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Trimming the Fat

The Cardinals’ roster is at a strange crossroads right now. Subtraction could easily be addition this offseason.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

As we stand here on the precipice of the offseason — and by precipice of the offseason, I really mean the precipice of things, you know, actually happening, not the temporal designation of offseason — I find myself, frankly, worried.

In 2019, we saw the Cardinals return to the postseason for the first time since 2015. The ‘19 Redbirds were not a powerhouse team, exactly; in an increasingly bifurcated baseball landscape, the Cards and Nationals both stood out as charmingly old-fashioned. Both were just good teams, competitive teams, neither the dregs of a boom and bust age nor a superteam feeding on the lowly and rebuilding. Even without ascending to the heights of the Dodgers or Astros, though, the Cardinals have to consider the campaign just completed a success. A perpetual 85-win team pushed back to being a 90+ win club, with the underlying stats to back it up. The club reached the NLCS, and in spite of their ignominious ouster by Washington, anytime you’re one of the last four teams playing it’s hard not to feel like things are going your way.

There were positive developments in terms of individual player performances, as well. Kolten Wong won a Gold Glove. Paul DeJong broke the four win barrier and looks like a cornerstone piece. Jack Flaherty established himself as a top of the rotation starter. Tommy Edman looks legit to me, and Giovanny Gallegos could be a top setup man for the next few years. So why am I worried? Because it looks to me like the Cardinals are in the process of making a big mistake this offseason.

So far this offseason we have seen the management team of the club get extensions, which I don’t have a problem with. John Mozeliak and his staff have a consistent track record of success, and despite the carping of certain segments of the fanbase, it’s really hard to think that replacing the guys who have guided the Cardinals through perennial contention despite some really tough hits along the way with some other group of executives, nearly guaranteed to have less of a track record of success, would somehow magically improve the club’s situation over the aforementioned perennial contention.

Continuity has long been one of the real watchwords of the organisation. The club has had three general managers over the last 25 years, and really only two head executives, non-ownership division. Walt Jocketty led the organisation from 1995 through his ouster in the autumn of 2007, and John Mozeliak has been the man in the big chair since that time. Michael Girsch has had the GM title for a few years now, but I think we understand who is still the number one guy. Title inflation and all that.

In general, I have no problem with managerial continuity. In my own working life, I’ve come to value the stability that long-term management provides, even when some of the team may not be the absolute optimal people in those positions. There is a dynamic that comes with stability, and so long as you have core competencies and everyone pulling in the same direction, the overall machinery of the team chugs along very well. Of course, there is also value in new blood, but there is a balance that must be struck between new ideas and people who challenge the status quo and the disruption to the working dynamic that comes with that infusion of new blood. Sports fans are always quick to call for large-scale changes, always thinking that a shake up would inevitably be for the good. They ignore the downside almost completely.

However, there is an aspect of the Cardinal organisation that troubles me, and it goes right along with those positive aspects of continuity. At times, this organisation seems to almost fetishise continuity, to the point that it becomes paralysing. Inertia is the bad end result of continuity, and it feels like inertia is in the air around Busch Stadium at the moment.

Since the beginning of the offseason, we have heard that the Cardinals are working to bring back Adam Wainwright. Look, I love Waino as much as anyone, but the man is 38 years old. Betting on him having another miraculous season at 38 the same as he did at 37 is, frankly, a horrible bet to place. We’ve heard they’re looking to sit down with Marcell Ozuna to try and hammer out a long term deal. Ozuna has served the franchise just fine over the past two years, but if those seasons do not convince everyone that Marcell Ozuna is really more of a solid complementary player rather than a centerpiece, I don’t know that we’re watching the same games.

More than anything, though, I just look at the Cardinals’ roster right now, and what I see is a whole lot of dead weight. Or maybe not dead weight, but a lot of pieces that are easily replaceable, and not only could be replaced, but should be.

