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Where the Cardinals Stand Right Now

As the 2018 campaign draws to a close, it’s worth looking at where the Cardinals are in both the shorter and longer term.

St. Louis Cardinals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Ugh. Rough games the last two nights, huh? This is basically the exact reason I’ve been on the fence about the Cards’ postseason chances all along, even when the club was rolling up the wins following Mike Shildt taking over the club. It isn’t hard to see how the Cards could have won each of the last two games, but several of their hitters have run into a cold snap, the bullpen has turned back into a serious issue, and you suddenly have a couple bad losses against the Reds, a really frustrating opening game loss in Washington, two bad losses against a not-good Detroit club, and you’re 3-5 heading over the last three series, with one game to go.

It’s just so easy for a couple things to go wrong, and a win (or two), to turn into a loss. I’m reminded of something I read once quite a while back now in Phil Jackson’s book about the Kobe-Shaq Lakers. He was talking about the illusion of momentum in a given basketball game, when a team that’s way behind starts making a comeback. They get a flurry of baskets, outrebounding and outhustling the other team, and suddenly a fourteen point deficit gets down to six points with eight minutes to go. At that point, it feels like the rallying club has all the momentum on their side, and they’re far more likely to win the game.

In reality, though, the opposite is generally true; the club making the comeback is still at a huge disadvantage, because they’re still behind, and they won’t be able to keep up the pace of their rally forever. The team with the lead has to weather the storm, yes, but the team making the comeback will exhaust their energy reserves and resources just trying to get back even, at which point the team that had the lead often pulls away again.

Now, to be fair, the ups and downs of a single basketball game is a different sort of thing than the whole second half of a baseball season, since going all-in in terms of effort and energy for ten minutes is a different sort of drain than playing your best baseball every night for six weeks or whatever. But there’s a kernel of truth in that idea about how hard it is to come from behind that applies across the board. The Cardinals played unbelievably good baseball for over a month, got back into the division race, pulled into the first wild card spot, and basically put themselves right back into a position of relevance as the season winds into its final straightaway.

The problem, of course, is that no club plays .750 ball forever, and in going 24-8 from the 27th of July through August 30th (the final game of the Pittsburgh series), the Cardinals pulled themselves out of the hole they had dug in May and June, but they couldn’t quite keep that pace up long enough to either get a division lead or at least create some cushion for themselves in the wild card race. Now that a few things have gone wrong, the clubs that were ahead to begin with, the Cubs and Brewers, are pulling away from the Redbirds again. It’s not so much that the Cardinals used up all their energy, necessarily, but more that there simply had to be a downturn coming, and that inevitable correction was going to put the Cards back in a precarious position.

Simply put, it’s really, really hard to come from behind, which is why teams try so very hard to keep from having to do so. The Cardinals were a .500 club on the 25th of July. Getting to 91 wins, or 20 games over .500, in two months is really tough to do. The Cards might still get close to 90, but playing dead even ball for four months is just such a steep hill to climb.

And yet, it’s still so easy to look at the margins, which remain extremely thin, and wonder at all that went wrong this season to put the club in this spot, fighting for their playoff lives rather than comfortably looking forward to October. The Cardinals’ actual win-loss record matches exactly their Pythagorean and BaseRuns records both. The Brewers, meanwhile, are five games clear of their Pythag, probably as a result of having the two-headed monster of Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader in their ‘pen. The Rockies have been even more fortunate, outperforming their run differential by a full eight wins. There shouldn’t really be a race at all in the NL West, and the Cards should be shooting it out with the DBacks for the top wild card spot. Instead, we have a jumble of clubs, some underperforming, some overperforming, but all of them magically gravitating toward virtually the same record somehow.

