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The Cardinals Need a Straw to Stir their Drink

How much of the problem with the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals’ inconsistent play is structural?

General manager John Mozeliak seems to be asking himself that very question. In a radio interview with host Tim McKernan, Mozeliak said the following, tweeted by McKernan.

“I’m wondering if we created too much roster flexibility as opposed to stability,” said the GM.

On game telecasts in recent days, much attention has been drawn to the fact that the Cardinals have already tried nine different leadoff men this season. That has actually been surpassed by the seventh and eighth spots in the order, with 12 different players each.

Putting it all together, through the first 107 games, manager Mike Matheny has written 99 unique lineup cards.

At the same point in 2015, the club had used seven different leadoff men and 86 unique lineups.

This season, of the eight non-pitching positions in the field, only half have had one player start more than 60 games of the 107. Yadier Molina made 92 starts behind the plate, injured shortstop Aledmys Diaz started 90 games, Matt Holliday has been the left fielder 74 times and Stephen Piscotty has been the right fielder in 88 contests.

The year before, five of the eight positions were filled by 95-or-more game starters through 107 contests. Had he not been injured, Holliday would very likely have been the sixth. That is a huge difference.

Those are the facts.

I have been thinking a lot about Mozeliak’s remark and despite what the numbers say, I don’t think I fully agree.

Yes, the 2015 Cardinals had a much more set lineup, but that club also had a weak bench. That not only forced the starters to play more, it also led to a group of starters and a rotation that were out of gas come October.

Those same players are now a year older, mostly still making up the core of the Cardinals, but backed up by a better reserve corps. That has helped contribute to a less clear group of regulars in 2016.

But is this costing the current club wins?

There is no way to know for sure, but here is my theory.

I do not think roster flexibility is the problem. I sense the issue is that the Cardinals have a roster full of interchangeably good players, but no great ones. 30-year-old Matt Carpenter is the team’s best hitter, but is apparently uncomfortable outside of the leadoff spot.

Locked in with the current core players and a group of home-grown youngsters not yet fully tested or proven, the Cardinals did not have any clear openings until Lance Lynn was injured. Other than an unsuccessful run at David Price, the club was content with adding players for this season who fit the good-but-not-great mold – the Mike Leakes, Jedd Gyorkos and Seung-hwan Ohs.

Think about it. Other than Diaz, who came from nowhere to become a surprise contender for Rookie of the Year, which Cardinals are serious contenders for MVP and Cy Young Awards?

The answer is there aren’t any.

Consider the main difference between the 2006 and 2011 Cardinals and the roster today. Those World Championship clubs had a clear leader, the straw that stirred the drink, a man who not only contended for MVP awards, he won them multiple times.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting the Cardinals should have kept Albert Pujols. That would have been a crippling decision based on the kind of contract he expected. But I do believe Pujols has left a leadership through results void that has yet to be refilled.

This is not a need that can be filled easily. These kinds of players are rarely developed and even more rarely acquired via trade. In fact, Jason Heyward commented that he felt he would be more comfortable in Chicago being part of an ensemble, rather than being expected to be the man. Perhaps the late Oscar Taveras could have grown into the role, but he and Heyward are gone. There seems no position player stars on the way – but a number of more good, not great ones.

My sense is that for 2017 and beyond, the Cardinals need to find a way to get more quality, not more quantity. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but I have come around to thinking the Cardinals need a true franchise player to anchor their daily lineup and lead them back to the very top.

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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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22 Responses to “The Cardinals Need a Straw to Stir their Drink”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    Does having star players help? Yes
    The cards know this, as suggested by pursuit of LHP Price last winter.
    We’re adding Oh and Hungarian hillbilly Gyorko last winter smart moves? Yes. They were real world opportunities that we harvested.
    Are we constrained to mere reality? Yes, unfortunately

    Are there course adjustments to make? We have been overvaluing rightswinging SSes, drafting Kozma, Greene, Mercado, while undervaluing hitters who can slug. Years of success translate into lower draft picks and small international signing budgets. The cards are doing a nice job right now of ignoring MLBs budget for international.

  2. crdswmn says:

    Eh, I don’t think I agree.

    The 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals don’t fit your profile. No truly great player there. The Giants of the past five years? They have Buster Posey, but just how truly great is he? He is definitely no Albert Pujols.

    I know I sound like a broken record, and I am not going to press this point, but I think the manager plays some part in all this. I never liked Tony LaRussa, but my dislike was personality based. LaRussa, at least in my mind, did a decent job of utilizing his resources. Maybe my memory is faulty, but I don’t recall instances of TLR burying players on the bench, or the GM having to constantly send players to the minors because of lack of playing time. I didn’t like many of the marginal players he insisted on having on the roster, but he would play them, more often than I liked. TLR’s teams didn’t seem confused and lacking in foundation, like this current team does (in my opinion at least).

    • Brian Walton says:

      I was not suggesting that every championship team should be assembled the same way. That is not my point.

      My sense – and it is hard for me to articulate – is that the Cardinals have no identity, no go-to guy. The gap between the #1 and #25 player on the roster is narrower than many other teams, which is great for depth, but necessarily for winning, since only nine of them can play at any one point in time. They need more no-doubt-about-it starting players = a few considerably better players. That may be more important than one star, though that would be good, too.

