Why I believe buying is the wrong move for the Cardinals

The Cardinals hit the natural halfway point of the season this week as the league pauses for the All Star Break. They find themselves at 44–44 and 2 games out of a division lead. Of course, they’re also 2.5 games out of last place as the NL Central first to fifth is closer than first to second in every other division in the game.

The NL Central is looking more and more like nobody wants to win it. Since June 1st, the Cardinals are 16–16 and are the only team that doesn’t have a losing record. The Pirates are 16–17, the Reds are 14–16, The Cubs are 16–19, and the Brewers are 15–18. The division there for the taking, yet crazily enough, there’s a part of the fan base that wants to pull the plug and sell.

But there’s also a part of the fan base that wants to spend those prospects and add rentals and veteran players in the hopes of sparking the 2019 Cardinals and taking hold of an NL Central that nobody wants to win. But I worry that buying isn’t the best course of action for the Cardinals, even if they want to win in 2019.

A couple years ago as the organization prepared to cut ties with Matt Holliday, I wrote that it was time for the Cardinals to double down on youth and “throw the kids the keys to the car.” At that time it was for Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, but the organization has flouted it’s “build from within” strategy since John Mozeliak took over as GM. But as much as the phrase “internal options” gets thrown around, they haven’t actually often turned to their minor league system to solve problems. In fact, all that the front office has done in recent years is make it harder for minor league players to make an impact.

Daniel Ponce de Leon has been the Cardinals’ best starter this season and arguably their best pitcher of the last two seasons, regardless of what role you put him in. After three starts this season where he allowed 2 earned runs in 15 innings for a 1.20 ERA, he only found a regular role on the big league team as a reliever after an injury to Jordan Hicks. He’s thrown 3% of the innings, but accounts for 13% of the Cardinals’ pitching WAR.

Tommy Edman has been a spark plug for the Cardinals’ offense since Matt Carpenter hit the disabled list, but Carpenter’s spot is mostly assured upon his return, so what happens with Edman? He’s taken 4% of the plate appearances this season, but accounts for 7% of the position player WAR. I’d like to believe they’ll carve out a role for him as long as he keeps hitting, but we’ve seen what’s happened to other players just this season.

A guy like Giovanny Gallegos has proven invaluable to the bullpen, but he too didn’t make the big league roster out of spring training.

But even for all these guys you have guys like Lane Thomas, the Cardinals’ minor league home runs leader last season, who spent 8 days on the big league roster in May, while the offensive tanked, without taking a single plate appearance. And Ryan Helsley who has had his role bounced around and made a few trips between St. Louis and Memphis and gone unused too.

Over the last decade, the Cardinals have a good track record when handing opportunities to young players. In 2011, a young guys like Jon Jay and David Freese came up big when given a chance. In the following years, guys like Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, and Lance Lynn would emerge out of the Cardinals minor leagues as unheralded players who would step into roles and make impacts and played roles in the Cardinals being so successful post-Pujols.

And over the last few years, when the minor league system has been called upon to help right the ship, the team has generally been better off for it.

That’s why when I get asked who the Cardinals should give opportunities to, I don’t really have names. It’s not to give any one player an opportunity, it’s about a philosophy of keeping your players in Memphis from feeling stuck.

How do you make room? It can be done. Harrison Bader can go sort things out in Memphis. Michael Wacha can find another team. You can move Jose Martinez and Jedd Gyorko. Unclutter the roster and open up opportunities. The same drum I’ve been banging for the last three years.

The biggest problem for the Cardinals is that they’re old and any players that they go buy are going to be older too. Or rentals. That might help you win in 2019, but it won’t help you in 2020 and 2021.

If you go buy players at the deadline and it turns out well, you win in 2019.

If you go buy players at the deadline and it turns out poorly, you lose in 2019 and are in bad shape going forward.

If you create opportunities and it turns out well, you win in 2019 and the future.

If you create opportunities and it turns out poorly, you might lose in 2019, but you know you can’t rely on the guys you gave opportunities to and can adjust your plans to other prospects or free agents.

The talent is there, but the prospects are stuck.

Luke Voit got stuck behind Carpenter for two years and has become an All Star in New York.

Tyler O’Neill is stuck behind Ozuna (when healthy), Dexter Fowler, and Martinez. Thomas is stuck behind all four of them. Even Randy Arozarena was stuck behind the MLB outfielders and O’Neill, Thomas, and Adolis Garcia in Memphis to open up the year so he was sent to Springfield for at bats.

Edman will eventually go back to being stuck behind Carpenter.

Ponce de Leon has been nothing but fantastic in an MLB rotation and he’s stuck behind one of the worst starting pitchers in the NL this season.

Do you see my point?

I wrote last week that the Cardinals were stuck in a box. It’s time to get out of it and let the young guys roll.

Stat of the Week

Yeah, we’re going to go with the one I posted earlier because I find it so ridiculously astounding. Here are the NL Central standings since June 1st.

  1. Cardinals, 16–16, 0.500
  2. Pirates, 16–17, 0.485
  3. Reds, 14–16, 0.467
  4. Cubs, 16–19, 0.457
  5. Brewers, 15–18, .455

Play of the Week

Following the young guys coming through theme, we’ll roll with Tommy Edman with a pinch hit three run homer in the 9th inning of a tie ballgame.

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. Dexter Fowler, 170 wRC+ (27th in MLB)
  2. Paul Goldschmidt, 103 (T-128th)
  3. Jose Martinez, 98 (140th)
  4. Tommy Edman, 88 (T-153rd)
  5. Tyler O’Niell, 68 (T-180th)

The Last 162

The Cardinals are 44–44 today. That puts them at 86–76 over 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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Last updated: 10/06/2022