This past weekend, we were treated to one of the best pitching matchups of the season, when the Cardinals and Nationals faced off on Sunday Night Baseball. Carlos Martinez went for the Cards, Max Scherzer for Washington. Carlos, near and dear to all our hearts (or most; there are still the occasional bizarre holdouts here and there who are convinced El Gallo is not, in fact, one of the best pitchers in baseball because he doesn’t have a perpetual grimace etched into his face, or his hair is a problem, or some other stupid fucking thing), has emerged onto the national stage this season as a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Scherzer, speaking of Cy Young, is the reigning holder of the NL award, and probably the number one reason Carlos can be spoken of as a candidate, but has virtually zero chance of winning the Cy Young this year.
Unfortunately — especially for us — the pitching matchup of the year didn’t work out as planned. Carlos had a rough outing, showing the wavering control that is really the one legitimate issue keeping him from sitting at the table of absolutely elite pitchers. With stuff the level of Martinez’s, you would think he should never walk anyone. Get into a bad count, just throw it down the middle. The stuff is good enough you’re going to get away with it more often than not. But Carlos still lets his delivery wander, and his command occasionally goes with it. The last step in his development will be when he learns to narrow in every time out, and not let those occasional wandering days happen.
The bad news — worse news, actually — was that, while Martinez was struggling with his mechanics and location (and doing so against Bryce Harper, unfortunately), Scherzer did what Scherzer do, and ensured the Nats didn’t even need as many runs as they scored off Carlos to win the contest.
There was, of course, lots of talk over the weekend about Scherzer’s homecoming. He was born and raised in Chesterfield, after all, and was throwing in front of his family and friends at Busch Stadium.
However, there was also an undercurrent of said story, which didn’t really get a whole lot of national play, but did get brought up at least obliquely quite a bit here in the local coverage. Said undercurrent took various forms, with various radio and television and internet types all talking around the issue in various and sundry ways. But it all boiled down to one basic question:
Why isn’t Max Scherzer a Cardinal?
Now, here’s the thing: there is, admittedly, a bit of grandstanding going on here. After all, if the Cardinals were kicking asses and taking names this season, the voices calling out the Redbirds for not signing the hometown kid, who also just happens to be the best pitcher in the National League at the moment, would be fewer, further between, and probably somewhat less strident in tone.
But here’s the other thing: it’s a legitimate question. And the reasons say a lot about where the Cardinals are right now, and how they got here.
Let’s set the stage briefly. Max Scherzer, born in Chesterfield, was first drafted by the Cardinals way back in 2003, when he was coming out of high school. Somewhere in the 30s, if I remember correctly; ‘03 was that semi-legendary missed opportunity when the Cards drafted Scherzer in the 35th round or whenever, Ian Kennedy in the 14th, and Brett Sinkbeil in the 20s or 30s. All three went on to be first-round draftees in 2006, with the three then having very different careers in the pros. Kennedy has proven himself an innings eater who is average in aggregate, but swings wildly from pole to pole year to year (Kennedy is in his eighth full MLB season, has been worth 16.2 WAR, which would make him slightly above-average, but was worth almost five wins one year and less than one win two others). Sinkbeil was good in the low minors but started having shoulder problems around High A or Double A, if I remember correctly, and his career just fizzled out. He made it to the bigs for a cup of coffee with the Marlins, but the tantalising talent he had been in college was, by that point, gone.
Scherzer has had the best career of the three, of course. He was drafted by the Diamondbacks out of Missouri in ‘06 as a raw fireballer with a delivery consistently described as ‘high-effort’ (which mostly means he jerked his head as he threw), and very iffy control. He made it to the big leagues in fairly short order, pitched one partial season and one full for the DBacks, and was then sent off to Detroit prior to the 2010 season as part of the big three-team trade known at the time as the Curtis Granderson Deal. And by ‘at the time’ I mean that should now be known as the Max Scherzer Deal. (It also, interestingly enough, involved Ian Kennedy, so two-thirds of the Cards’ great missed opportunity of ‘03 went in that deal one way or another.)
