The Cardinals won last night, stopping the bleeding on what had become a very ugly four-game losing streak. The streak itself was slightly uglier even than a four-game losing streak typically is, coming as it did immediately after a stretch of four wins in five games.
When the Cards went to bed last Monday night, they did so having just taken the first game of a three-game set against the Padres, with the chance to sweep San Diego out of town and come away with the 6-3 record they needed in their nine-game trip through the dregs of the National League. Instead, they dropped the last two at home against a moribund Padres club and then sleepwalked through two straight losses to the Cubs. The slump erased the good work they had done the previous handful of games, and essentially continued the kind of frustrating, creeping disappointments we’ve seen so often from this strange team, perhaps exemplified most of all by the 1-2 home series against the Marlins just over a week ago.
For now, though, things feel a touch better, if only because it wasn’t a second straight nationally televised loss to the Cubs, and largely because Jack Flaherty did Jack Flaherty things, which is to say he pitched well. The offense did just enough — though not much more — and the bullpen finally, mercifully, brought a clean sheet for their part. It was a relieving win.
However, the temporary high of a solid win over the Cubbies on ESPN cannot completely disguise the fact that the Cardinals, for most of this season, have felt like a very underachieving bunch. A bullpen into which the club poured offseason resources has crashed and at least smoldered, if not burned, with multiple injuries and the giant, never-ending tire fire that is Greg Holland just hanging around on the edge of town, threatening to come back soon as if he’s running the world’s strangest extortion racket. “Nice stadium ya got here, Mista DeWitt. Sure would be a shame if something bad were to happen. Maybe, say, somebody walking ten hitters per nine innings? Yep, that’d be a real shame. Never can tell what’ll happen in a business dis unpredictable, though, y’know?”
Meanwhile, the offense has been even more of a problem, if not quite as immediately visible. Bullpens always look worse than other parts of a team when they go wrong, but the real existential dread of this season has been caused by just how surprisingly punchless the offense has been for long stretches. Part of that, of course, has been caused by the same issue that has plagued the ‘pen: injuries. Losing Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina both for a long stretch of time is a very tough pill to swallow. However, far more than the injury bug, the offense has simply been bitten by the underperformance bug, which is, unfortunately, harder to wait out.
If you pull up the Cards’ team page on baseball-reference, the offense looks fairly healthy, all things considered. You’ve got Jose Martinez, your starting first baseman, sitting atop the offensive stats with a 147 OPS+. Pauly D is the club’s second-best hitter, at 124, which is less than ideal considering DeJong is still not yet returned from a broken hand, but that’s still a damned good number, and both Greg Garcia and Yairo Munoz have put up at least a 90 OPS+ for the season as reserves. Tommy Pham, even as dreadful as he’s been the past month or so, is still rocking a 116 OPS+. Marcell Ozuna and Matt Carpenter both got off to horrible starts this season, and yet they’re each running season totals of 114 and 109, respectively, as of this morning. Yadier Molina has a 93 OPS+, and while that’s obviously not spectacular, he is both your starting catcher, exposed to a beating no other player on the field takes, and the general of the team. If your biggest issue was your catcher hitting 7% below league average you would have to be thrilled.
That is not, obviously, the biggest issue the Cardinals have this year.
Of eight ‘starting’ position players, five of the Cards’ starters are above-average offensively this year. The loss of DeJong knocks that down to four, unfortunately, but there’s not much you can do about that. When starting players go down due to injury for significant periods of time, the club suffers. It’s just reality. Still, four of eight are above average, and those four are all at least nine percent better than average. (It’d be nice if Carpenter could push his line just a touch higher, so I’d have a nice round number there of ‘at least 10%’, rather than nine, which sounds like I’m really trying to force a point.) Jedd Gyorko is only a little below average. Ditto Garcia. Yairo Munoz is a touch worse, but still acceptable as a bench player.
The biggest issue is the two players about whom I have not yet spoken. Now, to be fair, both have been pushed into somewhat less prominent roles already, and so have seen their struggles mitigated somewhat by less playing time. Even so, though, they both represent problems of one sort or another, the most obvious problem being that on any given night, the Cardinals might have two complete black holes in the lineup. That’s not impossible to work around, but it certainly does make things tougher, particularly when you constructed your team around the idea that no real weak spots can make up for the lack of true elite talent.
Kolten Wong is currently hitting .186/.283/.298, good for an OPS+ of 60. Yes, that’s essentially 40% worse than a league average hitter. And Dexter Fowler, Sexy Dexy himself, who was such a fun story and fun personality and solid hitter in 2017, is carrying a season OPS+ of 56. That is....less than ideal.
