Are the Cardinals paying the price for the lack of a long-term vision?

After three straight seasons of missing the playoffs, this season’s edition of the Cardinals doesn’t feel much different than what we’ve seen before. For all the talk over the last few years of improving the team, the team’s performance on the field has yet to make a substantial leap forward.

Many assumed that the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt would bring such a leap. But the Cardinals already got some of the best production in the league at first base. Considering how it moves Matt Carpenter to third base, the Cardinals’ 1B/3B combo was the 4th best in baseball last season. The front office effectively dealt four players to Arizona to upgrade their best offensive position.

I argued over the winter that Goldschmidt’s biggest contribution would come defensively where much of the season was handled by Jose Martinez, who struggled defensively. That’s proven to be the case. Last season they were 20th with a -4 defensive runs saved at first base. So far this season they are 13th with a +1 defensive runs saved. My question was how that defense would play out in the standings. Answer: Not meaningfully so far.

The problem for the front office is that it’s really easy to sit and look at the what-ifs. Tommy Pham is hovering around a .300/.400/.500 season, which would be his second in three years, something only seven players have done in the last decade. Luke Voit is looking like he’s going to be an All Star starter. Luke Weaver was off to a better start than any Cardinals’ starting pitcher before a UCL injury. And, based on his start to the season, Carson Kellywould be the second best hitter if you plugged him into the current Cardinals lineup.

Derrick Goold wrote a column over the weekend on the Cardinals’ recent struggles on the trade market. And I found this quote interesting.

“I do feel like sometimes we’ve traded to trade,” acknowledged John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “I don’t know if that’s been in our best interests. There’s a lot of pressure to do something when you’re playing around .500, that action is better than inaction. I think we’ve succumbed to that.”

This is the point where I roll my eyes a little bit because basically, John Mozeliak is blaming the fans for asking the front office to do something to improve the team. So they did something for the sake of doing something and it blew up in their face. I hate to say it, but it also fits nicely into my belief that the front office lacks a strong vision of what they want the Cardinals to be.

Why do I think they lack a strong vision? Because if they had one, there’d be far less uncertainty.

You see uncertainty at every trade deadline and every winter while the Cardinals talk about how they’re assessing all the options and exploring all the directions they could take the roster. If the Cardinals knew what they wanted, every option would be immediately checked against their vision of the team and discarded if it didn’t move them closer to that vision.

You see uncertainty when they set the goal as winning the division, but when they miss out on the division by 17.5, 9.0, and 7.5 games, they publicly pat themselves on the back for being competitive for a wild card spot. If the goal truly was winning the division, consistent failure would truly not be acceptable.

You see uncertainty when they talk about their pitching depth and then every winter they go stock up the bullpen with guaranteed contracts and keep that pitching depth confined to Memphis. And then when they eventually eat those guaranteed contracts mid-season, that depth comes up and comes through. Then we repeat it all next winter.

You see uncertainty when they commit to Randal Grichuk in center field. And then to Dexter Fowler. And then to Tommy Pham. And then to Harrison Bader. And maybe next to Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas and then Dylan Carlson. If they had a vision of what they wanted to be, they’d stick with one of those guys beyond the first sign of trouble.

You see uncertainty when they talk for years about wanting to acquire a young, left-handed power hitter for their lineup. But when one arrives in free agency, they trade for a right-handed hitter who is 5 years older, isn’t much of an offensive upgrade over what they already have, and give him more money per year than the left-handed hitter was asking for.

You see uncertainty when they call up guys like Ryan HelsleyLane ThomasTommy Edman, and Rangel Ravelo and don’t use them. I’m sure they like the bigger paycheck, but I bet they’d like to put on their uniform for a reason more than once a week.

When Walt Jocketty left the Cardinals after the 2007 season, it was mainly because he and Bill DeWitt Jr. had a difference in vision for the organization. Jocketty viewed the minor league system as trade chips to acquire proven veterans while DeWitt wanted to create a minor league system that developed young, inexpensive and effective talent for their Major League club. He chose Mozeliak to run that vision and over the course of the last 11 seasons, they have been wildly successful at it. But they seem averse to actually trusting it.

It’s never good when you look back and go, “You know, if the Cardinals had just done nothing instead of spending all this money, they’d be in better shape as an organization.”

