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Comparing Cardinals and Cubs Aging Cores

Pointed remarks from new Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward about why he did not re-sign with his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals, were widely reported following his introductory press conference.

One prominent factor is that the central players on the Cardinals roster are considered by Heyward to be advancing in age to the point that he was unsure what the team’s makeup would be before his new contract would end.

The term “aging core” is widely being used to summarize that point of view of the Cardinals.

Let’s test this out for both Heyward’s prior and current teams.

Though the 2016 25-man Opening Day rosters for any club are yet unknown, 40-man rosters are readily available for analysis.

In Major League Baseball, the single most important milestone of experience is at six years. That is the point at which players move from being under team control to being able to choose their own employer via free agency – as Heyward just did.

One other point of reference. One year of MLB service equals 162 days. That is reflected in the totals below. (For example, 163 days equals 1.001.)

* Contract

* Contract
St. Louis Cardinals service
years zWAR
Chicago Cubs service
years zWAR
6+ year players yrs.days Age remaining 2016
6+ year players yrs.days Age remaining 2016
Matt Holliday 12.000 36 1 1.6 John Lackey 13.095 37 2 3.4
Yadier Molina 11.123 33 2 3.3 David Ross 13.001 38 1 0.3
Jhonny Peralta 11.118 33 2 2.6 Jon Lester 9.075 31 5 4.6
Adam Wainwright 10.027 34 3 3.6 Miguel Montero 9.031 32 2 2.0
Jonathan Broxton 10.020 31 2 0.3 Ben Zobrist 8.034 34 4 3.2
Brayan Pena 8.081 34 2 0.4 Jason Hammel 8.153 33 1 1.6
Jaime Garcia 7.047 29 1 1.8 Pedro Strop 6.098 30 1 0.9
Mike Leake 6.000 29 5 2.5 Jason Heyward 6.000 26 8 4.7
Total 77.074 18 16.1 Total 75.001 24 20.7
Average per player 9.101 32.4 2.25 2.0 Average per player 9.061 32.6 3 2.6
By position

By position
Starting pitchers 3 Starting pitchers 3
Relievers 1 Relievers 1
Catchers 2 Catchers 2
Starting infielders 1 Starting infielders 1
Starting outfielders 1 Starting outfielders 1
Total 8 Total 8
* option yrs excluded * option yrs excluded

As much focus as there has been on St. Louis’ allegedly-aged roster, consider the number of similarities in the data presented above.

Both the Cardinals and Cubs currently have eight players with at least six years of service. Chicago employs the two most experienced ones – former Cardinals pitcher John Lackey and catcher David Ross. The two are also the oldest on either club at 37 and 38 years of age, respectively. The Cubs also employ the youngest player of the group in Heyward.

Barring injury, these 16 players, eight per club, will almost certainly be on their team’s opening 25-man roster, leaving the other 17 spots on each club to be filled by zero-to-six year players, primarily developed in the respective organizations’ farm systems.

Though Chicago has the lower total service time across the veteran group, it is slight. Averaging the individual service time of the eight six-plus year players on each team brings a difference of just under 50 days on a base of over nine years per man.

In terms of calendar age, the two team’s veterans average almost the same, with the Cardinals very slightly younger.

The Cubs appear to have less flexibility going forward. They are financially committed to their eight most-veteran players longer – 24 additional player years (including 2016) compared to 18 seasons for the Cardinals group.

Projected performance in 2016 using ZiPS from Fangraphs indicates the Cubs’ veteran eight is expected to produce about four wins over replacement more than the Cards’ eight, or about 0.6 zWAR per man. (As a reminder, in contrast to the facts presented elsewhere in this article, these are computer-generated projections.)

Finally and surprisingly, the position breakdowns of the eight veteran players across the teams are identical – three members of the rotation, a set-up man, both catchers, one starting infielder and one starting outfielder.

One can always argue which players might make up a team’s core, but it cannot be disputed that both the Cardinals and Cubs each feature eight free agent-level players of comparable age and experience and with an identical position distribution – and the Cubs are contractually committed to their veteran group longer. By one system’s projections, Chicago’s veterans are expected to deliver more wins in 2016.

The reader can decide whether or not you see the differences as significant, but to me, the variations in the hard numbers are slight – and certainly not worthy of all the chatter occurring about it.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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7 Responses to “Comparing Cardinals and Cubs Aging Cores”

  1. blingboy says:

    What is worthy of chatter is the practical effect and implications of the aging core. (Being right minded, I will ignore the Flubs and focus on the Cards.) For us it all depends on Kolten Wong, and here’s why.

    The aging core means that roles must change, which means that the lineup must change. Mo has alluded to the practical necessity of this. Rather than replacing an aging core of middle of the order hitters by hiring a different aging core of FAs who have put up big numbers in the past, hoping they will continue to be good into their decline phase, Our Mo is relying on up and coming producers who hopefully have their most productive prime years ahead. Mo has said he wants to see what these guys can do – Piscotty, the Grich, probably Pham. Adams will get a chance to write himself into the script, and there are 8 million reasons why Moss will be front and center (don’t argue this last point, you know its true). Of course, no one knows what will happen. If they suck and it fails BDW can save money by firing Oquendo as we will have no use for anybody in the 3B coaches box.

    One of the keys seems to be the evolution of Matt Carpenter as a hitter. He is evolving away from being the prototypical leadoff man, and into a middle of the order type. Declining OBP, increasing strike outs, increasing power, high LD rate, ability to drive in runs all fits better below the lead off slot than in it. Having just driven in 80 hitting behind the pitcher, his double digit extra base hit rate could exceed 100 RBIs easy from a middle of the order spot, which is what we need. That would neatly break up the reliance on cluster luck to get anything done offensively. We need that bad. But there is a catch, which this whole thing hinges upon, IMO.

