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The Cardinals can’t rebuild or tank

While it seems a ludicrous suggestion to propose, the Cardinals couldn’t rebuild now even if they wanted to.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When we tend to think of options, we are often confronted with A or B, Black or White, Yes or No. Having two options makes it easier to make a decision. We can come up with pros and cons and eventually make a choice, easily rationalizing it by making the alternative more negative in our minds. This offseason, after failing to land a big name last year or make a big trade during the season, there seems to be some buildup of chatter indicating the Cardinals need to go big or go home, the latter involving a rebuild and contention at some point in the future.

Going big is the fun option, and it is probably better for the Cardinals. The other option, as presented by Jesus Ortiz, is as follows:

The Cardinals should save their money this winter, trim payroll and concede 2017 so that they can fortify for 2018 and beyond. It wouldn’t be exactly tanking, but close.

The problem with this is not that it isn’t a reasonable option. The problem is that it isn’t an option at all. The Cardinals have built a roster that makes it nearly impossible to concede. Ortiz notes this wouldn’t be tanking, but more something along the lines of a quick rebuild or resetting to aim at contention for 2018. In order to do so the Cardinals would need to leverage their short term assets to obtain longer term assets.

The chart below shows the Cardinals best players according to Steamer’s projections pro-rated to 200 innings (for pitchers) or 600 plate appearances (for hitters). Included in the chart are salaries for 2017, the year the player can reach free agency, and if the player has a no-trade clause. It’s possible you might disagree with the projections some, but this provides a general sense of the Cardinals’ best players.

2017 Steamer: 600 PA/200 IP 2017 Salary Free Agent After No Trade Clause
Carlos Martinez 3.7 $5.6 M* 2019
Adam Wainwright 3.3 $19.5 M 2018 X
Alex Reyes 3 $535,000 2022
Lance Lynn 3 $7.5 M 2017
Matt Carpenter 2.9 $9.75 M 2020
Aledmys Diaz 2.9 $2 M 2021
Yadier Molina 2.5 $14 M 2018^ X
Mike Leake 2.4 $15 M 2020^ X
Michael Wacha 2.4 $3.2 M* 2019
Randal Grichuk 2.2 $535,000 2020
Jedd Gyorko 1.8 $4 M 2020
Jhonny Peralta 1.7 $10 M 2017
Kolten Wong 1.6 $2.5 M 2021
Stephen Piscotty 1.4 $535,000 2021
*Estimate MLBTR ^Mutual Option

So where exactly do the Cardinals get better for the future or save money? Carlos Martinez is currently the Cardinals best player by a healthy amount. He is also controlled cheaply for the next three seasons. If the Cardinals have any plans for contention in 2018, the team would be foolish to part ways with Martinez. Adam Wainwright has a healthy salary and is only controlled through 2018, but he has a no trade clause.

Alex Reyes is controlled for six more seasons. The only way the Cardinals would move him would be in a blockbuster to make them much better now. Lance Lynn is making $7.5 million which isn’t a ton, and he is just a year from free agency. The team could move him, but he is coming off Tommy John and likely has little value until he begins pitching, where his value could be significantly higher.

Matt Carpenter is modestly controlled through 2020 so any plans of contention in 2018 and 2019 will likely involve Carpenter as any prospect the Cardinals did receive in trade is unlikely to match Carpenter’s production in those years. Aledmys Diaz is cheap and controlled for five more seasons. Yadier Molina and Mike Leake have no-trade clauses.

Michael Wacha is cheap and controlled for three more seasons, but his trade value is questionable. Any trade involving Wacha is likely to be with a team that also has plans for contending so future value is unlikely to be extracted. Randal Grichuk is controlled through 2020. Jedd Gyorko is as well at fairly modest salaries given San Diego’s $7.5 million payment. He might have some trade value, but getting more value than Gyorko offers in 2018 and 2019 seems unlikely.

If the team wants to save $10 million, it could trade Jhonny Peralta. They could give more playing time to Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko and this would not likely impact the Cardinals chances of winning next season. As for Wong, he is still cheap, coming off a down year and the team controls his services through 2021. The same is true for Stephen Piscotty.

The Cardinals could move Seung-Hwan Oh or Kevin Siegrist. It would be a reasonable strategy to get some prospects, but it wouldn’t save any money, and there’s still enough talent in the bullpen that it wouldn’t cause the Cardinals to concede next season.

The Cardinals could trade Peralta and Wacha or Lynn and they might go from a projected 85-win team to an 83-win team. That doesn’t seem like a lot of wins, but that is a contending team. There is no option to sell and concede. The Cardinals have too many long-term contracts for players who can help them win over the next four seasons mixed with a few veteran players with no-trade clauses. The Cardinals could not tank even if they tried.

The Cardinals definitely should aim higher, sign players and make big trades. The gap between the Cardinals and the Cubs is probably around 10 games right now. That’s a big gap, but a couple big moves puts them easily in striking distance. That’s what they should do, but the alternative is not to concede. The team has been built too well and has too many talented players controlled for the long term not to be in the mix for the postseason next year, and there is nothing they could do which would set them back this next season that would help them be a better team in 2018.