The Cardinals just got swept by the Braves over the weekend, and they looked bad doing it. Like, it’s kind of hard to say a team that just lost four straight looked much worse than what the record says, but that’s where we are with this team right now. The Cardinals have looked much worse than a team that lost four straight.
The Redbirds are also, right now, just a couple days before Independence Day, two games over .500. They don’t look like a particularly good ballclub, and their record says they’re not a particularly good ballclub. When you are hovering just above the break-even mark at the season’s midpoint, you’re not in great shape.
Here’s the thing: it’s been a tough year. It really has been. I know that fans hate hearing excuses, and teams and players always talk about not making excuses, as if enumerating the circumstances of failure is somehow ignoble (seriously, if a bridge collapses and the official inquest finds that it collapsed because it was overloaded by 25 tons and a 40 mph wind came along when the area has historically never seen winds over 25 mph consistently, you don’t throw up your hands and say, “Well that’s no excuse. That bridge has to find a way to get the job done regardless,” you figure out why the circumstances changed, and why the situation got out of control), but this team has seen a lot of things go very, very wrong that I don’t think anyone would have expected.
What sorts of things? Well, how about Matt Carpenter’s April being pretty much the worst-case scenario we’ve ever seen from him hitting? Now, Carpenter has obviously turned his season around, to the point he’s on pace for something like a 4.5-win season, but there were plenty of games the first month or six weeks of the season when the offense just didn’t get the job done, and a misfiring Matt Carpenter was a big part of that. Kolten Wong’s season has been pretty much worst-case as far as his hitting has gone. Did anyone really think Dexter Fowler would be one of the worst players in baseball this year? Last season Dex posted a 121 wRC+ and was worth 2.5 wins. This year his wRC+ is 57 and he’s currently running a -1.1 WAR. I wasn’t thrilled about the Cards going to five years with Fowler, but he should have been a solid complementary player at the top of the order for a few years. Instead, he’s looked almost unplayable this season. Marcell Ozuna was brought in to be a middle of the order presence, and instead he’s been a slightly above league average hitter. Jedd Gyorko has been appallingly bad with the bat. Tommy Pham was the best player in the National League for the first month or so of the season, and basically hasn’t had a hit since.
Or how about injuries? Carlos Martinez missed multiple turns through the rotation, and has taken an equal number of turns to refind his form, it seems. Michael Wacha is out with an oblique, for how long no one really knows. By the time Paul DeJong comes back the club will have been without its excellent young shortstop for almost two months. Tyler Lyons has missed significant time. Dominic Leone was eaten by wolves. Luke Gregerson was eaten by wolves, came back from the dead, pitched twice, and then had his zombie form eaten by zombie wolves. Brett Cecil’s arm went south almost immediately upon becoming a Cardinal, but he was still fine last season overall. This year, his fastball has lost almost two more miles per hour and his strikeout rate is 13.4%. Yadier Molina was, um, hurt. I don’t want to think about it. Alex Reyes threw less than one full game in the majors this year, and his future is now in question.
Greg Holland has actually looked really good since coming back from his own DL stint, but that doesn’t change the fact he cost the club four or five games directly in his first dozen appearances. That’s certainly the worst-case scenario for signing one of the most expensive bullpen arms on the free agent market, one would think. And while I was against the signing of Holland, believing he was teetering on the edge with a slider-out-of-zone heavy approach that felt unsustainable, even I didn’t believe he would single-handedly cost the club four games in ten right out of the gate or whatever it was.
What I’m trying to get at is this: whether or not you believe the Cardinals did enough this past offseason to get where they wanted to go (I personally thought they did a very nice job of making some very smart moves and pivoting after the Giancarlo Stanton thing fell through), I don’t think anyone would have predicted that the Cardinals would struggle in the specific ways they have this season. The things that have gone wrong have not, for the most part, been things people saw coming ahead of time.
But, you know what? That’s just the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes you have a bad plan, and things go bad. Sometimes you have a good plan, and things still go bad. The Cardinals had a good plan coming into the season, and things have gone bad. They’ve had two of their starting position players turn into some of the worst hitters in baseball, two-fifths of the starting rotation have missed significant time with injury (and I’m not even counting Wainwright...), their shortstop, playing at an all-star and five-win pace, was hit in the hand and missed two months, their biggest bullpen investment in years didn’t finish off a shutdown unit, but instead gave away four, maybe five games all on his own. Sometimes shit just happens.
The Cards’ playoff chances this morning sit at 27.8%, which is higher than one might think, considering how dire the club feels right now, but is probably just about right. They’re still projected for a better winning percentage the rest of the season than the Brewers, but Milwaukee is basically leading a charmed life right now, and the Cardinals are leading whatever the opposite of that is the last couple years. (I mean, really. When did Jeremy Jeffress turn into the best reliever in baseball? Or Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw turn into the modern Bash Brothers?) The Cubs have been smart, and lucky, and they tanked to get the assets they needed. The Brewers have been very smart, and even luckier, and sold off some really great pieces to get some great assets back. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have been stuck in the middle, have continued to try and go for it every year without torpedoing their future, and have had just enough bad luck that even their smart plans have not worked out the way you would have hoped.
