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Can the Cardinals Upgrade? Will they? Where?

On these pages here at Birds on the Black, Zach Gifford argued back on June 19th that the Cardinals likely wouldn’t be good as sellers. I’ll look at that later. He argues that maybe it’s time to look at the manager instead at the end. That could be true and may very well happen. Instead, what I’m going to look at today: If the St. Louis Cardinals are to upgrade at the trade deadline, the question becomes - where and how do you do so?

I already wrote here about the Cardinals potentially trading for a left-handed reliever typically relied upon to get left-handed hitters out (a LOOGY - Lefty One Out GuY). That is one spot I think they could definitely do some damage, but I’m not sure of the cost. Let’s look at the rest of the roster.If you look at the way the Cardinals roster is constructed:

  • They have a future Hall of Fame catcher (link to Erik Manning’s piece at Birds on the Black looking at this) in Yadier Molina and they also have two of the top catching prospects in baseball who are both on the cusp. You don’t upgrade there.

  • Despite his best efforts, It’s arguable whether or not Jose Martinez is a long-term first baseman due to his DH-level defense, but in the last calendar year the entirety of MLB has 12 players with at least 500 PA and a higher wRC+ than Jose Martinez. Here’s a short list of players that he’s slightly ahead of in that category: Carlos Correa, Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Brandon Nimmo, Josh Donaldson, and Francisco Lindor. Yes. SLIGHTLY AHEAD OF those guys. The Cardinals also have Matt Carpenter, who plays a better 1B than Martinez, although not Gold Glove caliber by any means, and since May 16th has been the second best hitter in all of baseball. You don’t upgrade there.

  • At second base, you have Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko currently. Kolten Wong has played gold glove type defense (whether he will end up winning the award or not) at 2nd base this year, easily having his best year in the field - as someone who is already a good defender. He’s not hitting a lick - although is above league average in June alone. Jedd Gyorko is the only player on the Cardinals other than Matt Carpenter with over 50 HR since the start of the 2016 season, and he has the around 2/3 of the plate appearances of Carpenter with only 4 less homers. This is a place you can upgrade offensively potentially, but you’re not getting the Jose Altuve, Daniel Murphy, Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Javier Baez, Ozzie Albies, Dustin Pedroia, DJ Lemahieu’s of the world. You’re likely sitting at Brian Dozier or Scooter Gennett.

Second Base Options

  • Scooter Gennett - is he a product of the Reds’ ballpark or has he completely changed his swing? His hard hit percentage has absolutely jumped the last two years. His xwOBA has jumped the last two years - but his actual wOBA is over 40 points higher than his expected over his last 540ish batted balls. It was pointed out to me that Gennett is hitting quite well on the road (.312/.357/.501/.858) as well as hitting even better at home (.308/.350/.560/.910), so maybe the transformation is real? I don’t know that coming to a pitcher’s park from a hitter’s park is going to be something that makes him look much better than a Yadier Molina as a hitter, but with those above numbers it sure as heck might. The problem with it is that if he’s back to the old Gennett, he will not be the leader Yadi is or the fan favorite Yadi is or the defensive master that is Yadier Molina. So he has to hit better than that.

  • Brian Dozier - much has been made about Dozier’s swing overhaul, however this year Dozier is flat out not hitting - we’re talking about a Randal-Grichuk-when-he’s-not-hitting-for-power-esque line. Is that something we can take a flyer on when we’ve just gotten Carpenter and Ozuna and Wong hitting again, but waiting to get Pham or Fowler or Bader back hitting or DeJong back from the DL. Speaking of which...

  • At shortstop, Paul DeJong should be back soon. DeJong was having one hell of a season. He was somehow better than his rookie season during the first quarter of this year before he got injured. He was walking at double the rate of last year. His K rate had only jumped by 1.2%. His average was a bit down, but his OBP was 25+ points higher. His slugging was lower, but everyone’s was early in the year in the cold - his wRC+ was actually higher. His defense was better - so his overall WAR total was over half of last year’s in less than 40% of the plate appearances. He’s the closest thing the Cardinals have to a core position player under the age of 30...and he’s only turning 25 in August! You don’t upgrade there.