    The catch is that somebody has to do it. Bat lead off, I mean. There is no obvious answer, but the process of eliminating the unlikely leaves Wong, and he says he wants the job. You have to admire a .300 OBP guy who can’t take a walk aspiring to the leadoff role, but we have to be realistic. The 5% BB rate coupled with his streakiness means that when he’s not hitting he can’t get on base at all. Not good.

    What to do? Well, there is optimism for starters. His BA and OBP improved significantly last year, and another like upgrade will have him at .275/.350. That would be marginally adequate, but the BB rate didn’t budge so we would still go through stretches when our leadoff can’t get on base. Another thing would be to put the right guy behind him in the #2 spot. There are options here, but I will suggest Holliday, for example. I like this for two reasons. First, having a .400 OBP singles hitter in the 3 hole amounts to kicking the can down the road, relying on the next guy to make something happen. It locks in the reliance on clustering, which is not what you want from you middle of the order guys. Second, it avoids the unsightliness and waste of having your $17M .400 OBP guy hitting down in the order. Very likely, one of Wong or Holliday will get on base much of the time, meaning that the cleanup hitter will get his PAs. And Matt getting to first means that Wong will ofter get to second, sort of making him a doubles hitter. Also, Holliday’s high LD rate means he seldom grounds into the DP. But others may work in the 2 slot as well but my point is to illustrate the importance of the right guy to improve Wong’s chance for success.

    Still, in the end, Wong may not work out at the top of the order. That would require Carpenter, or another budding middle of the order guy to assume the role, which in turn means that somebody who needs to evolve out of the middle of the order will have to remain. Which is the exact thing that would make the Cardinals aging core problem.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Solid analysis. It is clear you put a lot of thought into it and I agree with the overall needs. I do have a couple of questions about how to address them.

      Batting second, wouldn’t Holliday’s lack of speed on the bases lead to more double plays behind him, negating much of his OBP advantage? (Your idea is not the most extreme of the week. One blogger wrote an article arguing that Holliday should lead off!)

      Leadoff man. If the Cards don’t have one in house or on the way, why shouldn’t they go out and get one? I sense they tried with Bourjos and failed. (I have been saying for some time that this is the team’s other big need along with power. On the latter, at least they have multiple guys with potential to hit with more authority if healthy, etc…)

      For example, Dexter Fowler – with his .363 career OBP – is still looking for work. Since the Cards were going to shoe-horn Heyward into the lineup, they could do it with someone else, too. It would not be ideal, but it depends on how badly they want a true leadoff man.

      Having said that, I accept the fact that it appears they may decide to make do with the guys they have – at least for now. That means Carpenter leading off.

      Like I have said before, Carpenter is the team’s best option at multiple spots in the lineup, but there is only one Carpenter!

      • blingboy says:

        There is a lot up in the air, which seems to me a lot more exciting than hiring some bats and hoping for the best.

        As to Holliday leading off, I seldom go to VEB but I heard guys talking about it. I am sure putting the highest OBP guy in the leadoff slot works great in simulation land. I wonder if he knows where Busch Stadium is?

        As to the GIPD issue, why would Holliday hit into more batting second than he does batting third? He was in single digits last year. Twice that, with his .400 OBP would be glorious.

        As to in house guys, Piscotty might be tried before going back to Carpenter. The thing with hiring a leadoff guy is that he would be full time so one of the young hopefuls Mo wants to see get a chance won’t. Fowler would mean Piscotty moves to 1B, and since he will be full time, Adams would not get the chance Mo says he wants him to get, and the 8 million dollar man would be a pinch hitter. In other words, no. It does appear we will go with what we’ve got, but that is the area something could happen if anything does.

        I am chomping at the bit to see what happens.

        • Brian Walton says:

          Well, Wong’s 1H 2015 OBP was .343.

          • blingboy says:

            Which says something unpleasant about his second half. Wong has been OK for a middle infielder but certainly no hitting sensation for any extended period.

            25 year old first rounders can get better though, that is Mo’s premise, I think. I am hopeful, but Wong is not going to get better enough versus lefties to bat lead off against them. I get that Gyorko hits lefties, but him leading off is as absurd as that VEB guy’s idea. What the answer to that may be I don’t know, but I do hope it is not Matt Carpenter. I did get the feeling when listening to Mo talk about Wong wanting the job that he (Mo) was not exactly writing it down in ink.

            • jj-cf-stl says:

              I wouldn’t be disappointed if piscotty led off so carpenter could fill a middle order lineup spot. if we’re going that route, I like carpenter cleanup, because cleanup leads off second most in mlb of all the lineup spots (due to the frequency of a 3 up, 3 down, first inning). you just lessen carpenters leadoff innings, not abandon them if he were batting third.

              I still like matt batting third, so wong batting second is a lhb who can utilize that hole between first and second with 1B holding the runner.
              R / L / R / L so far, and if mike wanted to continue that stagger he could go peralta fifth, moss/adams sixth, grichuk seventh, pena eighth.

              • blingboy says:

                Good thoughts. My thinking, if Wong could handle leadoff vs righties was Wong (L), Holliday (R), Carpenter (L), etc.

                Wong second following a righty leadoff hitter would mean a righty rather than Carpenter should hit third. I would hate to see the top of the order vulnerable to a loogy coming in at the pivotal moment. But the OBP problem is still there with Wong as a top of lineup hitter, whether 1st or 2nd. I have serious doubts it will work out even versus righties, and against lefties there is no way. I do wish Wong success and who knows, but it is probably most likely he will gravitate to the lower part of the order. That would be too bad. With a 1st round second baseman you really are looking for something more. Bottom of the order second basemen are dime a dozen. Looking optimistically, he is 25 and improved last year, although only for the first half. We will see how it goes.

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