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Core Considerations, June 2018

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Examining a subject we’ve looked at before, and asking the question: what are the Cardinals building around?

St. Louis Cardinals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s almost the end of June, and the Cardinals just played two really great games, back-to-back. They beat Milwaukee in both games, by scores of 3-2 and 8-2, respectively. Miles Mikolas was masterful on Saturday, and Luke Weaver, after starting off shaky, pulled himself together and found another gear on Sunday. The offense finally showed up yesterday as well, after weeks of being M.I.A., busting out for eight runs, which was just one run shy of their scoring total over the previous four games. Greg Holland hasn’t walked a batter in three whole innings. Since coming back up on the ninth of June, Mike Mayers is striking out 37.5% of the hitters he sees and has a 0.95 FIP. Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas both have ERAs under 2.70. In other words, at the exact moment, things are looking up.

Of course, the fact that things feel a little brighter here on this particular Monday morning doesn’t change the issues the club has. It’s nearly the end of June, as I said before, and the Cards are only a handful of games over .500. The offense showed up yesterday, but equaling your run total from “X number previous games” is very rarely a good fun fact to have attached. The club has seemingly been unable to put together any kind of sustained run of good play, largely because it seems as if the hitters are just taking turns being terrible. (Well, except for Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong, who have put all their points into initiative skills and refuse to end their turns at being terrible.) Tommy Pham is in an horrific slump. Carlos Martinez is either not fully healthy or fighting a bad case of fear over re-injuring his shoulder. The bullpen has cost the club many games they could have, even should have, won. And worst of all, the Redbirds play in a division with two teams that have both played much, much better up to this point.

All of which is to say that, as we approach the end of the season’s third month and basically the halfway point of the season, the Cardinals have some promising signs going on, but they’ve also played themselves into a very poor position. And that, dear friends, will inform what the club does in the coming month leading up to the trade deadline, and that deadline represents the next huge checkpoint in my personal trimester theory of the baseball season. Remember, first third of the season is for figuring out what kind of club you have, second third is for improvements, fixes, and course corrections, and the final third is just the sprint to try and make the postseason.

Trade season is a big deal, of course, but it tends to be a little underappreciated in terms of overall franchise construction, I think. The offseason is when everybody writes and consumes big thinkpieces about the direction of their team, and the implications of moves both made and not made, while at the trade deadline it’s much easier to remain focused on the micro, rather than the macro. That’s understandable, of course; while the season is going on, you’re knee-deep in the everyday of the baseball season, where there’s always a game tomorrow, for good or ill, and sea changes very rarely happen as moments, but rather take the form of 4-and-18 stretches, where one day you look at the standings and can’t quite figure out where that seven game deficit came from.

And yet, the moves made in the month of July can have enormous long-term repercussions on a franchise just as can the moves made in December. My colleague, John LaRue, recently kicked off a series of trade deadline posts with an excellent article examining some of the Cards’ needs, assets, and the organisations with which the front office most often does business. John has more of those coming, I believe, and Andy did a similar thing last year, which proved very helpful.

I’m not going to talk too particularly about the trade deadline today; rather, I want to take one step further back than that and consider the nature of the Cardinals’ roster. Specifically, I want to look at what currently constitutes the core of this club.

Now, if you’re a long-time reader and this sounds like a familiar topic to you, you’re not imagining things or suffering a very specific kind of deja vu. This is a topic that has come up multiple times over the past couple years in relation to the Redbirds, and there’s a good reason it has. The Cardinals, as a franchise, have struggled to find themselves a new core of talent around which to build in recent years. It’s why the transition we’ve seen the Cards in since about 2014 or so seems to have stalled out, and why they have yet to really rebound from a tough couple seasons. The loss of Oscar Taveras didn’t help matters, nor did Jason Heyward leaving for Chicago. The assets spent to try and fill that original Taveras-shaped hole have eroded the club’s flexibility, and Alex Reyes looking like a cautionary tale about relying on pitching to win has delayed that burst of rocket fuel the Cards were surely expecting when their new all-world pitcher came up and began dominating.

