Bill Connelly, the Godfather of college football advanced stats, once mentioned the concept of equilibrium in relation to college football programs. At least, I think it was Bill Connelly back when he wrote for our SB Nation sister site, Rock M Nation. Google can’t help me confirm this. Whoever actually introduced the concept, the general idea is that programs have a baseline expectation from year to year. They may overachieve or underachieve in any given year, but you know with some certainty that Alabama will contend for the championship. You know that Oklahoma probably won’t win it, but they’ll be on the periphery as an elite program. You know that Wisconsin will go to a good bowl while Kansas will be embarrassing. There are exceptions from year to year, but these teams have an equilibrium- a state of balance. It gives us a baseline expectation. Major League Baseball teams are more volatile than college football teams for a variety of reasons, but the equilibrium concept still holds. It’s more true for the Cardinals than it is any other team. What constitutes equilibrium for the Cardinals at the current moment? What’s their state of balance? And what is their overall standing before 2021?
Between seasons is as good a time as any to evaluate the state of the franchise. Let’s take a look at where the Cardinals are, and where the average fan would expect them to be, in any given season across several facets of the organization.
The Farm System
The Cardinals farm system has settled into middling, but they have some intriguing high end talent. Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, Ivan Herrera, and Elehuris Montero have varying degrees of high ceilings and potential for impact in St. Louis. That’s to say nothing of Dylan Carlson, who arrived in 2020. In Baseball America’s most recent organizational talent rankings (pre-season 2020), the Cardinals ranked 13th. Their four previous pre-season rankings:
- 2019: 10th
- 2018: 13th
- 2017: 12th
- 2016: 14th
- 2015: 15th
Earlier, I called them middling, but that’s not a bad thing. It means they avoid the deep valleys that most teams experience. It means in most years, they graduate one or two solid regulars to the MLB squad, and several other lesser contributors. It’s not the pipeline built by the Dodgers or Rays, but it’s a reliable feeder for the big club’s overall success. How the current batch of youngsters develops will tell us whether or not they can climb back to the 2013-2014 heights (ranked #1 and #7.) Overall, the Cardinals farm system is solidly above average with eerie reliability, and with a little helium for more at the current moment.
Note that I wanted to include a section about their draft performance, but ultimately their farm prestige is as good a proxy as any for how well they’ve drafted.
Historically, the Cardinals are extremely consistent in payroll. Here’s how they’ve ranked through the years, per Cot’s.
- 2020: 10th
- 2019: 7th
- 2018: 10th
- 2017: 14th
- 2016: 10th
- 2015: 12th
In fact, they’ve ranked between 8th and 14th all but two seasons in the 21st century. One of those was 2019 when they added Paul Goldschmidt, and the other was 2005 when they had the 6th highest payroll. They’ve had the 10th highest payroll on five occasions this century, so that’s their equilibrium.
There’s a great deal of handwringing among fans about team payroll, but the reality is that they spend enough to win in a vacuum. Their payroll level from year to year shouldn’t surprise anyone given their consistency in hitting the mark. The bigger problem is in how they’ve spent their money in recent years, and I’ll have more on that later.
Ordinarily, you would assume they’d be in the same payroll range for 2021. Because of the loss of fans in the seats during 2020, the Cardinals- like every other team- lost an important revenue stream. It already most likely cost them Kolten Wong, a significant loss. Unlike other teams, attendance is a bigger piece of the pie for the Cardinals. Their media market is approximately 20th biggest in baseball, but they routinely finish in the top three in attendance. Ticket sales are critical. While ownership has wealth and equity built into the franchise, they surely want some assurances about revenue from tickets sold in 2021 before determining their payroll. And yes, none of that is stopping them from spending more. They’re in quite a bind at the moment.
Overall Major League Quality
Equilibrium here is easy to answer. The Cardinals have finished between 86 and 91 wins in 10 of the 12 non-pandemic seasons during John Mozeliak’s tenure. The two exceptions were 2013 (97) and 2015 (100). Last year’s team was on an 84-win pace by Pythagorean record, but 58 games makes it hard to draw firm conclusions. An 85 to 87 win window works pretty well as a level of equilibrium for the current Cardinals. They are a team that most people would expect to contend, but few would assume a playoff berth. That seems to be the case year after year since the 2012-2015 window closed, and represents a downgrade from the franchise’s reputation just a few years ago. Making the playoffs each of the last two years helps, but it’s going to take more to erase the 2016-2018 window without post-season baseball.
