Are The Cardinals Too Insular?

Bill DeWitt Jr. and his group of investors purchased the Cardinals in 1995 for $150 million, much of which he immediately recouped in selling off parking garages.  Since that time, he has been the very public face of the ownership group.  His son joined the organization the following year, beginning in the merchandising and marketing departments before becoming, in 2008, the team president.

John Mozeliak joined the Cardinals in 1995 as well, when DeWitt hired Walt Jocketty to be general manager.  Mozeliak began in the scouting department and moved up to assistant GM in 2002.  He took over the general manager job in 2007 and technically became president of baseball operations in 2017, to the outside public it does not appear much has changed.

Michael Girsch famously wrote a paper and emailed all the various teams in baseball trying to get a job in the industry.  The Cardinals hired him in 2006 as the coordinator for amateur scouting and he worked his way up to assistant general manager by 2011.  He was then promoted to general manager in 2017, though as noted it is hard to know how the role changed his day-to-day activities.

Mike Shildt famously spent some of his childhood in the Baltimore Orioles’ clubhouse and originally was a scout for MLB for three seasons, but was hired by the Cardinals after that.  In 2004, he started his coaching career and worked his way up the ladder, never working for another organization.

Oliver Marmol was drafted by the Cardinals in 2007.  He played until 2010, then started coaching in the organization in 2011, working his way up to bench coach in 2019.

Stubby Clapp was drafted by the Cardinals in 1996 and played in the organization until 2003.  He did play for other organizations until 2006 and started his coaching career elsewhere, but has been with the Cardinals since the 2017 season.

Ron Warner, otherwise known as Pop, was drafted and started playing for the Cardinals in 1991.  After his playing days, all with St. Louis’s minor league teams, he coached and managed in the system.

I write all of that to show just how limited outside perspectives are for this organization.  Save for Mike Maddux and Jeff Albert, most all of the front office staff and managing staff has spent decades in the same spot with the same people.  You have coaches like Willie McGee and Bryan Eversgerd, who are also former Cardinals.  Heck, this insularity even carries over to the broadcast team.  Dan McLaughlin is a St. Louis native that has been broadcasting games since 2000.  All of the analysts are former Cardinal players, though almost all of them did play other places at least in part of their career.  John Rooney might be the most outside the bubble hire (save for Maddux and Albert) and he came here in 2006.  Mike Shannon‘s been here 50 years and who are they looking at to replace him?  The same old faces–Rick Horton, Mike Claiborne.

It’s not completely fair to say that this organization doesn’t know how to innovate, given the significant changes they made in 2007-2008 with the pivot to scouting and development, but 2007 is 14 years in the past.  Dylan Carlson was about nine when Jocketty was fired.  And, if the results are any indication, the ossification has been starting to set in.

From 1996, when Tony La Russa took over, to 2005, the Cardinals averaged 89.4 wins per season with two 100 win teams and two other squads that won 95 each.  The next 10 years, 2006 to 2015, saw them average 88.9 wins with one 100 win team, one team over 95 wins, and of course two World Championships.  From 2016 to 2020 (pro-rating 2020 to a full 162 game season) they have won 86.4 games with only one team getting over 90 (91 in 2019).  In fairness, that number could go up over the next five years so it wouldn’t seem quite as out of line, but it’s also most likely going to drop when 2021 is over.

As much as the moves of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have been fun and exciting, it also seems like the front office is content to try to plug one hole while two others spring open.  There’s never the idea of trying to get insurance, trying to be overstocked at positions, and I wonder if that is in part because the organizational mindset is so uniform.

Back at the 2017 Blogger Day event, I asked Mo how the organization stays away from groupthink, of getting to where you are all thinking along the same lines.  From that post:

He said that they aren’t afraid to challenge people.  “I’ve had arguments with Bill’s dad, I’ve had arguments with Mike Matheny.”  What I also found very interesting is that they assigned a “devil’s advocate” to any trade or free agent signing they are discussion.  One person whose job it is to point out all the reasons that this might not be a good idea.  “Then we take a night to sleep on it.”  Mo said that he’s even been the devil’s advocate at times.

