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Stanton in Retro

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Where do the Cardinals stand a year after missing out on their biggest star since Albert Pujols?

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

I won’t bother going back to count, but I can assure you that we at Viva El Birdos, Inc. wrote a lot of Giancarlo Stanton articles last winter.

The Stanton saga made for great drama in that it more or less broke recent precedent for high-profile trades. Besides the rarity of a newly-crowned MVP suddenly going onto the trading block that offseason, suitors were then forced to present a sales pitch not just to the Marlins, but to Stanton as well when his no-trade clause flipped the bidding war on its head, transforming the process into a de facto free agent sweepstakes. The Cardinals ultimately put forth the best offer, but Stanton nixed a trade to the Imo’s capital of the world St. Louis and the rest is history.

Fast forward a year, and any macro-level commentary on the Cardinals’ roster construction still begins and ends with incoherent screams into the void about landing a big bat, the importance of acquiring that elusive star player, blah blah blah you know the rest by heart now. From Stanton to David Price to Jason Heyward, the Cardinals have generally been more aggressive pursuing these 4+ win players than the fanbase gives Mo and Co. credit for. When targeting the top-tier, Plan A guys doesn’t pan out, the Cardinals have been swift to pivot towards complementary pieces (the Mike Leake signing is a prime example of this) that effectively raise the club’s floor if higher-upside talent slips out of reach. To some extent, this encapsulates the Cardinals’ post-Stanton strategy when they kept the phone lines with Miami running, shortly thereafter reaching a deal for fellow outfielder Marcell Ozuna.

The general reaction to the trade here at VEB was that while Ozuna’s remarkable 2017 production was likely unsustainable, the Cardinals made out well in that they didn’t have to part ways with any of their most prized prospects.

Despite the good value from an acquisition cost standpoint, Cardinals fans couldn’t help but feel disappointed with Ozuna’s production this past year. Both the ZiPS and Steamer projection models pegged Ozuna to lead all St. Louis position players in WAR at 3.1 and 3.8, respectively. Although the 2.7 fWAR and 2.9 bWAR he actually posted this season were clearly sub-50th percentile outcomes, they were still an upgrade over the relatively lackluster production (a combined 1.8 fWAR and 1.7 bWAR over 843 plate appearances) that Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk provided in 2017.

Even compared to Giancarlo Stanton, Ozuna performed better this season than many Cardinals fans would lead you to believe, especially given the prospect and financial capital it required to land the two.

2018 Stats: Marcell Ozuna vs. Giancarlo Stanton

Version of WAR Ozuna Stanton
Version of WAR Ozuna Stanton
FanGraphs 2.7 4.2
Baseball Reference 2.9 4.0
Baseball Prospectus 3.0 2.9
Games 148 158
Plate Appearences 628 705

Ozuna was modestly worse than Stanton by both fWAR and bWAR, but he is also a significantly less risky asset going forward. While Ozuna earned $9 million in 2018 and projects to receive $13.4 million in arbitration this upcoming season, Stanton’s 2018 salary stood at $25 million and the Yankees are still on the hook for $240 million if he does not exercise his opt-out. Moreover, New York took on Stanton’s contract under the assumption that he would produce an abundance of surplus value now to compensate for performance that presumably deteriorates as he ages. Stanton considerably underperformed his 6.3 WAR projection, however, in the time when the Yankees are counting on him to bank additional value that outpaces his salary.

That said, it would be foolish for the Cardinals to cut costs solely for the purpose of cutting costs. So long as they continue to be aggressive in utilizing the resources (i.e. payroll flexibility) they have amassed–especially as this behemoth free agent class is finally upon us after years of anticipation–missing out on Stanton will not doom the franchise to an eternal playoff drought. The subsequent trade for Ozuna embodies the type of move that has defined the Cardinals front office in recent years: St. Louis boosted their immediate aspirations of contending without severely compromising their long-term outlook.

While there is no excuse for the Cardinals to not chase after the high-end talent this market has to offer, they can still position themselves well in the 2019 NL playoff race without adding Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Because if the Giancarlo Stanton situation proved anything, it’s that the Cardinals know what they’re doing.