  • We’ve talked about Carpenter already and how he’s been the second best hitter in baseball for about 6 weeks...and his primary position in 2018 has been third base, because the guy at first base has been a top 15 hitter in baseball for a calendar year. Carpenter’s defense at third base had previously been mediocre at best, but by the metrics this year he’s actually been well above average. I see a player who’s been about average, personally, with the eye test. Average to above average defense with an overall wRC+ on the year ranking in the top 25 of all of baseball and in the top 5 at his position is quite alright. You don’t upgrade there.

  • A caveat. If you feel like Matt Carpenter can play second base well enough to upgrade with a third baseman over Wong or Gyorko, then I guess that’s a possibility. I don’t think Carpenter does.

  • You also don’t upgrade in left field. You already traded 4 prospects for Marcell Ozuna, 3 of which could make the majors this year, and he’s finally hitting.

  • Center field is a spot where I believe you have multiple guys that can play. While Tommy Pham isn’t a young buck at all, he’s still got a chip on his shoulder and when he’s right he’s literally one of the best outfielders in baseball. Not only that, but they have Harrison Bader out there as well, who statcast has as tied for the third best outfield defender in baseball at the moment, if you don’t account for playing time. He might even be better than that. Not only that, but you have loads of other minor league prospects that can play center field - some of them quite well - all very close to the majors. You have Tyler O’Neill (TON), Oscar Mercado, Randy Arozarena, and Jose Adolis Garcia (JAG) all close and nearing readiness if they’re not there. You don’t upgrade there; repeat after me: Mike Trout is not available.

  • Ignoring the plethora of outfield talent in the minors, right field might be the spot you upgrade. However, I try not to avoid available evidences. Tyler O’Neill had one shot at the majors already this year and held his own. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t bad in his first go around. I’m surprised with Bader and Dexter Fowler floundering at the moment that he hasn’t had another chance yet. By the way, with a HR last night, he’s up to a .288/.415/.576/.990 line in 18 games (82 PA) since being demoted. In those 18 games, he has 4 doubles and 5 homers to go along with 18 runs, 15 RBI, and 14 BBs. He also has 21 Ks in 82 PA - over 25%. I’m willing to live with the Ks on O’Neill for his incredible hitting. Oh, and he also can actually play the outfield. He’s way more athletic than I would have guessed he is. This dude can play. Who are you going to go get that is potentially better than him? They also have JAG, Mercado, Arozarena, Bader, Pham (considering Bader should be in center), and the aforementioned Fowler. Fowler has been downright awful this year. Last year, after being moved out of the leadoff spot, in his final 66 games and 61 starts he hit .299/.399/.541/.940 - a 3/4/5 guy! Obviously, that’s why manager Mike Matheny is trying to get him jump started. Whether or not Matheny should be doing that (I say not at this point of the year, personally) and whether or not Fowler can get jump started this year (I really am not sure at this point), you can see why Matheny’s trying to get Fowler going.

So is the upgrade not going to fall on the position players but the pitching staff? It’s arguable that as deep as the hitting talent and potential is, that the pitchers’ version of that is higher! The offense has the 19th best (out of 30) runs per game in the majors at 4.30 runs scored per game. The pitching and defense has the 11th best (out of 30) runs against per game in the majors at 4.08 runs against per game. The pitching is 6.6% better than league average (4.37 runs per game) whereas the offense is 1.6% worse going by simple runs per game. If you want to change the scope a bit and look to average out by league and ball park, the non-pitcher offense has a 102 wRC+, good for 2% better than league average, and the pitching has a 93 ERA- (7% better than league average), 98 FIP- (2% better than league aveage), and 101 xFIP- (1% worse than league average). That could change your look slightly.

