In 2016, the Cardinals missed the playoffs by a single game. In 2017, they missed by four games. With such narrow margins, it's easy to think back across the long season and wonder, what if?
For me, one of the biggest questions these past two seasons was "what if the Cardinals had been more aggressive about swapping-out their struggling relievers?"
With the surprise news that the team is promoting Jordan Hicks all the way from A-ball to the big league roster, it looks like the Cardinals are poised to answer that question.
Looking backward and criticizing how a team managed its bullpen is the ultimate exercise in Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but when you look at the 2016/2017 Cardinals, there's a pretty clear pattern of hanging onto "established" relievers well past their sell-by dates.
Jonathan Broxton is the best example of this. St. Louis acquired him at the 2015 trade deadline, and he pitched pretty well for them down the stretch. So well, in fact, that they tendered him a two-year contract heading into 2016. But whatever late-career renaissance they thought they had was clearly gone early in 2016.
Joe Schwarz called Broxton a failure "from the top down"... and that was BEFORE the 2017 season, when the Cardinals would again allow him to log another 20 appearances. If you're looking to find those missing wins between where the Cardinals ended the season and the playoffs, the first place you should look is all of those Broxton outings.
It wasn't just Broxton, either. Kevin Seigrist logged the most appearances, 81, of any reliever in 2015. Since then, his FIP, if not always his ERA, has been sounding the alarm. And yet, the front office left him on the roster for Mike Matheny to send him to the mound 106 times before they finally placed him on waivers at the end of last season.
Trevor Rosenthal remained in a high-leverage role long after even the most casual fan could see he wasn't right. It was well into the season before the club acknowledged 2017 Seung-hwan Oh was not 2016 Seung-hwan Oh. Matt Bowman looked pretty gassed last season after about May 20...
Again, I'm playing a bit of Monday Morning Quarterback here, but there's been a clear pattern over the last couple years (and frankly before that, though the club still managed to make the playoffs). Many of us blew the whistle on these things as they were happening. And yet the ballclub - and I would point to both Matheny's usage as well as who the front office kept on the roster - seemed very slow to react.
At times, it frankly looked to me like hubris. We are the Cardinals. We don't need to panic in May, or June, or ever. When the end of the year rolls around, we'll be in the playoffs.
But these recent Cardinal teams don't have the margin for error that approaching 100 wins affords. In terms of true talent, you have to rank them behind the Cubs. And while they are well-positioned to earn a Wild Card, it wouldn't take much for them to land outside of that mix.
That's why this Jordan Hicks move - while just one data point - looks like it could signal a real shift.
I listened to all of Hicks start against the Nationals on Sunday, and it was hard to wonder how this guy could NOT be one of the best 13 pitchers in the organization RIGHT NOW. He held pace with Stephen Strasburg on a day Strasburg was absolutely dominant.
But here's what I expected to happen: I expected Hicks to go down to AA, the Cardinals to give 50 or so back-end of the bullpen innings to Brebbia and Bowman, or whoever else was already on the roster and "proven," then maybe call-up Hicks around the All-Star break when they finally opted to move on from whichever of those bullpen pieces wasn't working out.
This is an aggressive, maybe even radical move from the Cardinals. Jordan Hicks has never pitched above A-ball. Jordan Hicks is well into the teens if-even-ranked on most top prospect lists. Jordan Hicks was not on the 40-man roster.
Here's what his player page looks like at the CBS fantasy site:
Instead of being behind the curve, not pulling the plug on a guy until even Joe Casualsportsfan knows he's cooked, the Cardinals are promoting a guy who even the prospect-hungry fantasy sites haven't heard of yet. He's just a guy with no picture. They don't even know what hand he throws with. You know why his name isn't hyperlinked in this article? Because SB Nation hasn't figured out who he is yet, either.
This is what I want to see. The team has mountains of information more than we in the public do, so I want to see them promoting and demoting guys well before I realize they should be.
Let the Jordan Hicks era begin.