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The direction the Cardinals should take going forward

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Some thoughts on where to go from here

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Cardinals are done with the important part of the season. They’re no longer playing meaningful games, they can no longer qualify for the postseason. While we’re all still struggling with that, let’s forget the present and look forward to the future.

There’s still another month of the season for ten teams before the offseason truly gets underway. Let’s keep it general though, and just try to plot where the team is right now, and what direction they should take this winter. Here’s my take on the situation.

The Case for aggressively improving the big league team

I know, this is going to annoy some people, but the biggest reason to believe the Cards are a good team is BaseRuns. BaseRuns is used at Fangraphs and weighs the team’s production in a (mostly) context-neutral sense. Essentially, BaseRuns tells you how many games a team would have won, if their production was uniformly distributed, which of course isn’t the case in practice.

Unfortunately, the Cards’ production hasn’t been uniformly distributed, far from it. They have fared horribly in clutch situations, and that leads currently to a 5 game difference between the team’s BaseRuns record and their win-loss record.

Now, I’m willing to believe Matheny may be the reason for part of that. It’s hard to say with any certainty how much that is though. However, the data shows both that (1) over and under performance in clutch performance has zero predictability and (2) the difference between the Cardinals’ win-loss record and BaseRuns record is almost exactly what it would be expected to be, given the team’s poor performance in clutch situations.

I think the data shows this team is better than it’s win-loss record. In terms of BaseRuns, the Cardinals have been just two games worse than the Cubs this year. If you think this team is just two games worse than the division leader, you should be in favor of making some big win-now moves.

However, there’s reason to believe the teams are not just two games apart, despite the summation of their respective events in a neutral context. The team’s BaseRuns record, expressed in terms of winning percentage is .553. According to an average of the two best public projection systems, at the moment I write this the Cards’ rest of season winning percentage is .533. The difference is a little more than three games over the course of the season.

That’s not all that surprising to me, as the team has had numerous players perform better than expected this year. The projections on those players have increased, but they also expect regression compared to their 2017 stats.

The Cubs have an expected .565 winning percentage according to BaseRuns, and a rest of season expected winning percentage of .583, again a difference of about three wins, but in the other direction. Add it up and you’re looking at a 8-win difference according to the projections.

If you believe the Cards are 8-games worse then the Cubs, it’s unrealistic to expect the front office to attempt to put them in the same tier as the Cubs in a single offseason. It makes more sense to make sure the team is a realistic contender for the Wild-Card, and wait out the Cubs run and conserve resources for that more attainable future.

Of course, we’re talking about next season, and each team will lose players to free agency. The Cards lose Seung Hwan-Oh, which isn’t really losing much when it comes to 2017 performance. Lance Lynn seems readily replaced by the glut of pitching depth currently populating both the Memphis team and the currently expanded September roster.

The Cubs lose Jake Arrieta. By FIP-based WAR, he’s been worth 2.4 WAR thus far, a far cry from his 2014-2015 peak, and to a lesser extent 2016. They’ll also lose John Lackey, though he’s only a half a win over replacement level this year. These new Cubs are known as an organization that focuses first on drafting and developing position players, and it sure looks like pitching is an area the Chicago club will need to address in the offseason. Mike Montgomery looked likely to step into one of those spots prior to the 2017 season, but has only been about as effective as the average reliever out of the bullpen this year.

They’ll also lose closer Wade Davis, who hasn’t been as dominant as his 32 saves in 33 attempts implies, but has been really good nonetheless. In more minor losses, Jon Jay, Brian Duensing (a reliever who has been much better than Oh), and rental backstop Alex Avila will also depart following the season.

So the Cubs are losing more than the Cards are. But it’s not like our overall picture of their team changes much. They still have four cheap years of control remaining of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. They still have three cheap years of control remaining of Jose Quintana. They still have several other above-average players on cost-controlled salaries. They may have a declining farm system, but they have the payroll muscle to adequately fill the holes left behind by their departing free agents.

Jon Lester no longer looks like an ace-level pitcher, posting his highest FIP- (97) since 2012, and his highest xFIP- (90) since 2013. Of course, there’s worse things than having a still good pitcher under control for 3 years for $70M. The Cubs will still have a shortage of pitching entering the offseason with Lester, they’re probably not concerned about his contract. Besides, the projections see him bouncing back some anyway.

After a long run of success, we’re 485 plate appearances into Ben Zobrist’s first below average season at the plate in his 12 year career. He’s registered just an 85 wRC+ and is producing at a pace that is only worth one win a season, and he’s owed $29M over the next two years. Like Lester though, the projections see Zobrist as more of a half and half of his 2016 and 2017 seasons going forward.

