St. Louis Cardinals: What we learned about rebuilding from the Marlins

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 16: General Manager John Mozeliak (L) and owner William DeWitt, Jr. of the St. Louis Cardinals speak at a press conference at Roger Dean Stadium on February 16, 2011 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 16: General Manager John Mozeliak (L) and owner William DeWitt, Jr. of the St. Louis Cardinals speak at a press conference at Roger Dean Stadium on February 16, 2011 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images) /

It’s no secret the St. Louis Cardinals have fallen from their peak of dominance over the past several seasons, and came into this offseason in the search of a spark. The Marlins, on the other hand, are in a tumultuous situation and are forced to rebuild. Despite the differences in their situations, the Cardinals can learn much from the Marlins debacle.

You could argue the story of the St. Louis Cardinals retooling and the Marlins’ rebuild were set off by very similar events. On October 26, 2014, a young Cardinal outfielder, lauded for his potential and seen as the most talented prospect the team had since Albert Pujols, careened off the muddy, rain-soaked roads of his hometown in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Oscar Taveras was just 22-years-old when he died, and his passing left both a hole in the hearts of Cardinal Nation and in the Cardinals’ future outfield.

In 2017, with a surplus of outfielder that have yet to replace what Taveras would have been, his loss was finally starting to haunt the Cardinals, as they could never quite find the power that was lost with Oscar’s latent potential. Guys like Matt Carpenter increased their power, but it wasn’t enough.

Not even two years after Taveras’ death, a bright young pitcher made a rash decision after a night out, and it cost him everything. The death of Jose Fernandez once again rocked the baseball community, and left a gaping hole in the future of the Miami Marlins. The loss was even more pronounced here as, at the age of 24, he was already one of the top pitchers and an elite strikeout artist in the major leagues, and ingrained in the community through charity work and loved by fans.

While the triggers of the Cardinals retool and the Marlins’ rebuild were somewhat similar, the state of the team before was much different. While the Cardinals were still very much established as a contender when Taveras died, the Marlins were still looking for that last spark to put them over the top and make them contenders. As a result, the Marlins were set back much worse than the Cardinals were.

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While some people have suggested a rebuild similar to the Cubs style of rebuild that lead them to their first World Series in over a century could be the key to the Cardinals’ success, that has never been their style.

The St. Louis Cardinals almost never rebuild, they retool, and the Cardinals were able to take advantage of the Marlins’ need to shed salary by grabbing a new tool; a young outfielder with the pop and charisma to perhaps finally fill the void left by Taveras’ death.

Another important parallel in this situation is the difference in the handling of star players.

Albert Pujols received a similar contract to Stanton (considering inflation), and the Cardinals were able to build around him with a good mixture of home-grown talent and mid to high level complimentary players. While there were a share of overpaid players, they were vastly overshadowed by guys like David Eckstein and David Freese.

The Marlins have been unable to assemble a legitimate team around Stanton because they departed from what made them great in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. On their most recent championship team in 2003, their money was much better distributed, and they were able to bring all the components together necessary to be a winner.

They had a young homegrown talent they developed into an offensive stud to lead the lineup without breaking the bank. Luis Castillo had 187 hits and hit .314 in the Marlins’ 2003 season, and he only cost the Marlins $4.85 million that season ($6.87 million in 2017).

This allowed the team to channel resources into other important players that would compliment him on offense, yet wouldn’t break the bank. The prime example for this team was Ivan Rodriguez ($10 million in 2003, $13+ million in 2017), who finished the year with the highest overall WAR for the team, slashed .297/.369/.464, and had an impressive 1.4 dWAR as a catcher.

The current Marlins have not been quite as effective with their money, to the point where Jeffery Loria was dubbed by Yahoo Sports “the worst owner in sports” upon his sale of the Marlins franchise. The $1.2 billion purchase of the team included assuming $400 million in debt, created by years of overpaying players and mishandling talent which lead to attendance spiraling down even after the completion of a new stadium in which the Marlins invested $155 million.

Even in this regard, the St. Louis Cardinals were able to handle their money better than the Marlins. Not only did the construction of Marlins Park run into a variety of bumps on the way, including public opposition, the Cardinals had a much smarter payment plan for the stadium. While the Cardinals will end up paying more when all is said and done, they partitioned much of the cost into 15 yearly payments which will cost about $15.9 million per year, instead of the huge amount up front.

