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What if the Cardinals Had Just Done Nothing? Part One: The Math

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What this article presupposes is: what if they didn’t?

St Louis Cardinals v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Good morning, all. I hope you had a nice long holiday weekend. Actually, I guess I should start by stating I hope you had a long holiday weekend; I myself did not, and I’m sure lots of you didn’t. In fact, I worked more rather than less, because I am bad with priorities in life. But I hope you did not, because people need vacations, and Independence Day seems like the most vacationy of all holidays. If you did have a long weekend, I hope it was nice. How about that? That works, I think.

The Cardinals lost yesterday evening. It sucked. They were shut out by Jeff Samardzija. (The preceding sentence was sponsored content brought to you by the year 2013.) Pretty much the way this season has gone, though. Somehow this team just can’t hit, despite having a ton of what appear to be quality offensive players. It’s very strange.

We have reached the All-Star break, the unofficial midpoint of the season. Of course, it’s not really the midpoint of the season, as the club has already played 88 games. Even so, this is always a time to stop, take stock of things, and write one’s midseason reviews, or else fluff the hell out of some home run derby content. (Note: I actually do still kind of enjoy the home run derby.)

However, I’m not going to write my typical progress report on this club. We all know what’s going on. We can see it out there. Things have gone poorly. Instead, I’m going to answer a question that has been sort of floating about the ether the last few months, only occasionally vocalised by some fan here and there. I’m going to go back in time, to when things really seem to have started going wrong, and we’re going to see just what would have happened had the Cardinals done...nothing. No trades, no signings, nothing. Internal options all the way down.

We’re going to go to the 2015-’16 offseason, the offseason after the club’s last postseason appearance. Up until that point, the John Mozeliak era had been a resounding success. He inherited a depleted team and desolate farm system from Walt Jocketty back in the autumn of 2007, and proceeded to build not only a championship club in 2011 but one of the most successful runs of any club in any recent era from 2011-2015. In those years, the Cardinals averaged 93 wins per season, made four NLCS appearances in a row, made it to two World Series, and brought home a title. That is as good a five-year run as any franchise is going to have right now, outside of the Giants’ three titles in five years thing. (And honestly — and I hope this doesn’t sound like sour grapes — that run felt much flukier than other dominant runs franchises have put together.)

It was after that magical 2015 season, though, that a switch seemed to flip with the organisation. In 2012 you sign Carlos Beltran and he puts up six wins between ages 35 and 36. In 2019 you trade for Paul Goldschmidt and he tanks to a 103 OPS+ at age 31. What’s the difference? Fuck if I know. Things just haven’t worked out for the Cardinals these last few years, though, seemingly no matter what they try. So let’s see what would have happened if they just hadn’t done anything.

I should point out one thing here. I could, and really maybe should, go all the way back to the 2014-’15 offseason, which is when things actually started to go wrong. But I’m not going to, because I don’t really want to relitigate the Oscar Taveras chain of occurrences again. The sudden loss of Taveras, and the ensuing moves made to try and fill that gap, still loom large over the recent history of the franchise, but that makes for a much different sort of discussion. So we’re going to begin right after the Cards were bumped out of the postseason by the Cubbies back in 2015. Ready for some hot inaction action? Alright then.

2015-2016 Offseason

Moves not made: Jedd Gyorko for Jon Jay trade, Jonathan Broxton signing, Mike Leake signing, Tony Cruz for Jose Martinez (no, not that one), trade, Seung-Hwan Oh signing, Brayan Pena signing

Players retained: Jon Jay, Tony Cruz

2016 Impact: Cards lose 6.4 WAR, gain $16.9 million

2019 Impact: Cards gain 0.3 WAR (Gyorko), gain $18 million

Oh, no. This column was a mistake. In my mind this was going to be a breezy discussion of all the moves the Cards have made over the past few years. Turns out looking up WAR totals and salary information for every one of these players takes forever. Son of a bitch. I really screwed myself on this one.

Anyway, coming off 2015 the Cardinals failed to sign Jason Heyward, which they continued to do in our hypothetical universe. They also signed several free agents, which our do-nothing El Birdos did not. Mike Leake contributed 2.4 wins (I’m using fWAR just because it’s easier to look up quickly), Jedd Gyorko added 2.2, and Seung-Hwan Oh brought an incredible season with him from Korea, contributing 2.6 WAR to the club’s total. Brayan Pena, meanwhile, was a complete bust and Jonathan Broxton was nearly as bad. Both cost the team wins while also costing about $6 million between the two of them.

On the other hand, the club managed to keep Jon Jay and Tony Cruz, which presents us with a tough counterfactual. Tony Cruz actually spent most of 2016 in the Royals’ minor league system, whereas had he remained with the Cardinals I’m sure Yadier Molina and Mike Matheny would once again have had him as the primary backup. Still, I’m giving the club the same -0.1 WAR he actually accumulated with the Royals in 2016, because I don’t know a better way to handle this. Jon Jay was worth nearly a win for the Padres, but was more expensive than Gyorko, making the deal a 2016 steal for the Redbirds.