      To me, this is entirely a GM point, not a manager one. I don’t think there are future stars on the roster being stifled by Matheny’s lineups.

      • crdswmn says:

        I will just agree to disagree then. I still believe Mike Matheny is the elephant in the room. But I understand it’s a horse that has been beaten to death.

        • Brian Walton says:

          I do not understand why the team’s problems are being hung in one place. That seems very simplistic.

          • crdswmn says:

            Every year, when the team doesn’t go the distance, the post mortem has been something wrong with the roster. Last year it was a weak bench, this year now it’s not enough good players. Other years it’s been pitching, or offense, or something else.

            The common denominator, however, is being avoided.

            I don’t expect you to agree, but that is what I see. Occam’s razor.

            • Brian Walton says:

              I think a few much better players will lead to more games won than a different manager leading the same guys as today – though I do not understand why the two are being considered to be mutually exclusive.

              • crdswmn says:

                A better bench was going to make us better too. We have one. It’s always one thing or another roster related that is going to make the difference—and it never does.

                We aren’t going to agree on this. That’s okay.

                • Brian Walton says:

                  I submit that a better bench did improve the team. Key starters are in late career decline, however – Molina, Holliday, Peralta. Multiple positions do not have clear starters and the younger players other than Piscotty and Diaz are not filling the gap.

                  My bottom line remains that I see that as a bigger problem than the identity of the team’s manager.

    • JumboShrimp says:

      The Giants won three championships after 2010. It’s impressive.
      They did it with pitching and by stocking up on high on base percentage hitters. Clever.

  3. Nutlaw says:

    He may only hit leadoff and may have just been injured for a bit, but Matt Carpenter is performing like a great player. You don’t get nearly 1.000 OPS out of a second baseman very often. I put him in the MVP race if he can keep things up for the next two months.

    I don’t think that you can pin any issues with the Cardinals on their offense this year, given their aggregate numbers. They are third in the NL in runs scored and OPS and not too far behind first. The problem is that their starting pitching has fallen off. Wainwright is getting old just like Holliday/Molina/Peralta and Wacha has backslid. Martinez is good enough to keep them at average on the whole. Fortunately, the team does have promise in the system with starting pitching.

    Only four teams in baseball have a higher run differential than St. Louis. You could make the case that their actual record isn’t so great in comparison due to a bad bullpen, which the team ERA numbers don’t support (4th best in NL). That means that either they have been unlucky or poorly managed.

  4. JumboShrimp says:

    Mo does interviews. Part of his job. He has to say something. He sounds like a job applicant asked about his biggest weakness and says I work too hard.
    Babbling stuff about my team is too flexible is piffle for the public to chew over. It means nothing. It’s corporate gibberish. Good job mo. Keep them guessing.

    • JumboShrimp says:

      Maybe this is bad news for Matt Holliday. Matt learned first base to give himself more ways to contribute. Now the team is too flexible. Maybe we fix this problem by letting Matt play elsewhere next year.

  5. JumboShrimp says:

    Rosenthal is represented by Scotty B, the super agent. Rosenthal sounds in no rush to get back into action. He wants to heal his shoulder and his forearm.
    This makes sense. Get the guy well, he is a major leaguer. If Not Well, he should not be pitching, regardless of what Mo may want. boras wants to save Rosemthals career.

  6. Bw52 says:

    So what`s goi ng to happen this offseason when Cards have to decide if Holliday is worth 17 million for another year? Will they let another 30 something year old bat walk in favor of Matt Adams who has proven to be a semi-regular at best.A Aging Peralta for his last year? What about Jordan Walden? Is he back? Molina`s decline and nobody grabbing the CF job and holding it.I Still think Grichuk should be the starter and Cards live with his strikeouts which are declining.Wainwright has turned into a middle of the road guy,Wacha can`t stay healthy,Jaime the Marshmallow man is what he is.For a contender this team has way too many needs to be a serious threat IMHO.Inconsistent hitting,defense and pitching.

    • Brian Walton says:

      So many questions…

      Holliday – renegotiated deal for less money/incentives over 2 or 3 years
      Adams – cloudy future – arbitration complicates matters
      Peralta – since he is under contract, he should remain
      Walden – he’s a goner
      Molina – he is what he is
      CF – hoping they get outside help – true leadoff man needed as much or more than CF
      Rotation – gets Lynn back

      • JumboShrimp says:

        Holliday is pulling a clever move to get surgery to try to play by late September. This will put pressure on the cards to pick up the option year. Otherwise it’s an unsimple decision. Matt supplies leadership and has been a great contributor. He is also easily replaced by grichuk in left. The roster is pretty full if we bring Matt back again. He has made boodles of money so is not going to starve if we do not exercise the option.
        Holliday may be intertwined with moss. If we could re sign moss in September, this would position us to move past Matt.
        If we can’t resign moss, we might have to bring back Matt.
        I can’t envision a contract extension.

  7. JumboShrimp says:

    Good morning, Brian. As you note, we could use a table setter. Jay re-established himself as the lead off guy in San Diego. We could sign him to a one or two year deal to return home. Matt carpenter would bat third. Pham can start versus lefties.

    A key to watch is Brandon moss. The cards will offer a fair market price for a two or three year deal, say $51mm. This is the situation to watch. Mo wants to get this done.

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