There are the missed opportunities to consider, as well. What if the Cards had just passed on Greg Holland in the offseason, rather than deciding it really was that vital to have a Proven Closer in the fold? Or, hell, what if the Cards had managed to get the version of Holland currently appearing in games for the Nationals, rather than the dumpster fire they actually got? Holland probably cost the club roughly five real-world wins almost single-handedly; if the club wins just three of those contests they’re still ahead of Milwaukee. The sudden combustion of Bud Norris has cost the club a couple more wins as well. You do not, of course, simply convert all of the bullpen losses to wins if things change a little, but you can certainly change a few of them mentally if the same catastrophes do not take place.

There are 20 games left in the regular season, and we’ve seen the best, and worst, this club has to offer. There’s plenty of good news, but also plenty of bad. With roughly three weeks to go in the 2018 campaign, what have we learned?

The Rotation is a Strength, Except When it Isn’t.

The Cards’ starting rotation this season has been one of the best in baseball, posting the fourth-best ERA in the National League and seventh-best overall. In terms of run prevention, the Redbirds have an advantage starting the game the majority of the time.

The problem with the rotation, however, has been its lack of stability, particularly in terms of time missed due to injury. It’s hard to view the rotation as a major strength when two of your top three starters coming into the season have missed big chunks of time. Carlos Martinez has been on the DL multiple times, and while he currently looks like a serious bullpen contributor the rest of the way, you’re still ultimately going to get less than 120 innings from him this season in all likelihood. Coming into this season, durability had been one of Carlos’s greatest attributes; he had made at least 29 starts three years in a row prior to this season. Whether that will be the case again in the future, with this season serving as a strange blip in an otherwise sterling — if underappreciated — career, or a harbinger of issues to come, remains to be seen.

Michael Wacha’s season has been even more disappointing; even if he didn’t look nearly so good as Martinez to begin the year, he was mixing his pitches as well as we’ve ever seen, and generally looking more like a pitcher than a thrower every time out. He suffered an oblique injury in June, though, was removed from his most recent rehab start with recurring soreness in that same oblique, and currently sits at 84.1 innings thrown for the big league club this year. Michael Wacha the ace was pretty clearly never going to happen over the long haul, but Wacha the really solid #3 still seemed attainable. Unfortunately, he’s now missed significant time due to injury in three of his five full major league seasons, and it’s hard to bet long-term on a guy entering his free agent season with only one 180 inning campaign to his name.

There’s lots of good news, though, too: Miles Mikolas has been a revelation as a new-era Bob Tewksbury (except with 97 in his back pocket when he needs it), and Jack Flaherty, even looking a little shaky the last couple times out, has future ace potential if he can make just modest improvements over the next year or two. Austin Gomber isn’t a star, but he’s a big leaguer, and a big league starter, I believe. John Gant has real value in some role, it’s just a question of his best fit. Luke Weaver’s future is more up in the air for me; even as one of the more skeptical observers of Weaver since draft day, I admit I’ve been completely blindsided by just how badly he’s fallen off this season.

All of which is to say that the Cardinal rotation, on the whole, is probably the strongest part of the club, and the greatest strength the team possesses. It is also, unfortunately, also one of the more vulnerable areas going forward, simply because there have to be questions about injuries, and workload, and long-term viability. The rotation would still not be the first place I would invest heavily this coming offseason; a returning Carlos, Mikolas, and Jack Flaherty gives you potentially one of the best top threes in baseball, and the Cardinals still do nothing so well as produce major league starters, even if not at a star level. However, it’s not at all crazy to look at this group and wish for the club to add a pitcher. I personally wouldn’t add at the bottom; I think you can get filler innings from the system with no trouble at all. Adding to the top, though? I wouldn’t be upset with that sort of move at all, even if I still see other areas I would worry about first.

The Bullpen Needs Rebuilding (Again).

Coming into the season, the bullpen was seen as a potential area of strength, if also a big bundle of question marks as well. The Cards went out this past offseason and made multiple mid-sized investments in the ‘pen, bringing in arms from all over, and trying to sculpt a unit that would boast serious strikeout punch from inning six on.

