Is the "Cardinal Way" more than just a brand of on the field baseball?
As I sit and watch the Seattle Mariners dismantle their team, one of many organizations who have opted to do so in the past two years, I can't help but wonder why the Cardinals haven't opted to do so themselves. Would it not have been beneficial for the Cardinals in the past 3-4 years to dismantle what value we had and started a new?
Some cynics may sit and ask, "What value was there in those teams?"
Some obvious choices are: Kolten Wong and Tommy Pham (earlier than he was). More adventurous names would include: Michael Wacha, Dexter Fowler, and Matt Carpenter. This could also include some passes in the free agent or trade market, including Marcel Ozuna. The one name in this scenario who I think all Cardinals fans would deem untouchable is Yadier Molina, more out of selfish desire to see him in a red bird uniform than a need for him on a rebuilding team.
Trading Kolten Wong is a near impossible task at times, due in large part to his streaky hitting. While his defense will net him a base return of a mid level talent, a guy who would be a big league role player, his offense is what drives his real value, and his ability to get into hot streaks could leave Mo guessing at how long it last. An overestimation can mean another decline in value, and further eliminate the desire or ability to move him.
Tommy Pham came scorching off of a 2017 campaign in which he hit .306, with 23 home runs and 73 RBIs while posting a .931 OPS. All of these numbers are career highs, although Pham's late hot streak in Tampa allowed him to get close again in 2018. For the Cardinals, however, their window to trade Pham was after 2017, when he seemed poised to come out red hot in 2018. In passing, the Cardinals allowed another players value to drop.
Trading a guy like Michael Wacha presents a lot of problems when it comes to determining return. With the injury issues that have plagued Wacha, he is unreliable, but when he is healthy, he can be extremely effective. In 2018, Wacha posted a 3.20 ERA while compiling an 8-2 record, in only 15 starts, tying a career low. In 2017, Wacha was 12-9, with a 4.13 ERA in 30 starts, tying a career high in starts.
It may seem to reason, that based on this small sample size, Michael Wacha is a guy who can only throw limited innings. As a starter, that is a hard thing to do. And while I don't know that anyone has officially ruled him out of a bullpen role, Cardinals fans like myself have nightmares of the 2014 NLCS where we watched Michael Wacha give up a homer making a relief appearance in what was his only appearance that post season.
While some of this certainly could fall on Mike Matheny, the fact of the matter is that Michael Wacha has never made real appearances out of the bullpen, so no one really knows his value there. This means, that Michael Wacha is a number 4 starter on most teams, 3 at best, a hard guy to get a good return on.
Dexter Fowler has had a rather bumpy tenor in St. Louis, and unfortunately, his signature smile can't really put a sunny spin on the facts. In 2018, Fowler played in only 90 games, batting .180 with 8 home runs, 31 RBIs, and stealing only 5 bases. The cherry on top is that in 2018, Fowler posted a -1.4 WAR.
So certainly, there is no value in trading him at this stage, and any trade involving him would leave the Cardinals eating a significant amount of his contract. The only real window for the Cardinals to move Fowler was after his 2017 season in which he hit .264, with 18 home runs and 64 RBIs, on his way to posting an .851 OPS. Reasonable stats for a middle of the order guy, but with only 7 stolen bases, he wasn't offering any team enough at the top of their order, making any deal for him a loss for the Cardinals.
For the Cardinals in a post Matt Holiday era, the other Matt has stepped up to be the power house of this lineup. And that's not saying much, because outside of Matt Carpenter's salsa fueled hot streak in 2018, he has been an average player, who has yet to find a set role on this team, possibly hurting his effectiveness at times.
Looking at these stats, you can say that the production seen in 2018 were not echoed by his stats in 2016 and 2017. And for anyone who has followed the Cardinals closely, you would agree that it is maybe more accurate to call Yadier Molina power house of this lineup because he has in fact been a very consistent weapon, and is also the one aforementioned untouchable.
Attempts To Go Big
So the Cardinals opted to avoid any possible deals including these guys, opting to take their reasonable production numbers to win enough games to stay relevant in the NL Central. All the while, they stock piled money and resources, signing a lucrative TV contract, and managing to resign current players to team friendly deals, leaving the Cardinals free of any huge liabilities.
The Cardinals have continued to keep their situation fluid, making it easy for them to move guys however they need to, in order to fit the "right" player for a team filled with role players.
Who is Mr. Right you may ask? It's hard to say.
Looking at the guys who have solicited high dollar contract offers from Mo and company, a list of Heyward, Price, Holiday, Stanton (not a money offer, but an acceptance of a giant contract) come to mind immediately. The Cardinals offered 200 million to both Heyward and Price, they were willing to take on north of 200 million for Stanton, and Holiday was the last Cardinals player to grace a 100 million plus contract.
What do they have in common? You tell me.
Heyward was a gold glove outfielder, who before coming to St. Louis was a .270 average guy who might hit 10-15 home runs and give you 60 RBIs. I mean, Heyward really didn't add anything at the plate, with his average OPS before St. Louis south of .800, worse than guys like Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler in 2017. Think about that. In fact, in 2017, Fowler had 7 more home runs, 6 more RBIs, and was .07 percentage points worse than Heyward in batting average, the year before he got traded to St. Louis.
Is this supposed to show that Fowler is that underrated? NO. Is this supposed to show that Heyward is bad? Not necessarily.
Look, the point is, the reason we went after Heyward was due to his defensive prowess, his ticket selling personality, anchored to a below average bat. Wait, stop me if you've heard that before. A Cardinals player who was extremely one dimensional with a personality. If the name Jose Martinez doesn't jump into your mind, we need to talk about what team you watched in 2018. While Heyward wasn't as drastically one dimensional, he's not worth 200 million, and the Cardinals are luckier for his decision to pass.
