But we are hurtling ever closer to a reality where the talent on this team, whatever its hypothetical potential, coupled with the injuries they have sustained and the inept way they are assembled by the manager, will not be enough for the Cardinals to make the playoffs... again... for the third straight year.
It’s time to at least consider the possibility of a rebuild.
The Cardinals are still a talented team, with lots of potential already in the pipeline, so any calls to “tear it all down” are ludicrous. But I think there is a viable model for rebuilding while contending in what the Yankees did during the 2016 season.
The Yankees came into 2016 having not won their division for three straight seasons, though they did manage one Wild Card Game appearance in that span. Under the hood, they were already shifting efforts to bolster their player development process instead of relying so heavily on free agent acquisitions, but at the top, they were still very much a “contend every year” team like the Cardinals.
On July 25, the Yankees were a respectable 51-48, but that was still 7.5 games out of 1st and only good for 4th in the AL East. So they started making moves.
The big move, of course, was flipping the last few months of Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for Blue Chip Prospect Gleybar Torres, plus three (THREE!) other players. But in the next few days, they would similarly trade away Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova and Vicente Campos.
Beltran and Chapman were heading towards free agency at the end of the season. Miller, while dominant and under team control for two more seasons, was also a reliever, so not exactly the best kind of asset to hold onto when you’re rebuilding.
The Yankees received 13 players in return, 12 of them minor leaguers. Three of them were Top 100 prospects, including Torres, who is the current favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, and Clint Frazier, who just rejoined the Yankees and may compete with Torres for that honor.
Now I’ll concede, the Cardinals don’t have quite the level of talent that the Yankees were trading. They are also unlikely to find a team as thirsty as the Cubs. But there’s still a potentially lucrative model here for the Cardinals, who have several potential players to deal in this kind of a soft rebuild:
The no-brainer: Bud Norris
The Cardinals may not have Aroldis Chapman, but Norris has cemented himself as a top-tier reliever this season, the only season he is under contract. If they are not making the playoffs, flipping Norris is an absolute no-brainer. You have to do it.
Greg Holland is also on a one-year deal, and somewhere in the multiverse is a world where he reestablishes some modicum of value in the next month, and if that happens, the Cardinals should absolutely flip him. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The probably should guys: Matt Carpenter, Jedd Gyorko, Michael Wacha
Trading away Bud Norris is just good practice, but if we’re going to call this a rebuilt - even a soft rebuild - it’s probably worth digging a little deeper. And that means, while not looking to “tank” 2019, it’s not worth hanging onto guys who would ONLY help the team in 2019.
Each of these guys contract either expires after 2019, or continues with an option that is unlikely to be picked up.
Wacha has reestablished a lot of value this season, and will be in his final year of arbitration eligibility in 2019. With his recurring shoulder injury, the general volatility of pitching, and the strong pipeline of pitchers in the system, I think now is the perfect time to sell high.
Gyorko puts up numbers that look like they deserve to start full-time, though when he has been given that opportunity he has sometimes showed regression. But whatever you believe his true talent level is, he’s primarily a bench player on this team who could easily plug a hole for a contender at two positions. Put him on the block! (To use a clear slavery analogy that we all just sort of roll with for some reason.)
Matt Carpenter has been a face of the franchise type guy, but he will be 33 next season, his WAR is steadily declining, and while he CAN play multiple positions, he is defensively below average at all of them.
Listen to offers on: Marcell Ozuna, Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham
So of course you listen to offers on EVERYBODY, yada-yada, don’t @ me, etc. But here’s three more guys in particular that could make sense as trade chips, though doing so probably moves you from soft rebuild into something a little bit more hardcore.
Ozuna is only under contract through 2019, so he could well be included in the category above. But he is recently acquired and (now) reaping dividends, so I think he’s the 2020 free agent you would probably MOST like to retain in 2019. He’s also the one where pursuing an extension makes the most sense.
That being said, you only have Ozuna guaranteed through 2019, and you could certainly go out again and acquire a left field slugger guy, whether midseason 2019, spring 2020, etc. So if he’s not going to sign an extension and if you’re resigned to not competing in 2019, Ozuna probably brings the biggest dividend in return of any of the 2020 free agents.
Kolten Wong is signed through 2020, with a $12.5 million option for 2021, which would make sense to exercise if he performed as he has the past several seasons, though not the way he has this season. This would be a real sell-low move, so while you should definitely listen if anyone’s interested, it’s probably best to keep Wong and hope he reestablishes value under a new manager and hitting coach.
Tommy Pham, Tommy Pham, Tommy Pham... I really don’t want to see the Cardinals give up The Phreak. He’s just entering his arb years and under team control through 2021. This would definitely move into full-on rebuild mode, and should only be done if the Cardinals are made a very strong offer.
That being said... I don’t know that questions about Pham’s consistency are always fair, but given his past injury issues, his eye condition and frankly, his age, I think there’s a fairly wide range of likely outcomes over his three arb seasons. So if someone is willing to back up a truckload of prospects, maybe there’s something there.
Now, the Cardinals still have a little bit of time to wait, especially if you believe what Mozeliak says he believes - that this team will come around. In fact, he even slipped in a bit of a due date in his comments, saying “between now and July 15, we should see some healthy returns.”
If this team is still muddling along one month from now, I think they should pull the trigger and try to engineer something like a 2016 Yankees soft rebuild.