Scherzer was very good his first couple seasons in Detroit, and then proceeded to just...get better. He sharpened his command. He improved his offerings. He improved his walk rate by coming into the zone more often, sacrificing strikeouts and giving up more home runs. Then he started striking out lots and lots of hitters, without his walks going back up. Then he brought down his home run rate. Then he dropped his walk rate even further. His last two seasons in Detroit, Mad Max was worth 6.1 and 5.2 wins above replacement. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and had gotten there by taking great raw material and relentlessly refining it, bit by bit and piece by piece. He used to not go deep into games. He used to not be efficient enough. He used to have lots of flaws. And he corrected pretty much every one of them.
So now, we come to the time upon which our story hinges. The offseason of 2014-2015 found Max Scherzer a free agent for the first time in his career, coming off those two tremendous seasons.
That season there were really two premiere pitchers on the free agent market: Scherzer and Jon Lester, coming off his strange time in Oakland. The Cardinals were at least rumoured to be interested in both, with Derrick Goold pushing the Lester narrative, and various others talking about Scherzer as an option. Bernie Miklasz was very vocal at the time that he believed Max was interested in a homecoming; I made my own inquiries later on, quietly, and happen to believe it was true. I don’t know anyone in the Scherzer family, mind you, but I do know someone a little more removed from the situation and I think, given the option, he would have chosen to come home to the Lou.
As much as the interest seemed to be there on the player’s part, though, it really doesn’t seem as if the club ever got much beyond the kicking the tires phase of things. The reportedly had meetings with Lester’s people, and reached out to Scott Boras, Scherzer’s agent, but this was not a near-miss as it was a year later with David Price. The Cardinals, for whatever reason, were interested in Max Scherzer in 2014, but not, you know, that interested.
Anytime I think about Scherzer, I think back to a podcast that Ben Humphrey, the former site manager here at VEB, and I recorded back during that offseason of ‘14-’15. We did several podcasts fairly close together that offseason; we were trying to get the thing rolling with consistent episodes, and I happened to be free a bunch from Christmas through the end of January that year. I don’t recall exactly which episode it was, but the biggest subject we debated on that particular recording was what the Cardinals should do with regards to the two free agent pitchers on the market.
Ben was on the side of preferring Lester, I wanted Scherzer. Even knowing he would be the more expensive of the two, Mad Max was my guy. At the time, I thought he would hold up far better than Lester; Scherzer’s fastball-change heavy repertoire would serve him better than Lester’s heavy reliance on the cutter, I believed. In fairness, both pitchers have been nothing less than excellent since that time, as even with his weird pickoff issues Lester has been worth almost 11.5 wins in the two and half years he’s been with the Cubs. (Scherzer has been worth just over 16 wins in that same time period, though, so I’m claiming victory all the same.)
There was a complicating factor in our discussions of hypothetical pitcher signings, though. You may remember (or you may not; January of 2015 was a long time ago, and lots of things have happened since then), that at the time, Carlos Martinez was not yet a starting pitcher. And therein lies the intrigue.
In 2014, Carlos made 57 appearances with the Cardinals, and only seven of those were starts. He was a swingman, but only in the loosest sense of the word. He was the club’s first choice when they needed an extra starter on a couple of occasions, but it wasn’t as if Martinez was getting regular calls in the rotation between weeks of relief work. He certainly appeared to have the talent to start — although there were some questions at the time about his ability to combat left-handed hitters — but was in danger of getting Rosenthal’d — or perhaps Papelbon’d — into a relief role long term. We all know the justifications, from “don’t mess with what’s working,” to that old saw, “he’s too important in relief to move to the rotation.” It happened with Adam Wainwright after the 2006 season, it happened with Rosenthal, and it was happening with Carlos Martinez.
However, going into 2015, there was a clear opening in the Cardinal rotation. The trade of Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward had opened up a spot. Well, actually, it had opened up a competition for a spot; Jaime Garcia still stood in Carlos’s way of a rotation spot at the time. (Of course, Adam Wainwright then got hurt early in the season and all five of Martinez, Jaime, Pac-Man, Lance Lynn, and John Lackey were needed.) Pretty much everyone in Cardinal fandom wanted to see what El Gallo could do with a full-time starting job, and that included both Ben and myself.