I imagine that is still going on, but I wonder if there are enough people with different enough backgrounds to even think of different ways to do things, different objections to raise.  (You could also make the case that the people trying to talk against a deal are doing too good of a job.)  Are there people that can say, “Look, this worked over here” or “we used this method of evaluation and by that you should deal this prospect for that player”?

Look, continuity is a great thing.  I appreciate The Cardinal Way and I want people in the organization that have a deep knowledge of the institution and how things have worked or not worked in the past.  I’m not advocating for anyone to lose their job or a radical shakeup of the whole organizational chart.  This team is still a successful one and the processes it uses are good.  It just feels like the rest of the league has been able to catch up and innovate past the Cardinals while they are still swimming in circles, going about things in the same ways they have been, focusing on lessening the risk and raising the floor instead of going for the ceiling.

Ideally, and we talked about this some on Musial this week, I’d like to see Mozeliak fulfill what the expectations were for him when he moved up to POBO.  The thought was that he would be able to leave the day-to-day to Girsch while he was able to look at the big picture, try to get ahead on trends, look at the weaknesses and strengths of the team, do the strategic work that, frankly, seems to be lacking right now.  Perhaps if Girsch was left to his own devices things would look differently.  Perhaps you find a rising person in another organization and hire them away to be an assistant GM, bringing that new voice and new perspective to the issues facing the team.

Then, maybe, you don’t have trade deadlines like we’ve seen over the past few years, including this one.  With just over an hour before the deadline, I had to take my family to Little Rock, meaning that I missed the last little bit but, honestly, I was not expecting anything after we had gone six weeks needing pitching.  I wasn’t sure how the club would spin not getting some pitching since they’d talked so much about the innings they needed, but I figured it would be a “the costs were just too high” situation.

To some degree, it was.  Mozeliak talked about not giving up their high-end prospects, which I completely understand given the situation they were in.  Any move they made for this year was likely to be a fruitless one.  If they could have gotten a guy like Trea Turner, which could have helped in future years, maybe you move a Nolan Gorman, but the Dodgers made that a moot point.  I could have seen getting Trevor Story and doing the old “trade, woo, and sign” bit, but there’s not enough security there to let go of people that the Rockies probably wanted (though I’d think they could have probably topped the supplemental pick the Rockies are going to get since Story still wears purple.)

So perhaps Jon Lester and J.A. Happ were the best that the Cardinals could get.  However, I always thought it defeated the purpose of “eating innings” if the innings were so bad that you were out of the game before the fifth.  In fairness, Happ has been solid the last couple of years with the Yankees, but he’s been dreadful so far this season.  He does have seven games where he pitched six innings (out of 19) but his July looks like Carlos Martinez‘s June (OPS against 1.011, ERA 9.22).  What’s remarkable is that he had a 1.91 ERA after his first start in May, but since then he’s only allowed less than three runs in an outing twice.

Besides bringing those Cub memories with him and causing people conflict on whether they can root for him in a Cardinals uniform, Lester brings a lot of questions as well.  He’s worth almost -1.0 bWAR, meaning that a replacement pitcher would be better than he would be.  However, he’s had some good games this season.  Two starts ago, he allowed no runs and six hits over seven innings against the Marlins.  He had a 2.61 ERA his first four starts in June before the last two of that month blew that out of the water.  He also had over a 5.00 ERA last year as we outsiders thought he was finished.

Most likely, what we’ll see out of these guys will be the occasional six innings of two runs or less and the occasional two innings of five runs or more.  Make no mistake, and I don’t imagine anyone that has made it this far doesn’t know this, but this was more about letting Johan Oviedo finally get the development he needs in Memphis than it was about making any sort of run at the Brewers.  The Cardinals have all but waved the white flag on this season.  The goal right now has to be finishing over .500, keeping that streak that started in 2008 alive.  (Mr. Crisafulli is glad that they will definitely finish out of last place and ahead of the Pirates.)  This season, though, you can put the scoreboard watching away and just find the good moments on the field.  Perhaps something changes, a team stumbles, and they get back into it.  However, do you really think that happens?

In 2018 they were one game over .500 entering August, in 2017 they were one game below.  That 2017 team was just 4.5 games out and wound up a week or so later being tied for the division lead before falling back off and missing the playoffs.  The last time the Cardinals were 9 1/2 games or more out of the division race on August 1? 1999, when they were 11 1/2 games behind.  That team finished 75-86 with only Mark McGwire hitting 65 homers the year after hitting 70 making fans interested.

