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2019: The Last Hurrah?

A consideration of the future direction of the team, as the Winter Meetings officially get going.

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

You know what I really love? Ritz snowflake crackers. Not sure why. Normally I don’t buy Ritz crackers; I tend to purchase Club crackers, sometimes switching off to Town House for variety or if they’re on sale. (I am not immune to the siren’s song of 75 cent savings.) But Ritz? I basically never buy them, unless the grocery store happens to be out of the other brands.

That all changes, though, when the snowflake crackers hit the shelves. Suddenly I’m buying three boxes at a time to stock up, just in case they’re only available for a week or two, like some bizarrely festive doomsday prepper. (Which is what I hope to have printed on my tombstone as a descriptor, by the way.)

Also, I just realised: it seems kind of strange that all the major brands of butter cracker have names that are trying to evoke wealth. Ritz, Club, Town House, all names seemingly designed to suggest that these crackers, in spite of currently being on sale two boxes for six bucks, should really only be consumed at a regatta or a derby or some other event where you might see white people wearing pants with lobsters on them. This is a fascinating revelation to me. And, since it’s a fascinating revelation to me, you have to hear about it. I know, seems unfair. But them’s the breaks when you choose to click on one of my dumb ass columns.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, though, seeing as how most foods — hell, most things in general — are branded in such a way to try and evoke positive emotions. It would probably be a tougher sell to get people to go for Fine ‘N Cheep brand crackers, or Good Enuff ice cream. There is the Valu-Time label, I suppose, which escapes this paradigm somehow, but I wonder if buying Valu-Time makes a person feel sad. Not because the products are bad, but because the name constantly reminds you why you bought it. Ooh, Sad Tuesday Evening brand pretzel rods sound delicious, though. I would totally buy those.

Speaking of sad supermarket products, have I ever told you that I struggle not to cry every time I see Alley Cat brand cat food in the grocery store? There’s something about that absurdly cheerful cartoon cat on the label of really cheap, depressing pet food that gets me every time. Maybe it just reminds me of when I was a kid and that’s all we could afford for our cats. That and Kozy Kitten, which came in soup cans instead of the little cat food tins and smelled like bad death in the woods, but was seven cents a can cheaper than just about everything else on the shelf. I don’t really know.

How did I get here? We should talk about baseball.

I assume you’ve heard by now: Paul Goldschmidt is a Cardinal. If you hadn’t heard, congratulations! You’ve hit the jackpot, and have a ton of very good baseball writing to catch up on, and a ton of really fun baseball thoughts to work through. However, most of us have already heard, and have been considering what the addition of Goldschmidt and his remarkable production and short-term contract mean for the Cardinals going forward.

You may have also heard that baseball’s winter meetings are getting started in earnest today. Baseball’s annual swap meet technically got underway yesterday, but today is the day that things really get going. A lot of what happens in baseball, directions of franchises and competitive windows and player futures, will be determined in the next couple of days. Of course, we’re all aware that this year in particular a lot of the air in the room is being sucked up by Bryce Harper and Manny MachadoHarper in particular — but so many other things are happening and will happen this week that we shouldn’t lose sight of them.

Oh, speaking of: I’m going to preview the Rule V draft on Wednesday. The draft itself goes down on Thursday morning, and there are a couple of really interesting players who might fit the Cardinals’ short-term needs this year. Given that the Goldschmidt deal also helped open up some room on the 40 man roster for the club, it will actually be worth watching this year for we Redbird fans.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. With the addition of Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals have made themselves markedly better, or at least markedly more potent, for 2019. Consider: between Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, and Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals have three players in the top four spots in their lineup who have put up a 138 or better wRC+ in either 2017 or ‘18. Admittedly, Ozuna would seem to be much more of a question mark than the other two after his frustrating 2018 season, but it’s also a fact that he did it. He put up those numbers in 2017, and could very well come back in a walk season and put up big numbers again. At least, that’s the hope.

However, there’s also been a fair bit of angst over the fact Goldschmidt is here for just one season guaranteed. Yes, pretty much everyone with anything to say on the matter seems to believe Goldy and the Cardinals will be a perfect match, and that you might as well just go ahead and start writing out his extension now, but we have to face facts: as of right now, Paul Goldschmidt is a one-year solution, and does not substantially change the Cards’ outlook beyond 2019. There is an element of kicking the can down the road a bit in acquiring Goldschmidt, as opposed to something like a Harper signing, that has some people understandably concerned. In fact, another short-term bandage could lead one to wonder if there’s any plan at all, or if it’s all just ad hoc, all the time.

