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The Cardinals Front Office Must be More Aggressive this Season

The National League is the most competitive it’s been in years. Front office passivity won’t work if things go wrong.

MLB: Spring Training-Miami Marlins at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The off-season moved slowly, with several of the biggest names waiting until late February and even March to sign. Now that most of the smoke has cleared, we can get a better idea of how much stronger or weaker teams have gotten. The National League promises a battle royale across all three divisions this season.

Here’s what National League teams have been up to since October:

Signee Josh Donaldson is a light risk with a potentially huge reward, and they lost Anibal Sanchez and Kurt Suzuki. They won the division last year, full of youth on the brink of bigger and better things.

You may have heard that they lost Bryce Harper. On the other hand, they made a massive upgrade at catcher (Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki replacing Matt Wieters and Pedro Severino), another upgrade in the rotation (Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez replacing Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark), quietly added some talent to the bullpen, and replaced Daniel Murphy with Brian Dozier. Oh, and top prospect Victor Robles will take Harper’s place. Also, Harper Part II, Juan Soto, already arrived last season. Make no mistake about it- the Nats got better.

Jeurys Familia came back, joining Justin Wilson and trade acquisition Edwin Diaz to form a formidable back of the bullpen. They also added Wilson Ramos, Robinson Cano, and Jed Lowrie, flooding the roster with cromulence where there was previously none.

Goodness... just off the top of my head, they added J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, and Juan Nicasio. That’s arguably the best off-season of any team in baseball.

Without losing much from last season’s NLCS squad, they added Yasmani Grandal, and Alex Claudio seems like exactly the kind of pitcher Craig Counsell will turn into a misfit weapon at the end of games.

You don’t need me to tell you they added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller.

Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark bring reasonable innings and hope to previously dreadful corners of the rotation. Yasiel Puig adds to an already young, talented lineup. Zach Duke, Jose Iglesias, and Derek Dietrich also represent light upgrades to roster holes. There’s no major addition in this bunch. Rather, they simply upgraded by converting a lot of awful roster spots to average.

They really only made one major addition, but that addition was Manny Machado.

They lost Grandal and traded Puig and Matt Kemp, but added A.J. Pollock and Russell Martin.

By my count, that’s six teams who clearly upgraded their talent- the Nats, Phillies, Mets, Reds, Cardinals, and Padres. The Brewers and Braves have good cases as well, with the caveat that the Brewers lost some of their late season acquisitions and the Braves lost Sanchez and Suzuki. The Dodgers may have taken a small hit, but mostly seem to have spun their wheels in place as the NL West’s monster.

In the meantime, two playoff teams from last season- the Rockies and Cubs- are still in position to contend despite quiet off-seasons. It’s been a long time since the league has been this competitive.

PECOTA preseason projected standings and Fangraphs’ Depth Chart preseason projections are available, through the Wayback Machine and archived articles, going back to 2014. Here’s how many National League teams in each of those seasons were projected to reach 81+ and 83+ wins:

Fangraphs and PECOTA Pre-Seasons Projections, Teams w/ 81+ and 83+ Wins

Year FG 81+ FG 83+ PECOTA 81+ PECOTA 83+
Year FG 81+ FG 83+ PECOTA 81+ PECOTA 83+
2019 10 8 10 8
2018 7 4 8 6
2017 7 6 6 5
2016 7 7 6 5
2015 9 6 8 5
2014 9 7 7 6

Fangraphs had seven teams marked for 81+ wins in each of the last three seasons. This year, that number is all the way up to ten, the most since at least 2014. Similarly, the eight projected 83+ win teams is the most in the sample. PECOTA is even more extreme, projecting two more 81+ and two more 83+ win teams than it has in any season since 2014.

Add it all up and the National League this season is, essentially, the thunderdome. Complicating matters, two of the NL’s worst teams last year- the Reds and Padres- are no longer easy wins for opposing teams.

The Cardinals can no longer rely on a wild card as a fallback option should they fail to win the division. They could, theoretically, land a wild card, but it’s a tight race and it leaves them potentially in the same spot they were in at the end of 2018. And 2017. And 2016. The division gives them the better alternative. There’s plenty of competition at the top from the Cubs and Brewers, but it’s easier to top two teams than it is to top five to seven.

“Just win the division” is hardly a strategy, of course. It’s not that simple. Every team wants to win the division. However, the volume of wild card contenders across the league underscores the Cardinals’ need to move swiftly at the first sign of trouble. If the team starts to falter or glaring roster holes arise early in the season, they need to be addressed quickly.

While that might seem obvious, it hasn’t always been the plan at 700 Clark Avenue.

  • It took until mid-July last season before the team relieved Mike Matheny of managerial duties, and late June before bullpen alternatives started arriving on the roster to correct the team’s worst unit.
  • In 2017, Jonathan Broxton stuck around until late May, and it was mid-June before moving on from Jhonny Peralta. The best external addition to the Major League roster was Juan Nicasio, and he was acquired in September.
  • In 2016, outfield production lagged while team baserunning and defense short-circuited a lineup with plenty of punch. The most impactful acquisition that season was Zach Duke.

Patience can be a virtue in a lot of seasons, particularly for a team like the Cardinals with their solid annual contributions from the farm. However, this season isn’t like most seasons. The stakes for this year’s roster are the highest in years, as three major contributors are slated for free agency after the season (Marcell Ozuna, Michael Wacha, Paul Goldschmidt). Fans are restless after three empty postseasons. Combined with the intense competition around the league, the margin for error has rarely been smaller. If the Cardinals truly have hope for October baseball, the front office can’t revisit the in-season passivity from recent years.