Overall, the moves made for 2016 worked out about as well as you could possibly hope. The Cardinals added about $17 million in payroll overall through their various moves, and the team improved by six and a half WAR. That’s phenomenal value. The real problem with going from 2015 (100 wins), to 2016 (86 wins), was the departure of Heyward and John Lackey, who between them were worth something like 10-12 WAR in 2015, depending on which version you prefer, the loss of Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery (3+ WAR in 2015), and the collapse of Jaime Garcia, who went from 130 inning stud in 2015 to 170 inning dud a year later. The 2016 Cardinals lost something in the neighbourhood of 16-18 WAR in those four players. Oh, Michael Wacha dropped like three wins from ‘15 to ‘16, and Jhonny Peralta hit the wall, and Trevor Rosenthal went from two and half wins in relief to sub-replacement level. On balance, it’s kind of amazing the 2016 club only declined by fourteen wins in the standings from the year before.

As for how this all affects 2019, Jedd Gyorko is the only player still on the club involved in the offseason moves of 2015. He’s been bad this year and has barely played, posting a -0.3 WAR in 62 at-bats. The Cards are paying him $13 million and still paying Mike Leake $5 million after dealing him to the Mariners. So not great value there.

Worth noting: the Cardinals acquired Jose Martinez (yes, that one), from the Royals for cash considerations during the 2016 season. He has been worth 4.5 WAR in his time with the Cardinals, for nearly nothing in terms of salary. Still a little bit of the Midas touch left for Mo and Co. at times.

2016-2017 Offseason

Moves not made: Dexter Fowler signing, Brett Cecil signing, Jaime Garcia for John Gant et al trade

Players retained: Jaime Garcia

2017 Impact: Cards lose 1.5 WAR, gain ~$13 million

2019 Impact: Cards lose 2.2 WAR, gain ~$25 million

So this, then, is where we really start to see some crazy things happening. Not so much in terms of the wins and losses, but in terms of what the Cards are spending to try and add those wins.

It’s interesting that Dexter Fowler and John Gant have had such a huge positive impact on the 2019 team; if we use the bWAR scale (which I usually prefer for pitchers, at least), they’ve actually added over three wins to the cause this season. Still, the Cardinals are paying Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil a combined $24.25 million this season, and it’s impossible not to think that money could be more productively used in other ways. It is also a fact, however, that if the Cards had just held on to Jaime Garcia and let him play out his contract while doing nothing else, both the 2017 and 2019 clubs would be appreciably worse.

I should also point out the team made a deal at the 2016 deadline, sending Charlie Tilson to the White Sox in exchange for Zach Duke. That deal ended up making almost no difference, as Tilson has not turned out to be much of anything and Duke got hurt and didn’t pitch in the 2017 season much at all. The Cards did pay him $5.5 million in 2017, but I’m sure some of that was insured. So really not much change in either direction there.

2017-2018 Offseason

Moves not made:

  • Stephen Piscotty for Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock trade,
  • Luke Gregerson signing,
  • Miles Mikolas signing,
  • Aledmys Diaz for JB Woodman trade,
  • Marcell Ozuna for Zac Gallen, Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra, and Daniel Castano trade,
  • Randal Grichuk for Dominic Leone and Conner Greene trade
  • Bud Norris signing

Players retained: Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, Zac Gallen, Mags Sierra, Sandy Alcantara, Daniel Castano

2018 Impact: Cards lose 1.9 WAR, gain ~$19 million

2019 Impact: Cards lose about half a win, Cards gain ~$16 million

Okay, seriously, the looking up numbers is starting to get really irritating. Miles Mikolas and Marcell Ozuna are making a combined $21.25 million this season, and have contributed 2.8 total wins to the club. Luke Gregerson has been released, Dominic Leone has been bad, and Yairo Munoz is what he is at this point: an interesting athlete with no plate discipline and no power. He’s better than replacement level, I think, but not by much.

As far as the 2018 impact, the sum of these deals was positive for the Cardinals, but a huge chunk of that was the Miles Mikolas signing. Miles himself was worth 4.3 wins in 2018, offsetting almost completely the value of both Stephen Piscotty (3.0 WAR), and Aledmys Diaz, who had a very nice bounceback season with the Blue Jays. (1.6 WAR in ~450 PAs)

On the good side, the Cardinals absolutely sold at the right time on Magneuris Sierra. After his exciting run during the 2017 season, in which he hit way over .300 based on crazy batted-ball luck with absolutely zero power, Mags cratered, hard, with the Marlins in 2018. He was worth an astounding -1.5 WAR in just 156 plate appearances, mostly fueled by the fact he was one of the worst hitters in the game, with a wRC+ of 19. His triple A wRC+ this year is only 55. Mags Sierra has hit his ceiling, methinks.