Here is a thought to consider, though, at least in the abstract: what if this is the plan, and it just isn’t what we thought?

Quick warning: much of what follows is hypothetical, and based on no inside knowledge, or reporting, or anything else. This is strictly a man who has been following and writing about and analysing this sport and this franchise for a very long time now looking at where things are going, and wondering about potential directions.

Remember the Kansas City Royals of a couple years ago? Sure you do. You remember their incredibly surprising run to prominence, when they briefly sat atop the baseballing world — well, sort of — in that 2014-’15 window, right? I say ‘sort of’ because even when they were winning, it was somewhat of a mystery how the Royals were good, and it always seemed extremely transient and unsustainable, but hey: you make it to two World Series in a row, and win one, you get to crow about it. Period. End of discussion. Flags fly forever, as they say, and I’m not going to begrudge KC their title any more than I’m giving back that shambling zombie 2006 championship.

Now, though, I want you to think about the Royals a little bit after that. Not the championship club, but maybe that 2016-’17 pairing, when the Royals were right around a .500 team, but trying to keep it all together to possibly make one last run at contention. After all, ‘14-’15 was magical; why couldn’t there be another chance to shock the world with a club that maybe from the outside looked not quite good enough to compete?

The thing about the Royals trying to keep the band together up through 2017 is this: there was a day of reckoning coming for the Royals, pretty much no matter what they did. The untimely death of Yordano Ventura certainly shortened their window, taking away the most talented pitcher in their organisation before his career ever truly got rolling, and that has to be acknowledged. However, even if Ventura had not come to such a tragic end, the fate of the Royals’ window of contention was probably a fait accompli. The Hosmer/Moustakas/Cain core was breaking up after 2017 pretty much no matter what, and that multi-headed bullpen beast that defined so much of the Royals’ success over those few years they were really good was, by its nature, temporary.

I’m not suggesting the Cardinals are currently the 2017 Royals, by any means. There are no 100+ loss seasons in the Redbirds’ immediate future, barring something truly horrible happening that we don’t see coming. I would suggest there are likely no 100+ loss seasons in the longer-term offing, either, given the franchise’s consistent commitment to contention and careful planning.

However, I think we should acknowledge that there is, in a way, a similar day of reckoning coming for this current Cardinal team that the Royals were facing down in that ‘16-’17 time frame. Plenty of people have commented on it, and the discussion up until now has largely been about how the Cards are going to avoid a sudden downturn in the franchise’s fortunes. My question here today is: what if you decided to just lean into it?

Let me be up front about one thing: I do believe the Cardinals should try, very hard, to sign Bryce Harper. They should do so because Hall of Fame players do not come on the market at 26 years old very often. They should do so because Harper instantly gives you a core player around which to build for years to come. And they should do so because Harper immediately offers value well beyond 2019 to help you avoid any cliff toward which you might be currently careening.

On the other hand, I think it’s also important to keep in mind that Harper alone will not make a team a winner. He is a great player, but if we just look at the numbers he is, perhaps, not quite as great as we might want to believe. There are also some difficult realities that will almost certainly come into play in any contract he receives that must be acknowledged.

The first, of course, is the money, and we can’t ignore that. Harper is going to get a huge contract, and deservedly so. However, the sheer size of the contract Harper and Scott Boras are aiming for brings to mind the bidding frenzy of the first Alex Rodriguez deal, which by the way was also one of the first giant contracts I recall having an opt-out mechanism built in. (That will be important in a bit.) And who here really wants to be the early 2000s Texas Rangers? I would hazard to guess no one raised their hands to volunteer for a 216-270 record over the three seasons A-Rod played in Arlington, despite Rodriguez himself being worth 27(!) wins above replacement in those three years. And for anyone who wants to argue that the Rangers simply didn’t spend enough to put a team around A-Rod, I would point out they had the seventh, third, and fifth-highest payrolls in baseball from 2001-2003. They peaked at a little over $105 million in opening day payroll in 2002, and went 72-90 for their troubles. I think there is something to the idea of it being difficult to build a contender when one player is taking up such an enormous percentage of the payroll. Now, what that breaking point is I don’t know, and to be fair payrolls have grown much faster in the intervening years than the top-end salaries have, so I don’t know that we’ll see a club pay one guy a full 30% of their total payroll as the Rangers did Rodriguez in 2001, but if Harper gets $35-40 million, even a $160 million payroll club could be putting down a full quarter of their spending on one guy. And what happens if he then doesn’t put up A-Rod 9+ win seasons, but rather chugs along at a 4 win pace the way he has for much of his career?

