This is bad, isn’t it? The 2019 Cardinals approach the All-Star break with the results looking suspiciously like the 2018 Cardinals. Manager Mike Shildt is 100% correct when he says this team is playing clean baseball, which last year’s team wasn’t. But when Shildt became frustrated because someone told him his team was boring, he probably should have taken a closer look at the team. Teams that don’t hit ARE boring. If you aren’t scoring and you aren’t winning, fans aren’t going to be enthralled.
You may not like to read this, but Shildt isn’t the problem. The current problem with the Cardinals is that they’ve lost their ability to do a great job at evaluating players. What once was a strength for the franchise; putting players of different abilities in positions to win…has turned into a weakness.
Let’s look at what the team did after the 2011 World Series until their last playoff appearance. Albert Pujols and Jeff Luhnow had departed the organization. For 2012 the Cardinals re-signed Rafael Furcal to play shortstop and added Carlos Beltran to replace Pujols in the lineup, and he was brilliant. As Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot departed, more playing time for Daniel Descalso and a young Matt Carpenter arrived. With Lance Berkman besieged by injury, Allen Craig stepped in at first base and became one of the best run producers in baseball. The bullpen was completely rebuilt, with Octavio Dotel and Arthur Rhodes leaving, Kyle McClellan getting hurt, and Fernando Salas moving to a support role. Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Trevor Rosenthal, Victor Marte and Edward Mujica got bigger roles or were acquired.
In 2013, Berkman left. Carpenter became a top-5 MVP candidate in the lineup at second base. Matt Adams came up and was productive, Descalso became a super-sub, Pete Kozma ascended and became a serviceable shortstop, and rookie Shelby Miller replaced free agent Kyle Lohse in the rotation. More young bullpen arms arrived in the persons of Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness, and the Cardinals found themselves in the World Series against Boston. Both Beltran and Craig were injured in that series, with Beltran departing in free agency after the season.
2013 also signaled the beginning of the regression of Cardinal evaluation. They signed Ty Wigginton to a two-year, $5 million deal. He wasn’t the best fit and was released on July 9 in the first year of his contract. They also gave lefty reliever Randy Choate a three-year, $7.5 million contract that he was good for one year of.
Before 2014, the Cardinals gave shortstop Jhonny Peralta a questionable four-year, $52 million deal. To their credit, Peralta did finish 14th in MVP voting in 2014 and had an All Star first half in 2015 before falling off the cliff. He had an OPS of .631 after that All Star appearance, then played only 82 games in 2016 before being released early in 2017. They did a great job of evaluating Pat Neshek, who became an All-Star with his one-year deal. More kids ascended, with Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez getting full time reps. Uber-prospect Oscar Tavares was called up, giving the club it’s third place hitter for the next decade, or so it thought. And when the Cardinals needed help, they pulled off a trade with the Red Sox, sending an injured, diminished Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston for righthander John Lackey, who would become the Cardinals top starter in 2015. They also traded prospect James Ramsey to Cleveland for righthander Justin Masterson. Ramsey never became a major leaguer. The Cardinals were eliminated by San Francisco in the NLCS.
During the World Series that year, Tavares was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic, and EVERYTHING changed. A franchise that had been able to turn to its system for almost every need now had to work in panic mode. They figured Taveras and Craig would be in the lineup somewhere in the 2-3-4 spots for four years. They’ve had to scramble with guys like Peralta, Jason Heyward, Kolten Wong, Gyorko, Brandon Moss, Tommy Pham, Steven Piscotty, Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong in those spots. The first thing they tried to replace Tavares was to trade Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins…who had been one of their top pitching prospects…to Atlanta for free-agent to be Heyward.
With a NLCS team that featured Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Lackey, Wacha, Martinez and Jaime Garcia along with first round draft choice Marco Gonzales, the Cardinals didn’t engage St. Louisan Max Scherzer in free agency. His agent, Scott Boras, touted Scherzer as a $200 million pitcher, and he got $210 million from Washington. The Cardinals then, and now, aren’t a franchise that swims in those financial waters.
The 2015 club won 100 games, but faded down the stretch and lost to the Cubs in the playoffs. To beat Chicago, they dealt minor league reliever Kyle Barraclough to Miami for reliever Steve Cishek. Barraclough was better than Cishek when the trade was made. and Cishek didn’t make it to a second season in STL. They sent prospect Rob Kaminsky to Cleveland for Brandon Moss. After the season, they offered Heyward $200 million over ten years, but he signed with Chicago. They offered lefty David Price a massive deal, but the Red Sox swooped in and got him. Lackey left for the Cubs, too. The Cards gave injury plagued backup catcher Brayan Pena a two year, $7.5 million contract, but got rid of him after the first year of the deal.
