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The Cardinals are still good. The lack of a superstar keeps them from being great.

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The Cardinals remain a strong organization, but being legitimate title contenders may require some outside help.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It is a testament to the strength of the recent run of the St. Louis Cardinals that last season’s 83-79 record was the organization’s worst in a decade, when the 2007 club, not radically different from the 83-78 Cardinals team which faded in the second half and then got inexplicably hot in October to win the franchise’s 10th World Series, played more like the second-half 2006 Cardinals than the first-half version.

Following 2007, general manager Walt Jocketty was fired, assistant GM John Mozeliak was hired, and the organization, which had spent the better part of a decade incrementally extending its competitive window through trading parts of its often-thin farm system for big-league talent (Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen being the most successful examples of this strategy), re-committed to building from within.

Prior to the 2006 championship season, Baseball America ranked the Cardinals’ farm system as the 21st-best in baseball—it was their highest ranking of the 21st century to that point. From 2002 through 2005, the system ranked 30th, 28th, 28th, and 30th. They entered 2011 with a similarly mediocre outlook, ranking 24th (though an improvement from the previous season’s 29th). But even as the Major League product kept improving, the farm kept building—in the next three seasons, the Cardinals ranked 10th, 1st, and 7th.

Organizationally, the Cardinals never seemed more invincible than in 2013. The Major League team won 97 games and made it to the World Series, buoyed largely by homegrown talent. Of the team’s sixteen best players by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, only three were not originally drafted by the Cardinals—starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (acquired via trade from the Atlanta Braves as a prospect), left fielder Matt Holliday (originally acquired via trade at the 2009 deadline and re-signed in 2010 via free agency), and right fielder Carlos Beltran (acquired via free agency as a semi-corresponding move to the loss of Albert Pujols to the Angels).

Matt Carpenter, the team’s best player, moved up the defensive spectrum in 2013—he came up through the minors as a third baseman (and not even an especially acclaimed one defensively) but played a serviceable second base while posting a 140 OPS+, thanks in large part to an eye-popping 55 doubles and a .392 on-base percentage. Yadier Molina received MVP votes for a second consecutive year, continuing to display offensive prowess considered unthinkable when he first arrived in St. Louis as a glove-first, glove-second, bat-only when the NLCS is on the line catcher. In addition to Wainwright, who finished second in NL Cy Young voting to Clayton Kershaw, a foursome of young arms led the rotation—Lance Lynn (at 25 on Opening Day, the oldest of the group), Shelby Miller (who finished 3rd in NL Rookie of the Year voting), Joe Kelly (who faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in one of the more memorable outings of the 2013 season), and Michael Wacha (a 2012 draft pick, acquired as compensation for the loss of Pujols, who was named MVP of the 2013 NLCS).

But the farm system looked deep beyond the young rotation. Trevor Rosenthal, a starter throughout his minor league career, developed into a bona fide superstar in relief, eventually inheriting the role of closer from Edward Mujica. Kolten Wong’s emergence at second base allowed Matt Carpenter to move back to his natural position of third base after the Cardinals traded David Freese following a lackluster 2013. Carlos Martinez emerged as a reliever in 2013 with hopes remaining high that he could eventually become a starter. And most notable was outfielder Oscar Taveras. Here is the quote used by John Sickels when ranking the top Cardinals prospects entering 2013 (he gave Taveras an A grade and ranked him #1 in the system).

The death of Oscar Taveras following the 2014 season, beyond the obvious emotional toll, meant the Cardinals no longer had their future face of the franchise. In order to fill Taveras’s now-vacant spot in right field, the Cardinals traded Shelby Miller, the pitching equivalent to Taveras’s “can’t miss” prospect pedigree, for Jason Heyward. The trade worked out—after a strong 2015, Miller has struggled with health and performance, and Heyward was the team’s best player by WAR during a 100-win season in which the Cardinals needed all of the help they could get—had the Cardinals won “only” 96 games, they’d have trailed both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs in the NL Central standings.

But the trade, absolutely a good trade for the Cardinals, was everything they weren’t supposed to be anymore—Heyward was a one-year rental who went on to sign with the Cubs (thankfully, from a Cardinals perspective, as he has since pushed the limits of how much offense is acceptable for a defensive stalwart in a corner outfield spot).

For eleven years, the Cardinals had Albert Pujols, and that created a level of dependency—the team and its fans became accustomed to having a generational superstar in the lineup every day. And in subsequent years, the lineup hasn’t had a superstar, at least in the mold of Pujols. In Pujols’s worst season in St. Louis, 2011, his OPS+ was 148. In the six seasons since Pujols left, a run in which the Cardinals averaged over 90 wins per season and made the postseason four times, no Cardinal with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title has reached that level.

In 2017, Tommy Pham came closer to Pujols-level offense than any other Cardinal since, registered a 144 OPS+ in 530 plate appearances. He reached the aesthetically pleasing .300/.400/.500 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage threshold (.306/.411/.520) and became the first Cardinals player since 2011 to clear a .900 OPS. Pham was a well-rounded player, stealing a team-high 25 bases (the first Cardinals player to reach that level since Tony Womack in 2004) and playing solid defense primarily in left field, with his fielding strong enough that he is slotted to play in center field in 2018.

