Let’s start with what we all know: the offense has not been good. That’s been true for two consecutive years. With no additions to the lineup so far this spring and no real reason to expect any, the Cardinals' only hope of improving their offense is if their own players improve.
Or if management improves how they use those players.
This was reflected by John Mozeliak in a recent quote that made its way across the internet. “We have to see an uptick in our offense,” Mozeliak said, “or it’s going to be a long year.”
Let’s just appreciate that quote for what it is. Even in the years of the Cubs’ prime, when the Cards were missing the playoffs, the front office bristled at suggestions that their team wasn’t a contender. That continued early this offseason.
Am I the only one that sees an admission in the quote above? Isn’t he implying that he knows the club, particularly the offense, has to overperform or they’re not going to be a playoff contender?
It’s true. Mozeliak, who is an extremely smart guy and has been in baseball for a long time, knows what the projections say. The Cardinals have their own internal projection systems and unless they are biased to Cardinal red, they’ve got to be telling the front office the same thing.
The Cardinals aren’t a very good team. They’re extremely vulnerable on offense to age-related collapses and volatility among young and inconsistent players. Their pitching staff is defense-dependent on a team that is planning (as of now) to have a notably worse defense. They’re counting on key pitchers recovering from injury, performing up to hoped-for-expectations, and a bunch of young players taking a step forward.
The club is in a very tenuous position. It helps that the rest of the division is a dumpster fire. But, as Mozeliak apparently knows, it will be a long season anyway if things don’t go just right for this club.
The obvious solution is to bring in any of the dozen of remaining upgrades that are still on the market and likely cheaper than they would be in a normal offseason. I can think of no less than 10 easy ways to “uptick the offense” for less than $10M and 1 year.
Will they do it? It’s doubtful. Probably only if the DH returns, and they are likely to be on the low end of the price and talent range.
If Mozeliak is worried, why won’t they make a move? Because they are paralyzed by fear. Fear of an uncertain economic environment. Fear, also, that they’ll make a move they’ll end up regretting.
If they brought in Eddie Rosario, for example, that would likely mean having to trade away Tyler O’Neill. (It doesn’t mean that at all, but that’s been their pattern.) What if O’Neill finally hits like he should somewhere else? Then the club has an Arozarena situation all over again!
Nope. Too risky. There’s a chance that O’Neill could become an acceptable player. Sure, he’ll never be Eddie Rosario good, but what if he becomes a consistent 2 WAR player? We can’t pay Rosario and just let that go!
The quandary of circular fears that the Cardinals are now in is one of their own making.
The Cardinals are afraid that the offense might not be very good and they won’t be a contender.
The Cardinals are afraid to make moves in free agency, even in a weakened market, because of budgetary concerns and taking space away from young players.
The Cardinals are afraid to make moves in the trade market, even though that’s always been their main method of player acquisition because they might trade away a player who performs somewhere else.
Yet, the Cardinals are afraid that the offense might not be very good and they won’t be a contender.
Around and around we go.
A quandary of circular fears. Hmm… I like that. Into the title it goes.
Yes, COVID is playing a role in their unwillingness to make any additions to their major league roster (they still are the only team in baseball to not add a single player to their MLB roster). But don’t forget that last offseason, after coming off an NLCS appearance with a struggling offense, Mozeliak only added Kwang-Hyun Kim – an extremely low-risk lefty swing arm out of Korea – and bench player Brad Miller. Their willingness to bring in outside players has been steadily dropping for years. That is by design, not because of spending inhibitions, roster quality, team performance, or player availability.
The Cardinals know they’re in trouble. They know they have an offense problem. They know they won’t do anything (or much of anything) outside of the roster to change that. So, they are hoping they can squeeze water from rocks through smart use of platoon splits.
I’m sorry… I just have to laugh.
Because hidden therein are another admission and another fear.
Instead of spending, exchanging talent, or adding talent, the club’s oft-reported plan has been to platoon their way to better performance. That means not playing Dexter Fowler against lefties. It means playing Matt Carpenter against righties. It means benching Harrison Bader (there goes that great up-the-middle defense for the pitching staff) against righties. I could go on.
2021 will be the third year with roughly the same group of offensive players (plus or minus a few). The Cardinals are just now noticing that their offense is subject to extreme platoon splits? They’re just now seeing that half their lineup really isn’t equipped to play every day?
That’s not old news. That’s readily available in the simplest of Baseball Reference searches.
No, the Cardinals are just now willing to acknowledge and attempt to correct a problem that everyone has known about for years.
We’re right back to our fear circle.
The club is afraid to make pricey free agent additions because they might backfire and cost the team budget space.
They’re afraid to make trades because they might ship out a player who becomes productive.
Now it sounds like they’ve been afraid to determine playing time by easily-identifiable platoon splits. Why? It’s gotta be fear, right? They’re afraid of clubhouse conflicts with declining veteran players? They’re afraid that using a young player with a platoon split might stunt their growth toward being an everyday player? They’re afraid that free agent additions (what free agent additions?) won’t want to come to St. Louis if there is a chance they could see less-than-full-time plate appearances?
Will this sudden willingness to get brave and embrace platoons work? I guess I’m glad that they’re willing to do it, but I also don’t see how it will change anything. The players the club is talking about working into platoons – Carpenter, Fowler, O’Neill, Bader, Thomas, Carlson, Edman, and likely Edmundo Sosa or Elehurius Montero – haven’t been full-time players over the last three years anyway.
The 2021 Cardinals will not be better than 2020 against lefties by plugging Tommy Edman into right for Dexter Fowler and then dropping Edmundo Sosa at second and Montero at third for Carpenter. Or pick any other arrangement and you’ve got the same thing.
The funny thing about platoons is that they actually require two talented players instead of just one.
The Cardinals can point to the Dodgers and a few other teams and say “they’re doing it well!” OK, sure, it works if your roster is so deep that Joc Pederson and Justin Turner are platoon bats.
You can’t pretend that Lane Thomas is Joc Pederson and Elehuris Montero is Justin Turner and expect the same results.
Oh, incidentally. Joc Pederson and Justin Turner? They’re available in free agency.
Let’s just make something clear.
Yes, the Cardinals have a platoon problem. They have an offense problem. They might end up having a pitching and defense problem, too, if things don’t go as hoped.
The reason all of that is true is because the Cardinals have a talent problem that they are afraid to address.
Yes, management can and should do a better job of putting the talent they have in better positions, but they’re not going to fix their talent issue until they … fix their talent issue.
The free agent market is still full of talent. Real talent. Proven talent.
You can bring in some of those players and platoon them if you want, too, John Mozeliak! But, if you’re afraid this will be a long year, then it’s time to do something about it.