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What if the Cardinals Had Just Done Nothing? Part Two: The Real World

We move from math to the real world, where things are infinitely more complicated.

Arizona Diamondbacks v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

A few months back, Jon Bois made a video about Bobs in sports. This seems an apropos time to tell anyone who hasn’t seen it to go and view it now. Pretty Good doesn’t seem like it’s ever coming back, but this is as good a substitute as we’re likely to get.

Bob Gibson is sick. This does not seem right. Pancreatic cancer is about as dark a diagnosis as there is in the world, and betting against that grand all-time champeen, Time, is probably a fool’s bet. I can almost believe Gibby could stare this thing down and back if off the plate, though. I wish I believed it all the way, but I believe it only as far as I can still talk myself into, as far as I can still remember what it was like when I was small, and the world was huge, and it seemed like there really might be magic somewhere out there in the world. Life sucks sometimes. Most of the time, actually, as even the best days are only a big setup for it to all be taken away one day. But you have to have the dark to see the light, as Bob Ross and my comment signature both say.

On to the column. First, I have to apologise for the delay; the day job has been particularly unforgiving the last few weeks. It’s almost as if large multinational corporations do not care about your semipro sports blogging gig you’re mildly passionate about. I mean, I know that’s not true, they totally do care, but they certainly make it feel like they don’t sometimes.

But anyhow, last Monday I wrote a column about the hypothetical Cardinals of recent years doing absolutely nothing. You should read it if you haven’t. It took a very long time to actually put together, as looking up all that information was very time consuming. I’m rather pleased with how it turned out, and it’s fairly important to get that part out of the way for what I’m going to say today.

Here’s the gist of what I found: if the Cardinals had done literally nothing (or at least nothing of note; there were a handful of really small deals, minor league contracts and the like, I chose to ignore), they would currently be about 2.5 wins better than they actually are — at least in terms of wins above replacement wins — and would have something like $80 million dollars worth of payroll flexibility they currently lack. That would seem to point toward some truly disastrous mismanagement of resources, would it not?

Well, I’m going to muddy the waters now, because things are not black and white here, I don’t believe. This isn’t simply a front office or an organisation making bad moves. This is bigger, and more fundamental. It’s also something we’ve talked about again and again in these digital pages over the past few years.

There are two main reasons why I will not pillory the front office for the moves they have made, when the math might suggest some sort of nineteenth century extralegal action could be in order. One is very much an on the field reason, and one is very much not.

We’ll start with the on the field thing, and then pull our focus back. When I went through and added up all the players the Cardinals would have now had they made none of the moves they have made since the 2015 offseason began, the end result was a fairly dire one. The Cardinal organisation has, over the past four years, added $80 million in payroll and made the on-field product worse. However, that ‘worse’ thing is a little misleading.

The idea that the team is worse is true. The 2019 Cardinals are absolutely a worse team than they could have theoretically been had the front office not made the moves they have over the past several years. However, there are two issues with that blanket statement of the club being worse. The first is that yes, the overall value of the players they have traded away is greater than the players they actually have currently. There’s a caveat there, though. The list of players, if you look at it, is quite long. Eleven players, in fact. Now, here’s the thing: baseball teams can only have 25 players on the active roster at any one time. You cannot just add eleven players and their values and call it good. To be fair, there are also eleven players on the other list, the list of players the Cards would not have, and so in theory you could simply swap the lists.

There’s a problem with that, though: half the list of players the Cardinals have moved are outfielders. Five of eleven, to be exact. Yes, Mags Sierra is one of those, so maybe you only have four, but even then you’re looking at trying to fit a whole lot of one kind of player onto a roster that may not have room for all of them. Like or not, playing time is always a consideration, and there really are times when an organisation tries to move players to free up playing time for an upcoming prospect or another acquisition or whatever. In the hypothetical no moves whatsoever world you probably can make the playing time work, but if we allow even just a couple of moves that made a lot of sense in one way or another we start running into issues. These decisions are not made in individual vacuums, no matter how much we might like to think they are, and any one move can often force another.

On a more elemental level, though, saying that the team is worse because of the moves made is misleading because that’s only talking about the 2019 Cardinals. And the Cardinals of 2016 were not making decisions to benefit only 2019.

Let’s look at the different time periods again. Beginning with the most recent, the 2018-’19 offseason, we see a big problem for the organisation, in that they made the big move to bring in Paul Goldschmidt, and Goldy has, so far at least, really been a bust. So the Cards doing nothing this past offseason are better, and cheaper. Going back to the 2018 trade deadline, we find maybe the most egregious of all recent moves in the trade of Tommy Pham. Pham is on pace for a 4-5 win season this year, roughly what he looked like prior to a really tough slump in 2018 that basically pushed him out of town. Moving Tommy had reasons behind it, be they playing time related in terms of trying to get Harrison Bader at-bats (and remember before you argue against it, Bader was about a five win player himself last year on a rate basis, so I don’t want to hear about how he wasn’t the sort of player you make room for), or because the organisation had serious concerns about his long-term vision, or because maybe he ruffled some feathers along the way. That last reason is the only one I don’t think is good enough, and to whatever extent Tommy’s outspokenness helped push him out the door, someone should be ashamed of themselves for it.