David Price is an outlier in this group, obviously. He is a pitcher, who was looked at heavily at a time when St. Louis wasn't sure what the future looked like for former ace Adam Wainwright. And after his post season resurgence this year, I don't thin anyone would argue he woudl have hurt our staff.
But with Adam Wainwright still going through a career revival, and the young arms of the Cardinals farm system finally coming up, there is a clear log jam in the rotation, and adding David Price to that for 200 million certainly wouldn't have helped.
Giancarlo Stanton may have been the closest to a sure thing the Cardinals have come to in a deal since I have been following them. That is, at least until Goldschmidt. But I will get there. With Stanton, you were getting an icon in the sport, a mythical god of baseball, with a figure to fit the persona.
Statistically, Stanton gave you the huge, terrifying bat that may not always produce in the average column, but will give you 30+ mammoth home runs, and will allow guys around him to see more pitches. The clear issue here was the price tag that came with this production. However, you could guarantee for at least the next 3-5 years that Stanton would continue to produce at these numbers.
The "Cardinal Way"
I know, you are probably lost. We didn't trade any of these players, we missed out on all of the signings (or marquee trades) we went for. How does any of this tie into the famed "Cardinal Way"?
For me, I always grew up understanding the Cardinal Way as the on-the-field product. The defense, the intangibles, the little things, stop me if you have heard these before. But before you look at these errors or lapses in play, look at the teams that have been built to follow through. More importantly, look at the front office that constructed it.
The John Mozeliak led front office has shown a strong distaste for big money or long term contracts. As I said before, one of the things this front office has done an amazing job of is keeping the assets this team has fluid. No matter the precedence, you cannot tell me that Mo was incapable of trading every player on those teams if the right deal presented itself.
This stingy strategy has placed the Cardinals in an average players market, where signings like Dexter Fowler, and trades like Jedd Gyrko and Matt Adams happen. Even Marcel Ozuna was the third option out of the fire sale of Miami's stacked outfield. But players like Jedd Gyrko and Matt Adams are statistically capable of winning you games.
In a season where your staff included the likes of Jack Flaherty, third in rookie of the year, and Miles Mikolas, 4th in Cy Young Voting, it was easy at times for average offensive numbers to lend themselves to wins, which bolstered a season remiss of marquee wins or streaks that may signify a truly great team.
The Cardinals have sat in a pit of mediocrity now for three years, achieving above .500 seasons, but failing to make the playoffs. But, stay the "Cardinal Way", because the only two people on the now expanded list of recent major off season targets adds a little similarity to the grouping.
Holiday vs. Goldschmidt
Looking at Matt Holiday and Paul Goldschmidt side by side, I think it would be easy to confuse them.
Ok maybe not by looks, but if you compare them on paper, the similarities are clear. Firstly, both men hold the intangibles, like level headed maturity, quiet social lives, and a stability that enable a clubhouse to withstand a post season push. But what they offer statistically is what everyone really cares about.
Looking at the charts, I urge you to focus on two seasons: Matt Holiday's 2007 season, and Paul Goldschmidt's 2013 season. In '07, Holiday hit 36 home runs, with 137 RBIs, while batting .340 and coming in second in MVP voting. In '13, Goldschmidt hit 36 home runs, with 125 RBIs, while batting .302 and finishing second in MVP voting.
Overlooked super stars, who don't mind small markets, and who can offer a legitimate threat in your lineup. A guy who can also do the little things when it comes to situational hitting or defense. While it is a little hard for me to say that with a straight face while thinking of some of Matt Holiday's outfield miscues (2009 NLDS against the Dodgers), but the similarities seem obvious. Consistent production. Reliable players.
The Success of the "Cardinal Way"
A stingy front office has created system that seems almost self reliant. Following this structure, they can keep the Cardinals in the W column often enough to sell tickets. All the while, they test the market looking for that one big guy, the one impact bat.
And while the Cardinals are more than capable of making a push at Bryce Harper, a possibility that almost seems more realistic after the Goldschmidt trade, they have found their guy. And based on the "Cardinal Way", history would tell us the Cardinals will be saving to resign him.
And if Ozuna can return to form, the two headed beast of Goldschmidt and Ozuna could be a real threat for a number of years, but more than that, they would fit the "Cardinal Way". Both of these players can easily be signed to team friendly deals, and even though Ozuna's numbers dipped last year, both players have relatively consistent production, meaning they hold value.
Long story short: the implosions being seen in Seattle, Miami, Toronto even, will seemingly never hit St. Louis under the management of John Mozeliak. This assumes that Mozeliak continues to follow the mold he has created. Stingy, team friendly deals to above average roles players, creating a lineup that any great player can turn into a World Series favorite.
And while many fans may be clamoring for Bryce Harper to be in St. Louis, myself included, the reality is that Mo is way too tempted with the idea of resigning both Ozuna and Goldschmidt, while continuing to look for bullpen upgrades, hint Andrew Miller, moves which would require money. And while I, like many fans, have become frustrated with the down period the Cardinals have recently experienced, it must be compared to other teams.
The morbid gutting and dismantling of a franchise which you love so much will never come to St. Louis. We will not have to bear Orioles 2018 caliber of bad seasons, although I should hope no one ever does again for the sake of baseball.
The Cardinals want to live in mediocrity as their bottom point, while continuing to receive reasonable draft picks that help to bolster the ranks of seasoned veterans, some young guys like Harrison Bader even showing the potential to be a super star.
Only time will tell if the Cardinals are actually out on Harper, but the clear format shown by Mo and company would tell you that it is a safe bet. Irregardless, knock on wood St. Louis fans. It looks like we may be rising from mediocrity.