Instead, what we got was a horrorshow of epic proportions. Tyler Lyons got hurt, going from one of the best setup relievers in baseball to minor leaguer. Dominic Leone went from elite setup arm in the AL East to missing 23 of the season with a mystery nerve condition. He threw 70 innings of 2.5 ERA ball for the Blue Jays in 2017, and will be lucky to break 25 innings this season. Luke Gregerson had been healthy, and a groundball/strikeout machine, every year of his career up until this one, when he’s barely thrown a dozen innings. We all know what happened with Greg Holland, perhaps the worst use of 14 million dollars since Jacob Montague bought a solid gold toilet seat and seven million bean burritos from Taco Bell a few years ago. (Note: this story may or may not be apocryphal, and Mr. Montague is almost certainly made up for a comedy bit.)

Bud Norris was an outstanding investment, right up until the point he wasn’t, but even so it has to be considered a huge win to get that kind of production from a $3 million signing. Other than Norris, though, basically everything the Cardinals tried with the bullpen this year has failed, with the exception of some unsustainable-looking performances from a few young guys.

At the end of the season, one way or another, however it ends, the bullpen is going to require another rebuild. And don’t ask me how, or who, because I don’t know. The Cards did exactly what I thought they should do this past offseason (with the exception of the Holland signing), and it’s basically gone horribly. One could argue they should have invested in bigger-ticket items rather than making multiple smaller bets (always a favourite talking point of a certain type of fan who equates salary with quality), but one look at the high-dollar relief signings of the past offseason and it becomes obvious that wouldn’t really have solved the issue either.

Brandon Morrow has been good for the Cubs, but has also only thrown 30 innings and is currently on the DL with a biceps issue. Wade Davis is under contract for two more years, and is currently running an ERA north of four and a half for Colorado. Bryan Shaw has been an even bigger disaster for the Rockies, as has Jake McGee. Holland got one of the biggest single-season guarantees of the offseason, and we saw how that worked out. So how should the Cards remake their ‘pen for 2019? Nobody knows. You might think you do, but you don’t.

Looking at the list of free agents, there are definitely some exciting names, if you wanted to jump off the deep end and invest a whole lot of money. Adam Ottavino will be available, and intriguing, but he was terrible as recently as 2017, so it isn’t as if he’s been nothing but great since becoming a reliever for the Rockies. Craig Kimbrel is set to hit the market, and is still an elite closer, if not quite the game-breaker he’s been at various points in his career. Andrew Miller is a free agent, but has been a much lesser pitcher this season, has dealt with shoulder problems, and is 33 years old. David Robertson has still been fairly beastly this year, but has one of the same issues as Andrew Miller, namely being 33 years old. He has been incredibly durable in his career, though, for what it’s worth. Zach Britton has not been the same pitcher coming back from an Achilles injury as he was before, but perhaps a club would buy him being stronger next year further from the injury.

There are some other interesting names as well, if far less well known and seemingly sure things. Kelvin Herrera. Joe Kelly. Justin Wilson. Johnny Venters.

In other words, if you’re of the belief the Cardinals need to go out and really invest in the bullpen to prove they’re serious about winning, then this offseason’s class of relievers offers that chance in spades. And then we should consider where the Rockies are with their bullpen, and maybe ask whether that’s really a great idea or not.

The Defense is Not a Problem.

The last couple seasons, one of the really big issues for the Cardinals has been a lack of defensive efficiency, and talent. That no longer seems to be the case now, at least in terms of talent potentially on the field.

The Cards have not always been an elite defensive club this season, but are still in the top five in defensive WAR for the year. Without pitchers, they drop to ninth in baseball, which is still pretty good. And going forward, it’s possible this is absolutely an elite defensive team.

Paul DeJong, despite having a disappointing season at the plate after his hand injury, has put up outstanding defensive numbers. He’s at +12 defensive runs saved in 827 innings, and even regressing that heavily he looks like a quality shortstop. Kolten Wong will likely never reach these defensive heights again, but he’s been a plus defender every year of his career except 2017. That’s two above-average gloves up the middle, which is a great place to start. Yadier Molina is not what he once was, but he’s still a quality glove behind the plate even without the intangible stuff. Matt Carpenter is a solid defender at first, serviceable at third, and Jedd Gyorko offers a very good glove at the hot corner. On a day when Carp is at first and Jedd is at third, the Cardinals could boast above-average defenders at every position on the infield. Yairo Munoz has been uneven defensively so far, but he at least has the tools to be good somewhere, probably third base.