There’s no such power barrage this year to paper over these flaws.  We can enjoy Arenado’s defense or the fact that Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are still playing together (though we can argue that Molina should be playing less than he does) but we can’t really fool ourselves into thinking this team is going to make any sort of run.  It’s still baseball and you should still watch but it’s not going to mean anything.

Unfortunately, that’s becoming quite a familiar feel around this organization as well.

RECAP

Wednesday (7-2 loss at Cleveland)

Hero: Dylan Carlson.  Scored both of the Cardinals runs, had two of their seven hits, and his home run briefly let the Cardinals regain the lead.

Goat: Kwang Hyun Kim.  Everyone has one of those days but KK rolled a lot of bad into a small package.  He didn’t make it out of the third, his shortest outing of the year, and allowed five hits, four of which left the yard.  It was kind of impressive in all the wrong ways.

Notes: Justin Miller got touched up for a couple of runs but otherwise the bullpen was all right as all the second stringers got into action….John Gant ended his Cardinal career on an appropriate note, walking two batters in his inning of work, though neither scored….Yadier Molina had two hits, which seems to be a Yadi thing, doing just enough to not get taken out of that fifth spot, even though his last extra base hit was a double on June 28.

Friday (5-1 win vs. Minnesota)

Hero: Tommy Edman.  Edman had only one hit, but it was a bases-loaded double that broke the 1-1 tie and sent the Cardinals into “protect the lead” mode with the pitching staff.

Goat: Yadier Molina.  0-4 and left three men stranded.

Notes: Save for Genesis Cabrera, who hasn’t pitched since Sunday against the Reds, the other side of the bullpen held the line here, with Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, and Alex Reyes combining for 3 1/3 scoreless innings….Wade LeBlanc continued his Cardinal renaissance, allowing one run in 5.2 innings before giving way to the bullpen.  Hopefully Happ and Lester can follow a similar path….two hits for both Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, but unfortunately Dylan Carlson went 0-4 in front of them.

Saturday (8-1 loss vs. Minnesota)

Hero: Nolan Arenado.  Two for three and scored the only run.

Goat: Jake Woodford.  No matter what happened in this start, Woodford was going to be removed from the rotation because of the trade deadline additions.  Perhaps if he’d done well he’d have avoided returning to Memphis, though I don’t think that would have been the case, especially since you also have Daniel Ponce de Leon that will have to return soon.  However, this sort of start makes it much easier to make that call (if it wasn’t easy enough already).  Two runs in the first and then five in the third, capped by a grand slam.  (Just too bad he couldn’t help them push toward that walking-in-runs record instead.)

There will be some talk about letting Woodford develop at Memphis, but unlike Johan Oviedo he’s had plenty of minor league time.  He had 26 starts in Memphis in 2019, putting up a 4.45 ERA (in a year with a rabbit ball at AAA, granted) and he had 12 starts there in 2018 with a 4.50 ERA.  Woodford isn’t likely to suddenly become even a league average pitcher with more time in the land of the Delta blues.  You can make the argument that he’s still young (at 24 he’s still about three years younger than the average AAA player) and maybe something will come of it, but to me he feels like he’s just a fifth starter in the majors at best.  You’ll get good games, you’ll get bombs, and you’ll get a whole lot of meh.

Notes: Harrison Bader drove in Arenado with his only hit and Yadier Molina again put up two hits in a game when nobody else could do much.  Yadi’s 18 hits this month came in 11 games, which shows he really has good days and bad days….the back side of the bullpen got used for the second time this week, though T.J. McFarland has more of a middle role, used even when the game is close.  It wasn’t here, but he did fairly well even though he was touched for a run….Luis Garcia threw a total of one inning between July 9 and July 20.  In the last four days, he’s thrown four….Paul DeJong went 0-3 with three strikeouts.  His average is still right over .200, but his surge seems to have stalled out, as he’s 0 for his last 10 and one for his last 13, though that one was a home run.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9162.595 -
Cardinals8369.5467.5
Reds7875.51013.0
Cubs6785.44123.5
Pirates5795.37533.5

Last updated: 09/24/2021

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