So the discussion at the time essentially went like this: Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, or Carlos Martinez? If you sign one of the free agents, then most likely Carlos is back in the bullpen for 2015, and then the fear becomes maybe he gets stuck there forever.
We debated back and forth the merits of Lester and Scherzer, and at some point Ben asked me, point blank, would I be willing to sign Scherzer knowing that Martinez would be stuck in the bullpen? To which I replied I would prefer to sign Scherzer, trade Lance Lynn, and thus open up the opportunity for Carlos while also bringing in one of the best pitchers in baseball.
I don’t tell that story to put over that I’m some sort of baseball genius, even if it seems like that’s my reason. Rather, I’m simply trying to point out that I, most definitely not a member of a baseball front office with a high-powered MBA from Harvard but rather just some slapdick (hat tip to Tony Schiavone), typing a couple times a week on a blog, could see an easy way to both have one’s cake (Cy Young candidate signing), and eat it, too (future Cy Young candidate moving into the rotation).
So why didn’t something like that happen? If Max Scherzer, who at the time was one of the ten best starting pitchers in the game and has since moved into about top three status, really wanted to come home to the team for whom he rooted as a kid, and for whom Mark McGwire played (and there’s a whole big story behind Scherzer and McGwire you can seek out if you like), then why wouldn’t the Cardinals make room for an elite talent like that?
Well, there are several reasons, and how much we weigh each one probably says something about how we look at the team, and what we feel has gone wrong over the past couple years.
First, there’s the money issue. Scherzer signed a huge contract with the Washington Nationals. The official number was seven years and $210 million, but fully half his salary each year was deferred. So the actual payouts equate to fourteen years and $210 million, and the value of the deal was something closer to seven and $170. Or maybe seven and a little over $130 million, depending upon how you want to look at it. I think the 7/$170 valuation is closest to the actual value, and that’s a hell of a lot of money.
Compared to seven years and $170 million, the three year, $22 million contract Lance Lynn signed that same offseason looks positively pedestrian. And Martinez, the pitcher for whom an opportunity was being created by the front office, was making zero money at the time. Well, not zero by normal person standards, but zero by baseball player standards.
So we could, were we so inclined, look at the Scherzer contract and the Cardinals’ disinterest as just another sign pointing toward ownership being cheap. And, personally, I’m sympathetic to that viewpoint. This franchise is raking in money hand over fist — the most profitable franchise in MLB, according to Forbes — and have allowed payroll to become a smaller and smaller percentage of revenues over the past decade. That’s not a big deal when you’re winning; if you can be competitive and efficient at the same time, hey, great. But when you stop winning, well, the people who buy tickets and watch games to generate ratings and, you know, basically give your franchise the value it possesses are going to start asking questions. So a smaller fraction of the pie being spent on a worse product = not a great look.
On the other hand, we could also look one year later and see that the Cardinals were willing to pay basically the exact amount of Scherzer’s contract (the real value, not the reported big number that made it look good from Boras’s side), for David Price. Admittedly, their offer was then blown away by Dave Dombrowski with a checkbook and a molotov cocktail he’s determined to throw at his team’s future, but the best guesses at the Cards’ offer to Price is something like 7/$168. Maybe they didn’t like the structure of the contract and the big number it ended up looking like, but somehow I doubt that was really the issue with Scherzer.
We could also look at the issue of Carlos being earmarked for a rotation spot, and the front office being determined to get him there. We all know there is a tug of war between the field staff and the front office; it’s a struggle that has become more and more apparent the longer we’ve gone with Mike Matheny in the manager’s office. John Mozeliak makes moves, given Matheny options, and then when Matheny chooses the options Mo doesn’t like, he swaps them out for the choices he does. Sort of like Albert Brooks in the Simpsons Movie directing President Schwarzenegger to the disaster response plan he wants him to choose. So sure, Mo could have signed Scherzer and pushed for Carlos to win a rotation spot, but I think we all know that wasn’t going to happen. Matheny already had his guys in place, and he wasn’t going to go away from any of them in favour of a 23 year old kid whose emotions were so out of control as to make him essentially a manchild. Just ask Al Hrabosky; he’ll tell you.
