With apologies to the defending world champion Chicago Cubs, it's probably true that the St. Louis Cardinals are the class of the NL Central, the measuring stick of all other success in the division if not the entire National League. Since they joined the Central in 1994 they've had five losing seasons, two of which came in '94 and '95. They've been consistently well-run, usually in the mix, and have the Best Fans in Baseball (tm). But this year has been a bit disappointing, with St. Louis sitting in third place in the division and seven and a half games out of the Wild Card. The Cubs just got an amazing new pitcher in Jose Quintana, and the Brewers are a year or so ahead of their rebuild timeline. But despite the uphill battle they face, there have been murmurs that St. Louis might buy in the run-up to the trade deadline. Contending is fun, and good players are fun. But at this point, we have to wonder what the Cardinals' plan is.
I have always been a proponent of being good as often as possible. It doesn't always work out, and it won’t yield the incredible glut of talent that teams who tank hard (like the Astros and Cubs) can end up with, but it makes the year-in, year-out experinece much better for the fans. So on one hand, I like the rumors of the Cardinals being attached to players like Marcell Ozuna or Christian Yelich or (the now Arizona-bound) JD Martinez. Teams should pursue good players at all times, and both Yelich and Ozuna in particular are young and very talented. They should bring excellent value to whatever team they're on for several years. The issue is that Ozuna and Yelich are going to cost big time prospects precisely because they're good, young Major Leaguers.
The other day, in an interview with the St Louis Post Dispatch, longtime Cardinals GM and now President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak noted, "“When I look at the future we have to embrace our farm system.”
It’s statement that flies in the face of any rumored plans to turn prospects into major leaguers. It's not the wrong path to take, necessarily; flipping prospects for big leaguers, I mean. After all, at their core, prospects are assets, used to make teams better. That doesn't always mean with their own talents, but with their potential future value to others as well. I don't think many Indians fans are too miffed about turning Clint Frazier into Andrew Miller.
In that interview, Mozeliak went on to say, "For us, unless there was this one thing that we felt could change the outcome of our season, then I might look at it a little differently. But we haven’t been able to identify what that one thing might be.”
This second part is why the rumors of the Cards' pursuit of any impactful, tradable players is a bit hard to understand: they don’t have any obvious holes to fill. Yes, Yelich and Ozuna in particular would become fixtures in their outfield for years to come. Their own growth would dovetail perfectly with a new, post-Yadi age in St. Louis. Both are at least competent defensively (Ozuna worth 15 defensive runs over his career according to FanGraphs, Yelich with a good arm in left field) and have each shown flashes of being stupendous offensively. Ozuna has been worth 4 WAR already this season, and practically is going toe-to-toe with Giancarlo Stanton in the power department for the Marlins (23 homers to Stanton's 28, .246 ISO to his teammate's .305) and has actually been a smidge more impactful offensively, with a 144 wRC+ compared to Stanton's 140. Yelich isn’t having quite the same season Ozuna is (1.8 WAR so far, 104 wRC+), but he’s shown the potential to flourish into a 6ish win player as he matures, with a 130 wRC+ across 659 PAs a year ago.
The Cardinals do not have a very good outfield right now, or a young one. They gave a bunch of money to Dexter Fowler, a 31-year old coming off a career season. He’s fine, but all those millions for a 108 wRC+ and middling defense is not what was hoped for, especially with Fowler on the downhill side of the aging curve. Two other starters, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, are young, but both are currently dinged up and on the DL, and both were ineffective offensively before that (wRC+s of 73 and 99 respectively). Tommy Pham is their best offensive player right now, with a 144 wRC+ in 63 games, but he’s 29 and may simply be showing that type of Cardinal Magic we saw in David Freese or Allen Craig, where they explode onto the scene but soon fade for various reasons. Piscotty and Grichuk were very good not too long ago, and might find their form of a year or two ago. But if you expect them to recover, why chase another outfielder?
Adding to that is the issue of non-monetary resources. The Cardinals have decent prospects, but according to Ben Markham of Viva El Birdos’ Aggregate 219 Prospect List for this year, they only have four in the combined top 100 of the major ranking systems, and one of those is Alex Reyes, who recently underwent Tommy John surgery. It’s not a terrible farm system, somewhere in the middle of the pack, but doesn’t pack quite the punch you’d expect to use to acquire young outfielders just entering their primes. Maybe you feel Luke Weaver will be more than a mid-rotation starter, or that Dakota Hudson will fully flourish into an ace, or that catcher Carson Kelly can transition fully into a great defensive backstop. Do the Marlins? It seems silly to move young stars for simply question marks. They’re closer now to being a legit contender than they have been since Miguel Cabrera and Josh Beckett played in Pro Player Stadium.
Between aged keystone players like Yadier Molina (34), Matt Carpenter (31), the aforementioned Fowler, and seven of their top ten pitchers in innings this year (with only the other three being under 27), it’s hard to point to a defined, shining future in St. Louis. Even the addition of a few extra wins in the short to medium term with Yelich or any outfielder on the market this summer doesn’t move the needle that much, not with the growth in their division and around the league. Especially with the cost that is usually attached to deadline trades, the Cardinals could soon find themselves in a stars-and-scrubs setup like the White Sox tried recently (before it collapsed badly). The more angles used to examine any kind of impact player deal, the less it seems feasilble for the Cards.
Are the Cardinals even allowed to go full rebuild? I feel like that hasn’t happened in my lifetime. Finding a Pujols in the 13th round certainly helped with that, and Dave Duncan turned chaff into gold on the pitching staff for seemingly decades, but Adam Wainright is 35. Carlos Martinez is incredible, Michael Wacha is intermittent and probably a mid-rotation starter at best, and Mike Leake is fine. You’d think that’s where more pitching prospects come in, rather than flipping them for current position players. Obviously Reyes comes back next year, giving them a nice four, but you need more than four starters. They need position player talent, and that doesn’t mean moving Matt Carpenter back to second as was recently mentioned. Again, who the hell is Tommy Pham? Or Jed Gyorko for that matter? Can you build a team around them?
The Cards have been trending in the wrong direction record-wise since their 100-win season two years ago. Their Pythagorean winning percentage is .518, so they’ve been unlucky, and that’s something to bolster hope for a better second half and actually challenging the Cubs and Brewers for the division. It’s just odd to see them the underdog, and so far down now. They aren’t measuring up to their vaunted aura. They’re the lucky ones, the team with history and Doing It The Right Way on their sides, whatever the hell that means. Maybe something will break right for them; it always has in the past.
Between that aged-in-the-wrong-places roster, with holes where there aren’t 30-year-olds, and a farm system in need of a major breakthrough star somewhere, the Cardinals are running out of solutions. But one thing seems sure: a deadline trade isn’t on the list of fixes. A “reloading” year would be better branding than a “rebuild,” and might stave off the complaints of the fans, but you can’t do that for too long. The more a team waits the worse it gets; just look at the Phillies now. This is why you pay Mozeliak what you do, and give him that power as he’s been granted. A course must be set, and soon. Otherwise, what are we doing in St. Louis?