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Saturday SOC: No More Half Measures

The Cardinals have a 20-win gap to return to contention. I offer a stream-of-consciousness look at the extreme commitment it will take to close that gap.

Cincinnati Reds v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The offseason is here!

The writing team did our due diligence, coming together to a full review of the 2023 season in the latest episode of the VEB Podcast. It’s worth a listen. It’s also enough. 2023 is over for the Cardinals. We can put this season behind us. I, for one, am ready to fully embrace the offseason.

It’s a big one. Probably the most important offseason of the Mozeliak era, who has never faced a challenge quite like this.

Why? Because the Cardinals have to flip their record.

They finished 2023 with 71 wins and 91 losses in 162 games.

Next year that needs to become 91 wins and 71 losses in 162 games. At least.

Somehow Mozeliak has to find at least 20 extra wins next season either from better play from current players or from outside additions.

20 wins. At minimum.

That’s a huge number of wins for one team to make up. But it can be done. It happens all the time.

* The Texas Rangers went from 68 wins in 2022 to 90 wins in 2023. 22 wins added.

* The Reds went from 62 wins to 82 wins. 20 wins added.

* The Baltimore Orioles found 18 extra wins this season to win over 100 games.

The Cardinals probably don’t even have as far to go as some of these other teams. Yes, the team technically lost 91 games but 30 of those losses came after they traded away some of the better players. In August and September, the club wrapped things up, putting any regular with a sore back or chipped toenail on the IL and found any warm body to throw or hit.

The 2023 Cardinals were a 71-win team that had at least 81-win talent for much of the season and a 91-win projection to begin the season.

Adding at least 20 wins next year is a very doable task. It’s one we should expect and demand. It’s one for which DeWitt and the ownership group should hold the front office accountable.

That means Mozeliak and company are going to have to do things differently. Very differently. To add 20 wins to this roster, they can’t just take the path of least resistance. They can’t just save their dry powder for later. They can’t just pick low-hanging fruit.

We’re used to these one-liners from Mozeliak. Well, I have one for him now. It’s an oft quoted line that comes from a very well-known television show: “No more half-measures, Walter.”

No more half-measures, Mo. It’s time to go all the way.

That seems to be the sentiment from the clubhouse. In his latest press gathering, Cardinals’ manager Oli Marmol declared his desire to clean out any players who weren’t all in on contending for a championship. Of course, he does. His job depends on it.

The core players echoed that sentiment, taking responsibility for their play and placing high expectations on the Front Office.

From Paul Goldschmidt via Lynn Worthy at the Post-Dispatch: “I want to win. The guys in here want to win. So those expectations will motivate us, but we’ll have to put in the work. We’ll have to make the adjustments and come back ready and stronger next year.”

From Willson Contreras in the same article: “I’m just saying it because it’s the way it is. I mean, we were last. There’s some details to be fixed, some issues to be fixed. Are they going to be fixed? That’s something that’s out of my control. But I can say it, and I know that the people in the front office know what’s right and what’s wrong with the team. Hopefully, they do something to fix those problems.”

Hopefully doesn’t cut it. Hopefully doesn’t erase the stink of the worst Cardinals’ season since 1990. If this front office and management and coaches and, frankly, many of the players want to keep their jobs playing in St Louis then they need to get this right.

That means they need to take full measures.

We aren’t used to those. In listening to podcasts, reading posts and catching fan takes across the internet, I can already hear some making concessions for the team based on our past experience. Like…

“Well, they probably can’t be players for the top talent on the market…”

“I know Mo said the club needs three starters, but they could get by with two…”

“Based on what the team has done in the past, we can probably expect…”

The Cardinals have built a model of investing as little as they can and being as opportunistic as possible to hover in that 87-92 window of contention in the National League Central. No more. No less. It’s pretty shocking how the club’s commitment to being “better than mediocre” has changed their approach to player roster construction over the last 8-10 years.

I’ll give you an example: a few days ago, old news surfaced about Max Scherzer and his desire to play for the Cardinals when he became a free agent heading into 2015. The report suggested that Scherzer contacted his buddy Wainwright, telling him how much the Nationals were offering (7/$210) and affirming that if the Cardinals could get into the ballpark on the money he would come to StL. We can presume that Wainwright passed the message along. The front office – probably DeWitt considering the amount of money involved – passed on Scherzer.

