Stan Kroenke is certainly deserving of his nickname, “Silent Stan,” but one notable exception came in 2016, at the Sloan Sports Analytics conference. Speaking about his purchase of Arsenal Football Club, but also just sports team ownership in general, Kroenke spoke the silent part aloud by saying:
“If you want to win Championships, then you would never get involved.”
As for what his intentions were with Arsenal, one of the oldest and most successful clubs in English history, Kroenke said “you learn very quickly what that brand means... We’re all working on that and that’s the big opportunity.”
While Bill DeWitt, Jr. and the Cardinals ownership in general do a much better job in the public relations department than Kroenke, that is exactly their philosophy as well. After this last week, there can be no doubt about that.
VEB Site Manager Emeritus Ben Humphrey did a great job of summarizing this new Cardinals Way at his blog, which I would encourage you to read. The bottom line is that baseball franchises exist to do two things: To make money and to win baseball games. There is a relationship between the two, but every owner gets to choose where they stand on the Make Money / Win Games spectrum.
Whatever DeWitt and Co. once believed about winning, and whatever lip service they and their underlings give to it, it is crystal clear that their present philosophy is that it is important only to maintain a club that is good enough to be in-the-mix for a playoff spot for most of the season.
The Cardinals were projected by both ZiPS and Baseball Prospectus to win 86 games. So for all the talk about how 2019 matters and winning now, this was a club that the best outside experts expected to rise only to a Wild Card contender.
At the trade deadline, with a glaring hole in their starting rotation, the team was still exactly what everyone expected them to be... but because of underperforming Chicago and Milwaukee teams, they actually found themselves just barely in first place.
I’ve seen almost all of the ire about the Cardinals inaction focused on John Mozeliak and the front office, but what the last week has told us is all about ownership.
The Front Office constructed a team that would be good enough to remain competitive deep into the season. It was a team that was going to make money. But even with the club in first place, and even with an extremely obvious area to improve the club, the organization was unwilling to invest any more toward the goal of winning games.
One potential trade which was apparently on the board would have netted Zach Wheeler for a package headlined by Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill. For an organization focused on making the playoffs and winning championships, that is an absolute no-brainer. But for a team focused on just remaining “competitive enough” to sustain the brand, maybe not.
After all, the Cardinals have already achieved their goal for this season. They will stay in the Wild Card picture at least through August. Bader and O’Neill don’t look destined to be superstars, but they could be average-ish players making the major league minimum that help the Cardinals be competitive-ish again in the years to come. The reluctance to make that move tells you exactly what this organization values.
I’ve written thousands of words critical of front office moves over the last few years, and not undeservedly so. But I can’t muster outrage at the front office for this trade deadline inaction.
Michael Wacha is a half-win BELOW replacement level. Despite what Mo or Company Man Mike Shildt might say about his stuff looking good, there is no way these learned baseball men don’t know that Michael Wacha is terrible. The next lowest WAR for a pitcher who has thrown 89+ innings is 0.0 WAR - as well it should be. Why on earth would you give that many innings to a player below replacement level? That’s why it’s called Replacement Level.
As Alex Crisafulli said on the latest Chirps podcast, the Cardinals didn’t even need to acquire a pitcher on the level of Zach Wheeler. Even doing what the A’s did and acquiring a jobber like Tanner Roark would have greatly improved the 5th spot in their rotation.
But I can’t sit here and pretend like I believe the Cardinals front office did not know this. Of course they did. The only logical conclusion is that ownership does not want to spend a dime (either in present or future cost) on making this team any better than it is today.
And that, my friends, is a real bummer. It reminds me of the Cardinals of the early ‘90s - in the waning days of the Anheuser-Busch ownership. In those days, there was no hope - literally no hope at all - that the Cardinals would sign a big name free agent or make any kind of big trade.
Sure, they fielded a team every season, and there was always hope that some organizational prospect would blossom into a star, be it Todd Zeile or even Geronimo Pena. I still rooted for the players on the field, who were doing their best to win. But I had no illusions that the ownership was engaged in helping the team win.
That is more or less where we are now.
DeWitt has settled on a somewhat higher baseline than A-B did in the waning days of its ownership. Every team has its baseline, and yes, the Cardinals point on the Make Money / win Curve is still much higher than the maximum bum-out franchises like the Pirates or the Marlins. But it’s also a step back from where DeWitt’s priorities were early in his ownership. You know - before his downtown real estate empire was complete.
DeWitt’s Quants have identified the optimal win total to extract maximum value from the franchise with the least cost. That will keep the Cards “in the mix,” and sometimes they will even make the playoffs. And sometimes, given the randomness of postseason, they might even make their way to a World Series.
But there is no point in criticizing the front office for failing to make the team better than that, because the evidence is overwhelming that ownership does not care to get better than they are right now.