Like Pujols, Pham was not a high draft pick (16th round, out of high school), but unlike Pujols, Pham spent nearly a decade in the minors before emerging as a legitimate big-league star. 2017 was Pham’s age-29 season, and following a 2016 season in which he struggled with plate discipline due to the degenerative eye condition keratoconus, he began 2017 with the AAA Memphis Redbirds. First baseman Matt Adams played (in a loose sense of the term) left field before Tommy Pham got a chance in 2017, and Pham noticed.

Tommy Pham was, to put it lightly, a surprise, even for those who believed he deserved to be on the Major League roster. But he wasn’t the only one. The team’s second-best position player by FanGraphs WAR was Paul DeJong, who made his debut (with a home run!) on May 28. DeJong was not a particularly acclaimed prospect, ranking 10th on John Sickels’s pre-2017 rankings. But DeJong, a minor league third baseman who primarily played shortstop with the big-league club, was serviceable in the field and went on to lead the team in home runs. Meanwhile, Tyler Lyons, a ninth-round pick in 2010 and formerly an uninspiring spot starter, took a huge step forward in his second season as a reliever—his ERA was 2.83, his FIP was 2.86, and while Luke Gregerson has been tabbed as closer to start the season, Lyons should merit serious consideration for the role if Gregerson falters.

The Cardinals have found similar success with unwanted parts from other teams, as well. Jedd Gyorko, acquired from the San Diego Padres following the 2015 season, has hit 50 home runs in his two seasons in St. Louis and has been regarded favorably as a defensive third baseman. Jose Martinez, a minor league lifer who was acquired in 2016, had a 134 OPS+ in 307 MLB plate appearances in 2017 and, if Statcast’s xwOBA data is to be believed, he might actually be better than the raw numbers indicate.

And yet the Cardinals find themselves, for the third consecutive season, as somewhat distant underdogs to the Chicago Cubs for the NL Central crown. The Milwaukee Brewers, who finished ahead of the Cardinals in 2017, have added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to the fold and have no intention of regressing back to the lower tier of the division.

The problem isn’t that the Cardinals stopped doing the Cardinals Devil Magic thing that made them such a universally beloved darling of Baseball Twitter in the early 2010s—it’s that they seemingly only do that. A look through the Cardinals roster reveals a good team, a team that is probably, even with the rise of the Cubs, one of the ten or so most likely teams to win a division title in 2018, but a team which lacks the kind of high-end superstars that a team does not necessarily need to win a World Series, but which make the quest so much easier to fulfill.

By Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, the top projected Cardinals position player by Wins Above Replacement is Marcell Ozuna, acquired via trade from the Miami Marlins in December after attempts to acquire Giancarlo Stanton were stymied by Stanton’s (to be clear, well within his rights) refusal to waive his no-trade clause. It was a smart acquisition—the top prospect sent to Miami, Sandy Alcantara, has electric stuff but was not in the Alex Reyes or Jack Flaherty tier of Cardinals pitching prospects. It was the sort of trade contending teams make to bolster their lineups, though ideally not the sort of trade contending teams make to add their best hitter.

The word that can best describe most Cardinals acquisitions of the last few off-seasons is, depending on your worldview, “fine” or “underwhelming”. Trading Alcantara, an exciting though extremely raw outfield prospect in Magneuris Sierra, and two lesser prospects for Marcell Ozuna? It’s fine...but it’s not Stanton. Signing Miles Mikolas, a former MLB washout who excelled in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball over the last three seasons? Fine...but the excitement cannot be compared to the excitement Los Angeles Angels fans felt upon acquiring the most vaunted NPB-to-MLB free agent of the off-season, Shohei Ohtani.

When the Cardinals signed Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million free agent contract in January 2010, most fans assumed it would remain the most expensive contract in Cardinals history for no more than two years, when the team would inevitably sign Albert Pujols to a ten-year, $800 billion contract with a vesting option in which he could receive an 11th year and the Gateway Arch. But they didn’t sign Pujols, nor did they sign Max Scherzer, nor David Price, nor Jason Heyward, nor did they inherit the contract of Giancarlo Stanton, nor did they trade for Josh Donaldson nor Manny Machado, nor did they sign a free agent this off-season for more than $15.5 million.

Part of the problem for the Cardinals is lack of glaring weaknesses—Adam Wainwright had a concerning 2017 and his best years may be behind him, but as a #4 or #5 starter, he isn’t asked to carry the team into October. The acquisition of Ozuna was followed later that day by trading outfield incumbent Stephen Piscotty, who is only projected for 1.2 fewer WAR than Ozuna by ZiPS. Had the Cardinals signed Yu Darvish or Eric Hosmer this off-season, they would not have been replacing cataclysmic black holes, but decent MLB players.

The Cardinals need to go big in the 2018 off-season, and they should have the money to do it. Adam Wainwright’s $19.5 million salary comes off the books, and the club has yet to heavily reinvest the revenue from a ten-figure TV deal signed in 2015. And if the Cardinals were willing, as by all accounts they were, to add nearly $300 million in potential future financial obligations to Giancarlo Stanton, they should be in on Bryce Harper. They should be in on Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and every other top free agent on the market.

2017-18 lacked a transcendent free agent, one that when considering the quality of his replacement would substantially improve the Cardinals’ odds of bringing a 12th World Series title to St. Louis. 2018-19 should bring several, and the Cardinals should be finding room in the budget right now to accommodate the largest contract in franchise history. The lack of consistent, year-in-year-out superstar has been what has taken the Cardinals back a step, from front-line World Series contender to a team hoping for a Wild Card spot. The chance to land such a player will arrive eight months from now and the Cardinals should pounce on it. They’re doing everything else right.