For twenty years under the guidance of Bill DeWitt Jr, the Cardinals have masterfully operated their 40-man roster and done a remarkable job of evaluating their talent and building units that were set up to win.
There have been many more personnel hits than misses over that time, but this year’s edition of the Cardinals appear to be a dysfunctional unit that lacks the presence of a star.
One of baseball’s longest held beliefs is that teams that win are built strong up the middle defensively, with offense coming from the corners. While the Cardinals’ middle of the field defense approaches average (uhhhh, not great), the corner offense is sorely lacking. And the middle of the field isn’t doing much offensively, either.
Yadier Molina has lived up to expectations offensively and defensively, but the Cardinal catching position is second to last in the NL in on base plus slugging at .676. The rest of the OPS rankings for the Redbirds…first base is 10th at .838, second base is fifth at .793, shortstop is ninth at .691, third base is 8th at .835, left field is 9th at .733, center field is 3rd at .765 and right field is 14th at .713. Of the eight positions, the Cards have just two, shortstop and center field, in the top half of the league OPS rankings. And the corner positions are 10th, 8th, 9th and 14th.
Below average defense from the middle and bad offense from the corners isn’t much of a recipe for success. And even though the Cards couldn’t have seen this coming, they didn’t appear to plan for any adversity.
On Monday, the Cardinals sent outfielder Randal Grichuk to A ball, activating 28-year-old rookie Jose Martinez from the disabled list. Grichuk hit 24 home runs last year and gave the club hope that he’d hit 30 this season. But he got off to a slow start, was given sporadic playing time in the first week by manager Mike Matheny, and then didn’t hit when he was given playing time. Grichuk goes to Palm Beach hitting .222 with an OBP of .276 and a .377 slugging percentage. But what is he going to be?
After the demotion, General Manager John Mozeliak said “We wanted to give him an opportunity to take a deep breath and allow him to work on some stuff down in Jupiter with a little bit less stress.” I would suggest if Grichuk needs less stress at this stage of his career, left field in St. Louis isn’t the best place for him. The Cardinals didn’t see this coming, but didn’t fortify themselves for ineffectiveness or injury, either.
On opening day, the Cards had seven outfielders on their 40-man roster. Grichuk, Dexter Fowler, Stephen Piscotty and Jose Martinez at the major league level, Tommy Pham and Anthony Garcia at Triple A Memphis, and Magneuris Sierra at Palm Beach. On April 24, the Cardinals DFA’d Garcia and outrighted him to Memphis, leaving them with six outfielders on their 40-man roster. On May 4, Fowler injured a shoulder and Piscotty a hamstring in the same game against Milwaukee. Piscotty was placed on the 10-day DL and Pham was called up. Fowler was kept active, and over the next ten days started two games.
During those ten days, the Cardinals operated with an eight-man bullpen. In that time, Sam Tuivalala and Miguel Socolovich each pitched twice, with both appearing in an 8-3 win over San Francisco. Wouldn’t the club have been better served to have a bench outfielder and lived without Tuivalala for those ten days?
On May 6, Martinez suffered a pulled hamstring and went on the DL the next day, with Sierra arriving from Palm Beach. That means that of the four opening day outfielders, three were injured in three days. And the Cards had every outfielder they had on the 40 man at the major league level or on the DL, with Fowler mostly unavailable.
When Piscotty came back, the Cardinals traded the NL’s best pinch hitter over the last three years, Matt Adams, to Atlanta. But, they maintained their eight-man bullpen. Now, they don’t have a legitimate backup first baseman. When Matt Carpenter needed a day off on Saturday, Jedd Gyorko played first.
And when the bullpen failed, the Cardinals called up a 27-year-old minor league journeyman, John Brebbia, designating Socolovich for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster. This is a 40-man roster that has Alex Reyes…out for the season with Tommy John surgery…on the 10-day disabled list rather than the 60 day, which would open a roster spot.
To fill in for the 25-year-old Grichuk and the 26-year-old Piscotty, the Cards have plugged in 28-year-old Martinez and 29-year-old Pham. The most productive and exciting Cardinals outfielder this season, the 21-year-old Sierra, was sent to Springfield with a .367 big league batting average, a .406 OBP and eight runs scored in seven games. While sparking the team…which was 6-1 in the games he played…Sierra wasn’t going to play like that forever. But they should have given him a longer chance to fail.
Last week, Piscotty left the club due to a “family emergency.” We don’t know what the emergency is, but we do know that the MLB collective bargaining agreement has a provision called the MAJOR LEAGUE BEREAVEMENT / FAMILY MEDICAL EMERGENCY LIST. The rule states that “upon written application to the Commissioner or the Commissioner’s designee, a Major League Club may request that a player be placed on the Major League Bereavement/Family Medical Emergency List. No player may be placed on the Major League Bereavement / Family Medical Emergency List unless such player is unable to render services because of the serious severe illness or death of a member of such player’s immediate family (e.g., spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, child or grandchild) or a member of such player’s spouse’s immediate family.”
The rule goes on to state that “the minimum period of placement on the Major League Bereavement / Family Medical Emergency List shall be three consecutive days and the maximum period of placement shall be seven consecutive days, during which placement the player is not permitted to be with the player’s Club. No assignment of a Major League Bereavement/Family Medical Emergency List player shall be permitted until after reinstatement.”
For good reason, we don’t know why Piscotty is gone. But with Mike Matheny having a three-man bench to work with, it’s a ridiculous way to play. On Sunday, the bench was Peralta, Greg Garcia and Eric Fryer. If Piscotty’s situation could have called for the use of the Medical Emergency list, he should have been on it, with another bench player available. Or, the player recalled when Socolovich was DFA’d should have been a position player, until Piscotty returned.
With the Cardinals dealing with a conundrum in that they don’t have a projectable superstar player, and they don’t have a first round pick this year, they need to find that guy. Cuban outfielder Luis Robert was available, and the Cardinals didn’t outbid the White Sox. With Yoan Moncada getting $31.5 million from the Red Sox three years ago, that should have been the starting point for Robert. He went to Chicago for $25 million. If the Cardinals identified him like others did, as the best non-professional player in the world, then the Cardinals should have offered Moncada money. Is Robert guaranteed to produce like Jose Abreau, Yoenis Cespedes or Yasiel Puig? Certainly not. Rusney Castillo signed a six year, $72.5 million deal with Boston three years ago, and he’s at Pawtucket and off the Red Sox’ 40-man roster. The Dodgers signed Hector Olivera and Alex Guerrero for $28 million bonuses and got virtually nothing in return.
But the Cardinals thought this would be the year that Oscar Taveras stepped into the big shoes of Matt Holliday and became a star. Albert Pujols isn’t walking through that door. The Cardinals need to find offense from the corners, and to find a fearsome star. Robert at least provided that chance, and the club didn’t go for it.
Mozeliak gets a mulligan from me. He’s done a really good job for a long time. But the 2017 Cardinals aren’t built to win, and for 2018 need to build a club with logic, foresight, and a plan to get a star. If they don’t, there are a lot of good, young teams in the National League ready to step up for years to take their place among the elite.