The Cardinal organisation has excelled at filling holes and developing complementary talent to build out a roster, but they’ve struggled to find those new core players that will anchor the whole enterprise from the center. It’s not a shock that something like that could happen, either; low draft positions and bad luck with elite prospects over the last decade or so have kept stars from bubbling up as much as one might hope. (Seriously, over the past dozen years the Cards have had only four number one prospects: Colby Rasmus, Shelby Miller, Oscar Taveras, and Alex Reyes. That the franchise has gotten so little long-term value from that group is a big part of the constant searching for core players.)

By the end of July, we’ll have a better idea of where the Cards are going; they look to me to be a team still stuck in the middle, too good to sell but with too narrow a margin for error to go whole hog on investing in. That’s...not a great place to be. But as we approach the makeover season of 2018, I think it’s important to understand as well as we can where the club is. And to that end, today I want to go position by position and determine who is, and who is not, a core player for the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Pitchers

We’re going to start on the pitching side of things before moving over to the positional/hitting side. First, the rotation.

Is Carlos Martinez a core player?

Yes. Yes, he is. He is still just 26 years old, has been worth nearly 14 wins in his career, and still has the best stuff of any pitcher in the Cards’ rotation. Carlos is basically the definition of a core player.

That being said, this current slide has me very concerned. I’ve never liked how much the club has seemed to try and tinker with Carlos’s mechanics, seemingly obsessively trying to bring him under control, to the point I feel much of the athleticism, dynamism, and natural power has been sapped from his game. Even with all those concerns, though, he was pitching extremely well early in the season, and so I try not to complain too much about what I feel is poor handling of an insanely valuable asset. Since coming back from the lat/shoulder injury, though, Carlos doesn’t look like the same pitcher. The stuff is down, the command has been nearly nonexistent, and he doesn’t look at all comfortable on the mound. There’s no freedom to his pitching right now. Either he is not physically sound, or he is fighting a psychological block about letting go while pitching, afraid he’s going to reinjure himself. Both of those are bad situations, but in any case getting Carlos right this year has to be a priority, both for the rest of this year and, probably more importantly, the next several in the life cycle of the franchise.

Is Michael Wacha a core player?

No. At least, not right now. Wacha is only a few months older than Carlos, so there’s no real age concern, but he’s only under club control for one more season after this one. The off and on shoulder issues he’s battled seem to mostly be under control these days, with the caveat he’s an asset that requires slightly more management than others, but that’s okay. The quality of pitcher he’s developed into is worth a little extra effort. The issue is simply that Wacha is not under team control for long enough to be considered a core player, and there haven’t been any real rumblings about a long-term deal in regards to Pac-Man, at least that I’ve heard. Thus, I have to conclude the organisation considers him just a bit too risky or unpredictable to lock in long term.

Is Miles Mikolas a core player?

Again, no, and for the same reason Wacha isn’t. Mikolas is currently only under contract through 2019, which makes him too short-term an asset to be in the core. Now, Mikolas is only 29 years old, has a history of durability (for most of his career you were less worried about him taking the mound than what would happen when he did), and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. If ever there were a pitcher in line for extension talks, I would think Mikolas is it. For now, though, he can’t be a core player because he just isn’t going to be here long enough.

Is Luke Weaver a core player?

Yes, I believe he is, with the caveat I think he’s also slightly more likely to be used in a trade than perhaps the next pitcher on this list. Just a feeling I have, though I think the Cards would be loathe to part with either in anything short of a blockbuster deal.

Is Jack Flaherty a core player?

Absolutely he is, I think, even though one would really like to see the performance over a longer period of time before putting too much faith in the right arm of Flaherty. Still, at just 22 years old, Jack has made his presence in the organisation felt this season, and he has to be a priority going forward, I believe.

Is Alex Reyes a core player?

No. Not now, anyway. Certainly he would seem to check most of the boxes Flaherty does, but Reyes’s health situation is too much of a question mark to consider him a long-term asset. He’ll also have eaten up two full years of service time on the disabled list, so the Cards will have him for less time than one would have hoped.

Is Adam Wainwright a core player?

No. He was, but no longer.

Is John Gant a core player?