But then, why couldn’t the front office have made a deal? Just make the trade I suggested. Bring in one of the best pitchers in the game, then trade out a perfectly solid starting pitcher for a huge return haul (Lynn still had three years of club control at the time), and create the opportunity you want. Why didn’t that happen?
And here’s where we start to cut a little closer to the bone. For one, as much as Mo has whittled down the options he presents to Matheny at times, the manager still has plenty of pull within the organisation. Probably less at the GM level than at the ownership level, if we’re reading tea leaves, but some even with Mozeliak and his lieutenants. After all, there has to be something worthwhile you see within Matheny as a manager to hire him and keep him on, and so cutting his legs out from under him completely isn’t really an option.
But even more than that, we see now the Cardinals being loyal — perhaps overly so — to their own guys. Lance Lynn was drafted and developed by the Cardinals, and so they held onto him. I’m not saying that’s the only reason, not by a long shot; Lance Lynn is a very good pitcher. But he had tremendous trade value at that time, and you could have brought in a true ace to immediately take over for Adam Wainwright while still cycling in your next hoped-for star pitcher.
Instead, the Cards held on to their guy. Now, was that a case of the Cardinals overvaluing their guy? Some major league version of the faberge egg bullshit we used to hear all the time from those who wanted to mock Jeff Luhnow’s development system? I won’t speak ill of the dead here, but I think time has pretty much cemented that Luhnow did, in fact, know what the hell he was doing in building a pipeline. And as for the living radio host who originally coined the faberge egg thing, I love you, man, and have admired you for years, but I’m getting sick of the shitty Rush Limbaugh sarcastic strawman noise machine impression you’re doing more and more often. And the laughing jackasses in the background? Terrible. Just my two cents. Maybe the station needs that from you; with as much other garbage content as they have, I would think you could be smarter and better than that, because I know you can be.
Hey, it didn’t even have to be Lynn being dealt. He seemed like the easiest lift to me; he had basically already said he was going to explore the market once he got to free agency, and had enough time left under club control to make him hugely valuable But the club could also have traded Lackey. After all, he was making just half a million bucks in 2015, and had been really good in ‘14. Surely that sort of asset would interest somebody, right? But he was so cheap, and so veteranny, that maybe they just couldn’t see dealing him, even for a really good return. Maybe when you rook someone and get a 20 dollar baseball card for two five dollar cards, you can’t convince yourself to turn that card into anything else. It’s your bargain, right?
I won’t suggest trading Wacha; in 2014 Wacha was worth two wins in just over 100 innings. As incredibly valuable as that would have been, the guy looked like a future star before the shoulder issues started creeping up. So I can’t fault anyone for saying he was untouchable at the time.
But what about Jaime Garcia? He was coming off an injury-plagued 2014, which in Jaime Garcia terms means he was just coming off his usual season. He may very well have had no trade value at that point, until he went out and was awesome again in part-time duty in 2015. So they might have been dealing an asset at its lowest value. But then, is it worth holding on to an asset hoping it will regain some lustre if you’re passing on a better opportunity in order to do so? Holding onto Jaime in 2014-’15 wasn’t on the level of doubling down on Mark Mulder in 2007, but it’s the same impetus.
Any of those pitchers could have been dealt to bring in one of the best in the game and still have opportunity for your young hotshot fireballer. (Except, I suppose, Adam Wainwright, who had a full no-trade clause, because part of valuing continuity so incredibly heavily is ensuring that both partners are in this thing for the long haul.) But none of them were. There was a clear, huge upgrade right there to be made, but the Cardinals stayed the course with their own guys. And it worked fine for 2015. But players get old eventually, and there was no ace ready to take over when Waino fell flat on his face the next season.
So perhaps it was money. Perhaps it was the Cardinals overrating their own guy. Then again, maybe it was strictly loyalty to that guy. After all, they might not have been blind to Lynn’s real value, but dedicated to the guy they brought along from the very beginning.
That’s the price you pay for continuity. The vaunted quality for which the Cardinals became known for much of their run at the top has its downside. The Cards and their owner clearly value continuity; they’ve now had two managers and two GMs since Odelay came out. Some of the other positions have seen more turnover, obviously, but the faces of the franchise have absolutely not. And that’s with growing evidence that one of the two is, in fact, terrible at his job. But that kind of continuity comes with a price tag, and said tag reads LACK OF FLEXIBILITY. It’s harder to pivot when you’ve defined yourself as never needing to pivot. Being, in fact, against pivoting entirely much of the time.