Is a one in four chance of the playoffs (and that’s the Wild Card game, so essentially it’s a one in four at a 50/50), worth continuing to push for the postseason and spend even more future assets this year? Is that one in four chance at the play-in game enough to ignore the fact the Cardinals have not had the advantage of high draft picks or premium assets coming in for literal years now?
The other day, my colleague bclemens wrote a piece about how winning is underrated, and how the analytical side of the game is ruining everyone’s fun. I happen to disagree, but judging from the comments it seems there’s a chunk of both the fanbase and our readership who don’t want to have to look at things in a sensible, analytical way. I suspect many of the same people lauding that piece for sticking it to the nerds and the quants and getting back to good ol’ fashioned fandom are probably the same ones screaming that this club isn’t any good, and they’re not fun to watch, and the whole front office should be run up a pole somewhere. But go ahead and just keep on believing that trying really hard, over and over, is going to change the outcome, even if you aren’t really do anything differently, I suppose.
For me, I’ve been on the Cardinals need to sell bandwagon for awhile, at least for part of the time. A couple years running now the club has been in poor position to make the postseason at the trade deadline, and yet still the front office has been unwilling to sacrifice the season and look to the future. And what have we gotten? Another year of a middling team with just enough flaws it can’t get over the hump. I’m not going to accuse ownership of deliberately putting a subpar product on the field to bilk people out of money; I happen to think that canard is possible the stupidest thing anyone has come up with recently. Why people are more willing to believe the last 20 years were some long con to get people to buy tickets to a mediocre product than they are to believe the organisation has simply had some bad luck and outright failures over the past few years is beyond me.
But the truth is, the Cardinals are right here in the same place again in 2018, stuck in the middle, a few games above .500 in a division with two teams ahead of them, with a one in four chance of making it to the postseason, but a team that’s just good enough you can fool yourself into believing it’s going to get better.
Let me say this as clearly as I can: it’s not going to get better. Waiting and sitting on your hands isn’t going to fix this and move the franchise forward again. The organisation has been paralysed at the deadline for two years in a row, and we’re seeing the exact same situation coalescing again this year. The Cards went hard after it this offseason, probably as hard as they could have, apart from not signing Yu Darvish (and, mea culpa, I wanted them to sign him, which would have been a disaster), and it hasn’t worked out. Players have gotten hurt, players have collapsed, the bullpen has imploded due to injuries and a couple of truly horrific performances.
This team doesn’t need a full tear down. They have plenty of good assets, both present and future, that they should be able to compete again in short order. But the time has come, and you have to sacrifice something, at some point, if you want to move forward again.
There’s a one in four chance the Cards sneak into a Wild Card spot, and they then probably get to go on the road to try and win a one-game sudden death match. That chance is not worth passing on the chance to reset, retool, and improve 2019 and beyond. At least, not to me, it isn’t. The fact the Cardinals haven’t had to rebuild since Bill DeWitt purchased the club well over 20 years ago is one of my favourite things about this team, and I will never stop admiring how well they’re ridden out the waves of departures and downturns over the years. But at some point in time, you simply run out of assets.
A couple years ago I wrote a column about crop rotation as part of a two-part series in which Craig Edwards and I took up the two sides of the sell vs. buy debate. I wanted the Cards to sell then (this was July of 2016, I believe), while Craig was on team continue to compete. My column didn’t turn out very well; it was one of those rough posts where I had too many things to say, couldn’t get them to come together, and ended up with a meandering 5000 word monstrosity that covered the same ground in a couple different ways multiple times. It was a frustrating piece, to say the least. However, I feel my central point was, and still is, applicable and correct: the Cardinals need more and better assets. And the fact they will never stop competing to try and build up some of those assets is hurting their outlook in both the medium and long term.
The 2018 season has been a very bad one in terms of injuries, in terms of bad luck, in terms of performances. Spending more assets to keep chasing the postseason in a year when so much has gone wrong is, in my ever so unhumble opinion, borderline irresponsible. I’m not saying the Cardinals shouldn’t be buyers, but if they are it needs to be long-term purchases, not just to upgrade this year’s edition. You want to trade for Nolan Arenado? Hey, I’m all for that. Go all-in on a back of the bullpen upgrade and an expiring contract somewhere? Fuck. No.
I want the Cardinals to be good again soon. Actually, I want them to be great again soon, but I have a hangup about using the term ‘great again’ nowadays, so I’ll stick with good. The way things are going, though, I see a very narrow gap the club is going to have to shoot to get back on top anytime soon. This year’s club was a really good shot at that, but things have worked out about as poorly as you could possibly have expected in a bunch of different ways. It’s time to sacrifice a season, sell the short-term assets you have, and start constructing that next great Cardinal team. They’ve put it off entirely too long, been too unwilling to admit that between a hacking scandal and a prospect death and another prospect’s arm bursting into flames, the organisation is just not being able to accumulate the stockpile of assets they need to take a big jump forward.
It’s time for the Cardinals to stop fighting to make it happen every season, and do what is right, and smart, for the long haul. It’s time for the Cardinals to sell.