That’s all interesting but passing on a future Hall of Famer is only part of what caught my attention. It made me go back and look at the club heading into 2015, asking why Mo and co. would pass on such a rare opportunity.

Here is the 2015 Cardinals’ rotation at the time of Scherzer’s signing: Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Carlos Martinez, and Michael Wacha. Jaime Garcia was their 6th starter. They had already traded Shelly Miller. Marco Gonzales had already reached AAA.

Compare that to the 2023 rotation: Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Steven Matz, and Adam Wainwright. They also had Dakota Hudson. Matthew Liberatore was in AAA.

There’s a striking talent gap here! Don’t let injuries and future performance fool you. In ’15, Martinez and Wacha looked like budding aces. The extremely talented Jaime Garcia had to wait for his chance. I’m not sure that there is one starter from 2023 that I would put in the rotation over the top 5 guys in 2015. Probably Montgomery over Wacha, but that has a lot of hindsight built into it.

There is such a difference in talent from these two rotations that it’s hard to believe that a lot of the same front office personnel were involved in constructing both staffs. Or that baseball, and presumably the Cards, has made eight year’s worth of advancements in pitching analytics since.

To further illustrate the de-emphasis on the rotation and the change in approach to starters, just consider the starters that the club has acquired since 2015: Mike Leake, Miles Mikolas, Kwang-Hyun Kim, Steven Matz, J.A. Happ, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Jordan Montgomery.

Not all of those arms were misses. But very few of them were talents. Very few of them would have found a place in that 2015 staff.

The Cardinals have spent the last half-decade using half measures to form their pitching staff and remain in contention in the perpetually weak NL Central. And they finally paid the price for it.

If the Cardinals want to make up a 20-win gap going into next season this has to change. No more half measures.

What would full measures look like? I have a list for you. It’s not a complete list but it’s a stream-of-consciousness start.

1. The Cardinals need three starters who are clearly better than Miles Mikolas.

There is an increasing amount of “blue ink” on Mikolas’ Baseball Savant page. He is completely dependent on his ability to limit homers and on decent luck with balls in play. He’s among the worst in the league in whiff%. At 35, it’s foolish to believe that he’ll improve. Banking on that is one of those half measures I’ve talked about. Probably a quarter measure.

That doesn’t mean he’s not valuable. He’s bounced back from his persistent injuries to throw a lot of innings over the last two years. Since fWAR is cumulative (2.8 and 3.1 in ’22 and ’23) his production value is rooted more on how long he’s on the mound rather than what he does when he’s there. That’s a nice quality to have. In your 4th starter. Not your Opening Day guy.

A half-measure for the Cardinals would be adding someone who has consistently been a bit better than Mikolas – like Sonny Gray – and then bringing in 1-2 other arms to slide in the back of the rotation. Doing so puts way too much pressure on Mikolas to be the #2, 3.5-4.5 fWAR starter that he hasn’t been since ’18.

A full measure is adding three arms who have the arm talent to push Mikolas down in the pecking order, where his consistency and workhorse nature become an asset.

2. The Cardinals need to start their most productive outfield.

Lars Nootbaar has 650 career innings in center field. Even though he has limited experience there, OAA rates him as a +2 defender at the position. He’s a +5 outfielder across all positions. Nootbaar is not a flashy defender, but the sum of his parts is above average. His offense is well above average, with room to grow. That matters. A lot. If Nootbaar had received a full season’s worth of innings in center at his career rate of play, he would have finished as a top 5 CF’er in the game. He definitely would have been the best player on the team in terms of fWAR. If the team wants to maximize their outfield production in ’23 – and that should be their goal – Noot needs to be the team’s regular starting center fielder.

Right field is Walker. Enough said. And left? Everyone, including the Cards, seems ready to move on from Tyler O’Neill. Have we forgotten that he is a Gold Glove-caliber defender? Have we forgotten his power potential? Despite a season tanked by injuries and highlighted by public criticism, O’Neill still ended with the second-highest fWAR value of any true OF’er on the club. He can rack up value quickly. Barring an outside addition, which isn’t necessary, the Cardinals’ most productive starting outfield alignment is O’Neill, Nootbaar, and Walker. Include Carlson, Edman, Donovan, Burleson, or Palacios in the mix as subs and platoon partners, or use some for trades, but these three should not be displaced just to drop less talented players in their place.