No. Gant is a very nice piece to have, and I think he should be in the big leagues, either in the rotation or in the bullpen (I’m still very intrigued by him as a swiss army knife arm in the ‘pen), but he is not a building block level player. Certainly useful, and an important part of a supporting cast, but not a player around whom you construct a team.

If there is one reason for optimism about the direction in which the Cardinals are headed over the next couple seasons, it is pretty obviously the starting rotation. We have three core players here, with a potential fourth if the club decides to extend either Mikolas or Wacha. Personally, I think Mikolas is actually the lower-risk bet, and would be on the phone with his agent posthaste. Regardless, though, Martinez, Flaherty, and Weaver give you three young arms around which you can build, and the depth behind them offer some intriguing future options as well, such as Dakota Hudson, who is beginning to gather some call-up buzz. (Though I personally think that’s a little hasty; he still doesn’t miss nearly enough bats for my taste.)

So we have three core players in the rotation, with the potential for four. There’s also the chance one of the three is dealt as part of a blockbuster deal — again, I think Weaver is the most likely of the three — in which case the equation may change some.

Let’s move on to the bullpen now.

Is Jordan Hicks a core player?

Maybe. The fact Hicks is so young, so talented, and has made a lot of progress in just a few months at the big league level are all points in his favour. The fact he’s a reliever goes against him, however. There is the possibility the organisation could move him back to the rotation in the future, but I wouldn’t. Having watched him more closely this year than I have in the past, I feel he’s best suited for relief work. I worry the arm won’t hold up to starting, the command would be more stringently tested, and the lack of a third pitch might hurt him. (Mostly I’m afraid that arm action and extreme velocity would make him very injury prone.)

Hicks is the only member of the current bullpen I would even consider as a possible core player. He’s under club control for long enough, is young enough, and good enough, that he might be worth that designation. Everyone else are just relievers. Some good, some bad, but none you really consider as building blocks long term, I don’t think.

The Hitters

Let’s move on now to the position player side of things, where we have less room for optimism. (Spoiler alert, I suppose.) We also have less clarity, I think. We’ll start from catcher and work our way out.

Catcher

Is Yadier Molina a core player?

And immediately, we come to one of the thornier questions, and more problematic players, on the list. Yadier Molina is, of course, a current core player. He’s maybe the most important Cardinal of this century, and certainly the most important in the post-Pujols era. He’s still playing every day, and he’s still pretty awesome.

The problem, of course, is that the idea of ‘core’ players has to include the question of whether or not you want to build around that player. And therein we find the issue with Yadi, who is approaching his 36th birthday. Yes, he’s a marvel to still be performing like this at nearly 36 years old. No, that does not mean he’s living backward in time like Merlin or just aging like Benjamin Button. Yadi is under contract for two more seasons after this one, and anything beyond that is just impossible to see.

For now, I think Molina has to still be considered a core player, if only because it’s so utterly impossible to envision the Cardinals moving on from him in the near term. But he’s also maybe the player it’s most important to find a replacement for in the next year or two, because nothing lasts forever. Not even Yadi.

Is Francisco Pena a core player?

Nope.

Is Carson Kelly a core player?

No, I don’t think so. Kelly hasn’t hit at the big league level yet, and even in the minors his bat has been solid more than special. He has a lot to prove before being considered a can’t-move, building block player.

Is Andrew Knizner a core player?

No, for much the same reasons Kelly is not. I personally think a little more highly of Knizner than I do Kelly, but he’s still just a prospect. Prospects are not core players, no matter how much you like them.

Third Base

Is Matt Carpenter a core player?

Ah, another tough one. Carpenter has some of the same qualities as Molina, in that he’s been such a huge part of the Cards’ success since he got to the big leagues but is aging. Unlike Molina, though, who is so ensconced in the organisation as to cast a shadow a mile long, I don’t think we can call Carpenter a core player any longer. He won’t turn 33 until after the season, and is under contract for one more year with an option for 2020. He’s also having a pretty solid season now, all things considered, particularly with as brutal a start as he got off to.

Still, Carpenter is a very limited player, and he’s not getting any younger. The numbers actually have him as a very good third baseman this year, and I tend to agree with that assessment, but his throwing still has to be a concern. His best fit is still first base, I think, but there’s a reason he rarely plays there. Matt Carpenter at this point is an outstanding complementary piece, but his age and contract mean he’s not a player you build around.