For reference, Wong in 2017 had a 109 OPS+, and Fowler had a 122. Those aren’t just big differences; those are cataclysmically large falloffs. If those two players have those same lines this season, I’m not writing this column, probably. The Cards are almost certainly a few games better in the standings, and I’m trying to get a head start on some trade deadline talk at the moment.
Now, here’s the thing: the Cardinals have been a team in transition for the last couple seasons. I think we all get that, to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon one’s own personality and way of looking at the club. For the most part, though, I think we understand that the Cards have been trying to establish a new core of talent the last couple years, following an extended period of every-year contention that saw them miss not even a beat when the Albert Pujols era ended. There probably should have been another championship in that 2012-15 run, but bad management in the dugout and a few inopportune moments made the post-Pujols Cards a little, um, Buffalo Bills-y. One of the greatest players in franchise history leaves, and you just keep right on contending for titles? That’s a pretty good job by the front office, I’d have to say.
Alas, the good times can’t stay forever, and the Redbirds have struggled to find that new core of high-end talent. Losing Oscar Taveras in 2014 hurt, badly, probably worse than maybe we even realise, though I know there are people in the fanbase who have decided bringing up Taveras is just an excuse. Still, think of how different the Cards would look right now had things gone differently. Is it crazy to think Oscar could have turned into basically what we’ve seen from Marcell Ozuna the last couple years? I don’t think so. And if he had, the Jason Heyward trade never happens, and the Ozuna trade probably never happens, and you’ve got a club with an equivalent left fielder and Shelby Miller, Tyrell Jenkins, Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen, Magneuris Sierra, and Daniel Castano all still available as trade chips over the last three-plus years.
So losing Taveras hurt. Jason Heyward taking his six-win 2015 and heading to Chicago hurt as well. Allen Craig’s career-ending foot injury hurt, even though Mo managed to grab a cheap year of John Lackey out of the deal. And now, Alex Reyes looking like a question mark to ever give the club anything useful could be another staggering body blow for the franchise. I know, Reyes isn’t done yet, obviously, but let’s face facts: coming back from elbow surgery and immediately suffering a shoulder injury is pretty much worst-case scenario. I’m feeling worse and worse about my own skepticism of Reyes’s health and performance over the years even as I put him atop the rankings. Existential dread, thy name is pitching.
The Cardinals feel like a team at a crossroads right now. Or perhaps a club approaching a crossroads. After fighting for two years to make the transition, only to seemingly get stuck in the middle, with no high draft picks and refusing to sell pieces and suffering a couple serious setbacks along the way to missing the playoffs two years in a row while not especially strengthening the future, the club decided to break out the rocket fuel this past offseason by dealing for Marcell Ozuna. And, brutal start to the season aside, it seems like Ozuna was a very fine pickup. He’s been about 15% above league average offensively on the season, the defensive metrics think he’s been a plus overall, and he’s well on his way to a 3+ win season. He could very easily clear that bar by a long shot if he continues to play the way he has recently, but even with some dropoff he should be somewhere in that neighbourhood.
And even still, the Cards are barely in the division race. They’re solidly in the wild card race, but not a favourite. The Cubs are really good. The Brewers are a very solid team, and are winning on the backs of what feel like unsustainable performances, but they’re still winning. The East has multiple good teams. The West sucks on the whole, but one of Arizona or Los Angeles isn’t going to win that division, and the Cards would have to outpace them to get into the 50/50.
Now, I’m not going to advocate selling here. There have been times over the past couple seasons when I felt like the Cardinals absolutely should have been sellers, in order to push that future value forward, even if they lost the present in the process. But I’m not sure this is the time to sell. It might be, but I’m not certain.
What this would be a good time for is some serious reflection on the direction of the club, and what kind of team you want to have over the next few years. In order to keep up with the Cubs and Brewers, the Cardinals are going to have to improve. They’re not miles behind those clubs, but they are behind. Chicago is still riding the wave of their grand rebuild, along with some canny additions along the way, and Milwaukee has very smartly taken chances and made investments the past couple years to build a really intriguing club. (Seriously, the Travis Shaw deal alone should tell you just how well they’ve conducted their business recently, not to mention somehow building a dominant bullpen, something the Cardinals seemingly cannot ever do, no matter what kind of emphasis they put on it year after year.)