On Saturday night I once again questioned what the point of hoarding pitching depth was if you were going to keep rolling Michael Wacha out to the mound every five days. I was asked by Tara Wellman whether I felt such a decision was driven more by the organization’s belief in Wacha or their lack of belief in the pitching depth.

Given some of the other decisions they’ve made about prospects, I have to believe that it’s the latter and that they don’t trust the depth they’ve developed. They’ve bounced Helsley around from role to role and roster to roster, often times going unused. Thomas, who hit 27 home runs between Springfield and Memphis last season, has started just one game. Andrew Knizner, the heir apparent to Yadier Molina, started just two games while Molina was out for nearly two weeks. Edman, one of the few legitimate shortstops in the organization, started just one game in 8 days and didn’t even spell the team’s starting shortstop once.

Under Mike Matheny, it made me wonder if there was a disconnect between the front office and the field staff. Now under Mike Shildt, it makes me think there’s just no plan.

But then the question I’m led to is that we’ve seen what guys like Sandy AlcantaraLuke Voit, and Oscar Mercado have all done once they’ve gotten outside the organization. Even Randal Grichuk, who would have been the Cardinals’ best outfield hitter last year based on his OPS+. They’ve all stepped out and when given a real opportunity, flourished.

So if the organization believes in their ability to identify talent and these are the guys they’ve been willing to give away, they must have kept guys who they believe are even better. So where are they?

Are they afraid a guy like Daniel Ponce de Leon might step up into a big league job and play well enough that he blocks someone else?

Because if we as fans can see it, you can bet the players do too. Just look at how some of the recent ex-Cardinals reflect on their time in St. Louis. Grichuk talked how there was no clear path to more playing time in St. Louis after joining Blue Jays. Pham has talked about the organization’s lack of trust in him that led them to start a career first baseman in left field rather than give him an opportunity while still with the Cardinals. Voit has described feeling “stuck” last year to the New York Post this season while with the Yankees.

I can’t imagine that it’s only Voit who has felt stuck in Memphis or only Pham who feels a lack of trust or only Grichuk who feels the difficulty of getting an opportunity.

I feel like I’ve been banging this drum for three or four seasons now, but the Cardinals roster feels cluttered. It feels cluttered because it’s a bunch of misfitting pieces that feel more like the front office is just collecting players than actually trying to build a team.

They need to pick a direction and stick with it. Are they going to spend and go after it like they claimed they were about 2019 after acquiring Goldschmidt? Apparently not. Are they going to build from within and give their young guys plentiful opportunities? Apparently not that either. The result is a team lost in the middle, just like their front office.

Find a vision. Make a plan. Pursue the plan. Win or lose, anything is better than being stuck in the middle.

Stat of the Week

Keeping in line of talking about replacing an under-performing starting pitcher and the quality of the Cardinals’ pitching depth, I took a look at the last five seasons and calculated the ERAs of the starting pitchers who did not make the Opening Day rotations.

2018: 3.78, 224 IP
2017: 5.28, 87 IP
2016: 4.66, 66 IP
2015: 3.02, 205.1 IP
2014: 5.21, 203.2 IP

In each of those years, the replacement starting pitchers put up better numbers than Wacha has seen since May 15th when he exited a start against the Atlanta Braves with a 4.93 ERA.

Play of the Week

This week I’m going to give the play of the week to a Harrison Bader RBI triple that opened up the scoring in the Cardinals 7–1 victory against hte Marlins this week. Wong on base and Bader at the plate. Classic example of speed putting pressure on a defense.

https://www.mlb.com/cardinals/video/elieser-hernandez-in-play-run-s-to-harrison-bader

Who’s Hot

Here’s a look at the top Cardinals hitters over the last 14 days by wRC+ and their MLB ranks among players with at least 30 plate appearances.

  1. Paul DeJong, 129 wRC+ (T-59th in MLB)
  2. Marcell Ozuna, 120 (T-87th)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt, 110 (T-121st)
  4. Dexter Fowler, 106 (T-141st)
  5. Harrison Bader, 102 (T-162nd)

Looking Back

The Cardinals are 36–34 this morning through 70 games. That makes them 87–75 in their last 162 games.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can also find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals8767.565 -
Brewers8470.5453.0
Cubs8272.5325.0
Reds7282.46815.0
Pirates6589.42222.0

Last updated: 09/21/2019

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