Let me specify that what I’m talking about here is not complacency, exactly. It’s related, but not exactly that. Complacency is a self-satisfied quality that plenty of people ascribe to the Cardinals’ organisation, but I don’t see that. Plenty of people believe in various conspiracy theories as well, seeing collaboration and sinister intention in lots of places where plain old wrong decisions or bad luck are much, much better explanations. A lot of people want to believe those in charge are monstrously greedy and evil, rather than simply mistake-prone. The front office has made plenty of missteps over the past several years, but the idea they’ve done so on purpose to put forth a product capable of compelling fans to spend money on tickets but juuust shy of winning is, frankly, dumb.

What I see is not complacency, but rather a misplaced priority that believe the devil one knows is almost always better than the one you don’t. Here’s what I’m talking about:

  • Brett Cecil is still on the Cardinals’ 40 man roster. Over the past two seasons, Cecil has provided the club with 32.2 innings and -0.7 WAR. That is specifically his 2018 performance, since he did not take the mound at all in 2019. As uninspiring as Tyler Webb might be as a lefty reliever, he’s been light years more productive than Cecil over that time, and for essentially free. So why is Brett Cecil still taking up a roster spot? Does the club really think he’s going to somehow rebound to be a useful reliever in 2020? That roster spot could be used on literally anything else, and it would almost certainly be better spent. Sunk costs are one of the real weaknesses of this front office — actually, if I were to hazard a guess I would say sunk costs are more a weakness of ownership, but whatever — and the only reason I can possibly see for Cecil still being around is because someone doesn’t want to admit that money is just gone at this point.
  • Yairo Munoz was a really good player to target as a potential super utility man a couple years ago, I think. Physically he has some tools, from raw power to a huge throwing arm, but the guy just hasn’t turned into a good baseball player. His plate discipline has never improved, and he’s mediocre defensively pretty much everywhere. There were good reasons to think he was a potential swiss army knife, but he just can’t hit. It’s time to move on.
  • Jose Martinez was the kind of hitter you loved having come off the bench a couple years ago, despite his atrocious defense. In 2019 the defense was still atrocious, but unfortunately he continued the offensive slide that really began in the second half of 2018, and he was actually a below league average hitter this season. He cannot defend, and he no longer has the kind of bat that justifies keeping him around. Maybe an AL team would take a chance on him, since the DH gives them a better opportunity to get him in the lineup in a non-damaging way while seeing if he can regain his offensive mojo. For the Cardinals, though, with a plethora of outfield talent coming up through the pipeline, Martinez is a terrible fit.
  • Adolis Garcia is not a major league baseball player. I’ll concede he’s an intriguing defender, so maybe he’s not the first cut you make. But Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena both do the same things Garcia does, and they might actually be able to hit.
  • Finally, there’s the matter of Dexter Fowler. I still like Dexter Fowler in a lot of ways, but even with the dead cat bounce he received in 2019 he was still strictly an average player, and the Cardinals need opportunities in the outfield more than they need a 1.5 win right field ‘solution’. I’m sure the front office will explore opportunities to move Fowler this offseason, but will they find anything acceptable? The bigger question is this: if they can’t, will they be willing to bite the bullet and simply bench or even outright release Fowler to make room for younger players with far more upside? Dylan Carlson is on the way. Tyler O’Neill needs a real opportunity. Ditto Randy Arozarena and Lane Thomas, and Harrison Bader is still a better player than Fowler even with the level of offense (disappointing), he provided in 2019.

My point is this: the Cardinal roster as currently constructed looks to me like a group with a ceiling right around where they were in 2019. And, hey, that’s not bad! Where they were in 2019 was first place in the division, playing in the NLCS, and winning 91 games. I’ll take that most years. But this is also a roster with a lot of areas where it could be improved. There are players on the 40 man roster who offer essentially nothing. The alternative, of course, could also be nothing; there are lots of players you could add to the roster who would not contribute in any way. But cycling through as many options as possible is how you find players who are useful, who do offer something.

Before the Cardinals start making any potential additions to the roster this offseason, I think they need to take a long, hard look at their priorities and start trimming. Pruning is a necessary act sometimes, and this roster, to my eye, badly needs to lose half a dozen players.