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It’s Time for the Cardinals to Spend

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This isn’t about anger over team payroll. It’s simply the right time to add star players.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals
That’s right, Bryce. Find home at Busch.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As you may have heard, the Cardinals missed the playoffs this year. You have to go all the way back to the 20th century to find the last time the Cardinals missed out for three straight seasons. The last time it happened was during the homer happy Mark McGwire years from 1997 to 1999. As Tyler Kinzy pointed out earlier this week, the way the Cardinals missed was a rare occurrence. They became the first 88-win team in the National League to miss the playoffs since baseball expanded to two wild cards in each league. It would be easy enough for the Cardinals to send the same team back on the field in 2019, especially considering how few contributors will enter free agency once the playoffs are over. They only stand to lose Adam Wainwright, Bud Norris, Matt Adams, and Tyson Ross from this year’s team. However, this off-season presents an increasingly unique opportunity. It’s time for the Cardinals to spend big in free agency.

Stars are important, and the Cardinals need more of them.

This will shock and amaze you to discover, but having star-quality players makes it easier for a team to reach the playoffs. Bear with me, though. I have data. Last year, I did a deep dive on talent distributions on rosters. I placed each player since 1988 into one of three categories: Stars (4+ fWAR or the WPA equivalent for relievers), Depth (1-3.9 fWAR), and Scrubs (less than 1 fWAR). Using those designations, each team’s total contribution from each category was determined. The average for all teams was 14.63% of their playing time given to stars, 44.84% given to depth, and 37.79% to scrubs.

From there, I identified teams that met certain criteria, and defined them as such:

Deep teams: upper third percentile in percentage of time from depth players, lower third percentile from star players and scrubs players (41 teams qualify)

Deep Plus: upper third in depth players, lower third in scrubs, and middle third in stars. This is the model for deep teams listed above, but with slightly more playing time from star players. (29 teams)

Deep with Stars: 2nd quartile in percentage of playing time from star players and depth players, lower than 50th percentile from scrubs (52 teams)

Stars and Scrubs: upper third in percentage of playing time from star players and scrub players, lower third from depth players (34 teams qualify)

Stars and Scrubs Plus: upper third from star players, lower third from depth players, and middle third from scrubs. This is the same model for Stars and Scrubs above, but with slightly less playing time for scrubs. (31 teams)

Here’s how teams in those categories performed through the 2017 season:

The 2016 and 2017 iterations of the Cardinals fell firmly in the Deep category. Thanks to Matt Carpenter and Miles Mikolas, this year’s squad jumped up to the Deep Plus category. They were still a tremendously deep team (88.6th percentile of all teams since 1988), but they moved into the 40th percentile of star playing time. Deep teams had a .519 pythagorean winning percentage (84 wins) on average, whereas Deep Plus teams were .531 (86 wins). The last three Cardinal teams have been an almost perfect representation of the difference a star performer can make.

A deep team with 3rd quartile star production is a reasonably good team. However, adding more star quality production could push the Cardinals into the next bracket- Deep with Stars. The difference in the average pythagorean record for Deep teams vs. Deep with Stars teams is fairly small- a mere .007 difference, about one more win per year. The difference is in the distribution, as the Deep with Stars pythagorean record is dragged down by a few outliers. Three-fourths of Deep with Stars teams posted better pythagorean records than the 2014 Royals, a representative Deep with Stars team. Put another way, three out of four Deep with Stars teams played to a better level than a World Series runner-up.

For the Cardinals to reach that designation, they need to give at least 13.85% of their playing time to star quality players. This season, Mikolas and Carpenter combined for 12.15% of all playing time. A position player who plays every day, or a workhorse pitcher in the 200+ inning range, will rack up approximately 6.5% of a team’s available playing time. If Carpenter and Mikolas can crack the 4+ fWAR barrier again, or if another player can take a step forward to replace their 4+ fWAR pace should either Carpenter or Mikolas falter, it would require just one more star to push the Cardinals into at least the Deep with Stars category.

