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The Problem With Trying to Catch the Cubs

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Catching the Cubs has become an obsession with some fans. It’s not all that healthy a way to look at improving the team, though.

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Let’s face it: the Chicago Cubs’ ascendancy has done a real number on a whole lot of Cardinal fans. It’s really strange, too; I don’t recall anything near this level of angst when the Cubs were better than the Cards in the Lou Pinella years, roughly a decade ago. To be fair, this is a better Cub team, and a much more solid-looking foundation, but it’s not like we’ve never had a situation where the Cards were behind the Cubs before.

But I don’t want to go too far into the weeds today of what I think about some of the more irrational hysterics coming from certain segments of the fanbase. I think I’ve made my thoughts on such matters known, for the most part, and I’m going to try very hard this morning not to be insulting as I write this column.

There is, however, one particular opinion I’ve seen a lot of lately that I feel has to be addressed, and it’s the idea that the Cardinals should do whatever it takes to chase down the Cubs. Now, here’s the thing: I’m all for the Cards trying to do everything they can to improve, and there are a few spots I’d still like to see them at least consider making a move, but the specific variety of ‘whatever it takes’ thinking that concerns me is a bit more pointed.

What I’m talking about is the idea that the Cardinals need to make a move like, say, signing Yu Darvish, because it will block the Cubs from getting him, and then they need to sign Greg Holland as well, because between Darvish and Holland you can pull almost even with the Cubs. The Manny Machado and Chris Archer trade proposals fall into this same camp. The Redbirds should immediately do anything and everything they can to close the 4ish win gap that still exists between they and Chicago on paper, the future be damned.

Now, I’m actually on board with signing Yu Darvish, because I happen to think Yu Darvish is a fantastic pitcher, and would immediately step into the #2 starter slot for the Cardinals. Am I worried about what his contract might look like in 4-5 years if he ages poorly? Absolutely. Do I think the Cardinals could absorb that hit financially without blinking if he’s bad in 2022? Absolutely, and that’s why it doesn’t really worry me. So I would very much like to see the Cards sign Darvish, particularly if it pushed Adam Wainwright into a relief role, where he could perhaps maximise the stuff he has left, rather than being forced to pace himself and maybe do more damage to the club’s chances of winning this season. Of course, that would rely on club management making an honest assessment of a great Cardinal at the end of his career, rather than continuing to treat him like the Waino of 2013, which I have a tough time believing would happen.

All that aside, though, bringing in Yu Darvish would improve the Cardinals in 2018, 2019, 2020, and I think probably 2021, and would cost only money rather than talent or draft picks, which is why I’d like to see him in a Redbird uniform. However, at no point would I suggest the Cardinals should sign Darvish because it would keep him away from the Cubs or the Brewers. And this is where I find the ‘at all costs’ line of thinking worrisome.

See, if the Cardinals signed Darvish, and then turned around and signed Holland or someone, they could improve their projected win total by something like....two wins? I think? Darvish is projected for 3.6 wins in about 180 innings. Wainwright is projected for 1.7 in 140 innings (which I think is very bullish, considering how concerning his arm health is to me), while Miles Mikolas, aka the guy who would actually be bumped from the rotation if the Cards were to sign a Darvish, is projected for 1.9 wins in 120 innings. Maybe you think that’s too optimistic on Mikolas, and I wouldn’t totally blame someone for thinking that. Even if we believe he’s a little worse than that, though, you’re basically talking about a win and a half to two wins at the most by bringing in Darvish. Holland, meanwhile, is projected to be worth just 0.1 win, which I could actually see, considering how much stuff he looked to have lost when I saw him last year. But, maybe we bump him up to half a win, just because he should be better further out from Tommy John and away from Coors Field.

At the absolute most optimistic, that probably nets you 2.5 wins, signing two of the biggest free agents still on the market. Now, as I said earlier, I actually think signing one of those two guys would be worth it, because he’s really good and would make the rotation more formidable. But what about the idea that you would somehow be blocking the Cubs and thus catch up to them?