We could also go down the road of the Cards being overly risk averse at the time, as Scherzer was already 30 years old at the time he signed his deal. And we do know that pitchers, even very good ones, rarely remain very good all the way into their late 30s. So perhaps the Cardinals were just leery of committing so much money and such long years to a guy already into his fourth decade of life.
But then, if that was the case, what about the extension of Adam Wainwright? Next season will be Waino’s last on his current deal, and he will be 36 years old. What’s more, Mozeliak signed Wainwright to that extension when he was 32. Admittedly, that was only a four year deal for a 32 year old, rather than a seven year deal for a 30 year old, but Wainwright had also already had Tommy John surgery at that point, and had missed most of another season with a torn tendon in his finger. Obviously the TJ is the bigger concern, but the point is the Cards’ brass handed an extension that would carry a previously surgically-repaired and somewhat injury prone in general pitcher through his age 36 season, but balked at signing a pitcher with absolutely no previous injury history whatsoever (and, for whatever it’s worth, really good mechanics), to a deal that would take him through 37.
We come again to Adam Wainwright being one of their guys. And perhaps I’m drilling down too hard on this point, but it seems to me like the Cardinals have, for a fairly long time now, been far too willing to give the benefit of the doubt to players already within the organisation, while having far less belief and/or interest in players from outside than they should, even when those outside players are demonstrably superior.
The Cardinals did not sign Max Scherzer because he was a very expensive bet on a player the organisation had not developed itself. They preferred to stick with their internal options. The internal options were cheaper. They were known quantities. They were org guys already, and they offered that internal continuity the Redbirds under DeWitt have so greatly prized.
I don’t believe the Cardinals have a systemic issue with overestimating their own players, but I do think they may have a problem with overvaluing them. I wonder, if a potential deal for Christian Yelich came along, would the Cardinals be willing to move Stephen Piscotty to make room? Or even Randal Grichuk? If Piscotty were in the trade package, would they do it? Would they be willing to make multiple moves to make the room once they acquired the player? Or would they stay the course with their internal continuity, and go with the guys they drafted and developed from day one? I’m not saying I think the Cardinals would believe Piscotty is better than Yelich; only that they might value him more.
For the record, I’m not saying I want Stephen Piscotty dealt. I think he’s a very good player who is in the process of turning himself into an even better player, with some accompanying growing pains. I’m just saying, the Cards just extended Piscotty this spring; would they be willing to pivot if the chance to remake the roster came along?
So let’s double back finally to the point I’ve been belabouring for something like 3000 words now. Why isn’t Max Scherzer a Cardinal?
We have lots of answers, or at least possible answers. And maybe if we put them all together we’ll have the answer. Max Scherzer isn’t a Cardinal because the Cardinals of the last few years have counted entirely on their internal pipeline and refused to step out on a limb to make a change, even when that change could have been transformative. The slide into mediocrity, with dozens of average to pretty good players but no great ones and not enough positions for all the average to pretty good, hasn’t been entirely the fault of the Redbirds always competing, never tanking, never selling, and never drafting high enough to get stars. Sure, all those things contributed, and those are all noble reasons why a team might find itself stuck in neutral. But some of this the Cardinals have done entirely to themselves, with a disconnect between the manager and front office, excessive frugality, fetishisation of continuity, and unwillingness to stray far from their algorithmically-designated path to efficient competitiveness.
Max Scherzer isn’t a Cardinal for the same reason the Cardinals are currently not the Cardinals we expect. Because the Cardinals put themselves in a box and convinced themselves the box was the whole world.
It seems like John Mozeliak, at least, is under no illusions at this point. But how much damage has been done? And how serious are the changes going to have to be to heal it?
Apologies for the length of this post, and its lateness. This was originally only supposed to be about half this long when I sat down this morning to start it. But lately I find myself thinking of big philosophical topics about how the Cardinals are built and run, and the stuff I write about those big thoughts tend to balloon to near-epic lengths. — A.