Now, we should also probably bring up the point that what really sunk the Rangers during those years wasn’t necessarily the way they spent their money, but more just an overall failure of team building. They obviously had A-Rod, and Kenny Rogers had some good years in there, and Pudge Rodriguez was certainly good for them, but those rosters also had some brutal back ends. The Rangers of the early 2000s gave a lot of value back in the middle and bottom portions of their rosters, and of course the Cardinals of the mid-2010s are the masters of productive middle-bottom roster spots. If ever there was a team seemingly suited to build a roster of averageish players to complement a championship core, this Cardinal franchise would seem to be it. But still, I think it’s worth remembering that A-Rod contract, and how it went basically as well as it possibly could have, and how the Rangers still went absolutely nowhere with him on their team.

So with all that in mind, and me already saying I think the Cardinals should sign Harper, plop him down in the outfield, and just let him anchor the lineup for years to come in order to ease the pressure on the Cards to produce more rabbits from more hats every single year to keep competing, let’s talk about what happens after 2019, shall we?

Here’s what happens for the Cardinals after 2019, as the team is currently constructed:

  • Paul Goldschmidt becomes a free agent.
  • Miles Mikolas becomes a free agent.
  • Marcell Ozuna becomes a free agent.
  • Michael Wacha becomes a free agent.
  • Jedd Gyorko has one option year left, at $13 million, for his age 31 season.
  • Matt Carpenter has one option year left, at $18.5 million, for his age 34 season.
  • Luke Gregerson has one option year, at $5 million, for his age 36 season.

Obviously, that last one is less impactful to the team, both in terms of value and payroll space, but it’s still worth including.

Furthermore, Yadier Molina is signed only through 2020, as is Brett Cecil. Dexter Fowler is signed through 2021, and Kolten Wong has an option for 2021. The only two Cardinals currently under contract (not arbitration-eligible, but under actual contract), beyond 2021 are Carlos Martinez and Paul DeJong.

So given this landcape, and the amount of value the Cardinals are potentially going to lose following the 2019 season, or have to try and replace or re-up or whatever, it’s obviously understandable there might be some angst over the Redbirds not going as hard as possible after the youngest, most impactful free agent(s) on the market this year to keep the train a-rolling even as the organisation has to struggle to transition from this current group of players all potentially leaving in the very near future.

However, I would like to posit an alternative: the great exodus of Cardinals following 2019 is, potentially, the perfect opportunity for this club to finally give in and rebuild, and possibly do so very quickly.

For a long time, a certain segment of observers have believed the Cardinals should be more willing than they are to sell pieces, to take a step back at times, and take advantage of the market to try and hit the reset button on the team. I’ve been in that camp at times, not always, but certainly at times. The Cardinals, meanwhile, just keep plugging along, trying to contend every single year, never really dipping too far in quality, even as things have gone very wrong at times, and the age of the super teams has come to be. They’ve kept on shooting for those 86-88 paper wins every year, counting on a breakout here or there to hopefully buoy them up toward 90-92 wins, and get them into the playoffs. The fact that hasn’t happened for three years running now is a complicating factor in all this, but I’ll get back to that in a second.

So here’s the thing: if John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch, and Bill DeWitt have looked at the landscape of the game, and the state of the Cardinal franchise, and tried to project out what needs to happen over the next couple years, I think there’s a reasonable chance they’ve come to a couple of conclusions. One, upper-80s win totals are not quite good enough now to consistently make the playoffs. The bifurcation of baseball has created a strange landscape of haves and have-nots, with very little in between, and if you want to play in October you now probably have to be three to five wins better on paper than you did in, say, 2012. And two, that post-2019 transition period for the Cardinals could be a real bear to try and navigate without having some fall off. In fact, it might not be possible at all to have all those players leave without seeing a serious dip in quality.

To be fair, we could take Paul Goldschmidt out of that equation had the Cardinals not just traded for him, seeing as how they essentially added to their own existential crisis by putting yet another ticking clock up on the wall. But then again, if you had already decided ahead of time that you’re going to struggle not to drop down after 2019, would it not make sense to try and add another one-year solution and go all-in for your possible last year of contention with this current group?

See, there’s this interesting thing that’s been happening with the Cardinals recently: even as they continue to try and contend every single year without fail, they’ve also seemingly refused to set themselves up with any long-term commitments-slash-solutions beyond 2019, aside from a few internal extensions. And that’s really notable, I think. For a club always keeping an eye on the long term, seeming to have such a short-term window to win feels a little strange.

