UCB Roundtable: Mo(re) wins, or Mo (re) problems?




Each fall, a collection of Cardinal Nation's finest internet content creators pool our opinions on a variety of subjects in roundtable fashion. This year, I hit leadoff. I'll let you decide what the result of the PA. Without further ado... let the offseason United Cardinals Bloggers Roundtable begin!

Hi, all! Let’s jump right in.


When the Cardinals sign Bryce Harper, how many jerseys will sell in the first week?

I’m kidding... kind of. ;)

But the “Cardinals Look For Big Bat” headlines are copied, pasted, and tweeted out rift next to the “We need to find ways to get better AND to spend money responsibly” quotes from the Front Office. Yesterday, Mo added an interesting note, describing the post-Pujols years as consistently winning baseball.

Now, he’s not wrong. And the quotes in full context aren’t as rabble rousing. But, it is curious to me how different the FO definition of “winning” might be from the definition of a fan base.

Only one team wins the World Series. Only 2 teams get to call themselves League Champions, etc. Even Division champions can claim some level of accomplishment in that regard.

To Mozeliak’s point, the Cardinals have three division titles and a World Series appearance since Albert Pujols left for Cali. But they’ve  missed the playoffs entirely three times, too. And yet, they’ve not posted a losing season since 2007.

So, the question: how much winning is enough winning to be satisfied with the consistency of that winning? In other words, should the FO (publicly) establish loftier goals than being a winning team and push the boundaries to make Championships happen, or should outsiders (that’s us!) redefine what baseball success looks like and appreciate the longevity of the Cardinals’ “winning ways”?



Adam Butler (@LanceDance1): To me it seems like when front office members talk about the team consistently winning, what they're really alluding is the rock solid foundation that they've built with this franchise. I think that's what this organization is most proud of. Yes, there have been misses through free agency at the MLB level. Those have to be fixed in order to realistically expect to get into that 95-100 win range. But at the end of the day, they've put themselves in a position where the bottom won't fall out anytime in the foreseeable future. Their floor is a team that needs a few things to break right in order to make the postseason. That's an extremely rare thing in baseball.

As far as the fans perception of winning, there's obviously nothing wrong with wanting the team to be better than they have been. I thought Mo made it pretty clear when he said 88 wins wasn't good enough that the front office isn't happy with their results either. I think where the disconnect lies is what the fans perceive as a failure and what he front office perceives as a failure.

To many fans, missing the playoffs three straight years is a complete failure by the organization from top to bottom whereas the front office sees a team that still has a rock solid base and just needs to be given the right pieces around it.

The future can still be bright. I tend to agree with the front offices view of the situation. A quick look at the last decade in baseball gives you some real perspective on just how rare being consistently good is. An 88 win team is a good team. The front office knows that, but I don't think many fans would agree. I do think both sides realize that they need to set their sights higher.


Daniel Shoptaw (@C70): All of them.  Oh, that wasn't the actual question, sorry.


Setting aside the fact that the organization may well have higher standards internally than they let on in the media, I do think there is something to the "spoiled" narrative.  We talk about three years out of the playoffs like it's the Sahara.  The Mariners haven't been in the playoffs since 2001.  The Angels have the best player on Earth and haven't been above .500 for three seasons.  There's something to be said for consistently being in the playoff race, even if they don't get there.

That said, I think it's perfectly fine and actually responsible to push the front office not to get complacent.  82 wins is a winning season, but 10 straight 82 wins seasons isn't going to be very appealing. 

I can understand the idea of aiming for 90 wins regularly, hoping that occasionally everything breaks right and you win more like 95 or so.


For me, baseball is a daily thing and I would rather see more wins than losses during the season.  But I'm easily satisfied as well.


Diane Schultz (@Diane1611): Good question, Tara! I believe that both should occur. Despite the long and storied history of the Cardinals, they can’t rest on their laurels. The front office needs to look long and hard as to why the team hasn’t made the playoffs in the last three years and formulate a plan to make playoffs happen in St. Louis once again, no matter what it takes.


