Throwing around two weeks of stats as indicative of much of anything aside from what just happened is probably a bad idea. Two weeks, whether it is good from Luke Voit or Paul DeJong or bad from Carlos Martinez or Aledmys Diaz or Matt Carpenter, simply aren’t going to tell us a lot. That makes it odd that these next two weeks of games could have a major impact on the Cardinals’ future. A middling first half will do that.
The Cardinals begin their second half on Friday with a series against the Pirates and over the next sixteen days play sixteen games before the trade deadline. The Cardinals first half has been disappointing with a 43-45 record, but if you strip away sequencing luck, the Cardinals have played like a 47-41 team by BaseRuns. That means that if you just looked at the individual plays on offense, pitching, and defense without regard for how they were put together, the Cardinals have put together the stats of a team that should be on pace for 86-87 wins, just like they were at the beginning of the season.
The Cardinals do not have that 47-41 record, but they did get lucky in another regard. The Chicago Cubs, widely expected to run away with the division, have played worse than the Cardinals and have an identical record. Add in the Brewers—who have played roughly as well as the Cardinals, but lack the talent level of the other two squads—and you have the Cardinals just 5.5 games out of the division, chasing an inferior team.
We can talk about the Cardinals deficit and poor record all we want, but the second half is essentially a restart of the season with the Brewers getting a jump start. Here is how the Cardinals odds of making the division series (either winning the division, or winning the wild card game) have changed since the beginning of the year, per Fangraphs.
At the beginning of the season, the projections gave the Cardinals a 28.4% chance of making the playoffs and at the halfway point, those odds are 27.1%, having barely moved. The team’s chances of the wild card have gone down with the strong starts in Arizona and Colorado, but the division odds have increased enough to make up for that loss. The Brewers have gone way up as the Cubs have gone way down, but the Cardinals haven’t moved. So despite the losing record, the second half offers a reset for the Cardinals. They will need to start better than they did at the beginning of the season, or the year will be over quickly.
If the Cardinals start out 3-9 like they did at the beginning of the year, the team will find itself at 46-54 with less than a week to go before the trade deadline, and they will almost undoubtedly sell for the first time in recent memory. Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, and Seung-Hwan Oh will be out the door to add prospects to the Cardinals already fine farm system.
The Cardinals aren’t in a position to go on a full rebuild. They have too many quality major league players with a bunch of young players close to, or already in the majors who can contribute positively next season. Selling will put the Cardinals in a big bind for next season. They found the prices this offseason in trades for upgrades to be too steep. Last year’s free agent class lacked impact players, leaving smaller upgrades like Dexter Fowler.
This season’s free agent class is going to offer more of the same with Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain leading the way. As the Cardinals found out, when nearly all the teams are potential bidders, the price for marquee players is incredibly high. The team might be more willing to give up prospects after gaining a few more at the trade deadline, but they will still likely find a tough fit.
If the Cardinals do well over the next few weeks and remain in contention, and they do a more traditional soft-buyer stance, they will find themselves in a similar position this offseason, except they won’t have additional prospects from a deadline sale and will have likely cut a little bit into their depth as buyers.
If the Cardinals do well over the next few weeks, they need to buy and they need to buy big for 2017 and at least 2018. That might mean trading off the major league roster. That might mean moving on from some prize prospects, but if the Cardinals want to contend this year and next, it is time to admit the all-high-floor approach needs changing. I think the Cardinals did not plan for this approach, but they forced it upon themselves when some big acquisitions fell through.
That’s why if Josh Donaldson is made available, the Cardinals need to jump on it. He would be a vast improvement over what the Cardinals have, and anybody who says otherwise is not looking objectively at the Cardinals, Donaldson or both. Manny Machado would be nice, but the Orioles are unlikely to sell. It might be time to revisit Jose Quintana. Take a good, long look at Giancarlo Stanton even with his massive contract.
Make more than one move if it is out there. The Cardinals have the money. They have the talent and depth in the majors and minors to make something happen. They just have to get some wins over the next two weeks so that they can transform their future. The Cardinals might be fine by doing nothing, and they can put together another 85-win team next season without much difficulty, but the team has a real chance to win this season and increase those odds for next year. Let’s hope they go for it.