Take a Stroll Down Cardinals Way

The Cardinals Way is synonymous with winning, or at least sustained competitiveness, and the Cards took a step in that direction for 2019 when they traded for one season of Paul Goldschmidt (pending a possible contract extension). While that was the biggest move St. Louis made this off-season it wasn’t the only move. For some, change is strange and frightening, but for Cardinal Faithful change was much needed after three consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance (which is not the Cardinal way). But are the Cardinals better for 2019 and/or better for the post-2019 future? They certainly made a move that will help their offense, but did they do enough to improve their pitching?

There is no way Jose Martinez is happy about the Cardinals’ off-season. He went from finally winning and earning a full-time job on a major league team (dude is 30) and experiencing his first full season in the majors as a starter, to having really no place to go. Jose does one thing – he hits the ball and hits is hard (so maybe that’s two things). He may do other things well, like playing guitar, gardening, or recycling, but his baseball skills are all about the bat. His “best” position on the field is first base and he put together a -5 DRS last season. Martinez also played outfield a little, but that didn’t go well either, costing the Cards -6 DRS in much less time. The eye test is wildly in agreement with the stats as Martinez is considered to be a really bad fielder. When you hit as well as Martinez does (a 130 wRC+ through his first 915 MLB plate appearances) you deserve to play in the majors, although in his case, the AL would be a better fit where he could be a DH and emergency fielder (with a first baseman’s glove stored in a glass case with a hammer hanging next to it). If you have been hiding in a cave in the desert you may not know that St. Louis has a baseball team and said team – the Cardinals, not the Browns – traded for Paul Goldschmidt during the off-season. Mr Goldschmidt has a pretty nifty trophy collection that includes four Silver Slugger trophies for the best hitting first baseman in the NL as well as three Gold Gloves. Goldschmidt’s collection of hardware indicates that Jose Martinez will not be seeing much time at first base. Ok, but surely Jose of the Bat must play somewhere so that he is allowed to hit, yes? Well that is a two part question. If we are talking about him playing in the field in 2019, it is going to be mostly in a corner outfield spot, which, as we have established would be a mistake of Hanley Ramirez proportions. If we are talking about the future, well, there has been talk about the National League adopting the DH (cough – abomination – cough) so maybe the Cardinals think that is going to happen for the start of the 2020 season, and since Martinez got a late start on his service time, he won’t be a free agent until 2023. The Cardinals can afford to keep his bat around in hopes that they will have their DH ready to roll when that happens. He will need playing time to keep his batting skills sharp, so that means some time in the outfield, some time at first base, regular work as a pinch hitter, and time as a DH during inter-league play – maybe 400 at bats depending on how often the Cardinals are willing to sacrifice team defense a bit. To answer our guiding question here – yes – first base will be improved although mostly on defense and on the base paths. Goldschmidt is an upgrade over Martinez but not as big an upgrade as he would have been with, say, the Rockies. In addition to making it harder to get Jose Martinez and his thunderous bat into the lineup, there are other consequences to Goldschmidt’s insertion into the everyday lineup.

Matt Carpenter can still hit. I know it didn’t look like it in the first month of 2018 where his slash line was .155/.305/.274, but Carpenter finished the season with his best power numbers (36 home runs) and right in line with his total offensive output (wRC+ of 138). He finished 9th in MVP voting for his offensive exploits and is a mainstay of the Cardinals at the age of 33. Carpenter has been positionally flexible throughout his career, although first base seems to be the best fit for him at this point, even though he was mostly the starting third baseman in 2018. The defensive metrics have had a mixed view of him at 3rd where last year he had a DRS of 6 but a UZR/150 of -2.5, but overall his career metrics are a DRS of -2 and a UZR/150 of -3.8. He isn’t great but he doesn’t kill the team with his glove. That said, he is, as mentioned above, 33, so it is hard to see him maintaining his current level of ability in the field for much longer. Moving Carpenter to first has been a talking point for a couple seasons, but that is not an option for 2019 as everyone and their brother will be competing for the table scraps of playing time available when Goldy needs a breather, or God forbid, gets hurt. So the “fallout” from acquiring Goldy is that Carpenter sticks at 3rd base. That likely would have happened anyway because at the moment no one in the Cards organization is knocking down the door to be the 3rd baseman of the future, but it does block players of value on the roster from playing time. Jedd Gyorko isn’t a youngster but he is the best third baseman on the team and is a decent offensive piece with a wRC+ last year of 110 in line with his last two seasons of 112 and 112 (again). He isn’t a star, but he is good enough to start at 3rd for several teams and now it is unclear where he will find playing time. Gyorko is 3 years younger than Carpenter and has an option year in 2020. He also has some positional flexibility, so he will be a good bench piece for the Cardinals.