But let’s get back to that complicating factor, i.e. the fact the Cards have missed the postseason three years in a row. We know that Bill DeWitt and Company care deeply about attendance, and that’s been brought up multiple times by multiple people as one of the primary reason the organisation has been so resistant to the idea of a rebuild. If you believe that a rebuild is almost certainly coming following the 2019 season, that’s one thing. If you think a rebuild is coming after 2019 and you’re facing down four consecutive playoffless seasons, you have to be much, much more concerned about ticket sales at that point.

So once again we have an argument for going all-in as hard as possible on 2019, to try and grab that brass ring one more time before an inevitable dip. We also have perhaps a very compelling case for why signing Bryce Harper might not be the slam dunk we think it is.

I mentioned earlier that the opt-out clause in A-Rod’s contract would be important later; well, here’s the moment when I deliver on that. Actually, it isn’t so much the opt-out in Rodriguez’s contract that I’m worried about, so much as it is the precedent set by it and other massive contracts, all of which nowadays include at least one player option/opt-out clause, however you prefer to think of it.

With the level of leverage Bryce Harper is going to have in the market this offseason, and the demands he and Boras will obviously make, I find it completely impossible to imagine his contract will not contain at least one opt-out clause, and probably more than one. The real question is going to be how early in the deal the opt-out comes. From what I gather, something like a ten-year deal with an opt-out after three years seems to be the consensus, though that’s obviously subject to change. If that is the case, though — and it seems fairly realistic, I think — then Harper’s guaranteed years in a new deal would be 2019, 2020, and 2021. If you are a franchise thinking you may not be able to win in 2020 no matter what, even with Harper on the payroll doing that early-2000s A-Rod thing, then you’ve just given away a full third of what you’re hoping to get out of him. Obviously, the fact the contract could stretch out for a decade is a consideration in a different direction, but if you can only guarantee he’s a Cardinal for three seasons, not being able to win in one or even two of those years is a bad, bad deal.

Here’s a question we have to ask: if there’s a rebuild coming, how long will it be? And here’s where we wade into some really interesting hypothetical waters. Accidental rebuilds are messy and long; purposeful rebuilds don’t have to be, I don’t believe. If the Cardinal front office decided to sacrifice a year, or even two, I don’t think it would necessarily have to be any longer than that. But, it does depend a bit on which year you sacrifice.

If the Cardinals decided to sacrifice 2019, I’m not sure they could get back into contention in 2020. Maybe if they really went down to the studs they could grab enough future value to get back in a hurry, but I kind of doubt it. Going all the way down just means you have a whole lot of rebuilding to do, and that takes time. However, if you sacrifice 2020 with where the franchise and the farm system are, I think it just might be possible to only lose one year completely, and be cycling back up as early as 2021.

Here’s where we have to take a quick detour over to the prospect list I’m currently working through, and talk a little about time horizons. I don’t have a firm ETA on every player in the Cardinals’ system, obviously, but there are some general trends going on that I think are instructive. Andrew Knizner is probably readyish to play in the big leagues right now, but it’s probably best to keep him down a little longer to avoid getting Carson Kelly’d by Yadi and his superhuman durability. Tyler O’Neill has already arrived, but hasn’t yet established himself. Dylan Carlson will be in Double A in 2019, perhaps even pushing toward Triple A, and could be ready in 2020 sometime. Elehuris Montero feels like a midseason or September 2020 arrival. Nolan Gorman will almost certainly not be ready in 2020, but midseason 2021 feels possible, certainly, if he is what we think and hope he is. Jhon Torres will turn 21 just before the start of the 2021 season, and might be getting close to the big leagues by then. Griffin Roberts could probably make the big league bullpen some time in 2019, but if you’re dedicated to developing him as a starter (which I believe should be the case), then mid-2020 is a much more realistic goal, maybe even early 2021.

Obviously, not every prospect in the Cards’ system is going to work out perfectly, and some of the guys I just listed will not make it. But what I’m saying is this: you have a wave of departures potentially happening after 2019, and a wave of potential arrivals beginning about the middle of 2020. If 2020 were the year you chose to sacrifice, I think there’s a reasonable chance you could be cycling back up toward contention in 2021, and ready to explode out of the gate in ‘22, particularly with the amount of financial resources you’d have available at that time.

And let’s face it: if you were going to hit the reset button after 2019, setting up your franchise with a player like Paul Goldschmidt to make a run is very much the sort of thing you might want to consider, lest you miss the playoffs for that fourth straight season that would seem to be a potentially fanbase-damaging letdown. It would also, it should be said, be a very smart move toward rebuilding faster and more effectively following 2019 no matter what happens.

