The St. Louis Cardinals need to answer their million-dollar question

The St. Louis Cardinals have a problem. Players keep consistently underperforming in St. Louis and the team needs to find out why.

Baseball can be extremely frustrating. Despite the best-laid plans, the best intentions, things can still go horribly awry. Not every move can work out in your team’s favor, not every prospect is going to work out. For the St. Louis Cardinals though, it no longer can be considered a coincidence, but a trend.

Hindsight is 20/20, but hindsight also can tell a very grim story when you look at the moves and the players that the Cardinals let walk or traded away. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. Only looking back.” This quote from Steve Jobs fits into a lot of places in life, especially baseball.

Looking back at the past five years, I would challenge you to find more than two or three trades that Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has made that looked objectively bad at the time. You could put the Tommy Pham trade on that list and possibly the Oscar Mercado trade as well. Beyond that, most trades seemed very fair at the time. Even big trades like trading for Marcell Ozuna or Paul Goldschmidt seemed just fine.

What started as something I would call coincidence has now turned into an ugly trend and it seems to get worse with each passing week. Players that the Cardinals trade away or let walk have consistently blown up on other teams. Look around the playoffs. Every other team has at least one former Cardinal playing big roles.

I’d like to say that this is not an indictment of John Mozeliak. This is an indictment of the Cardinals’ system of analyzing talent and the analytics department. Something has gone sour somewhere in the talent evaluation sphere that has led to this breakdown.

I know that John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have captured the attention of the fanbase as the guys who should be gone, but they are not lone wolves making their own choices based on their talent evaluation.

Right now, the list of players making waves elsewhere includes both NL and AL home run leaders Marcell Ozuna and Luke Voit, Rays’ number three hitter Randy Arozarena, Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen, Tommy Pham, and more.

It’s easy to jump all over the Cardinals for these guys, but you can’t honestly expect every player that gets traded to just be bad and disappear. Listing every player that the Cardinals have ever traded that is still in the league is not a realistic bash on Mo. To get a player back, you have to give up someone. The issue isn’t every player. The issue is with the players that the Cardinals couldn’t develop here. For some players, St. Louis has become a bit of a nest. Players come into the league, then venture out of the nest to flourish elsewhere.

Again, some players need a change of scenery for them to succeed, but it seems the days that the Cardinals take someone off the scrap yard and turn them into Ryan Ludwick are gone. Teams are now taking or being given guys from the Cardinals and turning them into stars.

There are very valid counter arguments though.

One, these players may not have turned into the players they are now if they were still here. Take Voit for example. He was always a slugger, but when he went to the Yankees, they changed his stance and unlocked his power potential. At the time of his trade, it wasn’t a bad trade at all as well. With any of these players, they may have needed to be in another organization to succeed.

Next, there is an argument that some of these guys are overperforming. For Randy A, that is certainly part of his stellar production. Last year, people were bashing Mo for trading away Mercado because he was hot with the Indians. This year, opposing pitchers adjusted and he had a .348 OPS, leading to him being left off the roster for the majority of the year. Some of these guys are just getting lucky.

It’s easy for fans to ride the roller coaster of which former Cardinals are hot and it’s frustrating to see Voit and Ozuna doing so well.

Looking at Ozuna specifically, the trade for him looked like a steal at the time. The Cardinals gave up Gallen and Alcantara in a package for Ozuna, who was coming off an amazing year. With the Cardinals, Ozuna looked like a shell of the player he was in 2017. After two years of this performance, the Cardinals only gave him a Qualifying Offer. Ozuna declined and eventually signed for less money with the Braves.

Standard Batting
YearAgeTmG2B3BHRRBIBAOBPSLGOPSOPS+
201726MIA15930237124.312.376.548.924149
201827STL1481622388.280.325.433.758106
201928STL1302312989.241.328.472.800109
202029ATL601401856.338.431.6361.067175

Looking at this table, Ozuna’s time in St. Louis was a clear outlier. It is almost laughable at this point.

On 101 ESPN this week, MLBN anchor and St. Louisan Greg Amsinger J on to talk about all things Cardinals. When talking about this very issue, Amsinger talked about how the Cardinals are too much like a team of “boy scouts.” Anyone who is deemed unfit for the clubhouse is traded away (see Randy A, Tommy Pham).

This leads us back to why this issue is such a big deal: the players they have decided to keep have been the wrong choices to this point. Tyler O’Neill still has potential, but he didn’t have a great 2020 from a box score standpoint. Harrison Bader is what he is, and Lane Thomas hasn’t proven to be anything yet. These three were the guys the Cardinals chose to keep instead of Randy A and Ozuna.

The Cardinals did get back a potential stud in Matthew Liberatore in the Arozarena trade, but seeing the Cardinals’ offense struggle when there are so many productive former Cardinals out and about really hurts.

Nobody could’ve known that these players who have blown up were going to do that, but then again maybe the signs were there. The Rays and the Yankees are teams with two of the best analytics departments in all of baseball. With the success that the Rays have had with trades, it seems that the Rays are better at evaluating the players on other teams than the teams are themselves.

The Cardinals have been trying to move towards a more analytical approach with Jeff Albert being brought in as hitting coach. They have also invested in their analytics department, but there is clearly more work to be done.

I would love the recent downturn in luck with players to be a coincidence, but at a certain point, the facts can’t be ignored.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ Million-Dollar Question: Why are so many players blossoming only when they leave St. Louis?

This problem is deeper than just replacing John Mozeliak like many of you want. This is an existential issue for the team. I wouldn’t call it a crisis, but if the Cardinals can’t figure out why their evaluation system has soured, the long-running philosophy of consistently fielding a competitive team may be in jeopardy.

To be honest, I don’t have a good answer for it.

We don’t also know how far up the chain the decision making goes. Going back to the Arozarena trade, he was traded after he live-streamed the postgame celebrations after beating the Braves in the NLDS. It is unknown how big of a role him doing that played in getting traded. Bill Dewitt Jr. may have gone right to Mo that day and told him to trade Randy. We have no clue.

Tommy Pham could’ve suffered from a similar situation. His infamous article with Sports Illustrated where he torched the Cardinals came out in April of 2018 and he was traded by the trade deadline that year.

It’s sad, confusing, and frustrating to see what has been happening with this team lately and it may end up costing John Mozeliak his job. I will stay strong on my thought that he is a very good team President and if he gets fired, he’ll be scooped up quickly.

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If the Cardinals can answer their million-dollar question, they can return to the organization we are used to them being. If not, fans will continue to be frustrated by players going elsewhere to succeed.