They showed a willingness to take on a big contract in Jedd Gyorko…a player they really didn’t have a use for. Gyorko hit thirty homers in a season and played an adequate 3rd base, but hasn’t been worth the $25 million the Cardinals have had to pay him over the last four seasons. Soon after the 2015 season, the club announced that Lynn would need to undergo Tommy John surgery. To replace him, they gave former Reds righthander Mike Leake a five-year, $85 million contract.
Over the years, gritty, competitive players like Descalso, Lynn and Lackey were allowed to walk in free agency, and their demeanor hasn’t been replicated. 2016 trade acquisition Zach Duke needed Tommy John, so the Cardinals replaced him with fellow lefty Brett Cecil, who got a four-year, $30.5 million contract. Cecil has been beset by physical and emotional issues. There’s no way anyone who has seen him pitch (you must watch a lot to see him pitch) would want him pitching with a one run lead in the ninth inning of a big game (part of the evaluation process).
After the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, the Cards spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars on contracts. They brought in Cecil for $30.5 million, signed free agent outfielder Dexter Fowler for $82.5 million over five years, extended Carlos Martinez for five years and $51 million, Steven Piscotty for six years and $33.5 million, and catcher Yadier Molina for three years and $60 million.
That was $257.5 million in contracts over five months, and we could argue that only the Molina deal has worked out. Fowler had a good first year but has been either awful or mediocre since. Cecil has been a disaster. Piscotty’s mother was diagnosed with ALS and he was moved home to Oakland, and Martinez has been an injury plagued head case ever since he signed his deal.
In 2017, to keep manager Mike Matheny from playing Adams in left, he was traded to Atlanta for nothing. Jonathon Broxton was released early in the second year of a two-year, $7.5 million contract. Peralta was released midway through the final $10 million year of his deal. They became frustrated with Marco Gonzales’ injuries and traded him to Seattle for Tyler O’Neill. This year Gonzales is 9-6 for a team that’s thirteen games under .500, and leads the team in ERA. In another deal, the Cards salary dumped Leake to the very same Mariners. Leake is 7-7 and leads Seattle in strikeouts.
Before 2018, the Cards gave Luke Gregerson a two-year, $11 million deal. He pitched less than thirty times for them before being released this season. They gave Greg Holland $14 million last year, and he was so bad he was gone by August 1. They traded four prospects for Marcell Ozuna, whom they later admitted had a bad shoulder when they traded for him. During the season, they traded Luke Voit (who’s slashing .280/.393/.509 with 17 homers) to the Yankees for a pair of relievers. Chasen Shreve is bad in the minors, Giovanny Gallegos is good here. Two days after sending Voit to the Yankees, the Cards sent Tommy Pham (.285/.386/.461 this year) to Tampa for lefty Genesis Cabrera. Pham is another gritty, competitive performer that was shown the door by the Cardinals. On the same day Pham was sent packing the Cards sent minor league center fielder Oscar Mercado to Cleveland for a pair of low minor leaguers. Since being called up by the Indians, Mercado is slashing .304/.352/.409 and has settled in as a solid number two hitter.
Of course, this past off-season they signed Andrew Miller, who has been a disappointment. They traded for Paul Goldschmidt, who has been a disappointment, and they extended the 33-year-old Carpenter, who has been a disappointment.
From 2011-2014, the Cardinals usually brought up prospects that did the job for them. They were patient and generally smart with their money. After Tavares’ death and with the advent of the Cubs, the Cardinals have become a team that wastes lots of money on players that benignly appear to accept their lot in life on a mediocre team. We could argue that, at various levels, the Cardinals have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on Peralta, Pena, Leake, Cecil, Fowler, Wigginton, Duke, Martinez, Gregerson, Holland and perhaps Miller. That’s bad evaluation. The days of “crusty” Lackey, fiery Lynn or the fierce Chris Carpenter are gone. Worse, the Cardinals have sent useful players elsewhere without good return. And if Goldschmidt is what he’s shown for half a season after signing a $130 million extension, the franchise will be really handcuffed.
The problem isn’t the manager. The Cardinals have lost their way. The Cardinal way is no more. Rather than draft, develop, bring up, spend smartly and win, this franchise has become one that panics, spends, cuts losses, panics, trades, and gets the short end of the deal.
This is all about personnel evaluation. Something changed that made it bad for the Cardinals. And until they fix it, we’re going to be complaining about them being mediocre every year.