have needs and opportunities which are potentially lining up this year. I’m really afraid we’re going to look around tomorrow night and find that absolutely nothing has changed, the outlook is the same, the Cardinals are still trying to chase down an underperforming Cubs club that now looks ready to pull away, and didn’t accomplish anything to make the future any brighter.

And that, to me, really would be unforgivable.