As the New York Yankees and Houston Astros have battled for the American League crown, it’s been fun to watch two teams that have a great balance of present performance and future potential. So how does that balance sit with our hometown St. Louis Cardinals and the archrival Chicago Cubs?
While the Cubs have zoomed ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals the past couple seasons, which team will be better able to maximize the balance mentioned above? The answer might surprise you. From the perspective of this writer, the St. Louis Cardinals have an easier task to create a lasting competitive major-league club.
Let’s start with the North Siders.
It’s pretty evident that Chicago’s MLB entry has a massive amount of hitting talent for years to come. Theo Epstein used high draft picks, shrewd deals, and selective free-agent signings to get the team to the pinnacle. His smarts and Boston Red Sox experience led to a 2016 World Series title in Chitown.
But in the Cubs’ loss to the Dodgers, and most notably in the 11-1 shellacking in Game 5, we saw the weak underbelly that could cause Epstein and his GM, Jed Hoyer, some big time anxiety in the offseason and beyond.
With an aging and not particularly deep rotation, and a bullpen that, other than Wade Davis, looks like it’s throwing batting practice half the time, the Cubs have overwhelming pitching issues.
Start with that anemic bullpen: Davis, along with key lefty Brian Duensing, are upcoming free agents.
There’s no sure heir apparent for the closer slot, but it may be flamethrower Carl Edwards, Jr.’s time. Hector Rondon has done it before to decent but not exceptional results. Pedro Strop has had several good years in a row. But getting from starter to closer has seemed like a struggle over significant stretches and in key situations.
The starters are hardly a sure thing, either. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are both free to leave, and Jon Lester will be 34 for the 2018 campaign. That leaves Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to join Lester, and there’s been plenty of speculation about the rest.
That all would be well and good, but the trouble is, it’s not like the team has trade chips to spare. And the ones they do have would compound the issue.
While some of the essential pieces of the current Cubs roster were homegrown, other essential ones, ranging from the excellent shortstop Addison Russell to the newly-gathered Quintana, and several in between, required key prospect movement away from Wrigley Field.
As a result, at least one analysis of teams’ prospect depth after the 2017 trade deadline had the Cubs listed at 25th among all clubs.
That’s to be expected, of course, with the needs Epstein had to fill from outside; the prospect rankings for even the best of teams will often fluctuate based on who has to be dealt for the team to remain competitive (which makes the Yankees and Astros balance even that much more impressive).
Yet the prospects high on their talent reservoir right now are largely pitchers, but not many that can make an immediate impact. By the same ranking as noted above, seven of their top eight prospects are pitchers, but they all sit in the Rookie-AA range, at least as of 2017. So if those pieces are dealt, Theo and Jed will once again be stealing from the future to pay for the present, further exacerbating the problem.
Now, it is certainly true that the Cubs could rob their major-league roster to make a deal.
Kyle Schwarber has been mentioned as the prototypical American League player, for instance. But Schwarber’s fielding escapades, combined with his very shaky start to 2017, which got him sent down to correct hitting issues, might have minimized that chance. And besides, if Schwarber goes, the offensive distance between the Cubs and Cards narrows.
So now that we’ve seen what the Cubs have and can do, the St. Louis Cardinals have a very different issue, but one that may be more real-world solvable.
No question the St. Louis Cardinals have a ways to go to catch the Cubs on the offensive side. The batting pieces were erratic in 2017, and even the prospects who might bridge the gap have flaws or uneven track records.
The continued OBP adventures of Randal Grichuk, the uncertainty of who Stephen Piscotty really is, and the too-high offensive expectations for Yadi Molina, just to name a few, left the team with serious offensive question marks.
St. Louis did two things to solve the issues that drove many fans bonkers, but which now position them more sanely for the future. First, they made some prudent trades to restock, and second, they refrained from dealing their prized prospect possessions, preferring to await a better look at the offseason market trends.
Then the brilliant theft of Tyler O’Neill from the Mariners for Marco Gonzales comprised a move that immediately put O’Neill among the top Cardinal prospects and gave them flexibility to now consider dealing Grichuk, who is a couple years older and still hasn’t found plate discipline.
The Cards also stood their ground on offers for any number of their prize youngsters during both July and August.
While names like Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Carson Kelly, Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra, Dakota Hudson, Sandy Alcantara and the above-referenced Grichuk and Piscotty were all mentioned in deal rumors, management chose to keep their assets to develop a clearer picture as the offseason neared.
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The Cards also prepared their cash machine for wheeling and dealing pre-2018. They miraculously managed to find a taker in Seattle for Mike Leake‘s remaining salary, and the cost of Lance Lynn, unless he re-signs or accepts a Qualifying Offer, both unlikely, comes off the books. One can’t sneeze at a savings of probably $35 million, especially in conjunction with the brand new Fox Sports TV contract starting to pump in major capital.
Sure, one can fairly criticize the Cards for playing it too safe and risking a chance to advance into the 2017 playoffs, but now that that ship has sailed, it’s clear the team has a much better hand from which to deal than do the Cubbies.
On the starting pitching side, the Cards don’t look dissimilar to the Cubs at the top of the rotation,, with three fairly certain starters (Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Weaver). But I’d say the choices that St. Louis has for building rotational fortification are deeper and stronger in house than are those for Chicago.
And as to those potential starters, like Flaherty, Hudson and beyond, the club has the depth to weigh whether are best used at home or in a transaction. The bigger trade market will partially dictate as much, and there’s not much comparison between what the Cubs have to offer there and what the Cards can do; our guys win that one all day long.
On the hitting front, of course the Cards are at a disadvantage. But unlike the Cubs’ pitching situation — they basically can only hope for progress from within or tackle overpriced free agency — the Cards have a full palette of tools available to them. They can reach deep down into the low minors, or offer ready-to-go prospects, like the ones mentioned above.
So there you have it. The Cubs maybe have more in place, but the Cards have not just a little more, but a lot more, to flash in the deal market. Going into the offseason, the equation most definitely favors the St. Louis Cardinals as a trade candidate for other teams.
With the collapse of the Cubs’ bullpen and the losses they’ll sustain in free agency, an effective offseason could put the St. Louis Cardinals back on equal footing with their I-55 foes. (PS Thanks to friend Rod for the idea for this piece!)