Here’s how I see the scenario playing out, should this have any basis in reality. If the Cardinals wanted to rebuild following the upcoming season, what would happen is they would let all four of their prominent free agents walk, likely with qualifying offers made to all. Of the four, Michael Wacha is the only guy I would really question giving the QO to, but it’s probably not a huge risk. If he’s good in ‘19, he’ll be a lock to get a $50 million+ contract and leave; if he’s in a position to accept the qualifying offer, then you have him on a one-year deal that might make him valuable enough for a deadline trade in 2020.

Goldschmidt, Mikolas, and Ozuna all turn down the QO and leave, signing big money deals elsewhere. If Wacha joins them, you would immediately have four draft picks in the top 100 added to your pool. Now, the downside there is that the Cardinals are not a small enough market club to get the really good compensation picks in the top 50, but picks right after the second round are still quite valuable. Unfortunately, the Cards will still almost certainly not have a high draft pick position in 2020, since they’ll likely be quite good in 2019, but if you get five or six bites at the apple in the first 100 picks you’re doing pretty well, I think, and giving Randy Flores a shot at a monster draft class.

Second, you pick up Matt Carpenter’s 2020 option, then trade him, similar to what the DBacks did with Paul Goldschmidt this offseason. Carpenter will not have huge value, being older and fairly well-paid in his option year, but he should still be good enough on a one-year commitment to bring in a solid return. I think you decline Gyorko’s option, simply because I don’t see enough value in terms of trade to pay him if you’re not trying to win for one season. (That’s assuming he’s not already traded this offseason, which feels like a fairly likely outcome, mind you.)

If you’re sacrificing 2020, you trade Kolten Wong, absolutely. With two years of affordable club control, Wong should be a solid value for someone heading into 2020, just not a rebuilding Cardinal team.

As much as it hurts me to say, I think you at least consider moving Carlos Martinez at that point. Obviously, how valuable he is following 2019 will depend a lot on how he performs this year, but regardless it’s at least worth thinking about. Personally, I probably hold on to Carlos; he’ll pitch at 29 in the 2021 season and I believe in his long-term durability, but the fact he’s potentially under control through 2023 should make him worth a haul and a half. I might consider moving Jordan Hicks, as well, if he has a big 2019 and I still feel like his arm is about to explode with every 102+ he puts up on the radar gun.

Like I said, I’m probably keeping Carlos, but your mileage may vary. If you keep him, you have he and Jack Flaherty anchoring a rotation going forward that will probably need some help. Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill are your keepers on the offensive side of things, at least for now. That doesn’t necessarily look like a championship core at the moment, but depending how O’Neill develops that might feel different a year from now.

The 2020 season would probably be a tough one. The payroll would be ridiculously low, the pitching staff would be deeply mediocre, and the offense would have serious holes. However, sometime around the middle of that season we would probably begin to see the next wave of prospects beginning to make their way up to the big leagues. It might be hard to see a contending club in the offing to begin 2021, but by midseason you could have guys like Gorman and Torres approaching, and by opening day 2022 a new championship core could very well be in place.

There is, I suppose, the matter of not wanting to waste the last year of Yadier Molina’s Cardinal career (potentially, anyway), on a rebuilding effort, but even as important as Yadi has been to this franchise I don’t think you can afford to be sentimental in that way. You make 2020 the Grand Yadi Farewell Tour Extravaganza, wherein a pretty bad team says goodbye to a decade and a half of a future red jacket recipient, and then you usher in the Andrew Knizner era (hopefully, anyway), beginning in 2021 as the club starts to cycle back up into contention.

Now, am I saying this is definitely the plan? Of course not. If pressed, I would say it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that this Cardinal franchise and front office would be willing to hit the reset button at any point, simply because they’ve been so committed for so long to doing completely the opposite. But make no mistake: the Cardinals are going to have some tough times next offseason as they try to cope with the potential loss of a big chunk of their club’s value in free agency, and even one big signing that will carry through the end of this window may not be enough to offset that falloff. Particularly if said big signing has the option of leaving after three years, rather than sticking around for most of a decade to anchor things.

The Cardinals are not the Royals. But there is still a day of reckoning coming, and even great planning now may not be able to entirely avert it. So maybe the plan isn’t to avert it at all, but to finally lean in, take the hit, and use that time and opportunity to truly build, rather than trying to patch year after year when you may have already concluded you need a super team, and the only real way to build a super team is to harness more resources all at once than is possible while still keeping up all the patch jobs.

(But probably not.)

We’ll see. And maybe instead of rebuilding the Cards go all-in for Harper and make him the new centerpiece, and Goldschmidt his binary star partner in the middle of the lineup.

(But probably not.)