Defining Characteristics (On-Field)
Historically, and especially in recent memory, the Cardinals are quite consistent in certain areas. Their team defense is almost always good. The team has been fundamentally sound on the bases during the Mike Shildt era. They aren’t a fast team, but they’ve done a good job of avoiding mistakes. Whether most observers know it or not, the Cardinals have a knack for developing high-octane arms. Since 2018, just 43 pitchers (out of 991) have averaged 97 mph or more on their four-seamers. Five of those are products of the Cardinal farm system in the Mozeliak era.
Despite the high velocity arms, the franchise generally pitches to contact. You have to go all the way back to 2000 to find a Cardinal team with a K% higher than 10th in the league. While that’s not ideal, they can get away with it because of their defense. Managing walks used to be a hallmark of the franchise (top 10 finish in BB% from 2008-2013), but that has slipped in recent years. If anything, they’ve recently given out a lot of free passes (20th or worst in MLB each year since 2018).
The current iteration has a significant hitting problem, though it’s a new development. As recently as 2018, they had a very respectable non-pitcher wRC+ of 105. The team’s non-pitcher wRC+ has declined each year since 2016. They must reverse this trend for the organization to move forward. It bottomed out last season at 93.
Defining Characteristics (Off-Field)
I’m not sure where it originated, but one common refrain about the Cardinals is that they will never win a bidding war in free agency. It shapes so much of what they do in free agency. They stay away from the top of the market in most years. At most, their name is attached to premium players but it never leads to a contract. Think back on the high-end players the Cardinals have added through the years. That list would include Matt Holliday, Paul Goldschmidt, Mark Mulder (who I know didn’t play like a high end player after acquisition), Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Jason Heyward, and Marcell Ozuna. These players were all trade targets on the brink of free agency. Holliday hit free agency and the Cardinals won a bidding war for him, but he’s the only significant name that comes to mind in decades.
The alternative is that they tend to do well around the margins. They’ve found success in Asia with Seunghwan Oh, Miles Mikolas, and Kwang-Hyun Kim. They scouted John Brebbia in the independent leagues and plucked him from the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft.
They’re the league’s gold standard in drafting underrated prospects, finding a better fit for them on the diamond, and coaching them into productive Major Leaguers with adequate to great defense. Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter, Tommy Edman, and Tommy Pham all come to mind. Harrison Bader isn’t far behind as a player who played plenty of corner outfield in college, but who has become an elite centerfielder in St. Louis. Andrew Knizner has yet to get a foothold in St. Louis, but split college time between third base and catcher. He’s primed to become part of the next wave.
It’s a similar story on the pitching side of the ledger. Frequently picking late in the first round, the Cardinals have still managed to identify underrated pitching talent and polish them into Major League contributors. Simply getting them to St. Louis with a lower attrition rate is an accomplishment, and they’ve reaped the benefits from Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Luke Weaver, Shelby Miller, Jordan Hicks, Joe Kelly, Alex Reyes, and others. They’ve received the most value from pitchers under age 25 since 2012. Solid contributions from underrated prospects is very much part of the franchise’s state of balance.
The biggest problem the last few years has been developing hitters and evaluating their own talent. It’s impossible to ignore the list of players who have left the organization and contributed in ways they never had as Cardinals. To their credit, the organization seems to be aware that it’s a problem and are working to fix it.
The Big Picture
Piece all of these aspects together and it’s easy to see why they’ve been what they were from 2016 to 2020. The success in drafting, development, and finding value where others couldn’t (primarily defense) allowed them to stay competitive while they fielded deep rosters. However, their failures and eventual avoidance of bidding wars left them with a gap at the top of the roster. Their emphasis on pitching and defense has served them well in Busch Stadium, a pitcher’s park. However, the offense started to dry up as the previous core aged and departed. To compensate, they spent bigger on mid-range free agents- Dexter Fowler and Mike Leake come to mind- instead of going to the top of the market. It painted them further into a corner. They had a route forward, but traded Randy Arozarena, Tommy Pham, Sandy Alcantra, Zac Gallen, and Luke Weaver, amongst others. A few years there were like quicksand- the more they struggled against it, the quicker they sank. It’s a testament to their other skills that they still contended as they leaked talent.
The good news is that they play in a division most similar to five dorks in a high school parking lot, slap-fighting each other for supremacy. Regardless of their flaws, they’ll continue perma-contention, and now have hope for the next wave of youngsters. Fortuitously, they’ll start arriving the same time expiring contracts will absolve them of some of the sins of the previous window. If they can correct their issues evaluating their own talent and developing hitting, the perma-contention should continue.