You know what’s been really, really frustrating the last couple days? Well, besides getting beaten two games straight by the Brewers, I mean; I assume that part of it goes without saying.
No, here’s what has been bothering me the last couple days watching Milwaukee try very hard to ruin the Cardinals’ season: the extremely painful, and painfully obvious, difference in what the Brewers and Redbirds accomplished this past offseason.
Both clubs acquired Marlin outfielders. The Cardinals shot for Giancarlo Stanton, then pivoted to Marcell Ozuna when the big fish decided he wanted to play in pinstripes. The Brewers, meanwhile, waited out the market, jumped in only after Stanton and Ozuna were both dealt and Christian Yelich demanded a trade, and picked up the youngest of the Marlins’ outfield trio. They then signed another outfielder on the free agent market, scooping up Lorenzo Cain in late January on what felt like a pretty risky five-year deal.
The Cardinals have gotten a fine performance out of Marcell Ozuna this season; he’s put up a slightly better than league average batting line, played very solid defense in left field (even with the occasionally frustrating throw included), and been outstanding on the bases. He’s played in 145 games, come to bat 616 times, and has been worth 2.7 wins above replacement. That’s a totally fine season line in terms of value. Above average. Not a star, no, but just fine.
Christian Yelich, meanwhile, is very likely going to win the National League MVP award. He’s played in 142 games, batted 630 times, and is currently running a career-best 159 wRC+. He’s sitting at 6.8 WAR right now.
So we have two franchises vying for the same division title, not to mention the same Wild Card berths, who finished 2-3 in the Central division standings last season. Both clubs went out this past offseason and added a Marlin outfielder, with the Cardinals being by far the more aggressive team, going after the biggest name first and then very quickly moving to grab their secondary target when that fell through, showing the kind of urgency that a lot of fans accuse them of never bringing to the table. The Brewers, on the other hand, slow-played the whole thing and made an opportunistic strike once the situation changed.
It seems more cosmically humourous than coincidental that the gap between Yelich and Ozuna’s respective values in 2018 is 4.1 wins, and the Cardinals find themselves trailing the Brewers by....four wins.
Want to hear something even more annoying? The Brewers in 2018 have amassed 24.8 total WAR among their position players, while the Cardinals sit one spot back in the rankings at 24.1. Those are both very solid numbers; the Brewers have the ninth-highest positional WAR in baseball, while the Cards are tenth. The clubs have overall identical 104 wRC+ numbers (non-pitcher), with the Brewers hitting for a bit more power, while the Cards make a little more contact.
Here’s the thing, though: the Brewers and Cardinals are neck-and-neck in terms of positional WAR, but the distribution is completely different. The Cards added Marcell Ozuna, worth 2.7 wins, and traded for Yairo Munoz, who has contributed just under half a win. So three wins of new value came in from outside the organisation last offseason.
The Brewers brought in Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain. Yelich has been worth 6.8 fWAR, and Cain has contributed 5.6 wins. That’s right; the Brewers added 12.4 wins above replacement this past offseason, or exactly half of their total WAR. Milwaukee added two of the, say, five best players in the Central division in one offseason, and basically built themselves a cornerstone duo every bit as good as that of the Cubs. Or close, anyway. If the Brewers didn’t have Yelich and Cain, they would be looking at a WAR total more in line with what the Rangers or Mets have produced this season. But they managed to do what the Cardinals have been unable to do over the past several years: add actual, real-life elite talent to the roster. And that’s the difference between the teams right now.
So yes, it’s been frustrating the last couple days, watching the Brewers with their dual MVP candidates sitting atop their lineup while the Cardinals head toward yet another offseason full of questions about the ever-elusive big acquisition, and where are they going to find a core player to anchor the offense, and so on, and so forth, the same story we’ve been circling around for multiple years now.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that the Brewers did pay a price for Yelich the Cardinals did not for Ozuna; the package of talent Milwaukee sent off to Miami was orders of magnitude greater than what the Cards gave up for Ozuna. Even so, though, it’s hard to view the offseason as anything but a large disappointment for St. Louis now, given how things have played out. Just think of how much brighter the future would look for the Redbirds if they were potentially running out an outfield of Yelich/Bader/O’Neill next season, and for many years to come, possibly, rather than staring down the final season of Ozuna’s contract, trying to decide if he’s worth big money given his mediocre production and overall just-okayness. (Not to mention the redundancy of yet another right-handed hitter.)
Of course, had the Cardinals held out for Yelich, there’s no guarantee they would have gotten the deal done. And given where the franchise is, and their neverending insistence of competing every single season without fail, they absolutely had to get a deal done. And maybe it would have cost them Tyler O’Neill, in addition to probably Alex Reyes over Sandy Alcantara (which would have been 100% fine in retrospect), meaning they would have had to sacrifice part of their future, which they are nearly always loathe to do.
Then again, they could have also gone for the money-only path and simply signed Lorenzo Cain; Cain has been nearly as good as Yelich this season, and wouldn’t have required the club to send out any future talent at all. Well, except for sacrificing a draft pick, which means there’d be no Nolan Gorman in the system right now, which yes, seems like a problem.
But more than that, the Cardinals made a bad signing of an over-30, speedy outfielder with a solid but not spectacular bat before the 2017 season, and we’ve all seen how that worked out. Dexter Fowler currently appears to be one of the bigger albatross contracts in all of baseball, and even before his collapse this season it looked like the Cards fucked up pretty badly in giving him the deal they did, given his defensive horribleness. So how likely do you think they would have been to go out and hand another contract to an outfielder of essentially the exact same age?
And so, as usual, the Cardinals shot for the middle path. They had to get something done, since they had to contend again in 2018, but they also had to protect the future, since they have to contend every year, and they are basically unwilling to go whole hog and try to purchase what they need outright. If the Cards had missed out on both Stanton and Ozuna, it would have been seen as a disaster, and so they couldn’t afford to do so. And that means they couldn’t sit back and wait for Yelich to spin free and become available, because that would force them into an actual, honest to god bidding war, which they are basically unwilling or unable to win these days. Or, alternately, it would have forced them to reassess and change direction if they missed on the only remaining option on the market, which they are also seemingly unwilling to do.
I don’t want this all to come off as overly negative; I really don’t mean it that way. Overall, I believe the Cardinals are in a very good position going forward. They have a strong farm system, with some exciting positional talent beginning to percolate up from the lower levels, and a major league club with one of the higher floors in baseball. There’s definite work that has to be done, from figuring out how to move Fowler to getting away from the Jose Martinez quagmire to rebuilding the bullpen yet again to determining where they’re going to find that offensive driver they’ve been searching for all this time, but the foundation of the club in general is very strong, even as we approach the ends of Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter’s Cardinal tenures, respectively, over the next couple seasons. So I hope I don’t sound like I’m saying the sky is falling.
But I am getting tired of the same questions every offseason. I’m tired of getting Ozunas while other clubs come up with Yeliches and MVP awards. I’m tired of feeling like this baseball team is stuck running in place.
We’ve got yet another big offseason coming up very soon, possibly much sooner than we would like. It’s a big offseason with basically all the same questions of the last couple big offseasons. I wonder if any of those questions will actually be answered this time around.