Colin Garner (@colingarner22): I think the Cardinals definitions of winning - sustained success, developing a strong core through minor league development, and targeted signings in free-agency - are both admirable and effective. Competing year after year after year seems more challenging than a smaller championship window that only opened because of the franchise's willingness to tank (looking at you, Theo).

In that respect, the Cardinals have consistently won since 2000. I think the Cardinals need to move the goalposts, however.

It's been widely reported that Bill DeWitt Jr.'s goal is to average 90 wins a season in the long term. By that measure, the Cardinals have failed the last three seasons, averaging just over 85 wins. If you factor in the 100-win 2015 season, they're averaging 89.25 wins per season. Obviously 2015 is an outlier, but the club isn't far off from performing exactly as it's been designed to do.  The trouble is, it takes more wins to make the playoffs in 2018 than it did in 2006. On Tim McKernan's podcast, DeWitt mentioned that 88 would have gotten the Cardinals into October in most years. In that sense, according the DeWitt, the team was unlucky.

Perhaps they were, but allow me to posit an alternate theory: 90 wins may not be a high enough target if the goal is to consistently play in October. The second wild card has introduced more competition in the upper middle class of major league baseball, and other teams are making in-season moves to go from 90 wins to 92 wins, just look at David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers. Furthermore, the success of the Cubs and Astros has encouraged tanking league wide, allowing competitive teams to rack up wins against lackluster competition.

The Cardinals aren't far off their targets of averaging 90 wins. They've missed the playoffs three of the last four years.

The Cardinals insistence that 90 wins will be enough while the competition in the NL Central zooms of to 95 or 96 wins creates the impression that the Cardinals are falling behind and aren't consistently winning, never mind the fact they haven't had a losing season since the Bush Administration. 

Bill DeWitt needs to aim higher. Bryce Harper would be the perfect start.


Alex Crisafulli (@alexcards79): I won't complain much about an 88-win season, and I think 2018 was a nice rebound from the previous year when it looked like the Cardinals were wading dangerously close to 82 to 84-win purgatory for the foreseeable future. So the difference of five wins from 2017 to 2018 felt like a lot. 


That said...With the exception of August, where with hindsight it looks like the team was pretty lucky with their bullpen, they didn't feel that much better on the field. They didn't run into many outs on the base paths (or at least, anecdotally it felt that way - I'm at work right now and not looking this up), but they still lacked an elite bat (with the exception of Carpenter for those four months, which, wow, what a weird season), there was nothing special about their defense, the starting pitching was solid but not great. And, the bullpen was very bad. 


Therefore, I do wonder if they really were as good as those 88 wins, although to be fair, if I recall, they were right in line with their Pythagorean win percentage. But with an abundance of teams not actually trying to win, we might have to readjust what we perceive to be the amount of wins it takes to get into the playoffs.

Obviously, 88 wasn't enough this season. Ninety wins wouldn't have been enough either. Maybe I'm making too much of this and 2018 was a bit of an outlier - besides, the "lots of teams not trying to win" thing was more of a factor in the AL, which is why there were five AL teams losing at least 95 games - but I count at least six other teams in the NL who probably aren't going anywhere (Cubs, Brewers, Dodgers, Braves, Nats, and maybe Phillies - and who knows with the Rockies and Diamondbacks, but I don't feel as great about them), so I don't know if the old model of being designed to win 88-91 games will be enough to consistently get it done. 


Daniel Shoptaw: I think Alex has a great point about how wins aren't quite the same as they used to be.  There have always been weak teams, but a division with a tanking team (and an unbalanced schedule) is going to pile up enough wins that the old "90 gets you in" may not be as accurate.