What the Cards really need to figure out is what they want the team to look like over the next three years or so. Anything beyond that is just too hard to see, even with some young players likely to be here past that window. Things just change too much in baseball over the course of years to feel comfortably locked in to anything further out than three seasons or so. Is Marcell Ozuna a part of the club’s core going forward? What about Miles Mikolas? Can you justify a future in which you don’t try, very hard, to get Mikolas to stick around longer than just 2019? Carlos Martinez is obviously a long-term building block (though getting him physically right is a big priority right now), as is Paul DeJong. Tommy Pham has a few more years of club control, but he’s also 30, and the eyes have to be a concern.
You know what would be really great right now? That feeling of transitioning to a new core, if there were new core players coming. All of which brings us, finally, to the real heart of the matter I’m trying to get at today.
The two players who are most dragging the club’s offense down right now, those two misfiring spark plugs, are both under contract for multiple years after this one. Kolten Wong is signed through 2020, with a 2021 option. Dexter Fowler, meanwhile, is under contract for three more years after this season.
Now, I don’t want to belabour the Wong point too very much, both because his contract is eminently affordable, and because Kolten does enough good things besides hit that even with his bat in the toilet he’s a useful player. He’s not great, no, and I do think you could do better (I know everyone is tired of me bringing up Jurickson Profar, but he’s having a stealthily good season. Just saying....), but he’s also one of the best defenders at his position in the game, is generally a positive on the bases, and is only guaranteed about $17 million over the next two years. In other words, even as tough as it has been to watch Wong “grounds out softly to second base” this year, he still has real value on the trade market, and on the club.
No, what I really want to talk about is Dexter Fowler’s contract. And please, don’t anyone take this as me running Fowler down as a person; he was one of my favourite players on the team last season, and he seems utterly delightful away from the field. All that being said, Dexter Fowler at 32 years old, running a 60 wRC+, being a -5 defender (DRS), in a corner outfield spot, sitting at a full win below replacement level for the season, and being signed for three more years with almost $45 million remaining on the contract after 2018 is a problem for the Cardinals.
And now, I should acknowledge that yes, the Cardinals did in fact manage to move Mike Leake’s contract when it became clear they weren’t in love with what he was bringing to the table every fifth day, and it further became clear they could do just as well with other options, both internal and external. That deal looked tough to move, and yet Mo and Co. did so. Yes, they had to pay to make it go away, but the club has money. No-trade clauses are not no-trade clauses; they’re really just a promise that the club will give the player a say in where he goes if and when he’s moved. So the fact Dex has a full NTC is not really the issue here.
The issue, unfortunately, is a bigger one. Namely, it’s very hard to envision any other club wanting to take on Fowler’s deal right now. If the Cards were to literally just cut him at some point, I’m sure another team would pick him up for the minimum and let El Birdos keep paying him, but to actually take on a chunk of that salary? That’s tough to see, given how reluctant teams were this past offseason to offer older free agents much in the way of long-term contracts.
But what I’m really trying to get at here isn’t even how tough it looks like Fowler’s deal is going to be to move going forward; not exactly, anyway. There’s a reasonable chance Dex rebounds from here on, and if he ends up in a platoon with Harrison Bader, that’s not exactly a terrible outcomes. Bader has defensive chops that make him a really great value, and he hits left-handed pitching very well. He’s been brutal against righties, though, and Dexter still shows signs of life when he’s in the left-hand batter’s box. But three years of that situation? That severely limits the flexibility the club has, to be honest.
What I’m trying to get at is this often-overlooked aspect of a club that never rebuilds, which is the errors you make, and the bad contracts you end up with, when you never stop pushing.
The Cards’ 2016 season didn’t exactly go the way they had planned; a fairly solid offense was undone by a shaky bullpen and a frankly bad starting rotation. (Seriously, go look at the rotation of the ‘16 Cardinals. Carlos Martinez finished the season with a 3.04 ERA, and the rest of the Opening Day starters all had ERAs above 4.60.) The defense was an issue, but the pitching was just not good, period. They also underperformed a bit, according to the underlying Pythagorean/BaseRuns sort of numbers, but it was as much a team that was just a little short on talent as it was bad luck, sequencing, or gremlins.
In the offseason before 2017, the Cards decided their biggest need was in center field. And so, they looked around at the market, and they settled on Fowler, who was probably the top outfielder on the free agent market, and certainly the top center fielder.
Here’s the problem, though: for every season in his career, up until 2016, Fowler had, in fact, been a terrible center fielder. Look at his defensive numbers. They’re appalling. For two seasons, playing in the tiny outfield of Wrigley, Fowler managed one years of positive results and one of less-negative-than-usual results. That is not the track record of someone who is going to solve your defensive issues in the outfield.