3. The Cardinals need to play their players at positions where they are most likely to maximize their production.

Speaking of Donovan and Edman, teams get the most value out of players by playing them where they are the most valuable. It’s a simple concept but one the Cardinals haven’t shown they understand. The club needs to stop focusing on what a player can do if needed and start asking what a player does best.

As of now, Tommy Edman is the best defensive shortstop on the team by every metric we have. He is also really good defensively at second base, can play third, and has shown his athleticism and speed translate well to center. That said, he has a below-average bat, a weak arm, and notable platoon splits. So, he should be the club’s starting CF’er? That’s what many, including the Cards, are considering. The answer is absolutely not. Did you know that CF has the same WAR positional adjustment as 2b? And that adjustment is 3x lower than at SS? That’s why Edman’s highest production value (5.6 fWAR) came when he was primarily an SS. Outside of his unrepeated half rookie season, his best fWAR value playing primarily anywhere else is just 2.6. Yes, Edman can play center. But starting him there every day pushes Nootbaar to left. In one move the Cardinals minimize the value added by two key players.

Instead of dropping Edman in center just to get him on the field, ask yourself what does Edman do best? How does he add the most production to the team? We are right back to SS. Edman should provide regular support for the growing Masyn Winn at short heading into 2023. A 66/34 split would be fine; 450 PAs would be my goal for Winn. That leaves plenty of space for Edman’s second-best trait: one of the NL’s best utility players. That role is not an insult to him! His defensive versatility gives the club a huge advantage. To maximize Edman’s role, he should frequently start at SS while also subbing in for the outfielders and spelling other infielders. If we assume an injury somewhere, that locks Edman into 450-500 PAs without a guaranteed starting role. This is not a problem. This is ideal!

I know what you’re going to ask next. If Edman is the UT, what happens to Donovan? Donovan’s best skill is not his defensive versatility. He’s been a below-average defender everywhere he plays. His best skill is his ability to get on base. If the club wants to maximize his value, they should primarily let him DH. If injuries or otherwise open a spot for him on the field, or if the club wants to put him in for O’Neill against some righties or Gorman against some lefties, then great. He’s there when needed and the club will need him. But when everyone is healthy, they can keep his bat in the lineup at DH without displacing anyone other than Alec Burleson, who was, incidentally, the worst player on the Cardinals roster this season at -0.9 fWAR.

4. The Cardinals need to spend to their limits in the offseason to maximize their win potential over the full season.

In a few weeks, I’ll put out my first offseason roster and payroll projections. Right now, I believe the Cardinals have at minimum $40M to spend – that’s without any budget increase – and as much as $55M. They could probably free up more space through non-tenders. With their roster needs limited primarily to the starting rotation, they have the cash to complete #1 on my list above. One of those three pitchers will have to come via trade, but they also have roster depth they can move without even digging into my preferred starting lineup.

The Cardinals need to spend this money to maximize their roster potential from day one. They can’t gain 20 wins by saving a chunk of capital for the trade deadline. This is a season where the first 102 games will matter more than the final 60. They can’t save budget space to put the finishing touches on a team that they know will be in playoff contention from day one. They have to make sure this roster is in a position to win the maximum number of games it can over a full 162.

I know some of you will read this and you’ll scoff. “Mo will never…” Or “They could do that, but they’re more likely to…”

Don’t do it. Don’t make allowances. Don’t give them caveats. Don’t accept half measures.

Full measures. Over a full season. That’s what has to happen if the Cardinals are going to fill their 20-win gap. And hopefully, go even further.

The Cardinals have the core roster, the financial space, and the trade chips to return to contention. Not just in the Central. In the National League. They should have the motivation. Their jobs are on the line here.

This is not a time to hold back, play it safe, take the easy road, hope it works out in the end, or see what happens and adjust later. No more half measures, Mo. Go all in or don’t be surprised when you are all out at the end of next season.