It’s possible that making the playoffs 12 times over the last 16 seasons and five straight seasons has left Cardinals a bit jaded when it comes to the trading deadline. The constant presence in the playoffs minimizes the importance of winning this year because next year there will be just as good of a shot. That logic makes sense. Don’t gamble the future away on an uncertain present. However, the Cardinals should not blow a good opportunity at a shot at the playoffs just because it looks like things are not in the favor. Appearances can be deceiving, and the Cardinals need to buy at the trade deadline to put themselves in better contention for the playoffs.
There was a really fascinating piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Rick Hummel recently discussing the opposing viewpoints of Mike Matheny and John Mozeliak on the first half. Per Matheny:
We’re fortunate to be where we are as I look up there and it says we’re seven games behind.
With how we’ve played, that’s pretty impressive because we haven’t played well. We saw little periods, very short periods, where we’ve put it all together. It’s going to happen. There’s too much talent, too much experience, too many winning players on this club for us not to put it together, so it’s going to be fun when it happens.
And then Mozeliak:
"Based on run differential, no," said Mozeliak. The Cardinals are third in this capacity in the league, scoring 89 more runs than their opponents but winning only four more games than they’ve lost.
"It’s been a strange year and we’ve talked ad nauseam about why we are where we are," said Mozeliak. "When you have certain breakdowns in your game it’s hard to consistently win, whether that be defense, baserunning, bullpen, starting rotation in the early part of the season."
We can start with agreement. The Cardinals are a very talented team. I’m not sure that anyone would disagree with that statement. As to being fortunate, it is pretty clear Matheny is talking about the Cardinals standing in relation to the Cubs. Without a decent slide by the Cubs, the Cardinals would be further out in the division and the Cubs coronation articles that began in late April would still be going strong. In that sense, yes the Cardinals are somewhat fortunate that the Cubs’ success slowed. Mozeliak takes the statement a different way.
By Mozeliak’s view, the Cardinals are unfortunate because with the third-largest run-differential, the Cardinals, on the whole, have played much better than their record of 46-42 this year. He too, is right. Looking purely at run-differential, the Cardinals pythagorean record is 53-35. By that measure the Cardinals have been the least-fortunate team in Major League Baseball.
While pythagorean record is one way to look at things, we can go down even further, looking at Base Runs, which takes the individual plays to come up with expected runs for and against. By that measure the Cardinals are 55-33, right there with the Cubs and Nationals among baseball’s best.
The counter is that the Cardinals have certain deficiencies like baserunning and bullpen issues that lead to losses in one-run games. The Cardinals record is in one-run games is 7-15, which is really bad or really unlucky depending on how you view things. Even if they were 14-8 in one-run games, that would only put their pythagorean record even with their actual record. If the Cardinals had done more of those little things to score more runs or prevent fewer runs, that would just widen the gap of their run differential.
The Cardinals have played very well over the first half and are very unfortunate not to have banked more wins. The Cardinals ISO for non-pitchers is .191, and that is fourth in MLB. Their .458 slugging leads the National League. Their 114 wRC+ is fourth in MLB, second to the Cubs’ 117 in the NL. The team is eighth in baseball in ERA, fifth in FIP and xFIP. The starters are eighth in fWAR while the 10 blown saves helps put the Cardinals bullpen down at 18th in fWAR among MLB bullpens. The rotation right now is world’s better than what the team sent to the NLDS last year. The offense is vastly improved. The Cardinals right now are a better, more talented team than the one that won 100 games ago last season, and they are much better than the weakened team from last October.
The above is representative of what has happened, and not what will happen the rest of the season. It’s not just that the Cardinals have shown talent so far this year, but that they are expected to continue showing it going forward. The FanGraphs playoff odds chart below uses projections. It knows that Carpenter and Moss are on the disabled list and that Garcia is injury-prone. It also knows that the Mets just lost Matt Harvey, the Marlins can’t match the Cardinals depth, and the Pirates have trouble in the rotation. Although the team is currently a game back of the Marlins and Mets, they have higher playoff odds than both teams.
Even forgetting the slim chance of a division title, the Cardinals are well-positioned for the wild card. The graph below shows playoff odds as of today for the main wild card contenders.
Thirteen of the first 17 games after the All-Star break are against teams in the chart above, including three games against the Mets and seven games against the Marlins. These odds will fluctuate considerably during that time, but as of right now, the Cardinals are projected to win as more games than the Mets, Marlins, Pirates, and Giants, as many games as the Dodgers (albeit with a few more losses), just a game and a half behind the Nationals and three games behind the Cubs. Right now, the Cardinals have one of the more talented teams in baseball. It would be a pity to see that go to waste based on the perception that the Cardinals are just fortunate to be where they are.
If the Cardinals were a bad team who got lucky to get four games over .500 at the break, then maybe you think about selling, and maybe you are a little more cautious. The Cardinals are not a bad team, and they don’t project to be bad the rest of the season. If the Cardinals can make a move for a significant upgrade, they should absolutely do it.
Is Alex Reyes untouchable? Probably. Anybody else on the farm? I doubt it. While the Cardinals should make some obvious lower-level moves to the bullpen if they can, they should not ignore making a splash, especially if it is a move that can help them in future years. The cost is likely to be painful for those who follow prospects, but the Cardinals still have a really good opportunity to make the playoffs and that opportunity should not be ignored.