#Dennis (@gr33nazn): While my Twitter account may not reflect this particular sentiment, I'm generally pleased with what the front office has done and continues to do in terms of trying to win.  The idea that DeWitt targets 90 wins often detracts from what they actually do and puts too much focus on a particular benchmark as though it's somehow independent of the competitive environment. 

When was the last time the Cardinals started a season and you didn't think that they had the talent to win 88-90 games?  How many times have you felt that way in the last decade or two? 

Granted, 88-90 wins won't get them a seat at the postseason table all that often, but it at least keeps them in the conversation for a spot.  Some years they'll fall short by under-performing or because they can't overcome injuries, and some years they'll make a run thanks to a timely acquisition or someone having a career year.  Consistently putting together teams with 88-90 win talent on Opening Day means that the floor gets effectively set around the .500 mark, and the soft ceiling could be in the mid-90's. 

If that's not enough to satisfy some fans, then that's on those fans and not the team.  When you have to go back 20+ years to recall a full season of truly bad baseball, you've probably got a lot less to complain about than most baseball fans.  If your definition of success rests solely or even primarily upon titles, then maybe you've got the wrong sport.  You definitely have the wrong team, because a "win at all cost" approach isn't viable for St. Louis. 

I'm not saying that the current "sustained run of above mediocrity" is ideal either, but it certainly seems consistent with the organization's brand. 


Adam Butler: To me it seems like when front office members talk about the team consistently winning, what they're really alluding is the rock solid foundation that they've built with this franchise. I think that's what this organization is most proud of. Yes, there have been misses through free agency at the MLB level. Those have to be fixed in order to realistically expect to get into that 95-100 win range.

But at the end of the day, they've put themselves in a position where the bottom won't fall out anytime in the foreseeable future. Their floor is a team that needs a few things to break right in order to make the postseason. That's an extremely rare thing in baseball.

As far as the fans perception of winning, there's obviously nothing wrong with wanting the team to be better than they have been. I thought Mo made it pretty clear when he said 88 wins wasn't good enough that the front office isn't happy with their results either. I think where the disconnect lies is what the fans perceive as a failure and what he front office perceives as a failure. To many fans, missing the playoffs three straight years is a complete failure by the organization from top to bottom whereas the front office sees a team that still has a rock solid base and just needs to be given the right pieces around it. The future can still be bright. I tend to agree with the front offices view of the situation. A quick look at the last decade in baseball gives you some real perspective on just how rare being consistently good is. An 88 win team is a good team. The front office knows that, but I don't think many fans would agree. I do think both sides realize that they need to set their sights higher.


Josey Curtis (@Curtis_Josey): I think the front office could try to do both. In my opinion, a good way for the team to announce their goals for the next season would be to simply finish better than last season. This seems like a more responsible and realistic approach than to come out with a 'World Series-or-bust' mentality. In this way, if the team finishes better than the year before but still falls short of the crown, they will be able to reflect back and see that their goal had been achieved. If they set their public sights on the title and miss, they are again left with unmet goal.


Mark Tomaski (@retrosimba): Hi, Tara. Terrific question. The answer is the front office needs to establish loftier goals.

Major League Baseball has diluted the achievement of qualifying for the postseason. A team with the fifth-best record in the league qualifies for the postseason now. Whoopee! With the revenue the Cardinals generate, they should be able to consistently finish fifth-best in the National League. Fact is, the Cardinals have finished sixth, seventh and sixth over the last 3 seasons. That's a pattern, not an aberration. They are a third-place team in a five-team division.

The front office is playing public-relations games with a fan base too eager and willing to continue to spend money on a mediocre product. The franchise seems more focused on "positive image," "marketing spin," and downtown real estate development than it does on baseball excellence.

As long as people keep spending, settling for mediocre and enabling the Cardinals to grow their profit margins _ and I don't see that stopping any time soon_  the franchise has no incentive to strive to do better.


Tune in next week when Alex asks his question in his own thread, instead of derailing mine. (Don't worry, Alex, I left that part out. Didn't want to give your question away.)