St. Louis Cardinals: Potential is usually not enough


The St. Louis Cardinals sit a whopping eight games behind the Chicago Cubs in Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA rankings for the 2018 season.  The Cards are betting that they can outperform these rankings, and in fact, some of the values assigned individual Cardinals appear to be on the light side.

But the reason the St. Louis Cardinals sit so far below the Cubs frames a serious discussion about the upcoming campaign, one that has Cards’ fans rife with both hope and anxiety.  The question is, in a nutshell, this: With what appears to be bigtime payroll space available, why tilt the team so heavily toward potential and so far away from proven performance?

There’s little question with the funds all MLB teams are receiving from the Disney/Fox deal, plus the Cards’ new TV contract, St. Louis could shell out significantly more than they have to date. They sit at a $124M current payroll, plus $17M in remaining Mike Leake obligation, so $141M in all.

The total is 12th in all of baseball and 13th just counting 25-man roster figures.  On the face of things, that doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable But the dollars don’t sit in a vacuum, and a team seeking to compete strongly has to objectively assess what their payroll has bought them in the win column.

And therein lies the rub. The St. Louis roster appears to be extremely potential-heavy and proven performance short.

Let’s just take a few examples. The principal Cardinals pitcher signs over the offseason comprise Miles Mikolas, Luge Gregerson,  and Bud Norris. (We won’t count Jason Motte at this point as anything but a lark).

The team appears to be counting on Mikolas for a starting spot, though his only high-level success has come in the Pacific Rim. They claim Gregerson will be the closer, though he had a horrid 2017 and has lost the closer spot with other teams.

And Norris, while a seasoned veteran, is said to be a possibility for both bullpen and rotation, though his lifetime WHIP is mediocre, he walks too many batters to be predictable in late innings, while his hit rate is hardly among the leaders in that regard.

There’s nothing wrong with depth, of course. The issue is the team is counting on either these guys to outperform their histories and fit into uncomfortable roles, or youngsters to perform at the very high end of their potential curve, or both.

While less true on the hitting side, the same kind of analysis raises eyebrows. Clearly a high level of certainty can be ascribed to Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter (if healthy) and a declining Yadier Molina.

But everywhere else, the predictive value is based on a limited sample size. Tommy Pham had never had a year like his 2017; Marcell Ozuna has emerged as a slugger, but are we so sure that he won’t regress to just-very-good levels?

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Jedd Gyorko is great defensively but erratic on the hitting side. His progress creeping over a .800 OPS is admirable, but his strikeouts rattle the nerves. Jose Martinez has had exactly one partial season of striking performance at the MLB level, so virtually anything could happen next go round.

Then there’s the middle-infield duo. Paul DeJong had an exceptional first big-league year, but so before him did Aledmys Diaz; remember his major swoon? Kolten Wong appears to be here to stay, though injuries have derailed him and the team has shown variable trust in his capabilities.

So again, we have upside galore, especially with Pham and DeJong, but the Cardinals are depending heavily on the ability of players to remain at the highest cycles of their performance.

Reliance on potential in a big way means several things. It means true performance can vary much more wildly than with known commodities. Hiring a Greg Holland, for instance, doesn’t guarantee closer success, but it substantially raises the potential of that success.

But there’s even more concern, because the Cardinals aren’t relying on potential to grab a division title; they’re depending on it just to try to score a wild-card spot, and that’s especially precarious.

Think about it this way. If you spend and build to put your team in contention to win a division title — a level it would be very hard to argue the Cards are at right now — then if you fall short, you still have a couple of wild-card spots for which to compete.

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But if your potential only makes you a wild-card contender at best, then you not only have to worry about your own ceiling, but you’re competing against typically four to eight teams for those two spots. Spots that only give you the right to play one playoff game, and none at home if you’re in the second wild-card position.

So, you might say, why not just hold back on the spending until mid-season to see where you are at the time? Well, there’s a couple deep flaws with that analysis.

The first is that you’re committing to a half-season with your potential-laden team, since most teams don’t want to do deals til well into the first half or beyond. So waiting to improve the team can cost you a serious number of wins before the All-Star Break, thus creating a self-defining prophecy of elimination before you even get to the point where a trade might help.

But let’s say you do hover close enough at mid-season to make deals. At this point, you have absolutely no control of who else is in and who’s out. You have no free agents (typically) to chase, and your trades limited by the assets others have and are willing to disgorge.

That’s vastly different from if you buy up BEFORE the season. By doing so, you lock in division competition potential; you still remain able to add to the team by trade; and if things go poorly, you can later divest yourself of assets, depending on the nature of their contract status.

All in all, playing on the potential edge like the Cards are doing, when they are hardly hurting for dollars, is a very dangerous and, in my view, not a particularly sensible approach.

There’s still time for deals before Opening Day and we’ll hope for enhancements to the roster by then. If that doesn’t happen, though, the question will remain: WHY have they chosen to go in this direction?

Next: Where in the world is Danny Duffy?

That’s a really good question. And one I’ll address in an upcoming column.