What’s the Best Path for the Redbirds?

This piece was co-written by Wrigleyville’s Isaac Bennett and Tommy Meyers.

The Cardinals’ recent signing of Brett Cecil for four years and $30.5 million led to some disparate reactions between BP-Wrigleyville writers. It wasn’t Cecil himself that sparked controversy, nor the details of the contract—which was the kind of deal early in the offseason that’s almost impossible to decipher whether it is a bargain or an overpay. Rather, it was the very idea that the Cards’ should be buying a middle-reliever at all. Let’s debate whether they should continue to add to their core in an attempt to compete, or whether they should tear it down and rebuild.

Why They Should Buy:

While the Cardinals might not have any true stars, what they do have is a solid core of average to above league average players. The Cardinals won 86 games in 2016 and while that fell just short of making the playoffs, by Pythagorean record they were actually two wins worse than they should have been and by Base Runs they were four wins worse.

Injuries and poor roster construction led to many Cardinals players playing out of position for much of the 2016 season. Guys like Jedd Gyorko, Aledmys Diaz and Randal Grichuk were forced to play places they probably weren’t comfortable. As a whole, the offense succeeded for the most part, scoring the third most runs in the National League behind only the Rockies and Cubs. Moving forward, they have pretty much everyone back on offense, minus Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss. If the Cardinals were able to make the right additions, specifically in center field and at shortstop, they would be able to play guys in positions that they’re more comfortable in. This would definitely improve the defense but could also make marginal improvements to the offense as well depending on the acquisition. This would allow them to move Grichuk to his more comfortable position of left field and Diaz off of shortstop, where he probably shouldn’t be.

The story is much of the same on the pitching side. They have solid rotation depth, but might lack another top of the rotation arm unless Alex Reyes can really develop this year. The Cardinals have seven guys for five spots in the rotation including Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, Reyes, Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha. They also have quality arms in the bullpen, lead by Korean import Seung Hwan Oh. After the Cecil addition, the Cardinals also have some quality depth but could still stand to add more. Dipping into the middle end free agent market would allow them to accomplish this without breaking the bank.

The key thing that separates the Cardinals organization and the typical team that should probably rebuild is the amount of revenue they pull in. The Cardinals are near the top of the league in attendance every year, have a new billion dollar television deal and are a top 10 team in baseball in terms of revenue. While some larger revenue teams (Yankees, 2012-14 Cubs) had to rebuild because of an aging core and declining performance from their players, the Cardinals don’t have a larger number of aging players (Pretty much just Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina). Because of this, I feel that they should add to their already talented core through trade or free agency and work to compete in the coming years.

- Tommy Meyers

Why They Should Sell:

The Cardinals are a decent team with a respected group of veterans. They have interesting young players in Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes and Aledmys Diaz. There are most certainly fragments of an interesting team with valuable assets here. They also have a stunningly great track record over the past 16 seasons, but that may be tainting the perspective of the franchise. It isn’t that they cannot make the playoffs, it’s simply that the rules have changed and winning a Wild Card isn’t worth aiming for anymore. Now, it’s certainly plausible they could win the Central Division at some point in the next five years, but with an absolutely dominant Cubs team and a younger and talented Pirates team also inhabiting the Central, odds are that they will not do so.

So, does the group of veterans under contract give them a good chance of competing with some key additions? In my opinion, they arguably do not. For 2017, the Cards’ have around $122 million committed to the following 14 players: Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter, Brett Cecil, Lance Lynn, Zach Duke, Jedd Gyorko, Jonathan Broxton, Seung-Hwan Oh, Kolten Wong, Aledmys Diaz and Jaime Garcia. Collectively, that group provided about 33 WARP in 2016, which isn’t a terrible number when considered on a $/WARP basis. But here’s the kicker, the average age of that group is 31 years old. Can it reasonably be expected that this group will perform at a similar or greater level as Father Time steals another year? Also, consider that Jedd Gyorko contributed more than 10 percent of this total. Is he a player that should be counted on, or is he a more valuable as a fantastic candidate to trade at the top of his possible market?

What I find most interesting among this group is that only Gyorko (28), Leake (29) and Lynn (29.5) fall between 26 and 30 years old. Gyorko is an obvious trade candidate, as he shouldn’t be expected to repeat his 2016 performance. Leake is on a long term deal, and likely isn’t going anywhere immediately as he doesn’t have surplus value. The Cardinals could wait until a strong stretch of performance from Leake, and then strike at an upcoming trade deadline when teams get desperate. Lynn is only under control through 2017, and is another obvious trade candidate should he recover from Tommy John surgery and pitch well next season. The pronounced age gap between their veterans and young players allow for a unique sort of “turbo” rebuild, in which their costly and aging veteran core is dealt off for younger players and prospects, while their younger collection including Diaz, Wong, Martinez, Reyes, Piscotty and Grichuk are kept to build around in the future.

It is clear the Cardinals have a tall task competing with the Pirates and especially Cubs for the next several years. It’s going to take surprising contributions from many veterans (which admittedly they do seem to be oddly proficient at getting), and the immediate emergence of several young players. Instead, if they made the painful decision to part with franchise stalwarts Carpenter, Wainwright, Molina and Peralta while they still have value—like the Pirates are rumored to be doing with Andrew McCutchen—and also moved sell-high players in Broxton, Oh and Gyorko, they could return a cache of young talent desperately needed to contend with the rising systems of the Reds and Brewers. While I don’t believe this proud franchise will choose to sell when it still seems like they can compete, I believe they are facing long odds for the next several years, and would be much better served trading their veterans while they are still valuable. In 36 months, as the Cubs are beginning to see the end of the road for their dominant collection of talent, the Cardinals could be ready to capitalize on their sacrifice today to be a strong contender again.

- Isaac Bennett

Lead photo courtesy Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username