Yairo Munoz is a young 3rd baseman – just turned 24 – who has some power and gets on base. In his first taste of the majors he managed a wRC+ of 106 in 329 plate appearances. His defensive work at 3rd wasn’t pretty but most of his time in the minors was spent at shortstop so it’s possible that he could learn the position with enough reps at the hot corner. Like Gyorko, he has the ability to play multiple positions including 2nd, short, and the outfield at various levels of skill (the metrics hated him equally everywhere), but his playing time is likely to be limited in the majors in 2019 since Gyorko covers most of the spots he plays as the reserve. He has a great arm, so it makes sense to eventually give him a shot at 3rd base since Paul DeJong is locked in at shortstop and Kolten Wong is the starter at 2nd. DeJong and Wong are both excellent defenders. Between them they put up 33 DRS in the middle of the Cardinals infield last season. The pair has some warts at the plate but in a somewhat down season for both of them they still managed to be right around 100 wRC+. Munoz could turn into a starting 3rd baseman someday although that day won’t be in 2019 with the Cardinals since Carpenter needs to be in the lineup everyday and he will occupy 3rd base, since Goldschmidt is blocking him from playing 1st base. It is more likely now that Munoz will spend the season at triple-A or turn into a second option at the multi-tool reserve spot getting limited playing time at second, short, and third. Nobody is saying that having Paul Goldschmidt on your team is going to hurt the club, but when you make a trade you need to look at the whole picture including what it does to other players on the team. The Cardinals traded to fill a position that didn’t need filling and so diminished the return by burying valuable parts like Munoz and Gyorko, and locking themselves in positionally. Be excited that you have Goldschmidt but understand that this wasn’t a 6 win gain you just made.

Moving beyond the Goldy implications, the other big move the Cardinals made was the signing of Andrew Miller, probably the most famous middle reliever in baseball based on his postseason performance from 2016. Miller had a mediocre 2018 if you compare him to, uh, Andrew Miller. He still fanned just short of 12 batters per 9, but all his other numbers went south quite a bit including his walk rate which jumped to 4.2 per 9, up dramatically from his 2014 through 2017 rates. Miller suffered through a knee injury and a shoulder impingement so if he is healthy he could return to form, although “if he’s healthy” combined with his age – 34 for most of the 2019 season – should have Cardinals management and fans alike feeling the jibblies at least a bit. The Cardinals have had horrible luck with their free agent relief pitcher signings of late, including Greg Holland’s nightmare of 2018, and the injury-fest that describes the Brett Cecil/Luke Gregerson signings. There are some exciting young pieces in the Cardinals pen, like Jordan Hicks, who at 22 throws his fastball at over 100 MPH. Last season was his first above single-A and it showed, as he walked way too many batters and wasn’t really effective or particularly useful. Ryan Helsley might also see time in the Cardinals pen if he is healthy and the Cards aren’t above using him in the pen instead of continuing to develop him as a starter at triple-A. Dakota Hudson is another hard throwing young reliever who hasn’t put it all together in the majors yet – he walked close to 6 per 9 innings in his debut in 2018, but that probably doesn’t reflect his actual ability if you believe his 2017 and 2018 triple-A numbers where the rate was closer to 3-3.5. If Miller takes on most of the high leverage spots out of the pen, it might actually help the young flamethrowers develop without the pressure of closing or setting up. Unlike the Goldschmidt situation where quality players are being blocked or being forced out of their regular positions, the bullpen needed rescuing so the signing of Miller is likely to help the team now, and from a developmental standpoint.

One thing you may have noticed already is that the Cardinals have aged through these two transactions. Goldschmidt is 31 and Miller is 34. At the major league level the Cardinals look like they are in “win now” mode if you just look at those two moves.  The Goldschmidt deal cost them three young players; Carson Kelly and Luke Weaver both have major league experience and are talented but flawed, at least in the sense that neither has become established yet, and Andy Young just completed his first partial season at double-A and at 24, will likely start the year at triple-A Reno. If you just looked at this deal, it would look like the Cardinals are pushing in a lot of their chips to try to win one more time before rebuilding. But if you look at their moves from the previous season you get a slightly different picture.