As for the outfield, that’s a little more complicated. Harrison Bader looks like an elite defender. Tyler O’Neill in limited duty looks like a plus defender in right, and maybe better than that. His sprint speed is second on the club to Bader, and top 20 in all of baseball. He’s recorded three outs above average in under 250 innings played. We can’t be sure the Canadian strongman is an elite defender yet, but all evidence we have so far points in that direction. And for as much flak as Marcell Ozuna has gotten this year for his bum shoulder and a few really awkward-looking plays, plus/minus, DRS, and UZR all see him as a plus defender in 2018.

The problem, of course, is that while the Cardinals have three outfielders listed above who all rate as above-average fielders or better, they also still have Dexter Fowler under contract for 2019, as well as Jose Martinez potentially floating around. Fowler has been a defensive disaster ever since the Cards signed him, and Jose Martinez just really shouldn’t be playing the field every day, in any position. A Cardinal club dedicated to airtight defense really doesn’t have a ton of room for either player going forward. If Cafecito and Fowler are still on the club next year, it complicates the outfield defense picture I just painted so rosily above.

Still, the fact is, the Cardinals have more talent on the defensive side right now than they have in quite a while, and most of it looks to be of the long-term variety. That cannot be seen as anything but a positive.

The Offense Could Still Use Some More Punch, and Betting on Marcell Ozuna Again Feels Horrible.

Here’s the thing: watching Marcell Ozuna go crazy over the past week has been sort of fun. Five homers in a week is always pretty entertaining. However, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the fact that Ozuna’s ISO is still just .157, 80 points below his 2017 mark and just flat-out not cleanup hitter quality. Maybe the worst thing of all in Ozuna’s profile is that, looking at his numbers, pretty much across the board he’s within spitting distance of his career totals. Career GB/FB rate: 1.40; 2018 GB/FB: 1.43. Career wRC+: 113; 2018 wRC+: 105. Unfortunately, it looks more and more like betting on Ozuna’s 2017 as a breakout, rather than a fluke, was probably a mistake. He’s not a bad player, by any means; he’s just not a transformative player, at all.

Which leads to a bigger point: the offense still feels underpowered. The Cards are getting an historically great season from Matt Carpenter, which is really awesome, but after him there’s not another plus bat on the roster. Harrison Bader has been solid, but he’s due for some regression and is probably more like a 95 wRC+ bat than the ~110 guy he’s been this season. Ozuna, as covered a moment ago, is more a good bat and solid all-around player than a centerpiece for an offense. Tyler O’Neill has that kind of upside, to be a middle of the order masher, but he has to prove he can adjust to big league pitching and stop trying quite so hard first. Paul DeJong looked like a plus bat early in the season, but since the hand injury has been very mediocre. Which is fine, considering his position and defense, but another ~95-100 wRC+ hitter doesn’t necessarily boost the offense into the stratosphere. Kolten Wong is a phenomenal defender, but still just an acceptable hitter overall. Jedd Gyorko is what he is: a moderately above-average hitter for 450 plate appearances a season. These are all fine players, but who beyond Carpenter of this group really makes a difference in an offensive capacity? And considering we probably shouldn’t expect another season like this from Carp himself, the offense going forward feels like it needs a further injection of production.

The question, of course, is where the improvement comes from. O’Neill could be a lot better in 2019, but Bader, Carpenter, Molina, and Gyorko will all probably be worse, either due to regression or just age. A third baseman would make a lot of sense, but Manny Machado seems Bronx bound, and the Rockies seem disinclined to move Arenado. The Mariners might consider moving Kyle Seager, but he’s had an absolutely horrific season with the bat, and really needs to find some way to turn his offensive trendline around. Didi Gregorius and Jurickson Profar could both represent intriguing additions to the infield mix should either hit the market, but both are more solid all-around players than difference makers on offense.