Obviously, we could argue about whether Pham needed to be moved to make room for Bader at all, but that ground has been trod nearly to death. The original sin here was the Dexter Fowler contract, and losing Pham was the penance. And yes, again the do-nothing Birdos come out looking good here, since they did not make a mistake, then compound it by making another because they could not get out of the first.

On the other hand, while Luke Voit has certainly gone on to do very well for himself in New York, raise your hand if you thought, when the Cardinals traded him, that we would be pining for the boy from Wildwood over Paul Goldschmidt a year later. Everyone, look at the hands that are up, and do not trust those people. They are liars. The Luke Voit deal made all the sense in the world at the time, and the Cards are still enjoying having one of the best setup relievers in baseball right now in Giovanny Gallegos. If Goldschmidt were doing what he was expected to do, the Voit deal would not seem nearly so upsetting.

Let’s go back further, though. The Pham deal seems kind of an outlier, and while it’s a problematic outlier I wish we understood more fully, it is very much an outlier. If the Cards had not made the moves they made in the 2017-’18 offseason, they would have been worse in 2018. Better in 2019, yes, but worse in 2018. Go back further, and the do-nothing Cardinals of the 2016-’17 offseason would have been worse in 2017. Worse in 2019, too. (Better in 2018, admittedly.) Back to the beginning, and without the moves of the 2015-’16 offseason the Redbirds would have been significantly worse in 2016. The do-nothing Cardinals of the ‘15-’16 offseason see almost six and a half fewer wins in value for 2016 than their real-world counterparts.

Last year’s deadline and the Goldschmidt deal look like clear losses, but up until that point ever offseason the Cardinals made themselves better. Every offseason they improved.

My point is this: the 2019 Cardinals are worse for the moves they have made, yes. But in the context of the time, each of those moves made sense, and for the most part were productive. Now, maybe some of them weren’t the slam dunks we might have hoped for, and the Cards may have paid more for relatively small upgrades than is optimal. However, a fanbase that pretty predictably howls about ownership being cheap and the organisation not spending enough to improve should not, in my opinion, be pining for a world in which the club refused to spend $80 million to try and improve. Is it fair to question whether that money could have been better spent? Yes. Yes it is. Is it fair to complain the organisation should not have tried to improve at all over the past four years so that they would have lots of flexibility now? Well, that leads me to my second, not really on the field reason for feeling this is all less clear than the angry mob gathering might wish it to be.

Does anyone reading this right now honestly, truly believe the Cardinals could have done nothing over the past four years? Take your current frustration with the state of the team and push it aside, please. For just a moment, and then you can have it back. Promise. Do you really think the Cards could have just done nothing? I mean, yes, they literally could have physically not made any moves; not signing Dexter Fowler or trading for relief help does not violate any laws of physics, thus it is technically possible. But be honest: do we really think the organisation could have told fans for the past four years that absolutely nothing was the best course of action?

We have seen a fanbase that, over the past few years, has grown increasingly disenchanted with the state of the organisation, from ownership to the dugout. You see the empty seats just as clearly as I do, and so does the team. Fans are not happy, because the team has not been succeeding. I have occasionally wandered into game threads on this website, and while I typically find this community to be one of the most rational I’ve ever seen, the vitriol and fatalism is a little tough to take. Admittedly, part of that is just because game threads are always a little doomy and full of moment-to-moment frustration at every little thing that goes wrong, but it’s not just that. I’ve seen people talk about Cardinal fans being conditioned for disappointment, and I have to try and reconcile that with the franchise being the winningest (or second?), organisation in the game over a decade-long run up until a couple seasons ago. There seems to be little perspective on anything resembling a long-term time frame here or anywhere else.

And what is the most common complaint most places? That the Cardinals just aren’t trying hard enough. The organisation never goes for the big move. The club is not interested in winning, but only keeping their heads far enough above water so that the turnstiles keep spinning. The Cardinal organisation just isn’t doing enough to try to win. We hear it all the time. Maybe not from every commenter here, but from plenty, and from the vast, vast majority of the ground-level baseball fans.

