It’s getting old pointing out that the Cardinals need better players, but: they need better players. Cutting through the nitty-gritty numbers, as constituted the Cardinals look like a mid-80s-wins team. That’s how they projected prior to this year, and how they still project (although the extra losses are now baked into their final record), and roughly how metrics like BaseRuns* say they’ve played this year.
*A word on BaseRuns, which isn’t well-understood in all quarters: all it does is take (nearly) all the actual on the field events and ask what a team’s record would be if everything happened in a totally “neutral” order – so it smooths out unsustainable anomalies like great/terrible performance with RISP. Of course real W-L and results in clutch situations count, as they should – but when we’re shifting from fan mode to analyst mode, metrics like BaseRuns are a helpful, if rough, tool to separate actual performance from noise.
A team with an 85-win talent level is… fine. Routine basebally variance will carry that team into the playoffs I dunno, every few years, which is better than a lot of teams do. Cue up the complaints, though: it’s not fine in a division with the ascendant Cubs. It’s not fine from a franchise that makes a lot of money. It’s not fine because, frankly, we’ve gotten used to October baseball nearly every year over the last decade, and once you get used to fancy stuff it’s hard to cut back.
I agree with all of that, at least to an extent. The Cardinals are in an uncomfortable in-between spot, can’t really rebuild, and have assets plus an acute need for an extra five wins on the MLB roster.
There are going to be a lot of words written, here and elsewhere, about how the team can attack that problem. This article isn’t one of them – not directly. Instead, I’d like to look at where the Cardinals roster is, structurally, compared to the best teams in the league, and why the spot they’re in is so tough. The best teams in the league typically have, say, 4-5 players with 4+ WAR. This year the Cardinals will be fortunate to have two, and the only guy looking like a lock didn’t even break camp with the team. Beyond the simplistic “they need better players on the team,” what gives? Compared to the best teams in the league, where has the Cardinals’ roster-building recently fallen short?
The best players are almost all locked up
I’ve broken players into three buckets (with subjectivity fully acknowledged) depending on how their current teams acquired them:
1. Internal acquisitions. Still with the team they lost rookie eligibility with, basically; this covers some players with big-bucks contract extensions, but having the leverage to secure those extensions is part of the advantage of developing stars internally.
2. Low-cost external (LCE) acquisitions. This is guys who were not considered better than average players when first acquired by their current teams, even if they later became so. Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rizzo are examples of current stars falling in this bucket. Their teams either outsmarted the market, or got lucky, or some of both. Or they’re the Dodgers, and they used a functionally limitless budget to acquire so many of these that eventually some will work out.
3. Established stars. Self-explanatory. Includes guys like Chris Sale, but also guys like Jason Heyward, who were considered stars at the time of a deal but then fell off. Remember: this refers to when a guy was acquired, not now.
Let’s look at the guys on the current fWAR leaderboards with 3+ wins to date this year, the ones it’s reasonable to project finishing 2017 at 4+ wins. 68% of the qualifying batters currently at 3+ fWAR were developed internally. 26% were LCE guys. Just 6% — that’s two position players — were established as stars when they were acquired. That’s downright grim. It’s a little more hopeful on the pitching side, but not much: 3 of the 11 qualified pitchers currently at 3+ fWAR go in the established stars bucket (27%), and the rest were internally developed.
That’s five players – Sale, Max Scherzer, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, and Zack Greinke – spread across 30 teams. Right now, the Cardinals are (I hope) aware they need to add stars. But right now, there are five guys in all of baseball who are rewarding teams that acted on that same thought in the past, by producing at a 4+ win level (or six guys, if you count Jose Quintana, which you probably should). Combine that with the rarity of these players hitting free agency (only two players with 3+ fWAR so far in 2017 will be free agents this offseason, and they won’t project to stay at that level) or being traded (again, maybe a couple deals a year involve true four-win players?) and the difficulty of the Cardinals’ bind becomes apparent. You either submit to the occasional feeding frenzy when established stars become available – and accept the risk of your “prize” turning out to be Heyward or David Price, instead of Sale or Scherzer – or you don’t.
