Another weekend of sweeping the Cincinnati Reds has the Cardinals in first place in the National League Central, and there’s a reason for that. For all the criticism Bill DeWitt Jr. takes — the nickname “DeWallet” comes to mind — the Cardinals are a team that hasn’t bailed out during his ownership tenure.
The Cubs and Astros…both top five market teams…took their teams to ground zero-getting rid of numerous good players and deciding not to compete while rebuilding. This offseason, as the Cardinals spent $42 million on pitching, numerous teams that had a chance to compete for a wild card spot decided to not even try. We’re pretty lucky with what we have in St. Louis, although sometimes we don’t appreciate it. Here’s a sampling of some teams that are struggling, but are doing so out of choice…
Reds, No. 36 in market size: The Reds finished eighth in the NL in runs last season, but trotted out a good young lineup. Their regular outfield of Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Scott Schebler is more than representative, and last year’s infield of Eugenio Suarez, Zack Cozart, Scooter Gennett and Joey Votto was really good. Catcher Tucker Barnhart was a gold glove winner and he’s good enough offensively. Even with the departure of Cozart to free agency, Jose Peraza was a nice replacement, so improved offense was a reasonable projection. Cincinnati’s 2017 pitching was last in ERA. The starters were last at 5.55, and the relievers were fourteenth at 4.65. How did Reds ownership rectify the pitching problem? They didn’t. They signed two free agents…veteran righthanded relievers David Hernandez (who is currently on the DL) and Jared Hughes…and didn’t make a deal for pitching. Every 2018 Reds starter was on their 2017 team. So far this year, the Reds have the fourteenth best ERA in the NL. And they’re 3-18.
Royals, No. 33 market: It was clear that the 2015 World Champion Royals were taking one more shot last year before Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jason Vargas became free agents. But aside from them, the Royals had some bright spots. Reliever Ryan Buchter had a 2.67 ERA in 29 games, and was traded to Oakland with Brandon Moss during the off-season. Mike Minor had a 2.55 ERA in 65 games, and rather than pay him $10 million this year, K.C. ownership gave him $1.25 million to go away. 27-year-old lefty Scott Alexander was brilliant, with a 2.48 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 69 innings last year. He and Joakim Soria, who had a 3.70 ERA in 59 games, were sent out in a three-way trade that netted the Royals a pair of mid-level prospects. Peter Moylan pitched in a league-high 79 games for K.C., with a 3.49 ERA, but left in free agency and signed with Atlanta for the minimum, $575,000. The Royals brought back Escobar and Moustakas at bargain basement prices. Hosmer and Cain signed big deals with San Diego and Milwaukee, respectively. And eighteen game winner Vargas signed a very manageable two-year, $16 million contract with the Mets. Kansas City did NOT effectively replace their relievers, most of whom were sent out in salary dumps. The Royals could be a factor in their division with another starter and a bullpen. But after losing Vargas, Buchter, Minor, Alexander, Soria and Moylan for virtually no major league help, Kansas City has a league-worst 8.41 bullpen ERA.
Marlins, No. 16 market: We know the story of Derek Jeter and the Marlins. Giancarlo Stanton told him that if the Marlins just added a couple of starters they could compete. Rather than take a shot to win, the Marlins traded their second baseman and their superb outfield of Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. An investment of $35 or so million in a pair of starting pitchers would have made the Marlins competitive, if not really good. But they decided to not complete.
White Sox, No. 2 market: The White Sox bailed during the 2016-2017 off-season, dealing lefty Chris Sale and outfielder Adam Eaton, then trading Jose Quintana and Todd Frazier during the season last year. A team that was an outfielder, a DH, a starter and a pair of relievers away decided to go young and save money…building for a hopeful future.
Orioles, No. 26 market: Baltimore has been the best in baseball at waiting for the January bargain bin in recent years. That’s how they got Nelson Cruz, how they kept Chris Davis, signed Mark Trumbo and Seth Smith. Last year’s $164 million payroll is down to $148 million this year, with the departure of shortstop J.J. Hardy and starter Ubaldo Jiminez. In this off-season of bargain free agents, the Orioles did sign Alex Cobb, but they could have rebuilt the rest of their rotation with a little effort, but didn’t even go overseas to get a starter like Mikolas. Now, they have one of the worst records in baseball and are staring at the departure of Manny Machado after the season.
Rangers, No. 5 market: If the Rangers would have simply done what the Cardinals did in the bullpen; add Luke Gregerson, Bud Norris and Greg Holland, they’d be a solid contender for an American League wild card spot. As it is, they have one of the worst records in baseball. They have a good lineup and OK starting pitching, but their bullpen leaves much to be desired, and they knew that during the off-season. In addition, they’re wasting years on careers of players like Cole Hamels, Mike Moore and Adrian Beltre.
Rays, No. 11 market: The Rays are perhaps the most egregious offender here. This past off-season, they traded longtime cornerstone third baseman Evan Longoria to San Francisco, which was reasonable. But then they went off the rails. They DFA’d All Star Corey Dickerson, who hit 27 homers with an .801 OPS last year, because he was headed to arbitration and a raise from $3 million to $6 million…a baseball pittance. Tampa traded Dickerson to Pittsburgh for a minor leaguer and journeyman reliever Daniel Hudson. The Rays traded righthander Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota for a low-level prospect because he was getting a raise from $4.1 million to $6.3 million. They moved inexpensive ($3.5 million) outfielder Steven Souza…a thirty homer, .810 OPS guy…to Arizona because he was arbitration eligible and got a raise from $546,000 to roughly $3.5 million. In exchange, they got a second baseman that’s now their twelfth ranked prospect, and a lefty that’s their sixteenth ranked prospect. The worst thing about the Rays is that they didn’t get quality back in exchange for good players. They dumped players because of their salaries…salaries that are actually reasonable.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals…working in the nation’s twenty-first largest market, said at the beginning of the off-season that they wanted to add an impact bat and helm in the back end of their bullpen. They evaluated Jose Martinez as their first baseman, and traded four prospects to Miami for cornerstone leftfielder and cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna, who won a gold glove AND a silver slugger award last year, and is making $9 million this year. Then they traded Stephen Piscotty and his reasonable contract to Oakland…mostly to get Piscotty nearer his ailing mother. They traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to Toronto to ease their outfield glut for a pair of young pitchers, and saved $1.6 million. They gave reliever Luke Gregerson a two-year, $11 million deal and starter Miles Mikolas a two-year, $15.5 million deal. As spring training began, they gave reliever Bud Norris a one-year deal for $3 million and as the season started signed closer Greg Holland to a one-year deal for $14 million.
We would have liked to have seen the Cardinals get Jake Arrieta or Moustakas…but now that we see Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes and Dakota Hudson on the horizon, it’s understandable as to why they didn’t spend $75 million over three years on a starter. If Moustakas is on hand, Martinez might not be playing. The Cardinals’ evaluation of players is pretty good, so they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
While the Reds, Royals, Marlins, White Sox, Orioles, Rangers and Rays could have reasonably put themselves in a position to be a playoff contender this off-season, they instead decided to literally cash out and not try in 2018. And the Cardinals, with a large group of young players that they could have built for the future with, decided to make moves to try and win. Complain all you want about Cardinal ownership, their desire and how much they spend. But before you do, take a look around. Things could be a lot worse.