Think of it this way: if the Cardinals had to rebuild, even on a short schedule, would Matt Carpenter be part of the next good Redbird team? The answer is almost certainly no.

Is Jedd Gyorko a core player?

No, he is not. Gyorko is another nice complementary piece, even having a tough season at the plate as he is, but he’s not a building block. He’s under contract for 2019 with a ‘20 option, same as Carpenter, and is about to get fairly expensive next year. His salary jumps to $13 million in ‘19, with the same salary in 2020. That’s obviously not a franchise-breaking salary, but it’s a pretty penny to pay for a backup player, when you can probably find similar production for less elsewhere.

Shortstop

Is Paul DeJong a core player?

Here’s an easy yes, probably the easiest of any position player the Cards have. I’ll admit I was skeptical of the Cardinals signing DeJong to such an early extension last offseason, thinking they should have waited to see if his offensive profile would actually hold up, but they put their faith in the player’s intelligence and work ethic, and it looks like a fantastic bet as of now. DeJong appears to be at least an average shortstop, has made strides in terms of plate patience, and still has power that’s rare amongst infielders. It’s still possible he’s not quite as good as he’s looked, but even if he falls off some the floor is still high due to the breadth of qualities he brings. He didn’t come through the expected channels, but Paul DeJong is definitely a building block player.

Oh, and he’s on a contract that could carry him through 2025. Core.

Is Yairo Munoz a core player?

No. Munoz is essentially the Jedd Gyorko replacement, a solid player who can do a little bit of everything but is not necessarily starting quality. Munoz is also a little raw, could use a little more polishing, but as of right now is too important to be sent down. He should improve and be an asset, but he’s not a central piece to a great team.

Second Base

Is Kolten Wong a core player?

This is a tough one, but I’m inclined to say no. Wong has many talents, and brings plenty to the table, but he’s such an inconsistent offensive player that he simply doesn’t rise to the level of building block, I don’t believe. He could be a Cardinal through 2021 if an option is picked up, but I find it very hard to believe he’ll be wearing red for anywhere near that long. Kolten Wong is a fine player, but he’s also a player upon whom you should look to upgrade.

Is Greg Garcia a core player?

An easier no on Handsome Greg, who is a wonderful utility player (and, secretly, a guy I would like to see in a starting role at second just to see what it would look like), but has never exceeded 300 plate appearances in a big league season and is coming up on 29 years old. It will be a sad day when Greg heads to another organisation for a $4 million payday, but you don’t build around Greg Garcia.

First Base

Is Jose Martinez a core player?

Here’s one of the most interesting debates on this list, because Martinez is such a tremendous hitter, but also so incredibly one-dimensional in his value.

The Cards’ insistence on playing Martinez at first base, in spite of his complete lack of aptitude for it, is largely based on the hope that if he could learn the position you might have a cost-controlled 140 wRC+ hitter manning first base for the next five years. He was a bad outfielder, so trying him at first seems to have been a fine idea to begin with, but he’s a very bad defender in the dirt as well. If you believed that the DH coming to the National League was an inevitability (as I do), and also likely to happen soon (which I don’t), Martinez would be a must-keep. However, coming up on 30 years old and as limited defensively as Jose is, I can’t consider him a core player. He’s a tough fit on an NL roster, and would seem to make so much sense as a big trade piece to an AL club that needs a big bat, that I almost think he’s more likely to be dealt than he is to exhaust his service clock with the Cardinals.

However, there’s also the fact Martinez is, for now, very inexpensive, and under control for five more seasons after this. That will take him through his age 34 year, and depending upon how one thinks he will age he could be a steal over that time. If the Cardinals were to move him, I would have to think it would be for a very high price, but I can’t see him as a building block player when he offers so little outside the batter’s box and is already pushing 30.

Is Luke Voit a core player?

No. He’s a nice story, and I think he deserves a shot somewhere, with some rebuilding club, but it’s not going to be here in St. Louis. Sorry, grandma.

Right Field

Is Dexter Fowler a core player?

