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Considering the Season

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The Cardinals are facing an uphill battle the rest of the way this year. Are there any good decisions to be made?

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago White Sox - Game Two Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You know, I was all ready to come on here this morning and write up a post suggesting a soft tanking strategy for the rest of 2020, followed by a soft rebuild this offseason to put the club in a better position to compete in 2021 and, especially, from 2022 on. I was ready to basically concede this bizarre, unfortunate season, and focus on brighter days ahead, seasons when quarantines and outbreaks will be only a distant memory, and the only injured list placements we’ll have to worry about are those related to strains, sprains, and the occasional motocross surgery. When flu-like symptoms might once again be code for a hangover, rather than a precursor of a two-week shutdown.

However, now I’m stuck reconsidering that position, and I admit it’s for a ridiculous reason. See, the Cardinals came out yesterday and swept a doubleheader from the White Sox, and are now 4-3 through seven games, rather than 2-3 through five. Now, here’s the thing: two games is a comically small sample, as is seven games, and the difference between 2-3 and 4-3 is basically nothing in the context of a baseball season. However, it’s also worth noting that this is not a baseball season, not really. If we are considering this season in the context of how relates to most seasons, length wise, then each game is worth roughly 2.7 games, right? Well, in that case, a two-game doubleheader sweep is equivalent to a five game winning streak in any other season. And is it fair to reverse direction based on a five game winning streak? Maybe. Maybe not. But it could certainly be enough to change the look of the standings enough to at least contemplate a different approach.

The trade deadline is just over two weeks away, and god willing and the creek don’t rise, the Cardinals will play another 15-20 games between now and then. The Cards really have only one great trade asset at the moment, in the form of second baseman Kolten Wong. Wong’s contract is up after this season, with a team option for 2021. Regardless of what happens, that option will be picked up, I would imagine. Kolten will turn 30 years old this October, which does not preclude him from signing a long-term extension with the club, but probably makes it somewhat unlikely. If he’s still a Redbird by this offseason, the team will absolutely pick up his option to keep him in the fold for a $12.5 million salary. If he were to be dealt away, any team acquiring him would be doing so with an eye on not just this year’s performance, but what they would hopefully get from him in a full 2021 campaign.

It probably won’t shock any of you to know that I am, in fact, in favour of moving Wong; I don’t think there’s a long-term deal in his future with the club, and I would very much like to see what the Cards could get for the future out of a trade, rather than simply running out the contract and taking a draft pick. (Even though I do very much enjoy extra draft picks, admittedly.) I am not, however, going to belabour the point of what the Cardinals should or should not be doing with one player. That’s not what this is about.

Rather, I think it’s worth asking just what we’re hoping for from this season, and whether any of what we might like to see is legitimately possible. Coming into this season (I mean back in February, before the full weight of what 2020 would be came crashing down on all of us), the Cardinals were legitimate contenders. Maybe not championship contenders, but definitely division contenders, playoff run contenders, that sort of thing. It felt like some things would really have to go right for this team to rise to the level of thinking about a World Series, but really, it wouldn’t have been a shocking outcome to see the 2020 Cardinals be good, and maybe a couple breaks go their way and they turn out to be really good.

Coming into the season that we have, rather than the normal season we were originally hoping for, that level of performance still seemed pretty obtainable. Miles Mikolas’s balky forearm put the club behind the eight ball a bit in terms of pitching depth, but if there’s one thing the Cardinals have pretty much every year, it’s pitching depth. Sixty games was manageable, one would think, for an organisation whose pipeline churns out arms like that of the Redbirds, and while the offense was certainly not projected to be elite, there were some areas one could look and feel real optimism about the level of production possible.

And now, we have the season we have. Jay Jaffe did a nice breakdown a couple days ago at FanGraphs of just what the Cards’ schedule is going to look like following their outbreak, and the outlook is daunting, to say the least. I suppose it’s possible a team could go on a crazy run playing three games every two days, but it seems exceedingly unlikely, doesn’t it?

My biggest concern at this point, frankly, is just keeping the pitchers healthy. Of all the things that could go wrong playing a schedule like the one the Cards are staring down currently, pitching injuries would seem to be the most likely to crop up. You cannot simply pile that many innings over a limited period of time onto pitchers and not expect something to go wrong. Which leads me to the point of all this.

The Cardinals have a few really valuable assets right now, chief among them a young ace pitcher in Jack Flaherty. Dakota Hudson may not have quite the cache of Flaherty, but he’s still a 25 year old pitcher with four more years of club control following this season. They have young arms in the bullpen, younger arms in the farm system, and all of them would seem to be vulnerable this season in a way that is not typical, even given the wear and tear which is always endemic to throwing a baseball for a living.

This season was always going to be subject to an incredible of randomness, well beyond the normal vagaries of the baseball season. Any season can be derailed by completely random occurrences, of course; the difference between five starters making 160 starts in a season and your number two and three starters both having arm surgeries is enormous, and neither of those outcomes have much respect for how hard you planned ahead of time. But this year, things are far, far more random than that even. At least a couple clubs were, at some point in time, going to deal with an outbreak, and that was going to have a huge effect on how the season went. It happens to have been the Marlins and Cardinals so far; I’m sure at least one or two teams will have issues before all is said and done. The Indians have lost two starting pitchers recently to bad decision making; hopefully those bad decisions don’t lead to actual, tangible harm.

So with all of this in mind, it’s worth asking the question: what do the Cardinals do? What should they do? I don’t think there’s any realistic chance the club can contend, with the schedule being what it is, which would lead me to say I think they should sell at the deadline, not worry about this year one way or the other, and try to set themselves up for a brighter future beginning next season. The problem is, if you were to sell at the trade deadline, that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I mentioned before that Kolten Wong is really the Cards’ only good trade chip at the moment (by which I mean a good player they don’t need so badly they couldn’t consider moving him), but he is by no means the only useful piece they might at least put on the market. Look at the bullpen, and ask yourself what a John Gant or Giovanny Gallegos might fetch from a club with title ambitions.

The issue is that if you were to deal away John Gant or Gallegos, someone still has to throw those innings. Anything you might consider subtracting from the roster could cost you more this year than it usually would, particularly on the pitching side, because of the schedule the Cardinals are facing. Trading a bullpen arm or two would make all the sense in the world if this were a normal season, and things just hadn’t gone the Cards’ way. But this? This is things not going your way in a very specific sense, one that essentially makes it so that you cannot really consider thinning your roster in certain areas, because you have to play 50 games in 40 days or whatever the number is.

I honestly don’t know what the best course of action is for the Cardinals right now. If ever there was a season I wouldn’t mind seeing go badly, and things just fall apart to the point the club ends up with a top ten draft pick, it would be this season. It was always going to be so tenuous and random that losing this season wouldn’t really feel like a disaster, so long as nobody dies. And we’ve already missed so much of the season that it barely feels like you’d be losing out on anything at this anyway, at least to my mind. But at the same time, the most important thing for the rest of this year is to protect the players you’ll need next year and beyond, and denuding the roster in any way makes that an even more difficult proposition than it already is, given doubleheaders every other day from now until October.

The 2020 season has not gone well. The bad thing is, I don’t really see any good way to profit in the future from the season having gone so poorly. Most years, if things turn south you can figure out some way to turn it into an opportunity down the road somewhere. This year? I’m just not sure that’s possible.