Perhaps the dream addition would be Bryce Harper, who has turned around his season in remarkable fashion and will be heading into free agency with a career 140 wRC+ and a 2018 mark that will be pretty close to that by the time it’s all said and done. The problem? Harper will cost an arm and a leg, seemingly has no real reason to prefer St. Louis to any other destination, and bringing him in would require moving multiple other players this offseason to really fit him in. (Ozuna, Fowler, and probably Jose Martinez, as well.) It would be a very complicated addition, and feels very far-fetched to me. Then again, adding a guy pretty much guaranteed to walk 16+% of the time with a career OBP approaching .390, not to mention some of the best power in the game, would certainly seem to be a transformative offensive move of the sort the Cardinals have been searching for, much more so than holding on to the same roster and counting on Marcell Ozuna to put up big walk-year numbers.

The Cardinal offense of 2018 has not been bad. They’re ninth in baseball in non-pitcher wRC+, and are in the top half overall for runs scored. That’s not great, certainly, but it’s also not problematic, particularly if you’re rolling out a roster that steals runs as well as scores them. But there’s also reason to believe the 2019 version of this roster won’t be as good offensively as this one has, either because of players getting older, or unsustainable-looking performances, or some combination thereof. If the Cardinals want to have a championship-calibre offense in 2019, it’s not unreasonable to say they’re going to have to find a way to add some oomph. And betting on in-house options to add said oomph feels very, very risky.

All in all, it’s hard to see 2018 as a real negative season for the Cardinals, considering where they stand right now. They have a reasonable shot at 90 wins, even with a bullpen that has given away probably a dozen games this year. They’ve graduated at least one long-term solution to the roster on the position side, and likely have another in Jack Flaherty on the pitching end of things. Maybe most of all, the organisation finally made one of the toughest moves to make, but which absolutely needed to happen, in moving on from Mike Matheny as manager.

And yet, even with all those positives coming out of 2018, it feels as if the Cardinals are in a very precarious position currently. Not just in terms of making the playoffs this season (which position is very precarious, admittedly), but in terms of the long-term health of the team. The Redbirds actually have one of the youngest rosters in all of baseball, tied with the San Diego Padres’ endless rebuilding experiement, and yet the Cards have multiple important players on the verge of aging out. The starting catcher and both starting corner infielders are either over 30 or will be and in the last year of a contract in 2019. The starting rotation looks like a strength, but has just gone through a season in which many, many things went wrong, and there’s no slam dunk pitching prospect pushing for a 2019 starting job right now. Alex Reyes is a complete question mark, Luke Weaver is only slightly less so, and while Dakota Hudson has tremendous talent and should be left as a starter long term, I believe, he still needs substantial polishing in terms of command and complementary pitch improvement.

This season has felt at times like a turning point for the Cardinals, the moment when they finally gain that traction they’ve been seeking and start pushing forward out of this transition period they’ve been stuck in for a couple years now. But taking the body of work for 2018 as a whole, this is a still a good team, without the one or two key talents it probably needs to become great. It’s been an exciting stretch run, and a blast overall since August began watching the most inspired baseball we’ve seen since at least 2015, and probably even longer than that. But this is still a club in a dangerous spot, a club that could go either way. The right investment or investments could catapult them right back into prominence at the top of the division as soon as 2019. Failure to improve the club, though, or worse yet, any more counterproductive moves, could take the gains the team made this year and fold them right back in to a mid-80s win malaise next season.

We’ve seen the best this Cardinal team has to offer, and it’s looked very, very good indeed. And yet, it’s still going to be something like an 88-89 win club. That’s obviously not bad; in fact, it’s quite good. But is it good enough?

Feels like the same question we’ve been asking for a couple years now, doesn’t it?

Is it good enough? Or just good enough to not be quite good enough?