There is a lot of IF to this pitching staff, however. IF Carlos Martinez pitches like he is capable and is healthy (I was worried about it for a while there. I truly believe that this was Carlos Martinez’s first real injury* where he had to come back and be expected to come back immediately and pitch well. I think he was throwing scared instead of pitching. This last start might show he’s back. IF Michael Wacha’s oblique really is just a minor variety and he comes back strong. IF this is the real Miles Mikolas. IF this is the real Jack Flaherty - that’s a top 4 I put up against just about anyone in the league. Add into that a Luke Weaver, who if he’s on is very unhittable as well...and the potential is there for greatness. Those guys are all signed for next year, as is Alex Reyes. As is John Gant. As is Austin Gomber. As is Daniel Poncedeleon. As is Dakota Hudson. As is Ryan Helsley.

*yes I know he missed the 2015 playoffs and maybe his last start of the year with a shoulder strain...but he was told his season was over and that he wasn’t trying to get back immediately and pitch up to his potential

While some people will rightly read that as a laundry list of options as trade bait, I also know that you need ridiculous depth in today’s day and age in the starting rotation and the Cardinals are showing this year that they have it. You also, in today’s day and age, need a ridiculous amount of depth in your bullpen. The Cardinals have already used 15 pitchers out of their bullpen this year and 7 guys solely in the rotation, with Gant being the guy used both ways. This also doesn’t even include the final 3 guys on the list above, who haven’t pitched yet in the majors in 2018 (or at all, actually). Adding to the IFs of the pitching staff is the bullpen. I wrote a post on June 15th about how the Cardinals bullpen really having turned it around and pitching quite well - at least the 5 guys given the most playing time (Jordan Hicks, John Brebbia, Sam Tuivailala, Bud Norris, and the resurgent Mike Mayers). The post was written before Greg Holland has come back from his injury and time in the minors to throw 4 scoreless innings in a row with one hit allowed and with 5 strikeouts to 0 walks. He even pitched in a meaningful enough spot to get a hold in one of the games. It was written before Brett Cecil has thrown 4 straight games without allowing a run as well, dropping his ERA by 25%. In those 4 innings, Cecil has just 1 hit allowed, 2 walks allowed, and 3 strikeouts. His last two innings have been perfect innings in just 17 total pitches between the two. It seems to me as though the bullpen is sorting itself out a bit - like a few of the players on the offense have done. Not only is all that good stuff going on right now in the bullpen, there’s this: The Cardinals have 5 guys who have proven to be decent to good at some point in the past in the majors on the DL (Adam Wainwright, Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons, and Matt Bowman) and could be poised to join the team at some point soon! This bullpen is potentially 15+ deep and we only need 8 healthy ones at a time.

Remember, the bullpen also has the as of yet untouched Poncedeleon, Hudson, and Helsley as reinforcements already. Where do you realistically upgrade here? The best bet might be where Derrick Goold says - the innings. Maybe you don’t get a dominant starter, but you get a 5th starter type, Kyle Reis argues for JA Happ here - and you let them eat as many innings as they can this year in the hopes that you make the playoffs and that others are more rested and can carry you then.

Absent of the moment I lost my mind and presented my ridiculous (for the Cardinals) case for going all in during this past offseason, I consistently discussed the notion that it was going to be VERY HARD to upgrade this team without simply getting the best players available. You don’t grab a Moustakas or a Gennett or a Hosmer or the like. They’re not major upgrades that make the team a contender. They’re more of what you’ve already got. The only true upgrades this team can make may not be attainable, or may be out of a reasonable price range in either money or prospects for this team. I don’t mean that as a slam against management. I mean it in a THESE WOULD BE MOVES THAT THEY SHOULD NOT MAKE type of way. If it takes Reyes and Flaherty for Machado and he won’t discuss extension, no. Hell, if it takes Flaherty for Machado and he won’t discuss extension...NO! That type of thing.

As I mentioned in the title: Where do you Upgrade? I just don’t know. I believe that the paralysis I talked about after the trade deadline last year could continue on this year because Zach argued why it’ll be very hard to sell and this is why I believe it will be very hard to buy.


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