Problem solved, right? Just go get a 4+ fWAR player! If only it were that easy.

It’s much harder to acquire stars now, especially for the Cardinals.

Another deep dive I’ve done over the last year shows that fewer and fewer players are changing teams in the open market, either via trade or free agency. In this case, I defined a star as any player whose most recent fWAR was 5.0 or higher; two-year fWAR was 9.0 or higher; and three-year fWAR was 12.0 or higher. Using this definition, since 2013, just 6.6 star players have changed teams per year. That’s the lowest five-year rolling average since 1995 following the strike.

Teams are getting much better at properly identifying star players, holding on to them instead of trading them, and/or preventing them from reaching free agency by extending their contracts.

Compounding matters for the Cardinals is the fact that many other routes for acquiring star players are closed to them. For instance, it’s much easier to acquire a star player in the first 5 to 10 picks of the amateur draft. The likelihood of finding a star decreases exponentially from there, and the Cardinals haven’t drafted higher than 19th overall since 2008. Even taking their splendid draft and development record into account, drafting and developing a star quality player isn’t likely to help the 2019 or even 2020 Cardinals.

Teams can trade for an established star by giving up cost-controlled talent out of their farm system. The mild trouble for the Cardinals in trading for an established star goes back to the last point made. To acquire an established star, teams must give up young, cost-controlled impact talent. Without draft picks in the top of the draft, the Cardinals have fewer high-end prospects to yield in these type of trades. They’ve certainly found a way around it by drafting, developing, and holding on to an army of highly useful depth players. That said, their efforts to complete trades for established stars is short-circuited a bit by draft position.

It’s also possible to acquire a future star by trading for them before they’ve reached the Major League level. Noah Syndergaard and Trevor Bauer come to mind as recent examples. However, acquiring minor leaguers with the type of talent to develop into stars usually requires trading away high end talent from the Major League roster. For a team in perpetual competition like the Cardinals, there’s almost never a chance to trade away high end talent at the Major League level.

With all of this in mind, free agency provides the best opportunity for the 2019 Cardinals to add star power to the roster. But they have to strike now, as star-studded free agent classes are becoming increasingly rare.

The 2019 free agent class has the highest ceiling in years.

This year’s free agent market offers a handful of star quality options. It includes three former MVPs, one of them a three-time Cy Young Award winner, and the best player on the market isn’t even one of those three players. Even before the open market went cold over the last few seasons, when star players were more readily available on the free agent market, that type of talent level was rare to find in a single free agent class. Using the 5/9/12 fWAR rule to define stars, the following free agents qualify:

2018-2019 Star Level Free Agents

Player fWAR Last 2 fWAR Last 3 fWAR
Player fWAR Last 2 fWAR Last 3 fWAR
Manny Machado 6.2 8.8 15.1
Clayton Kershaw 3.5 8.1 14.6
Josh Donaldson 1.3 6.4 14.0
Bryce Harper 3.5 8.3 11.3
Patrick Corbin 6.3 9.3 9.5

You may have noticed that I cheated and included Bryce Harper, who technically doesn’t cross any of the 5/9/12 thresholds. It would seem silly to exclude him. Since my initial article defined a star as a 4+ fWAR player, I expanded my search to include any 4 fWAR players in 2018 headed to free agency, but there are none beyond this list.

Manny Machado, in particular, could change the face of the division. Josh Donaldson’s health is a question mark, and Patrick Corbin’s lack of star quality track record prior to 2018 raises some concerns. In either case, it may serve to suppress their market and allow the Cardinals a chance at star quality production at a discount.

As for Harper, he doesn’t cross the 5/9/12 threshold, but he was a 9-win player four seasons ago. His 30.7 fWAR through age 25 is the 31st best in the entire history of the game. Every Hall of Fame-eligible player ahead of him on that list has made it except for Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Andruw Jones. Harper is clearly an MVP-level talent.