It’s easy to sit at home and grouse that the Cardinals need to consolidate money and prospects into multiple stars. And it’s easy to pound the table when some other team offers more for a guy. I do it all the time! But when you look hard at the best players in the league, and just how rare and risky the available ones are, the task at hand appears more daunting. There are simply very few chances to get this done, with many more buyers than sellers for this class of asset.
The best teams are almost always mostly home-grown
The chicken-and-egg corollary here is that the best teams aren’t in this predicament, because they grew their own stars on the farm. Let’s look at the strongest teams of 2017 so far:
- Dodgers. Only 12% of their team fWAR has come from guys in bucket #3; nearly half has come from internally sourced players.
- Astros. Also only 12% of team fWAR from guys who were stars when acquired; a whopping 73% was internally developed.
- Red Sox. Sale and other purchased pitching helped a ton here. 45% of team fWAR from bucket #3, but that’s still less than the 50% derived internally.
- Cleveland. Practically nothing (6.5% LCE types, 9% established stars) from outside; Cleveland is a model of self-reliance, with 84.5% of their wins home-grown.
- Nationals. Despite Scherzer’s contributions, still only 23% from outside, established stars. 68% internally sourced.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, have (like Cleveland) gotten their largest contributions from internally developed and controlled players: 82% of team fWAR to date. Unlike Cleveland, though, the Cardinals’ home-grown players just haven’t been good enough to make up for the scant contributions from players acquired from outside the organization; Cleveland projects for 40+ WAR from its internal guys. At their current pace the Cardinals might hit 30.
And there’s the rub: a team can rely on its farm for almost everything — some teams do it! The Cardinals did for the better part of a decade! — but the farm needs to be giving them Albert Pujols and (prime) Yadier Molina and (prime) Adam Wainwright and etc. to make that model yield a team that’s a reliable playoff contender, instead of an intermittent one. If the farm doesn’t deliver those guys in bulk, or a team doesn’t stumble into some Justin Turners (or Chris Carpenters), the options for becoming a true perennial contender narrow in a hurry. Supplementing the roster from outside, no matter how genuinely tough that task is, becomes a must. So teams find themselves down in the scrum, kicking and scratching to bring in Chris Sale without trading off too much of the farm’s ability to supply the MLB roster’s demands in the future.
So if you’re a GM sitting there, facing the need to sell upside from the farm to bring in outside stars to make up for the fact that your farm didn’t produce enough stars over the last few years… assuming you’ve got job security past the immediate future, I bet it starts to feel a lot like robbing Peter to pay Paul. And the impulse to listen to the voice saying the hell with it, we just have to overpay because we need new guys NOW NOW NOW might start to feel like you’re kicking off a cycle that’s just going to get you fired in five years anyway.
This isn’t an apologia. The Cardinals are presently in the position they’re in, and I hope they choose to do the difficult and risky thing and land some stars from outside. But when we look back at their recent history and ask what went wrong, it’s not correct to blindly put all the blame on ownership’s/management’s failures to acquire [insert players you especially wanted, with liberal hindsight]. Those are failures, yes, and they deserve attention. But to me, the more noteworthy failure is that the Cardinals’ vaunted player development system has started shooting blanks, and it’s left the team in the spot they’re in. Kolten Wong and Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty (etc.) are good players whom I like, but they aren’t 4+ win players right now. Oscar Taveras tragically died. Shelby Miller turned into a trade chip for a star they couldn’t (or anyway, didn’t) extend. Alex Reyes tore his UCL and his future is up in the air. There are some fine-looking players on the cusp, but it’s not obvious that any of them have All-Star games in their futures. I hope some do, but in any event, they aren’t on the team right now.
Maybe the farm’s not-quite-fallow-but-not-quite-fertile-enough period is just a blip that will soon correct itself. But there’s been a lot of talk from the brass about accountability this year. That’s good. I hope they’re including their own player acquisition and development systems in whatever audits they conduct, because if I had to pick out one systemic issue that’s hurt them in the last few years, it’s the farm’s failure to produce stars beyond Carlos Martinez and Matt Carpenter.
Edited to add: Tommy, if you read this, you’ve got until June 2018 and then I’ll add you to the list. My heart’s just been broken too many times before.