So now let me ask you: if you were the Cardinals, and told those fans who clamour constantly for more moves, bigger moves, just more and more and more things being done all the time, that what you were going to do was absolutely nothing, four years in a row, how do you think that would have gone over? Had the team done nothing, they would actually be better off right now. But how do you think fans would take the club doing literally nothing? There are plenty of fans now who basically accuse the organisation of doing nothing, but if we look at the record they’ve done quite a few things. And most years, doing those things has paid off in the short term. Long term? Not so much. But if the message to the casual fan was: no, we didn’t need to make that deal for Paul Goldschmidt this offseason, because we think this Luke Voit kid is going to be good, what would the reaction have been? There really might have been an actual full-blown fan revolt.

Lots of people wanted Bryce Harper this offseason, and screamed bloody murder when the Cardinals didn’t sign him. Harper is having a pretty modest season himself at the moment, with a 115 wRC+. He’s on pace for about a 3ish win season, maybe a little better, and a lot of that value is coming from some rather fluky-looking defensive metrics. If Bryce Harper is really just a good player, rather than a truly great one most years, do you really want him for a dozen years and $300+ million? I can still see an argument for him, but not necessarily an unassailable one. And yet the Cards are still called cheap for not signing him. Can we reconcile calling them cheap in this breath while lamenting all the extra money they’re spending they don’t really have to? Maybe. If they weren’t spending it on those guys, maybe they would have spent it on that guy, right? But then what if he’s just pretty good, instead of awesome? We can go in circles like this all day.

Here, in the end, is my point, and my belief about all of this: this is not a front office simply fucking up, time and time again. This is not incompetence. There have been mistakes made, yes, and bad decisions leading from mistakes. Managing not to compound one’s failures by trying to compensate with further mistakes is one of the most difficult conundrums anyone can face. But this is not just an organisation that has screwed up. It’s bigger than that.

This is, writ large, the cost of perpetual, perennial contention. This is the price you pay for refusing to ever bow to the harsh realities of the world. For not believing that you ever have to reset, to regroup, to rebuild. Every offseason, the Cardinals made moves to improve the club, and every time they did the bill got a little larger. Now, I think it is entirely fair to question whether the organisation could have gone harder in on certain things, big win-now moves, along the way to try and bolster the team. Undoubtedly, I think they could have. At the same time, though, all-in moves are, by their very natures, antithetical to the belief in perpetual contention. If you are all-in now, then by definition you have pushed all your chips into the pile, and have none left to play later. If you have none to play later, then later you will be forced to cash out and rebuild. Ergo, if you believe you should never rebuild, then you can never go all-in.

It is also fair, I think, to question ownership’s willingness to take big risks. Or, perhaps, their willingness to deviate from what they believe to be the correct course in order to improve. If the Cardinals had signed Max Scherzer back when he was a free agent, much of this column might never have needed to be written. But the Cardinals at the time had a full rotation, and were looking for somewhere to break in Carlos Martinez even. If you believe the pitching pipeline you have built is the foundation of your success, then when do you stop trusting that pipeline and hand a big contract to a free agent starter, either blocking a young, promising fireballer not unlike young Scherzer himself, or forcing yourself to trade another player, potentially taking pennies on the dollar because it becomes obvious you’re trying very, very hard to make a move? And if we have decided that the new rule is to never hand out long, large contracts to players over a certain age, then can we reconcile that with handing Scherzer an enormous contract? Mad Max turned 31 the first year of his deal with the Nationals, and has since put together one of the greatest runs of pitching in baseball history. At the same time, there are plenty of people who believe no player, much less a pitcher, over 30 should be on anything but year-to-year deals.

So yes, I think there are questions we could ask of the front office, and questions we could ask of ownership. But more than anything, this is dogma, and its consequences. The Cardinals would be better off today had they done nothing over the past four years. And yet, had they done nothing, they would have been worse each year up until now, and the fanbase might have completely abandoned the club already. You cannot tell the fans you’re trying to win every year and then do nothing. You cannot do nothing to improve if you mean to contend every year. You cannot always do something without paying a price, and it doesn’t take much poor fortune, or just a few real misses in evaluation, to escalate that price suddenly, almost instantly, to the point of being crippling.

This is not a problem of execution. This is a problem of philosophy. Execution cannot always be perfect. Philosophy must allow for execution to fail. The Cardinals could have invested more, perhaps, to overcome some of their missteps. But more than that, they could have made room in the philosophy to allow for misfortune and mistakes, for arm surgeries and problems hitting sliders down and away. The Cardinals are, in a very real way, prisoners of the expectations they have set for their fans, and which the fans have grabbed hold of with both hands, as tightly as possible. When things are going good those high expectations are a wonderful thing, but if there is no room in the philosophy to pivot when failure or misfortune strikes, those high expectations can very quickly begin to feel like a noose, tightening fast.

So let us ask the question: What if the Cardinals had just done nothing?

The answer is that it was never really an option. And maybe it needs to be.