Jason Heyward though, that could be the source of some significant dead money. The Cubs owe him $127.5M over the next five years, and he’s been worth just 2 12 wins in the first two years of his contract. He’ll make $21.5M in 2018 before his first of two opt-out decisions. He can opt-out of his deal then and pass up $106M over 4 seasons, or he can opt-out following the 2019 season and pass up $86M over three seasons. At this rate though, he’s most likely not going to be good enough to opt-out of that deal. Even 28-year olds like Heyward are in decline on average at this point in their careers.

Still though, most the time teams are carrying some form of dead salary. It’s a simple function of the fact that the current market favors longer terms deals than past eras, with teams and players exchanging surplus-laden years at the beginning of the contract for an expected ugly ending. There are many reasons for this, but that’s beyond the scope of this post at this point.

So the Cubs have a little expected dead money in their future, but it’s certainly not paralyzing in any sense, especially with Bryant, Rizzo, and Quintana representing some of the most enviable cost-controlled talent in the game. Much how the Quintana acquisition cancelled out any potential big upgrade the Cardinals could have made this deadline, the Cubs won’t be standing still this offseason.

So even with the Cardinals staying with the Cubs in terms of BaseRuns, I can’t say the team is a few big moves away from being at the same level as the Cubs. But let’s say the Cards could go from six games away to four games away. That not as big of a deal as going from two to zero games, but it’s an affect that can’t be ignored. It makes it a little more likely that an upset happens. And after all, a division championship isn’t the only way to make the playoffs.

Next year, the Wild Card picture is open

The Cardinals made some very notable moves this offseason. I think it’s funny when someone accuses the team of being cheap, when they signed both Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil. Whatever you think about those deals, they were willing to spend on the guys they wanted. Still though, in my heart of hearts I was hoping for more, and that was to reinforce their Wild-Card chances. I think we can see reason for that in this season. Pretty much everyone thought the Cards were a better team than the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Brewers. You can never be very sure of anything in this game though.

The good news is while the those three teams have undoubtedly improved their outlook going forward, the projections referenced earlier still like the Cardinals better than all three. The Rockies and Brewers haven’t even outperformed the Cards according to BaseRuns. The Dbacks have actually under performed their BaseRuns, which makes for a pretty great story. The projections see a lot of regression though going forward. Their fan base is going to rightfully get some amount of fun this October, but when the records recent again in April there’s a lot of reason to see the Cards as the best NL team not likely to win a division.

Postseason baseball is fun, and it really sucks to miss out on it. I supported selling at this year’s deadline, but that was based on the assumption that it would be a seller’s market. That was a bad assumption. Without that seller’s premium, I agree with Craig that it doesn’t make sense for the Cardinals to rebuild. They still have a lot of above-average players on team-friendly deals. With the Cardinals in their position, they should be adding to the team big league team, and increasing their chances of returning to the playoffs.

Where should the Cardinals be looking to improve? The Cards weakest position going forward is right-field, where Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk are likely to see time, though it should be pointed out that Jose Martinez is seen as only a little worse according to the projections.

However, the outfield represents an area of a lot of depth in the majors and the upper minors. In it’s current state, two of Martinez, Piscotty, and Grichuk are already blocking bench spots that could be taken in the near future by Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Randy Arozarena, and Magneuris Sierra. It’s hard to want to spend resources on adding another player to that situation, even with Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler’s capacity to get hurt.

Still, there is a solution. A month and a half ago, I supported trading for Justin Upton, back when there was some hope of playoff baseball in 2017. My proposed solution then was that if Upton didn’t opt-out, the team could still utilize some of those outfield prospects as an upgrade somewhere else, perhaps in the rotation. An upgrade in the rotation could also allow the Cards to more easily involve pitching prospect or two in a deal.

Now Upton will probably opt-out, which is why the Angels traded so little to acquire him, even relative to their dumpster fire of a farm system. So the Cards will have a shot to acquire him again. Or, if you’re not a fan of Upton the team could utilize those outfield prospects towards a young cost-controlled talent like Christian Yelich of the Marlins, and then sign a free agent pitcher with the money instead.

The point is, the Cards have the depth to trade from to get a nice upgrade, and they also have the money to get another. Or maybe they use both to get Giancarlo Stanton. No one likes trading prospects, they’re easy to dream on. Those two significant upgrades (or one colossal one) would however help make the prospects traded less missed, and could be the consolidation moves this team needs to really cement themselves as playoff contenders going forward.

The Cubs are probably better than the Cards. The gap has narrowed at least a little bit though. The Cubs have clearly focused a lot of resources on making the most out of their current window, but that can’t last forever. Push the team’s talent level up now, and enjoy a better chance of the Wild-Card next year, as well as some chance up upsetting the Cubs in the near-term. Then maybe in the next year or two the gap narrows more, and the Cards are just another upgrade or two from being at the same level of the Cubs.

I don’t want to lay this on too thick for you though. If the Cards do nothing this offseason, they’d enter 2018 with about the same chances of returning to the playoffs as last year. They don’t need to do anything. They don’t need to do something just to do something. But I expect them to be looking hard for advantageous upgrades this winter. Let’s hope they get some.