The problem is that, if the Cardinals were to go out and invest in Yu Darvish, thus blocking the Cubs from signing him, they would just then sign Alex Cobb. And what would Alex Cobb offer? Well, he was worth 2.4 wins above replacement in just under 180 innings in 2017, his first full season back from Tommy John surgery of his own. Now, he’s projected for just 1.7 wins in 133 innings, but while that rate seems fine, I think we can safely assume he probably throws more innings than that ~130 mark. So if he’s more in the 160-180 range, assume he’s a little over a two-win starter.

Signing Cobb would also bump Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen, where I frankly think he projects much better. Cobb starting over Montgomery is probably something like a one-win upgrade, which immediately knocks your massive investment for a 2.5 win gain down by almost half.

The issue here is that the notion of trying to catch the Cubs at all costs starts from a flawed premise. There is literally nothing the Cardinals can do this offseason to keep the Cubs from trying to make an improvement or two. You could sign Darvish to keep him away from Chicago, probably, but then what? Do you sign Cobb to keep him away from them too? Do you bring back Lance Lynn so he can’t become a Cub? Where exactly does it stop?

The Cardinals should absolutely keep trying to improve themselves this offseason, and throughout the upcoming season as well. (Specifically, if the Blue Jays do ultimately make Josh Donaldson available, I think the Cards have essentially decided that’s their next play, and to me it looks like a good one.) But the focus on trying to catch the Cubs, trying to block moves they might make, or trying to go all-in to win in 2018 at the expense of everything else, is really an unhealthy obsession.

As it stands, the Redbirds still have a ton of financial flexibility, and I would really like to see them utilise some of that in the near future. Particularly when you consider $20 million will roll off after 2018 — as well as the competitive balance tax going up by ~$10 million or so — they could, and should, be pushing the envelope more in terms of spending. But the Cardinals should be trying to improve their own lot, not focusing on either trying to block the Cubs, or hitting some imaginary number where we can all dust off our hands and say, yep, they did it. Job done.

And don’t get me wrong; I’m guilty of this same sort of thinking. Trying to gauge just how much better the Cards would need to get this offseason to draw even with the Cubs has absolutely crept into my thinking about what they should do. I’m only human, after all. But trying to tie your own team building plan to another club, and judging success or failure solely upon whether or not you make up all the ground in one offseason — particularly when that club in front of you has agency and the ability to make their own upgrades — is not a good way to go about things.

The Cardinals have improved their club markedly this offseason, and they’ve done so in very smart ways. They’ve taken on more variance and risk, but have also done so in fairly low-risk ways, such that while the bets they’ve placed might bust, said bets aren’t crippling if they do. The Cards have lowered their floor this offseason, while substantially raising the ceiling. Overall, it’s been a very successful series of moves, I believe. I do think they’ve been stymied in trying to make one last big move (specifically at third base, just reading the tea leaves), but even without it they’ve drawn closer to the top of the division.

All that being said, I get why so many fans are gnashing their teeth and demanding more moves. I would like one more meaningful upgrade this offseason as well. But I would like another meaningful upgrade because this team is good enough to compete for the division, and certainly one of the five best clubs in the National League, rather than because I think the Cardinals absolutely have to make another big move to ‘catch’ the Cubs, or because they’re somehow going to block Chicago from improving.

Have you ever written something, and it just didn’t turn out the way you wanted? That’s how this column is. I had a picture in my head of how it was going to turn out, and lots of things I wanted to say. As I was writing it, though, none of what I had planned on including came together correctly, and I’m left now with this article that doesn’t really say what I wanted it to say. But here I am, getting ready to publish it, because that’s what you do, even if you aren’t happy with the finished product, when you have a schedule to keep. It’s a frustrating feeling, because you look over what you’ve written, and just none of it is right. It’s close to what you wanted to say, but it is most definitely not the thing you had in your head when you were mulling the idea over yesterday afternoon.

Oh, well. They can’t all be gems. What’s really frustrating is not being able to pinpoint when or why it got away from you.