St. Louis Cardinals: Making Upgrades At The Margin Is Costly
St. Louis Cardinals fans have been calling for General Manager John Mozeliak to upgrade the team this offseason through acquisition or trade. Unfortunately, the cost to upgrade is steeper than most are willing to admit.
Rumors have put the St. Louis Cardinals in on major free agents and trades this offseason. Fans get excited and everyone begins to speculate. The consensus: the front office needs to fork over the money or prospects necessary to upgrade the team.
Just this week, fans were enticed by the possibility of a trade for Brian Dozier. Previously, the St. Louis Cardinals were in on the pursuit of Edwin Encarnacion. Last year, it was David Price. Ultimately, the Cardinals missed out.
Dexter Fowler was the exception to the rumor rule this year. He fit an obvious position of need, was coming off a strong season, and is projected to have a decent floor over the length of his contract. He was an example of the front office’s ability to see a need and make an aggressive pursuit to get a deal done.
If the front office can do that for Fowler (and for the oft-overlooked Brett Cecil), why can’t they make similar moves for other upgrades? Do they not see the obvious potential for improvements that even casual fans can see? Are they content to sit in their box seats while getting rich off of fans who will buy tickets anyways?
Of course not. The answer is that upgrading the team is hard, and that the evaluation of an upgrade must be made at the margin, not on the absolute value of the target player.
For Dexter Fowler, these evaluations were similar. There were really only two capable starting outfielders on the team (Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty). Fowler would only be compared to Tommy Pham, who most realize is a bench player. Essentially, he is filling in an open spot in the outfield. His value at the margin, then, was the same as his absolute value.
For Brian Dozier and Edwin Encarnacion, these evaluations are very different.
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Dozier, projected to be worth 3.1 fWAR in 2017, would likely slot in at second base. It would have likely taken a package headlined by Luke Weaver, Harrison Bader, and Kolten Wong or a top prospect to acquire him.
Dozier would be replacing a combination of Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko at second, who are projected to be worth 2+ WAR at second base in 2017. The St. Louis Cardinals would be giving up top prospects for a one win upgrade.
If the St. Louis Cardinals were to have acquired Encarnacion, he would have pushed Matt Carpenter over to third base. Most fans would say this would be an obvious upgrade over a combination of Jhonny Peralta and Gyorko at third base. However, like the combination at second base, this duo is also projected to be worth over 2 WAR in 2017. Edwin Encarnacion is projected to be worth 2.2 WAR.
This obvious chance to upgrade at a cost of $60 million no longer looks so clear. While an additional 1.0 WAR doesn’t exactly translate to one win, it offers an estimate of value that each player or combination is expected to provide. Additionally, Encarnacion and Carpenter would be playing positions where they are likely to be a defensive liability.
This leads us to the core of the problem in upgrading the St. Louis Cardinals heading into 2017. Accounting for a combination of Wong/Gyorko at second base and Peralta/Gyorko at third base, the St. Louis Cardinals already have a player at every position who is expected to be average or above-average in 2017, and/or who was average or above average in 2016:
Looking at the pitching, we see a similar picture – the St. Louis Cardinals are expected to run out a rotation that is projected to have an MLB average starter slotting in the fifth spot in the rotation. The bullpen already has arms more than capable of serving in each role.
Surely, there are players available via trade or free agency (less so via this route now) who would be an absolute upgrade over a player currently projected to start. However, are the marginal couple of wins that trade might create worth sending away a package of top prospects? Are they worth making a multi-year commitment at $15+ million annually?
Of course, some of these acquisitions would change the dynamic of the lineup and bolster the offense, but it is near impossible to pin down how valuable such a shakeup really is, if at all.
The St. Louis Cardinals barely missed the playoffs last season. A deeper look into their win-loss record compared to their expected win-loss record shows they were one of the unluckiest teams in baseball. Had a few breaks gone their way, they would have been in the playoffs. Overall, the acquisitions this offseason have made the team better.
Additionally, the Cardinals finished 17.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs this past season. While some acquisitions may make them closer, they are not likely to completely close the gap to make the St. Louis Cardinals serious contenders for the division. This team is most likely to end up a wild card team in 2017 whether they commit the resources to acquire players now or not.
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So no, John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. aren’t just sitting back to get rich off of fans who will still pay for tickets and merchandise no matter what the team does this offseason. They simply realize the team improvement on the field and in the standings is not worth the cost in terms of prospects or dollars and years.