It is important at this point, I think, to acknowledge that while the Cards would basically have about the same WAR total this season with Piscotty, Grichuk, Alcantara, and Gallen as they do with Mikolas, Ozuna, and Gregerson, there is obviously some issue going on here with playing time. Grichuk was dealt because he is an average player, and the Cardinals need to do better than average. Piscotty was dealt for a variety of reasons, and I’m not going to criticise that. Ozuna, for as frustrating as he can be, has been worth more this season than both of them combined (1.7 WAR for Marcell vs 0.5 WAR for Piscotty/Grichuk). That kind of consolidation of value is exactly what the Cardinals have been shooting for these past several years.

2018 Trade Deadline

Moves not made: Tommy Pham for Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera trade, Luke Voit for Giovanny Gallegos and Chasen Shreve trade, Oscar Mercado for Connor Capel and Jhon Torres trade

2019 Impact: Cards gain 3.9 WAR, Cards lose ~$4 million

This is where things start to get really ugly. Trading Tommy Pham was never going to work out well unless Harrison Bader turned into a star (spoiler alert: Harrison Bader can’t hit), and while Giovanny Gallegos has been fantastic for the Cards this year, Luke Voit has been just as good for the Yankees, and when combined with a move we’ll get to in a moment, well....

2018-2019 Offseason

Moves not made: Andrew Miller signing, Drew Robinson for Patrick Wisdom trade, Paul Goldschmidt for Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Andy Young trade

2019 Impact: Cardinals gain 2.4 WAR, Cards gain ~$24 million

Oh, boy.

See, this is the sort of thing that can actually get a GM fired. This is like the Dan Haren+ for Mark Mulder swap all over again. And that’s not even counting the fact the Cardinals signed Paul Goldschmidt to a five year contract extension before the season even started.

Luke Weaver was one of the better starting pitchers in the National League this year up until the point his elbow started barking. Carson Kelly has been nearly a two-win player already, on the strength of a 122 wRC+ and phenomenal defense behind the plate. In other words, exactly what you hoped Carson Kelly would be. Paul Goldschmidt, meanwhile, has struggled to a 105 wRC+, a career-high strikeout rate, and a huge power drop from his previous levels of production.

So let’s sum this all up, shall we? If the Cardinals had done absolutely nothing since the 2015-2016 offseason, they would still have the following players:

  • Tommy Pham (2.4 WAR in 2019)
  • Luke Voit (1.6 WAR in 2019)
  • Stephen Piscotty (0.4 WAR in 2019)
  • Randal Grichuk (0.1 WAR in 2019)
  • Carson Kelly (1.7 WAR in 2019)
  • Luke Weaver (1.7 WAR in 2019)
  • Andy Young (minors)
  • Zac Gallen (0.3 WAR in 2019)
  • Sandy Alcantara (1.0 WAR in 2019)
  • Oscar Mercado (0.6 WAR in 2019)
  • Mags Sierra (minors)

The would not have these players:

  • Paul Goldschmidt (1.0 WAR in 2019)
  • Dexter Fowler (1..3 WAR in 2019)
  • Marcell Ozuna (1.7 WAR in 2019)
  • Miles Mikolas (1.1 WAR in 2019)
  • Giovanny Gallegos (0.8 WAR in 2019)
  • John Gant (0.9 WAR in 2019)
  • Dominic Leone (-0.1 WAR in 2019)
  • Luke Gregerson (0.1 WAR in 2019)
  • Andrew Miller (0.0 WAR in 2019)
  • Yairo Munoz (0.0 WAR in 2019)
  • Genesis Cabrera (-0.1 WAR in 2019)
  • Justin Williams (minors)
  • Jhon Torres (minors)
  • Connor Capel (minors)

Now, that is not an exhaustive list; there are some other more minor names I haven’t included here. But as far as players I expect to make an impact of some sort, these are them.

The players the Cardinals would have had they made none of these deals have been worth 9.2 wins above replacement in 2019. The players the Cardinals actually do have have been worth 6.7 wins. Perhaps even more damning, the Cardinals with that first list of players would be looking at a payroll something like $79 million lower than with the players they actually acquired.

Now, to be fair, as I said earlier there are some playing time things going on here, like with players coming up through the system who need chances and the like. There are also some guys on that second list to whom WAR is probably not totally fair right now. Andrew Miller, after all, has been one of the best relievers in baseball since the beginning of May, and has definitely been helping the Cardinals win games over that time frame. One hundred percent he deserves more credit than he is getting from wins above replacement, just because his first few weeks of the season, when he appeared to still be working back into proper pitching form, were so disastrous that the shadow remains even now.

However, I think it’s fair to take all these moves in the aggregate, and ask what the Cardinals have bought themselves with almost $80 million in 2019 payroll commitments. The answer, at least in broad strokes, is a worse team.

I’m going to break this article into two parts. I’ll see you back here Wednesday to tell, as Paul Harvey always used to say, the rest of the story.