A couple years ago, SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee took a look at what every MLB team would look like if free agency and trades did not exist. It’s an interesting exercise for looking into a team’s ability to develop MLB-caliber talent across all positions.
While a team can patch up weak spots via free agency or trade (for instance, the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals that Brisbee recreated in this exercise could no longer include free agent signing Mike Leake, trade acquisition Adam Wainwright, or little-of-both-columns Matt Holliday), this examines a team’s capacity for homegrown talent rather bluntly. The 2016 Cardinals team felt about right at the time, with only a few minor quibbles really possible, but things have changed. So here is an updated version of the Cardinals roster, using only players who originally signed with the Cardinals as draftees or international free agents:
Catchers: Nothing changes much here, as the top two catchers remain as they are in reality—Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly. While Molina is no longer projected to be the legitimate National League MVP candidate he was in 2012 and 2013, he is still projected around the lower half of the top ten of MLB catchers, combining average-ish, perfectly good for a catcher offense with terrific defense. Kelly is young and unproven but when one man has occupied the position for over a dozen years, it becomes hard to produce a ton of proven commodities behind the plate.
Infield: While Matt Carpenter’s primary position has switched from third base to first base, he occupies third base in this exercise because alternatives are somewhat limited. Of course, I say this as someone who wouldn’t be opposed to playing Carpenter at third base in reality if not for Jedd Gyorko (who was drafted by the San Diego Padres and thus is ineligible for this particular roster). The middle infield remains the same as the projected Cardinals middle infield—second baseman Kolten Wong and shortstop Paul DeJong. At first base is Luke Voit, which feels a bit underwhelming. In and of itself, Jedd Gyorko would probably be a better first base option than Voit, and that’s not even adjusting for the defensive upgrade that would come from flipping Carpenter and Gyorko. The similar personnel make this not a blowout but the material edge goes to the 2018 Cardinals.
Outfield: The starting outfield is probably the strength of the 2018 Cardinals, but only one of the starters, Tommy Pham, was drafted by the Cardinals—Marcell Ozuna was originally a Florida (turned Miami) Marlin while Dexter Fowler was drafted by the Colorado Rockies. Pham will start in center field for this team (as with the 2018 Cardinals), while a familiar face, now-Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty, will occupy right field. In left field is former Cardinals pitching prospect David Peralta, who has become a serviceable (and, in 2015, excellent) starting outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks. While the Peralta/Pham/Piscotty outfield is fine, it includes one player (Piscotty) traded away because he couldn’t crack the actual starting lineup and while Peralta, a latter-day Rick Ankiel, is a wonderful story, his MLB resume isn’t as strong as Ozuna’s. Advantage: Reality.
Bench: In addition to the aforementioned Kelly (a push), the bench includes two more players who may have bench roles with the 2018 Cardinals—infielder Greg Garcia and outfielder Harrison Bader. Garcia is perhaps more valuable on this version of the team because he is probably the best defensive third baseman on the Original Cardinals roster, but that doesn’t actually make him better. And in terms of fourth outfield options, the team has less depth—even if Bader wins the fourth outfield job, it’d be nice to have Tyler O’Neill (drafted by the Seattle Mariners) available. The other two bench players are Matt Adams, now of the Washington Nationals (he and Voit can play rock-paper-scissors over who gets de facto fifth outfielder duty), and now-Toronto Blue Jays infielder Aledmys Diaz. These two replace Jose Martinez (who I’m really going to miss) and possibly Luke Voit, depending on how many position players and pitchers the Cardinals carry. I’m giving the slight edge to the real Cardinals because I’m a Jose Martinez cape, but if you want to side with Aledmys Diaz and providing a reliable contingency plan in case of Paul DeJong turning into a pumpkin, that’s fine.
Rotation: Out goes Adam Wainwright (Atlanta Braves) and Miles Mikolas (San Diego Padres) and in come Jack Flaherty and Our Old Friend (TM) Lance Lynn. Both Flaherty and Lynn actually project ahead of Wainwright or Mikolas, though not by an astronomical amount. Lynn is a good bounce-back candidate, but so is Adam Wainwright. Mikolas is interesting but Flaherty is interesting and also younger. I’ll side with the organically-grown Cardinals of Flaherty and Lynn, though somewhat dispassionately.
Bullpen: Top seven relievers removed from the Cardinals’ current bullpen depth chart: Dominic Leone (Seattle Mariners), Brett Cecil (Toronto Blue Jays), Matthew Bowman (New York Mets), and Bud Norris (Houston Astros). Enter Joe Kelly (now of the Boston Red Sox), Sam Freeman (Atlanta Braves), Seung Hwan Oh (Toronto Blue Jays), and John Brebbia (who is the #8 pitcher on the current depth chart). Looking at 2017 results, the current Cardinals have a clear edge—Leone and Cecil were easily the two best by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, while Brebbia and Oh were the two worst (however, Brebbia had a 2.44 ERA, in contrast to his much worse 4.13 fielding-independent pitching). Leone is a strong regression candidate, but I’m still giving the edge to the current bullpen. It’s usually fine!
Every MLB player started somewhere, so totaling the quality of the thirty teams either in reality or by where players originally began should be a zero sum game if not for one important caveat—selling from positions of strength and adding to positions of weakness. Current teams should be better because they should more efficiently allocate resources. And the Cardinals are, on the whole, a better team than in a world in which they could keep (and only keep) players who originally signed with them.
For what it’s worth, the Chicago Cubs team would be substantially different. They would lose two starting infielders (Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell), their all-purpose utility man (Ben Zobrist), their defensive stalwart right fielder (Jason Heyward)...oh, and their entire rotation. But they would also have dibs on Chris Archer and Josh Donaldson.
There is no right or wrong way to build a team, but the relatively similar but almost undeniably worse Original Cardinals roster implies the Cardinals’ well-established philosophy—draft and develop good, young players while supplementing them occasionally, but not at the cost of the former group—is exactly what is happening. One could argue that the Cardinals need to be more aggressive—trade an Alex Reyes or an Andrew Knizner or a Jordan Hicks and add to the Major League product—but one could also argue the Cardinals just need to draft better. Then again, consistently drafting in the second half of the first round thanks to continued success makes it more difficult to acquire generational talent. In which case trades and free agency are helpful.