There’s been a trend emerging in St. Louis for a few years now. It started mildly enough, enough so that a reasonable observer might consider the faint drumbeat to be nothing more than random noise. It has only increased since then, and now that drumbeat is deafening. Something is amiss in the Cardinals’ ability to properly value talent on the trade market and, to a lesser degree, the free agent market.
Chronologically, the time frame to review begins at the end of the 2015 season. The previous era (2012-2015) was mostly successful, featuring a few clear wins on the trade market. Allen Craig and Joe Kelly for John Lackey, Rob Kaminsky for Brandon Moss, and Zack Cox for Edward Mujica come to mind. Other deals are murkier but nobody got swindled. Other deals were minor, providing little value at minimal cost (e.g. James Ramsey for Justin Masterson). They rarely signed free agents, but didn’t harm themselves when they did. Jhonny Peralta and Pat Neshek worked out well, Mark Reynolds and Carlos Villanueva were adequate, and the busts- Ty Wigginton and Mark Ellis- were so minimal in cost that it was hard to care.
There was reasonable talent coming in and minimal talent going out. The players they traded didn’t come back to haunt them, their trade acquisitions were usually helpful, and their free agent acquisitions were collectively acceptable. That started to change in 2016.
Since the end of the 2015 season, the Cardinals have dealt Matt Adams, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz, Tommy Pham, Luke Voit, Carson Kelly, and Oscar Mercado. I’m going to include Jon Jay- the first trade- with the caveat that he doesn’t totally fit the narrative, and it’s awfully hard to complain about how the swap for Jedd Gyorko has worked out. I’ve excluded two other inconsequential deals- Patrick Wisdom for Drew Robinson and Charlie Tilson for Zach Duke, as well as Magneuris Sierra in the Ozuna deal.
Let’s compare the performance of those players at the end of their time in St. Louis against their performance in their new locales. For the most part, I’ve defined “the end of their time in St. Louis” as their last two years (or less if traded mid-season) as Cardinals. If you want the dirty details:
- Pham, March 2017-July 31, 2018
- Piscotty, 2016 and 2017 seasons
- Grichuk, 2016 and 2017
- Diaz, 2016 and 2017
- Kelly, 2017 and 2018
- Mercado, March 2017-July 31, 2018 (minor league numbers only)
- Voit, March 2017-July 31, 2018
- Jay, 2014 and 2015
- Adams, time as a Cardinal 2016-2018 (compared to non-Cardinal plate appearances in the same time frame)
We can use a simple slope graph to see how they’ve changed in key components of hitting- overall production (wRC+), power (ISO), and plate discipline (BB/K). All of this data is through Monday. To make it easier, names in blue represent a decrease after the trade while red shows an increase.
There’s a lot of red in those graphs. Every player dealt has increased their wRC+ after the trade with the lone exception of Aledmys Diaz. Grichuk is the only player whose ISO decreased. Plate discipline (BB/K) is a little more balanced, with five gainers and three slipping. Even then, two of the three who slipped- Jay and especially Piscotty- have increased their overall productivity, rendering a few more strikeouts and a handful of missing walks moot. In total, this group- plus Luke Weaver- have collected 21.5 fWAR for other teams within two years of being traded.
The fact that they could consider this many quality players expendable speaks to their proficiency at drafting and developing talent. Many of these players were traded precisely because of the roster crunch created by the situation. In a vacuum, that’s not a bad thing. The problem is what they’ve received in return, in chronological order:
Jedd Gyorko, Juan Yepez, Yairo Muñoz, Max Schrock, Dominic Leone, Conner Greene, J.B. Woodman, Genesis Cabrera, Roel Ramirez, Justin Williams, Chasen Shreve, Giovanny Gallegos, Conner Capel, Jhon Torres, and Paul Goldschmidt
That group has given the Cardinals 4.6 fWAR in return, with 3.5 coming from Jedd Gyorko alone. Woodman and Greene are no longer in the organization, Shreve and Leone were dispatched to AAA, and Yepez and Roel Ramirez appear to be organizational roster fillers. Williams, Cabrera, and Schrock have hit a wall at AAA. Goldschmidt is great, of course, and Gallegos, Muñoz, and Gyorko have shown some value as bench and bullpen players. Torres is exciting but also a very long way away from contributing. Collectively, that’s not nearly enough value coming back in return for what they’ve given up. That might change depending on how Cabrera, Williams, and Torres develop but they have a huge deficit in trade value lost to overcome.