The Cardinals made three fairly quiet trades last season to restock the lower and middle ranks of their minor league system. They sent Oscar Mercado to Cleveland for Carter Capel and Jhon Torres. They sent Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay for Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera, and Roel Ramirez, and moved Sam Tuivailala to Seattle for Seth Elledge. Only two of the players they acquired have even reached triple-A, so the moves were made with the future in mind as the Cardinals traded from a depth of outfielders as well as selling off a reliever who had some value, but who the Cardinals felt was expendable moving forward. Torres and Cabrera are now top 10 prospects for the Cardinals. The major league team is older than it was before their off-season moves but the organization set themselves up for the future in the previous off-season so that they could go for it this season without giving up on their future. It was some good planning for sustained success, which is very much the Cardinals way.

St. Louis has maintained their youth up the middle with DeJong, Wong, and Bader, with Molina holding down the catching position while Andrew Knizner prepares to take over for him. They have some youth on the horizon at 3rd base (Eli Montero and Nolan Gorman are both top 5 prospects for the Cards and top 100 prospects in all of baseball, but still a few seasons away). They have a young player in his prime to play right field in Marcell Ozuna, and an even younger player in Tyler O’Neill in another corner outfield spot who has yet to fully establish himself as a starter, although he slugged 9 homers in his 130 at bat MLB debut. So their position players are all over the spectrum in terms of age and are at various stages of their careers, although their biggest stars are on the wrong side of 30 in Molina, Carpenter, and Goldschmidt so they need someone to take the mantle moving forward – someone like Ozuna or one of the young outfielders. You don’t want your team to age all at the same time – see the Giants of San Francisco – if you intend to contend for a long period of time, so the Cardinals are on the right track here with their position players.

An area where the Cardinals made no moves this off-season is the starting rotation. Adam Wainwright, their former ace, is 37 and has battled injuries and ineffectiveness for a few seasons now. 27 year old Carlos Martinez looked like he might be ready to take over the top rotation spot from Wainwright after three strong seasons in a row (2015-2017), but is now battling injuries of his own. Michael Wacha, who seems like he has been a Cardinal since the Gas House Gang days, is only 27 but he isn’t an ace and is unlikely to turn into one, again in part due to injuries. Alex Reyes was the anointed one who was to be the future ace of the Cardinals but back-to-back arm injuries have clouded the crystal ball for him. Miles Mikolas returned from Japan to throw 200 innings for the Cards with an ERA of 2.83 and a WHIP of 1.07, but Mikolas is 30 so while he was excellent, and an absolute epiphany last season, he probably isn’t going to get better moving forward and he has now had exactly one good season in the majors. If he even repeats his 2018 season the Cardinals will be over the moon, but you would be overly optimistic to count on him to be your ace moving forward. Which leaves us with Jack Flaherty. Flaherty debuted last season as a 22 year old and looked a lot like a future ace, posting an ERA of 3.34 and a WHIP of 1.11 while striking out almost 11 batters per 9. He is the future, and hugely important for the Cardinals pitching staff, even if Miles Mikolas was better last year. St. Louis has a few young arms who still have some development time, but none of them are likely to be aces. John Gant, who was in the rotation last season, has a ceiling of a 3 or a 4, with the usual control caveat. So there are pieces to like already in the rotation but most of the reinforcements are a ways away. Unlike the position players, a key injury or two would throw the rotation into complete disarray because there is little to no depth. Only two of their top 10 prospects are likely to be starting pitchers and one of them (Ryan Helsley) is coming off an arm injury, so likely will be in the pen if he is with the Big Club. The other one – Genesis Cabrera – will probably start the season at triple-A Memphis after not dominating double-A so there is some work there before he is ready to help. There are some starters deeper in the system but nobody who has poked his head up out of the quagmire of uncertainty, so starting pitching is likely to be the Achilles heel of the organization unless they make more moves to shore it up for the present as well as the future.

In terms of their future, the Cardinals, like many teams, will need to work pretty hard to piece together a rotation, probably involving trades and free agency. Their current position players and organizational depth are enough to contend right now and moving forward, but the pitching is going to have to rely heavily on hurlers who have a poor track record of health or who are well past their prime. The future is reasonably bright for the Cardinals but its not without some dark clouds on the horizon. It is exciting to have a guy like Paul Goldschmidt in the fold, even if he is a free agent in a year, but the Cardinals may have to spend their resources on starting pitchers sooner rather than later.

 

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

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