Another interesting question, because Dex was brought here to St. Louis essentially to slide into that 3rd or 4th best player in the core sort of position. However, we’ve seen the defense, and it’s almost unplayably bad unless the bat is really producing. We’ve seen the bat not really producing, also, and it isn’t as if Fowler is getting younger. It always sounds vaguely ridiculous to me to call a person old at 32 years old, but in professional athlete terms that’s fairly apt. Players start getting into ‘could-fall-off-a-cliff-anytime’ territory once they pass 30, as sad as that seems.

Fowler is not a core player, and is probably one of the more likely Cardinals to be dealt over the next calendar year, I have to think, if the front office can find a way to work a deal out.

Is Harrison Bader a core player?

I don’t quite know what to say about Bader. I think there are too many questions about his bat at this point to buy in completely; he’s carrying a sub-.700 OPS right now that isn’t the result of BABIP disaster. On the other hand, he looks like an elite defender, possibly even an elite center fielder, at which point the bar for his bat to clear would drop quite a lot.

Gun to my head (which seems dangerous, and way too serious for a baseball discussion), I think Bader ends up a defensive whiz who just doesn’t hit quite enough to start, but he could push his way into that Juan Lagares/Franklin Gutierrez/even Kevin Kiermayer territory if he can keep his bat in the 90-95 wRC+ range and put up the kind of defensive numbers he has so far over the long term.

For now I’ll say he’s not core-level player. But there’s a chance.

Center Field

Is Tommy Pham a core player?

Oof. This one hurts to answer, because Tommy Pham is probably my favourite Cardinal of the last several year, both for the story of perserverance and the fact he’s an incredible baseball player. But Pham is also 30 years old and has long-term eye concerns that simply cannot be ignored. Are Pham’s current struggles vision-related? I have no way of knowing, and he says himself he doesn’t believe they are. But, it’s fair to ask, and I can’t say for sure they aren’t.

Tommy Pham is so much of a risk, and a long-term question mark, that I don’t think you can consider him one of your building blocks. Before this season I probably would have answered differently, and it would have mostly been due to emotion. But as it stands, I just don’t think you look at him as a long-term (as in, 3-5 years), solution you build around.

Obviously, Harrison Bader would probably be the other player stuck here in the center field bucket, but since I already covered him we’ll move on.

Left Field

Is Marcell Ozuna a core player?

He should be, yes. Ozuna has had a very strange year in general, particularly considering how he started, but overall he’s been a solid producer, if not quite the middle of the order thumper you hoped you were getting in trade.

However, Ozuna being under contract for just one more season after this takes him out of the future core of this team for me. If a contract extension were to get worked out, that would obviously change things, but for now he just isn’t going to be around after 2019. You cannot really build around players who are only yours for one more year.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. That’s every position, and just about every player on the team. So what have we learned?

Well, I think we’ve learned the Cardinals might be in worse shape than we maybe want to see. Look at the position player list; the only slam-dunk player it’s impossible to see not a part of the team in, say, three years is Paul DeJong. There are others that it’s possible to go either way on, of course, depending upon how much you believe in the trajectory of their careers, or how you feel about the aging curve of a Matt Carpenter, but aside from DeJong, who are you really building around in terms of position players?

On the pitching side, of course, things are much brighter, and that’s a direct result of the way the Cardinals have chosen to construct their rosters and organisation, but we also know that pitching is far less predictable than hitting when it comes to building a franchise, so how good do we feel about three of the club’s four easy calls for core players being pitchers? If your core going forward is Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, and Paul DeJong, what happens if one of those pitchers suddenly goes down with an elbow that needs reconstruction? Or a shoulder? What if two do?

As the Cards position themselves moving toward July and the trade deadline, it’s important to not only look at what the 2018 club needs, or could use, or could sacrifice. It’s equally as necessary to know where the franchise as a whole is headed, and what the future looks like. Before you can decide what to spend, you have to know what you have.

The future, right now, to me looks murky. I like that there appears to be a pretty solid chance the club has found a franchise shortstop, and the pitching is obviously the strength of the organisation. But it sure feels like the Redbirds are missing some foundational pieces they’re going to need going forward, doesn’t it?