On the other hand, Fowler did have a very good track record with the bat, and there wasn’t really much reason to think he’d fall off a cliff in terms of offense immediately. So he was certainly a solid addition to the top of the lineup, but anyone who thought he was going to be an upgrade with the glove was just fooling themselves.
The Cardinals wanted Fowler. No, more than that; the Cardinals talked themselves into believing they needed Fowler. After all, the club had a need in the outfield, and the fan base was getting awfully noisy about the team never signing the player they wanted, which was admittedly based on a very limited number of events that people seem to have conflated, or maybe just inflated, into a much larger issue than it really was.
The club only wanted to go four years with Fowler. He was going into his age-31 season, after all, and as we’ve seen, aging curves seem very unforgiving these days, for whatever reason. But he held out, considering his options, and finally the front office blinked. They had to get their guy, so they went to five years. The money was pretty big, but the money is really not a huge issue. Locking yourself into a player already past 30, who was already a defensive liability, for half a decade, is the bigger issue.
It’s the same move they made earlier in the offseason, when they went an extra year for Brett Cecil in order to get him to sign over any other offers. The Cards reportedly were pursuing him on a three-year deal, then went ahead with the fourth to get him, because in order to compete, they had to replace Zach Duke, who was on the shelf following Tommy John surgery, thus leaving them dangerously thin in left-handed relief, which everyone knows you can’t win without.
I’m not trying to bash the front office for signing players, and not even for signing players at terms beyond the club’s comfort level, honestly. What I’m trying to illustrate is that, while we typically think of a club’s contention cycle as being finite due to a team spending, rather than acquiring, future talent while pushing for postseason play, that’s not the only bill that comes due for clubs as they try to prop open the winning window. Contracts like Fowler’s, and Cecil’s, and Mike Leake’s, are a limiting factor as well. Now, it’s fair to point out that a club can usually spend more to keep their mistakes from catching up with them, but not always. It’s also fair to point out that, as in the case of Leake, you can usually figure out some way of moving a contract you find onerous, or limiting. But can anyone really see a good situation where the Cards are able to move Fowler or Cecil?
The Cardinals are going to be paying those two players about $23 million each of the next two years, after this one, both have full no-trade protection, and collectively they’ve been worth -1.2 WAR this year. Is $23 million a franchise-breaking amount of money? No. It is not. But, if we add in the money the Cards are paying the Mariners this year as part of the Mike Leake deal, that’s close to $30 million in basically dead money. What does $30 million buy on the open market? Well, it won’t quite get you a Manny Machado after this season, but it probably comes pretty close.
My point is basically this: in the big picture, we understand how tough it is for a club to compete year in and year out, never taking a step back, because they don’t have a chance to replenish their resources when every year is a new push to spend those resources toward the playoffs. But I’m not sure we recognise how often clubs shorten their windows, and complicate their own paths to winning, by taking on bad contracts in the pursuit of extending a window — or forcing one open. The Orioles thought Chris Davis was indispensable in their attempts to win, and now look at what sort of situation they’re in. The Cards are paying almost $30 million this year for -1.2 wins and Mike Leake to be mediocre in Seattle. Dead money is basically a fact of life for baseball payrolls, but it’s fair to look at where the Cardinals are and wonder how different this roster might look if they had been willing to step back once it became clear they weren’t getting David Price and retool, rather than continuing to push forward.
I’m not making a judgment here on whether it’s better or worse to always, always, always be trying to compete, rather than trying to create that cyclical compete and rebuild thing we see from so many other teams. I respect the hell out of the fact the Cardinals basically refuse to tank and rebuild out of principle, even if I occasionally question the merit and viability of such a plan. But I think it’s important to recognise and understand that with a club that feels like it’s struggling a bit for direction, we can look at short-term decisions made over the past few seasons and question whether the club would be better off having not made those moves.
At the very least, what we have here in the 2018 Cardinals is a prime illustration of how a club’s own push to compete can eventually lead to great swaths of cash being spent on little to no production. Adam Wainwright. Brett Cecil. Dexter Fowler. Mike Leake. Greg Holland. The Cardinals had an Opening Day payroll this year of approximately $160 million, and somewhere in the neighbourhood of $60 million is going to those five players. Not a single one of them has given the Redbirds any positive contribution on the field this year.
One of the Cardinal front office’s greatest strengths over the years has seemingly been an ability to avoid truly horrible, cripplingly bad contracts. Even so, with that strength kept firmly in mind, something like 37.5% of the payroll this year is bringing no production. And I can’t really say that blame the organisation for making those deals, honestly, so long as the mandate is to never take a step back and compete every year.
Never rebuilding is really hard. For both reasons we always understand, and reasons we often overlook.