Technically, Clayton Kershaw has an opt-out clause following the season. It’s possible he won’t even use it. If he does, it’s hard to expect him to sign anywhere but with the Dodgers. Regardless, his addition to this free agent class would provide yet another star quality option.

There are also relievers available. We all have a Greg Holland-sized amount of knowledge about the volatility of reliever performance. If Holland wasn’t enough to convince you, this Craig Edwards article from earlier this season will. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the available bullpen arms who have performed at a star quality level. The equivalent of a 4 fWAR season for a reliever is a 2.13 WPA season. Extrapolating it out over three seasons, I’m including any reliever with a 2.13 WPA in 2018, 4.26 or better in the last two seasons, or 6.39 or better in last three.

2018-2019 Star Quality Free Agent Relievers

Player WPA WPA2 WPA3
Player WPA WPA2 WPA3
Andrew Miller 0.77 4.54 9.58
Zach Britton -0.01 1.63 8.02
Cody Allen 2.12 3.99 6.44
David Robertson 1.64 4.52 6.00
Sean Doolittle 2.82 6.14 5.79
Adam Ottavino 2.71 2.94 2.08

This list alone further verifies the volatility of relievers. Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, and Cody Allen all have peripherals headed in scary directions, and their next contracts will likely have lots of name recognition built in to the salary. Adam Ottavino may or may not have turned a corner this season, while Sean Doolittle has been dynamite when he’s been able to stay on the field. Unfortunately, the Nats also have a pair of club options on Doolittle, which almost certainly takes the most desirable option off of the table. David Robertson may be the steadiest, best, most underrated reliever in baseball, never failing to chew up high leverage hitters and spit them out.

Spending big on relievers isn’t ideal, and I’m not advocating for much of that list. That said, if the Cardinals feel comfortable with it, it’s not my money. In the least, I can talk myself into excitement over Robertson or Ottavino.

There are a lot of players here who represent the type of acquisitions the Cardinals should make. Some come with warts, but there are likely three future Hall of Famers in there. Two of those future Hall of Famers will begin their next contract at age 26, meaning the contract will cover most of their prime years. Two more- Donaldson and Corbin- represent calculated gambles that will cost less than the two or three premiums on the market. Should the Cardinals opt to bolster the bullpen, there are a plethora of gambles. There really should be a solution for the Cardinals in this market.

What about the potential for 4+ fWAR players already on the roster?

I want to make one final point. It’s possible that the Cardinals already have their next 4+ fWAR star on the roster. I discussed draft and development earlier, and that was mostly in reference to future draft picks. However, there are several 4+ fWAR candidates already on the Major League roster. We already discussed Mikolas and Carpenter, who each cracked the 4 fWAR barrier this season. Marcell Ozuna is just one year removed from a 5.1 fWAR season. Those three alone have proven in recent history that they’re capable.

Carlos Martinez is brimming with talent, spent the entirety of 2015 through 2017 producing at an above average level, and seemed on the verge of a breakout before injuries took him down in 2018. Both Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader have flashed the potential to break the 4 fWAR barrier with full health and a little development. Like El Gallo, they’ve already proven that they’re capable of 3 win performances. And finally, Jack Flaherty has looked like an ace in the making.

The good news is that it wouldn’t be surprising if any one of those seven players managed to perform at a star level in 2019. You don’t have to squint to see two- any two- of them performing that way in 2019. The bad news is that there are a wide range of outcomes for baseball players, and most of those potential outcomes for most of the players on that list fall below star quality. For the Cardinals to get into the Deep with Stars category I mentioned earlier, they need three of those players (or other, unmentioned players) to perform at a 4+ fWAR level.

It’s not particularly likely that three players from that list will perform at a star level. And that just cements my point- it’s time for the Cardinals to spend in the hope of acquiring star talent. It buys them insurance in case the aforementioned seven players fail to break out. It’s insulation against injuries, bad luck, and underperformance. And it’s the quickest, most direct route back to where they belong, playing meaningful baseball in October.