Looking at the pitching they’ve given up in the same years is a little more complex. Luke Weaver appears to finally be breaking out, as Ben Clemens covered at Fangraphs this week. Marco Gonzales has been a solid innings guy in Seattle but it’s hard to fault the Cardinals for dealing him in the wake of his injury woes. Jaime Garcia and Mike Leake followed a natural aging curve after leaving. Zac Gallen and Sandy Alcantara haven’t done anything unreasonable for their talent levels since leaving. The return for those players is also a little more respectable- Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Tyler O’Neill, John Gant, and some salary room. The club’s evaluation/talent gap issue seems to be mostly confined to position players.
Looking in our post-2015 era, the Cardinals have signed Mike Leake, Seunghwan Oh, Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Miles Mikolas, Greg Holland, Bud Norris, Andrew Miller, and Matt Wieters. They also re-signed Jonathan Broxton and Adam Wainwright.
Mikolas has been a huge success. Oh was a huge success for one season and struggled the next. Bud Norris was a success for two-thirds of a season and a bust for one-third. Fowler’s 2017 and early 2019 are exactly what you’d expect, but his 2018 was awful. Leake was fine, if unspectacular... which is precisely Mike Leake’s brand. The jury is still out on Miller. We’ll leave Wainwright out of it because there are more reasons than on-field performance for that deal. Wieters is a warm body to back up Yadier Molina. Cecil, Gregerson, Holland, and Broxton were nightmares, with Cecil still on the roster.
The most recent batch of relievers, combined with Fowler’s 2018, give the connotation of a totally lost franchise. However, there are some modest success stories. The biggest failures have been of the bullpen variety, which is not unique to the Cardinals. Every team in baseball gambles when they sign a reliever.
What makes it unique to the Cardinals is that they keep signing relievers to these deals. Their success rate isn’t any worse than the rest of baseball, but their number of attempts makes it all a mistake. Even if you want to buck reality and trudge back in to the reliever market, the fact that you’ve gotten approximately two seasons of decent relief out of seven acquisitions, for tens of millions of dollars, should tell you that you aren’t above average at evaluating relief talent.
Something is Broken
It’s almost impossible to know what’s going on from the outside, but the decision process is broken. Either during development or at the Major League level, the organization has not given these players the tools to succeed the way they have once they’ve arrived in other organizations. Perhaps they simply aren’t properly valuing the talent they have on hand. Alternatively, maybe they knew they had 20+ fWAR of talent to deal, but mistakenly assumed that the talent coming back their way would match and exceed that production. Maybe the rest of the league has caught up with the Cardinals, even passed them in a lot of cases, since their 2011-2015 peak. Maybe they’re simply misjudging talent across the board, a by-product of the brain drain that saw Jeff Luhnow, Sig Mejdal, Mike Elias, Dan Kantrovitz, and others leave the organization, punctuated by Chris Correa’s hacking-related dismissal.
Maybe they expected their analytics and player development to unlock a new level of production for the return packages in those trades, and that brings me to a larger point. One of the newest market inefficiencies is honing the skills of your own players, or new acquisitions, to maximize their production. Teams like the Astros, Rays, Brewers, and Yankees have excelled in that realm, while the Diamondbacks and Twins seem to have made great strides doing the same this season. These teams are turning players into something they weren’t before through a combination of analytics, communication, smarter usage, and even nutrition. Every team in baseball is attempting to do that, but some have obviously been more successful.
That used to be the Devil Magic Cardinals. It’s not anymore for whatever reason, leading to some costly decisions. Until they fix it with revamped evaluation methods or some fresh front office talent, it’s going to be hard to see this franchise as anything other than a fringe wild card contender.