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Returning to the players, the only thing you have to do to put the mismanagement of the Marlins into perspective, all you have to do is look at their current payroll. Pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and Brad Ziegler, who are both over the age of 30 and have pitched poorly for the Marlins, are set to make $23.5 million in 2018, and Chen is owed $52 million over the next 3 years. The Marlins have had a history of trading away their highly paid talent while keeping mediocre, overpaid players.

Another important part of the 2003 Marlins was pitching. While they didn’t have the Randy Johnson or the Greg Maddux type ace, they had a group of young, homegrown talent that would help make the Marlins formidable on the defensive side of the ball as well. While an elite, dynamic ace is important in some baseball formulas, it has been shown that a team can win with a collection of young pitchers without an elite ace.

The death of Jose Fernandez cruelly stripped the Marlins of a pitcher that was both a homegrown talent and an elite ace, and this has considerably hampered the Marlins’ progress as a pitching group. With Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins were slowly bringing themselves back up from irrelevance, as more and more players began to take a step up and show the talent to become an important contributor on the team. Suddenly, the Marlins were looking promising.

But all of that was still caught in a mire. Instead of surrounding the young players with complimentary players on good contracts, the Marlins’ decided to break the bank for these compliments, and many of these adds didn’t quite work out.

From 2013-2016, the previously mentioned Chen, Mat Latos, Michael Morse, Edinson Volquez, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were all among the top-three in the Marlins’ payroll, and all were either hurt or significantly under-performed.

All of these things factor into the Marlins’ current situation and the massive amount of debt that the new ownership has to deal with. Obviously, it is an insane situation the St. Louis Cardinals cannot be in for years, but there are aspects from it that the Cardinals are caught up in, and watching the insanity in Miami unfold should give the Cardinals some ideas on how to move forward.

Obviously, the stadium situation has been dealt with, so there is no need to worry about that. However, the Cardinals need to see that featuring these expensive, one year rentals on players is not the way to win. No offense to guys like Zach Duke, but the Cardinals need to continue to assemble and develop their young core before adding pieces like that.

Just as with the Marlins, bringing in veteran pitchers who can’t really glue the rotation together or guide the younger pitchers is unnecessary. As demonstrated with Mike Leake, this kind of move rarely works, and is more appropriate as the final piece of the puzzle rather than a core to build off. A great example of the Cardinals executing this in the past is with the Jeff Weaver trade that bumped the Cardinals over the hump to the title in 2006.

For teams who don’t have the insane financial backing of teams like the Dodgers and Yankees, you need to be patient and pick your spots. However, the Marlins essentially put a bulls-eye on that spot with the Stanton drama. The Marlins and Cardinals had been talking about Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yellich since early in the 2017 season, and the trade window was essentially blown open following the proclamation that the Marlins would cut payroll as a result of the team’s debt.

While he doesn’t fit the traditional idea of a “homegrown player”, many of the perks and benefits that come with homegrown players lie in Ozuna. He was paid just $3.5 million last year, and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2020. Ozuna also has the ability to be one of the best offensive players on the Cardinals roster as Castillo was for the 2003 Marlins. Thus, they have a young, cheap, and productive player for several years to work with.

So where do they go from here?

Well, as demonstrated by the 2003 Marlins, a group of dynamic, young pitchers can win a World Series, and the Cardinals have a huge selection of prospects to create this young core, even after losing Sandy Alcantara. With this being the case, there is no need to try and find starting pitching until the core of youth is established. Paying huge money for someone is unnecessary until we see how some of these prospects develop and what they contribute.

Finally, if the idea of tanking and rebuilding through the draft as the Cubs did had any appeal, this situation should prove that tanking should only happen when it is absolutely necessary. Many things can be lost in a tank, and much potential can be squandered in exchange for the hope of a better future, and guys like Brad Hand can only unfurl their talent after they leave a team with that kind of mentality. For a team like the Cardinals, tanking and rebuilding simply isn’t an option.

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Has the Miami Marlins’ fire sale changed your opinion on tanking? Do you think that the Cardinals could still use a more extensive rebuild? Do you think the Marlins or the Cardinals have struggled for other reasons? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts..