Offseason Outlook: My Game Plan

Over this week I’ve discussed the Cardinals’ pending free agents, their salary arbitration cases, and the needs that the roster faces next season. To finish out my offseason outlook series, I’m going to discuss how I would approach this winter if I were the chief decision maker in the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals were closer to the Cubs than you think they were. If you take away the head-to-head games both teams went 78-65 last year. But the Cardinals went 5-14 against the Cubs and that is where the division champions made up their entire 9 game lead. And seven of those losses to the Cubs came by just one run.

I think it’s interesting to note how many fans think that those 9 games are the equivalent of being light years behind the Cubs, but just ask yourself: How many games do you think the Cardinals lost because Mike Matheny made the wrong bullpen decision? If the club, with their hiring of Mike Maddux, reduces that number, that’s an improvement.

The Cubs have their own remodeling to do this winter as well, so the gulf between the two organizations is not that wide and could stand to flux quite a bit this winter. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, instead of just needing to add a bat, they need to find a way to deal with the losses of Trevor Rosenthal and Lance Lynn. This winter can’t just be another step in the right direction, it will require a series of steps.

Trim the fat. I argued last winter that the Cardinals needed to  “trim the fat” from their roster. Guys like Jhonny Peralta and Jonathan Broxton didn’t need to be brought back. The odds of either playing a large role in the team’s successes in 2017 was always exceptionally slim. In Peralta’s case, his playing early in the season kept either Jedd Gyorko or Kolten Wong out of the lineup. Both players had career years in 2017.

If they had trimmed the fat from their roster last winter, they would have created opportunities for players to step in and contribute. If the club wants to go young, creating those opportunities is the team’s biggest thing to keep in mind and it should inform all their decisions.

This requires that the front office take a hard look at what they have and make some bets and then hedge them. The biggest part of trimming the fat this winter is trading Stephen Piscotty and probably Jedd Gyorko as well.

As far as Piscotty, the Cardinals have a glut of outfielders who are ready or near ready. Having Dexter Fowler and Piscotty on long-term deals takes away the opportunities of these young players. My starting outfield next season with be Dexter Fowler, Tommy Pham, and Randal Grichuk with guys like Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and others getting their opportunities as the team’s fourth outfielder.

For Voit, like Adams before him, his future here in St. Louis is non-existent as long as Matt Carpenter is St. Louis. There’s also Jose Martinez who is looking to improve his abilities at first base, a position I think he is far more suited for that the outfield.

And then Gyorko, my plan is to bring in a starting infielder, which would mean that playing time for Gyorko would disappear and beyond that Wong has shown what he can do when he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. With Gyorko on the bench, Wong would be.

Go big or go home. For the Cardinals this winter, they need to add a big bat in the middle of their lineup, a closer, and a starting pitcher. But they need to add all three. Adding one, or even just two, leaves the team exposed and really reduces the benefit of going after what you added. After all, what’s the point in adding a guy like J.D. Martinez if your pitching staff can’t hold up it’s end of the deal?

Personally, I don’t pursue Martinez and the main reason why is that the Cardinals already have a half dozen outfielders who profile as starting outfielders. Perhaps if the front office thins the outfield pool to bring in other needs, but I don’t see that happening. Another reason is that Martinez has never been a feature hitter in a lineup. In Detroit, he hit behind Miguel Cabrera. In Arizona, he hit behind Paul Goldschmidt. Pardon my pitching parlance, but I would be reluctant to give ace money to a guy who may just be a very good #2. We’ve already got that problem with Matt Carpenter.

However, the Blue Jays may be interested in trading Josh Donaldson and they need outfielders. Donaldson is a rental, but he is also the only player over the last few years who has been able to consistently hold a candle to Mike Trout for the discussion of the most valuable player in baseball. You acquire him and he bridges the gap until next winter when there is a stellar free agent class and then you react to your needs then.

In the trade with the Blue Jays, you may also be able to get them to send you J.A. Happ, who would provide the Cardinals with a rental starter who can bridge the gap through to Alex Reyes being ready to join the rotation in 2018.

In the bullpen, the Cardinals are searching for a closer. Here, I would make re-signing Juan Nicasio a priority. I would also engage the Rays in trade talks about Alex Colome. Colome will be arbitration eligible for the first time this winter and has 84 saves over the past two seasons. He and Nicasio at the back end of the bullpen with Tyler Lyons, Matthew Bowman, John Brebbia, and Sam Tuivailala along with Sandy Alcantara and eventually Alex Reyes, should be enough back there.

Squeeze the lineup. One of the things that Mike Matheny has struggled to do over the past few seasons is optimize his lineup. It was telling last season that whenever there was an injury that forced Matheny to shuffle his lineup that the team flourished, but when everyone was healthy enough to return to the lineup he returned to his standard lineups and the team once again struggled.

One of the things I’ve realized while watching the playoffs this October is that while Matt Carpenter may be a great leadoff hitter, he is not a “spark plug” type of player that you want to have at the top of your lineup. The two guys the Cardinals have who could be that kind of player are Tommy Pham or Kolten Wong in my opinion. And I lean towards Pham more because of his attitude on the field.

That would make my Opening Day lineup look like this,

CF Tommy Pham
LF Dexter Fowler
3B Josh Donaldson
1B Matt Carpenter
SS Paul DeJong
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
RF Randal Grichuk

That lineup is deeper throughout. You have two speedy OBP guys in front of Donaldson who can mash them in. Carpenter can play both on base guy to move along the guys in front of him or to get on for DeJong’s power. Then you’ve got another OBP/SLG pair in Wong and Grichuk.

The Cardinals have an opportunity this winter. I am hopeful with the departure from their standard operating procedures that pursuing Mike Maddux seems to be, that it signals a departure when it comes to free agent pursuit as well.

If the Cardinals want to win the division and then set their eyes on a World Series, they need to make a series of changes. Just getting one or the other won’t be enough.

Offseason Outlook: Team Needs

On Monday I took a look at the Cardinals’ pending free agents and yesterday I looked at their pending salary arbitration cases. Today we’ll take a look at what I believe should be the Cardinals’ priorities this winter.

The Cardinals find themselves in a unique situation this winter. They have lots of quality players, but few star level players. Matt Carpenter might be the closest to a star player on offense that the Cardinals have, but he is not one. Which is why criticism of him is so strong. Carlos Martinez may be a star player in 2018 or 2019, but he was not in 2017. Nor were most pitchers at age 26 either.

But how do you talk about what a club has need for without feeling like you’re beating the proverbial deal horse once again?

Base running and fundamentals continue to hamper this team. The talent was there this season. The Cubs and Cardinals had the same record against the rest of the league. The Cubs’ made up their 9 game difference in the division in head-to-head play and seven of those losses to the Cubs came in one run games. The results indicate the teams were closely matched. A tweak or two could have put them over the top.

Bullpen management is another problem altogether, but the Cardinals seem to have a plan to address that with their new pitching coach. I am eager to see whether that changes anything or whether it was just more rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Unfortunately, given what the Cardinals stand to lose this winter on their pitching staff, they are not in position to simply need to build on what they have. The Cardinals have needs and they’re going to need to pursue them more aggressively than they have in John Mozeliak’s tenure as the chief decision maker in the front office. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at yet another season of regression.

Closer is really the primary need that the organization outlined this winter. With Trevor Rosenthal‘s injury, and what I expect to be a non-tender in December, the Cardinals need to replace that. Juan Nicasio was acquired in September and filled the role well, but he is also a free agent.

While the Cardinals don’t have a clear heir in house that they feel confident handing the role to or they would have last season when Rosenthal went down. Both John Brebbia and Sam Tuivailala turned in solid seasons last year and have closing experience, Brebbia in Independent League baseball and Tuivailala has been groomed as a closer in the minors. You’ve also got Tyler Lyons and Brett Cecil out there as well as setup guys. Mix in Matthew Bowman, Ryan Sherriff, Sandy Alcantara, and potentially Alex Reyes in the second half and you have a good base to a bullpen that really just needs the exclamation point to put on the end.

The Cardinals have indicated that they’ll pursue a free agent closer and it’s believed they are interested in Greg Holland who is expected to opt out of his contract with the Rockies. But Holland’s option could be worth as much as $21 million to stay in Colorado. I find it hard to believe that he would opt out, only to get less than he could likely get if he stayed one more year in Colorado before hitting free agency.

After that, the offense needs a boost. It’s really difficult to put your finger on where the Cardinals need to improve on offense next season. Yes, they need a run producer in the middle of their lineup, but the Cardinals got above average production from every fielding position except catcher and shortstop last season. And since June 6th when Paul DeJong made his first start at shortstop, it has been just catcher and it’s unlikely that Yadier Molina and his new $60 million contract are going anywhere.

That leaves plenty of options. Perhaps too many. How do the Cardinals turn a glut of slightly above average players into one or two well above average ones? Hopefully the club does not experience paralysis by analysis with all the different directions they could take.

The key here will be to look at who the club expects to be everyday players. In my opinion, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Yadier Molina are probably the only guys that you can lock in. That leaves two outfield spots and a corner infield spot to look for your update.

According to Derrick Goold, the Cardinals have long had interest in Josh Donaldson. They have also talked with Miami about their outfielders, but Marcell Ozuna will be sold high, Christian Yelich is essentially Stephen Piscotty, and the Marlins have indicated that Giancarlo Stanton may not waive his no-trade clause for St. Louis. That creates some issues.

On the plus side, the Cardinals have four positions they could upgrade at. The downside is that they need to trim the fat on their roster as well. That will be difficult for the front office to justify when they’ll likely have to sell off at a reduced return since everyone knows the Cardinals need to do it. That alone makes me reluctant to bet on the organization pulling the trigger.

The final need is starting pitching. With the Cardinals on the verge of letting Lance Lynn walk into free agency, I believe that starting pitching might be one of the most pressing situations for the team next season and it’s gotten very little coverage. John Mozeliak has expressed his desire to “go young” with the staff which likely means that Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty being expected to break camp in the rotation with the big league club next season.

I don’t expect that Alex Reyes will be ready go until much closer to the summer, so I wouldn’t bet on him opening the season with St. Louis next year.

But who is your guy that will take the ball every five days? Flaherty and Weaver will both be rookies and on innings restrictions. Michael Wacha stayed healthy this season, but was on a controlled workload. If they increase that workload, how will his stress injury respond? Adam Wainwright still has some magic left in his arm, but his ability to stay healthy is a concern for me. And then Carlos Martinez started 32 games and threw over 200 innings for the first time in his career, so we need to see how he will respond.

The Cardinals could be planning to approach this as a situation where they start the season with Flaherty and Weaver and then mix in guys like Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, and even Alex Reyes later in the season to help stretch those guys. But if you intend to be a playoff team next season, you’re placing an awful lot of confidence in those guys to be able to step in and do the job without skipping a beat. Further, if you’re going to invest in a centerpiece bat for your lineup, you owe it to that same lineup to make sure your rotation can put them in position to win games.

There are guys the Cardinals could sign to fill innings, but that’s how you get a guy like Mike Leake. It’s one of the reasons why I support bringing Lynn back so heavily. But perhaps they piggy-back a rental starter like a J.A. Happ into a potential deal with Toronto or go trade some of their lower level talent for a guy like Jake Odorizzi from the Rays who are set to have a record high in payroll next season unless they make some changes.

There’s options here, but I don’t see a team entering 2018 with those five guys penciled into the rotation as a playoff team.

Offseason Outlook: Arbitration

Yesterday we discussed the pending free agents the Cardinals have and today we’ll take a look at their salary arbitration eligible players.

A quick recap on what salary arbitration is. A player needs six years of MLB service time to elect for free agency and players who have yet to accumulate that is in their “team control” years. The first three years of this is where the team has the most control, they can unilaterally decide what the players will make. The second three years they qualify for salary arbitration. Players and teams negotiate a salary and if an agreement can’t be reached, they go to an arbitration hearing where an arbiter decides which side is correct.

There are some special situations, one which the Cardinals are facing and I’ll talk about at the end, but in general that is how this works.

Players who are under team control must be tendered a contract by their team by December 2nd or they will be what we consider to be “non-tendered.” When a player is non-tendered, they become a free agent.

LHP Tyler Lyons. Over the past few years I’ve really grown to love Tyler Lyons and have become quite enamored with his potential as a top level relief pitcher. It’s not just those dreamy eyes, though they certainly don’t hurt. I’ve argued for the last couple years that Lyons could be an elite setup guy if he was ever given the opportunity to be one.

This year he got his first taste of that action. He made the move to the bullpen full time and posted a 2.83 ERA and 1.09 over 54 innings. His second half was even more incredible as he posted a 1.61 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 28 innings. That 1.61 ERA was the 13th best ERA among relief pitchers who threw at least 20 innings in the second half.

Lyons will be arbitration eligible for the first time and is projected to get $1.3 million by MLB Trade Rumors and he is totally worth that. In my opinion, Lyons is the kind of reliever that you’re going to want to buy out his arbitration years. Lyons has a 2.74 ERA and 1.01 WHIP over 144 innings as a relief pitcher in his MLB career. What he did this year as a full time reliever should not have been a surprise to anyone.

OF Randal Grichuk. Randal Grichuk will also be arbitration eligible for the first time and he may be one of the toughest players to value. On one hand, he strikes out a lot, but he has power. Power so impressive that as I wrote earlier this year, only Giancarlo Stanton and Nolan Arenado have hit extra base hits at a greater rate than him since his arrival in the big leagues.

Yes, he doesn’t walk. But for all the talk about how bad his 2017 was supposed to have been, his rate numbers were virtually identical to the 2016 season we praised. That those rate numbers have remained steady makes me think that we now know what Grichuk is. And so I have to ask myself. Am I happy with a guy who, in a 600 plate appearance season, projects to hit .240 with 38 doubles, 6 triples, and 29 home runs? Yes, yes I am.

With the outfield logjam, it’s very possible that Grichuk is traded, but I still firmly believe that that would be a mistake. He’s the kind of guy you put at the back of a lineup and let him loose. Plus defender, plus power. And for a projected $2.8 million next year? A steal.

RHP Michael Wacha. Michael Wacha will be the club’s only second year arbitration eligible player. Last winter Wacha made a little bit of history after the club initiated their new “file and trial” policy where, once arbitration numbers are filed, they intend to take the player to the arbitration hearing. The Cardinals filed at $2.775 million, Wacha filed at $3.2 million, and the Cardinals won. It was the first time the organization had taken a player to arbitration since 1999.

Most important for Wacha this season was to prove that he was able to stay healthy for an entire season. He did that with 30 starts, however is performance left something lacking. His 103 ERA+ demonstrates that he was just slightly above league average. His overall numbers were a 4.13 ERA, 12-9 record, over 165.2 innings.

With the Cardinals’ moves in the rotation, Wacha aims to be leaned on more heavily in 2018. MLB Trade Rumors projects that Wacha will get $5.9 million in arbitration this winter, which I feel is high given his injury history and average performance. I also question Wacha’s place in St. Louis beyond 2019 when he becomes eligible for free agency. With two years of team control remaining coming off a season where he stayed healthy, his trade value may never be higher.

RHP Trevor Rosenthal. Trevor Rosenthal will be eligible for arbitration for the third time this winter, which means he will be a free agent following the 2018 season. Rosenthal made $6.4 million this past season and posted a 3.40 ERA over 47.2 innings before his season was ended by Tommy John surgery in late August. The standard timetable without any setbacks could put him back on the mound in August, the question is whether the Cardinals would want to pay the price to hope for that.

That’s where it gets complicated. By the CBA, players under team control cannot have their salaries drop by more than 80% without entering free agency. For Rosenthal, that means his minimum salary next year is $5.12 million. And even if they could get Rosenthal and his agent Scott Boras to agree to terms at that price, I imagine it is unlikely.

MLB Trade Rumors projects that Rosenthal will command $7.9 million in arbitration and that’s a lot of money to drop on a player for a month or two of pitching. Because of that, I do not expect the club to tender him a contract and make him a free agent.

INF Aledmys Diaz. The last player I’ll talk about isn’t arbitration eligible, but he’s in a weird situation. His initial four year contract ends at the end of the 2017 season, but he does not yet have enough service time to be arbitration eligible. That means that the Cardinals are in position to set his salary for 2018. The same 80% reduction limit applies, so Diaz’s minimum salary for next year would be $2 million unless the team non-tenders him into free agency.

Last year I suggested that the Cardinals would avoid this by buying out an arbitration year or two and include this pre-arbitration season in it, but given what we saw in 2017, things have changed.

Diaz hit .250/.290/.392 with 7 home runs in 79 games with the Cardinals and scored himself a mid-season demotion to the minors after losing his starting job at shortstop to Paul DeJong. Diaz diversified his defensive positions to include third base and second base during his time in the minors, but his future with the team is anything but certain. There is barely a niche for him on the roster now, but if the Cardinals acquire a starting infielder, I expect that there is no place for him on their roster.

For that reason, I expect that the club will either trade him before the deadline or non-tender him this winter. I think he’s shown enough that there will be a team willing to take a chance on him, but I don’t believe it will be the Cardinals.

Offseason Outlook: Pending Free Agents

With the World Series about to start getting underway, it’s time to start the offseason series’ here at Redbird Dugout. And the first step in that will be to take a look at the Cardinals’ outgoing free agents.

And when you look at this list, you might see a pattern. They’re all pitchers. With no free agent position players, that creates an interesting situation for a team who has a glut of position players that they need to not only thin out, but upgrade. But we’ll look at that going forward.

RHP Juan Nicasio. Juan Nicasio came late to the Cardinals this season, acquired in a September trade with the Phillies. At 31, Nicasio made the transition to full time reliever this season and responded with a career year as Pittsburgh’s 8th inning setup guy. Upon arriving in St. Louis, Nicasio slid into the closer’s role that had been left vacant by Trevor Rosenthal’s injury and posted a 1.64 ERA over 11 innings and was a perfect 4-for-4 in save opportunities.

Both the Cardinals and Nicasio have indicated that they’d like to be together in 2018 and I think the odds are good that something could be worked out. The hitch in the plans seems to be that the Cardinals claim to be looking at pursuing a top name closer. For Nicasio, I think the opportunity to close for the Cardinals is the most valuable thing the organization could give him. Without that, I think he’ll look for a closing opportunity elsewhere. Overall, I think a 2 year, $8-10 million deal would get the job done.

LHP Zach Duke. Yet another free agent reliever, but the fact that Zach Duke, 34, saw the mound at all this season was a pretty incredible feat. After being acquired last summer for Charlie Tilson, Duke finished his 2016 season with a 1.93 ERA in 23.1 innings with the Cardinals. However, after the season he needed to have elbow ligament replacement surgery and missed the first half of 2017. He managed to return in late July and posted a 3.93 ERA last season.

While that may not seem particularly impressive, five of the eight earned runs he allowed last season came in just two of his 27 appearances. He also had a 1.41 ERA and 0.87 WHIP over his final 14 appearances.

The future for Duke is less clear. With Brett Cecil and Tyler Lyons in the bullpen next season and Ryan Sherriff fighting for a spot of his own, it seems unlikely that the Cardinals would need yet another left handed reliever. That’s why, despite Duke recently telling that he would be interested in returning, I don’t see it happening. I’ll be the first to suggest that I don’t have a good feel for what Duke could command on the free agent market, but he is coming off a 3 year, $15 million deal. I would expect him to command $4-5 million on a one year deal.

RHP Seung-hwan Oh. After a stellar rookie campaign in 2016 where he assumed the closer’s role, Seung-hwan Oh had what can only be termed an incredibly disappointing 2017 season. In 62 appearances, Oh posted just a 4.10 ERA and 1.40 WHIP and lost his closer’s job mid-summer.

The future is cloudy for Oh as well. Getting to free agency was something that Oh had been aiming for since arriving in St. Louis after signing his 2 year, $5.25 million deal before the 2016 season. He’ll have the option of signing here in the U.S. or returning to Korea or Japan to close out his career.

With his past closing experience and how effective he was in 2016, I’m sure there will be a team willing to take a chance on him, but it’s hard to know just how much that would be worth. In a reliever heavy free agent market, that could depress his value to a smaller deal with incentives. Which I think is where you could see him electing to return to Asia.

RHP Lance Lynn. Despite his multiple public expressions of interest in discussing an extension to remain in St. Louis, the Cardinals never got in touch with Lance Lynn‘s agent to put the feelers out. That, combined with statements that the club wants to “go young” with their rotation, seem to close the door on Lynn’s return. Which I wrote in April is a mistake and I still agree with that.

The Cardinals need Lynn or a pitcher of his caliber in their rotation next season and going forward. As the season went on, the need to bring Lynn back only seemed more obvious to me. Until he ran into the wall in September, he was on track for a career year. He ended it with a rotation-best 3.43 and a league-best 33 starts. With the team looking to get better next season, how do you keep a straight face when saying that at the same time you let your top performing starting pitcher walk?

That’s the question that needs answering. I get the arguments that Lynn was lucky because his fielding independent pitching numbers weren’t attractive. His HR/9 was up, his BB/9 was up, his K/9 was down, but his H/9 was also down and he still posted a career-best WHIP of 1.23.

I suggested back in April that Lynn would command a 5 year, $125 million deal in free agency and I continue to stand by that. Some have suggested that Lynn will end up getting Mike Leake money (5 years, $80 million), which I find laughable. I think nine figures are a slam dunk for him and I consider Jordan Zimmermann‘s deal with the Tigers from two winters ago (5 years, $110 million) as his free agency floor. He’ll also get a qualifying offer, which he’ll decline.

Column: Carlos Martinez is not an ace… yet

There’s been a lot of discussion this year about Carlos Martinez and whether he is the Cardinals’ “ace.” And it’s a difficult question because ace means different things to different people. The basics of the criteria are pretty similar though. They are looked at as the guy to “right the ship” every five days. They should consistently give their team a chance to win. And, in my opinion, this is not a year-to-year position. This is sustained success over a few years before you can truly take the mantle of “ace.”

Going into this season, I spoke often about how in 2016 Martinez showed us everything we would want to see to be able to call him a future ace. There were games where he blew it past hitters and there were games he made his opponent look silly with his offspeed stuff and he seemed to get a sick satisfaction from doing it.

The Cardinals agreed with that assessment and gave him a 5 year, $51 million contract during spring training that could end up being a 7 year, $85 million contract if they use both option years.

And so far in 2017 there has been more time spent discussing Martinez’s hair than his performance on the mound because for whatever reason, Martinez’s season seems to be flying under the radar. So in case you’ve missed it, here are some highlights of his season.

He has thrown nine innings with no runs allowed 3 times. Three times this season Martinez has taken the mound and thrown 9 innings and allowed no runs, which is tied for the most in baseball alongside Ervin Santana and Corey Kluber. No other pitchers in baseball have done it more than once.

And here’s a fun fact, the other two guys who have done it are 3-0 in those three starts. Martinez is just 2-0 because the offense couldn’t score in one of his and the team actually lost in extras.

Martinez has 20 quality starts. A quality start is going at least six innings while allowed three earned runs of less. That is tied for third in Major League Baseball. Chris Sale leads the Majors at 22 with Gio Gonzalez in second place with 21. The other guys Martinez is tied with? You know them. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, and Gerrit Cole.

Martinez has thrown 194.1 innings. His first 200 inning season seems like a slam dunk at this point. He is third in baseball here too. Only Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija have thrown more innings. Only three pitchers in the top-10 of innings pitched have a better ERA (Sale, Ervin Santana, and Zack Greinke). He also leads the league in games started.

So, for all the talk about how Martinez isn’t consistent enough, here are three numbers that are essentially the gold standard for consistency. He’s taking the ball every fifth day, he’s throwing more innings than almost anyone else, and he’s turning in a quality start at the end of the day as often as anyone else.

But let’s look at that consistency a little more.

Martinez has a 128 ERA+ since becoming a full time starter in 2015. That 128 ERA+ is good for 11th in baseball among starters who have thrown 500 innings since the start of 2015. The names ahead of Martinez on this list are pretty much all recognizable, but it’s not just about the names. Martinez is the youngest name on this list. Yes, at age 25, he is the youngest pitcher in baseball to have thrown 500 innings since 2015.

Let’s see how those ten guys ahead of Martinez on the list fared during their age 25 season.

And Martinez still has two to three starts remaining this season depending on how desperate the team is at the very end.

Looking at that list you have four guys who clearly outperformed Martinez at age 25 in Kershaw, Greinke, Sale, and Bumgarner. But those guys are special. And three of those four are also left handed. But the other six guys? Martinez is as good or clearly ahead of them at age 25.

This just drives home the point of “yet” to me. He is not an ace yet, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that he is still very, very good right now.

Will he be an ace some day? I think the odds are good. He’s shown you everything you need to see to reasonable believe he will be. But is he completely there yet? No. And that’s okay.

At 25, Adam Wainwright had a 3.70 ERA in his first full season in the rotation. At 25, Chris Carpenter had a 6.26 ERA and led the league in earned runs allowed in just 175 innings. At 25, Bob Gibson had a 3.24 ERA and led baseball in walks, but he turned out alright.

I have confidence that Martinez will get there.

Looking at the names I’ve mentioned in this article and knowing that Martinez is in the same breath as them is outstanding. I firmly believe that this is one of those situations where the quote, “the grass is always greener on the other side” comes into play.

In reality, the primary difference between Martinez and the rest of the pitchers in this article is that he’s the youngest and the others have had the benefit of time to grow into elite pitchers. We quickly forget that a guy like Max Scherzer wasn’t even an ace level talent until his age 28 season. The Diamondbacks gave up on him at age 24 for Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson.

As Cardinals fans we should know better. We said many of the same things about Dan Haren back in 2004. He wasn’t good enough. Not consistent enough. And then he went on to throw 215+ innings in each of the next seven seasons at a 3.49 ERA.

Even Lance Lynn. At age 25 in his first full season in the rotation he was too inconsistent and an emotional head case who spun out of control when something went the wrong way. We all know what a “Lynning” is. But over his last three seasons from age 27 to 30, Lynn has a 2.92 ERA.

Let’s not make the same mistake by counting all the ways Martinez hasn’t lived up to the expectations we’ve projected in on him. Instead, let’s look at all the ways he is a very good pitcher with all the tools to grow into one of the best pitchers in baseball right in front of our eyes.

Column: Cardinals should just let Grichuk run

Randal Grichuk has long been a bit of an enigma for the Cardinals. So much potential, but can he ever reach the point where he makes enough contact that all that scout swooning power becomes worthwhile?

Yesterday, Grichuk hit his 20th home run of the season to give him back-to-back 20 home runs seasons. Perhaps the most impressive part of all this is that he has spent parts of those last two seasons in Triple-A, yet still accomplished the feat.

Despite Grichuk’s struggles that have sent him back to Memphis for midseason tune-ups, he still has been able to maintain his home run rate. Here’s a look at the percentage of his plate appearances that have ended in home runs over his first three seasons as a St. Louis regular.

2015: 4.86% of plate appearances
2016: 5.02%
2017: 4.95%

That’s pretty steady in the grand scheme of things. If you look at all of the baseball players who have had a minimum of 1,200 plate appearances since the beginning of the 2015 season, only 23 players hold a higher home run rate than Randal Grichuk.

Also among players with a minimum of 1,200 plate appearances since the beginning of 2015, Grichuk’s 12.18% extra base hit rate is the fourth highest in baseball. Only David Ortiz, Nolan Arenado, and Giancarlo Stanton have been better at turning plate appearances into extra base hits. And one of those guys is retired.

Imagine if the Cardinals left Grichuk alone in the 8 spot everyday this season. In 2016 the #8 spot in the Cardinals’ lineup had 636 plate appearances. For Grichuk that would translate into 40 doubles, 6 triples, and 31 home runs. Imagine that batting behind a Kolten Wong who is hitting .295/.386/.429 this season.

So imagine 40 doubles, 6 triples, and 31 home runs from a guy who also plays plus defense at all three outfield positions. You have to ask yourself why isn’t he playing more often?

Grichuk’s final numbers will end up within shouting distance of the numbers he put up last season, but will not have played nearly as much.

2016: .240/.289/.460, 5.0% HR rate, 11.7% XBH rate
2017: .235/.285/.474, 5.0% HR rate, 11.6% XBH rate

It’s the dark side of Grichuk. The strikeouts and the lack of walks. But even there, those numbers are in line with last year’s numbers. Identical even.

2016: 29.5% K rate, 5.9% BB rate
2017: 29.5% K rate, 5.9% BB rate

I do think it’s interesting that a guy like Grichuk, who I’ve suggested should bat third in the Cardinals lineup to bet on his power, has struggled to break the lineup while Paul DeJong strikes out just as often and walks less has gotten that job and found success there at least for now. They are essentially the same player, though Grichuk has more power.

If a team were to simply unleash Grichuk and let him play I think we would see him be able to take some development steps. The last two seasons the Cardinals have sent him down to work on his plate discipline and approach. As we can see, nothing has substantially changed when it comes down to the numbers.

In my view, that’s because pitchers in the minors pitch differently than pitchers in the Majors. We talk about it all the time with pitchers who ride one pitch through the minors, but get to the Majors to find that they really need two or three good pitches to continue to be effective. So you just see different pitching in the minors than you do in the Majors.

The Majors is where the polish should be applied and that only comes from exposure, learning, and adjusting. Something Grichuk has already proven he can do.

People call him the Stallion. And it’s time to just let him run.

Column: The STLFCO scratches back

Pot, meet kettle.

That’s my basic opinion of the now public spat between the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach in the days following the #RallyCat adventures. Or rather, misadventures as they may now be.

In an article today at the RiverFront Times, the STLFCO’s lawyer Albert Watkins spoke about their problems with the Cardinals who have tried to adopt the Rally Cat as an organization. In between speaking of the cat, who they’ve named Rally, in the third person as if he’d talked to the Rally Cat personally about his future and taking shots the Cardinals, Watkins suggested that the Cardinals’ desire to commercially capitalize on the cat had to be balanced with the cat’s best interests.

I think we can all agree that the Cardinals’ interests and the cat’s interests have to be balanced because what happens next year when #RallyCat fever breaks and all is forgotten? There needs to be a plan to care for Rally in place. The ultimately irony of it all is that the STLFCO has done nothing but attempt to commercially capitalize on him.

They pursued capture of the Rally Cat after it was determined lost in the Citygarden area. After catching it, they sought to publicly identify him as the Rally Cat. They did a media blitz after catching him. They promoted that they’d caught him. They promoted a “Rally Cat” t-shirt by 108stitches and numerous additional merchandise from others that they benefit monetarily from.

But now that the Cardinals have an interest in bringing in the cat, caring for it as an organization, and, yes, profiting off the popularity of Rally and now that the STLFCO has done their profiting off the situation wants to draw the line on commercialization.

Let’s be clear here, if the STLFCO cared about preventing the commercialization of Rally, they could have very easily done what they always do and told no one. They are a “TNR” organization, which stands for trap, neuter, and release. And in a few weeks when Rally was ready to be released the fever would have died down, nobody would be looking for him, and nobody would be any of the wiser.

After the Cardinals said that they expected to have the cat given to them, the STLFCO replied with a Facebook post that heavily criticized the Cardinals and their Vice President of Public Relations Ron Watermon’s “old school PR tactics,” calling him a liar and accused the Cardinals of using “bullying tactics.”And then Watkins in the RiverFront Times referred to these comments as a “perceived slight” as if the Cardinals misconstrued what they meant by calling Watermon a liar and a bully.

In that same statement, they told us that they don’t have the resources to fight this out in the media, but instead of “rally”ing (you liked that, didn’t you) around a good cause that could benefit all involved in some fashion, the STLFCO elected to pick that public fight with the biggest brand in the St. Louis area that they just told us they didn’t have the resources to fight.

The STLFCO claims this isn’t about getting a big check from the Cardinals, and to an extent I buy that because I have real concerns about what an organization adopting a pet looks like too and I’m sure people who donate their time to that organization would as well. But they should have led with that and kept the focus on that.

Instead, they elected to paint the Cardinals as the big bad corporation who is trying to do nothing except commercialize the kitten when they’ve been doing the same exact thing from the moment they thought they’d caught him.

Column: The status quo reigns in St. Louis

“We have a busy July coming,” said John Mozeliak said a month ago when discussing the timing of the Cardinals’ promotion of himself to President of Baseball Operations and his assistant GM Michael Girsch to General Manager. Through the month he remained optimistic that the Cardinals would be making deals as the deadline loomed. And the deadline came and went and the Cardinals did not make a move. Not even a sniff of anything on deadline day. The closest they got to a trade today was when USA Today’s Bob Nightengale put Dexter Fowler’s name in a tweet instead of Dustin Fowler.

While other contenders made deals to shore up their clubs, the Cardinals, at 52-53 and 4.5 games out of the NL Central, chose to stand pat and ride it out. As Mozeliak put it, “As today unfolded unfortunately we weren’t able to get anything across the finish line.”

Yet another wasted opportunity for this club to choose a direction. Instead, they will maintain the status quo, as I suggested they would a week ago. They were too close to become sellers and too far away to be serious buyers. By all accounts this is a club that hasn’t shown they deserve to be invested in.

I get it.

But if the team won’t tell you which way to go, you have to look at the big picture and decide. The Cardinals could have chosen to make a push in Lance Lynn’s final year on his current contract because you don’t know what the rookie you replace him with next year is going to be able to put together. Alternatively, the Cardinals could have seen the group of highly talented prospects coming through the minors, the tip of the spear we’re seeing this year, and doubled down on that group by selling the valuable pieces we have that won’t be around then.

But they didn’t.

When I look at what it would probably cost to get a guy like Josh Donaldson from the Blue Jays, I understand why a team would be reluctant to spend the talent required to bring him in. But what the Cardinals were once really good was finding value in low hanging fruit in free agency and the trade markets. And there were several members of that club out there and available that the organization chose to pass on. Guys like shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and reliever Joe Smith who were both traded this season for proverbial pennies when we talk about prospect costs and would have improved the team. It wouldn’t have closed the gap on paper, but they would represent steps in the right direction.

But they didn’t.

Instead the organization apparently decided that holding onto their prospects and not exceeding their “model” was more important to them than improving the team’s odds of winning the field either now or in the future. The model got them here. And the franchise that has plenty of both money and prospects couldn’t be bothered to part with either.

But it’s more than just adding players. The Cardinals have a real problem with too many players in their outfield.

They have two guys in Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty signed long-term. They have Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Jose Martinez all playing well on the big league roster. You have Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra who have shown flashes in their first opportunities in the big leagues. You have Adolis Garcia and Randy Arozarena in the high levels of the minors on the top prospects list. And then they added Tyler O’Neill, yet another high level outfielder, a week ago.

All in all ten players on that list for three starting spots. That doesn’t work. Those guys can be dealt, preferably before their stock falls, for real players who can help this team win games.

At every turn over the last several years this organization has told us, from the top to the bottom, that they want to win. They tell us they have money to spend and intend to be aggressive in free agency, only to lose out because they weren’t aggressive at all. They tell us they expect to be busy on the trade markets, only to lose out because they weren’t comfortable with the price the market made.

When it comes time for Bill DeWitt Jr’s Cardinals to put their money where their mouth is, they choke.

And I say that because the more I watch this team, the more I’m convinced that it’s not John Mozeliak or Michael Girsch or anyone in leadership positions in the front office that can’t make the decision to part with prospects, it’s the owner. So it’s not going to change unless he does.

Somewhere between Walt Jocketty’s “Sell all the prospects to help the Major League club” and the “Keep all the prospects and build from within” is a strategy that creates a stable and consistent winner.

I feel like that is the strategy that the organization wanted to use when they let Jocketty go and made Mozeliak the team’s GM ten years ago. And yet here we are 10 years later and they’ve swung a complete 180 in the other direction.

Two years ago the Cardinals were coming off a 100 game season and facing their first real challenge in a decade with both the Cubs and the Pirates built to contend over multiple years. They talked tough about free agency and struck out looking.

Two years later they are listing, a game under .500, in third place and lacking both an identity and a star player.

As Mozeliak once said, “St. Louis is a tough place… There’s high expectations and winning is demanded.”

We demand winning, Mr. DeWitt.

It’s time to do what it takes.

Column: It’s time to finish the job

The Cardinals lost yet another winnable series this weekend, this time against the Chicago Cubs who have now entered a tie for first place in the division. The Cardinals have gone 4-6 since on a 10 game road trip since the All Star Break. Winning just four games despite leading in 9 of the 10 games.

Through the road trip, they have demonstrated every conceivable way you can lose a game. Sloppy play, defensive miscues, lack of fundamentals, bullpen struggles, bad luck, and on and on.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these games were winnable.

The sloppy play, poor defense, and lack of fundamentals has been a constant issue over the past couple seasons. When we discuss them, I always think back to a UCB Podcast episode last summer where Kevin Reynolds asked me how many games I felt the Cardinals had given away to that point in the season. I suggested you could make the case that the number was in the double digits.

At the time that would have put the Cardinals neck-and-neck with the Cubs for first place in the division and that would have completely changed the narrative for the season. But even when the season came to a close, all it would have taken was for them to have held onto two of those games to secure a Wild Card spot.

The bottom line is that the Cardinals beat themselves last season. This wasn’t a situation where the team was just outmatched in every aspect of the game on the field. They just kept finding ways to beat themselves. With failures in the fundamentals of the game that the franchise has historically been lauded for.

The front office noticed it and everyone from Bill DeWitt Jr on down gave us the standard lip service about cleaning up the play on the field over the winter. Mike Matheny spoke at Winter Warm Up about how they were going to focus on it in Spring Training. The organization went as far to create a new position, Quality Control Coach, to help the team sort through the issues.

But six months later and those same issues are still costing this team victories on a regular basis.

The latest example came last week when Trevor Rosenthal failed to cover on a ball hit towards first base. By the time he realized what had happened and reacted to it, it was too late and Jose Reyes beat the play out and the Mets scored to win the game in a walk off.

I suggested that everyone should be on the field the next morning for pitcher’s fielding practice. If they want to play like Little Leaguers, they can be treated like Little Leaguers.

Back on June 9th, the Cardinals made some changes on the coaching staff, headlined by the reassignment of third base coach Chris Maloney. Since then, the Cardinals are 21-19 and still find themselves exactly where they were 40 games ago. In fourth place, 4.5 games out. And that’s with five wins against the Phillies and there are no games against them remaining.

It’s been a quarter of a season since those changes were made and the rest of the NL Central has given the Cardinals every opportunity make a move in the division, but their own sloppy play has prevented that from happening. It’s time to finish the job that John Mozeliak began on June 9th.

Let’s look at the facts in evidence. The Cardinals have struggled with sloppy play and bad fundamentals over the past two years, but this has really just been a culmination of the degradation in it over the last several years. As Jose Ortiz suggested when he wrote about it, note that “The Cardinal Way” was lost on Mike Matheny’s watch.

With the priority that Matheny told us that he was going to make improving fundamentals this spring and the complete lack of improvement that has been made in that direction suggests one of two things.

First, Matheny hasn’t actually tried to correct the issue. This could be for multiple reasons ranging from he doesn’t see it as an issue or he doesn’t know how.

Second, he has made an effort to correct it and the players haven’t. Those reasons would be that the message is either not sticking with them or they are willfully ignoring it.

Either is a sign of trouble in an organization. Both are indications that it’s time to move on and put a new voice in the manager’s office.

I’ve spoken a few times over the past couple years of how it seems that communication is one of Matheny’s biggest issues. Not just, “Hey, you good to go today?” but actually communicating his approach and philosophy to players so that they don’t just understand it, but buy in.

We saw that with Randal Grichuk last winter who was not told that the organization wanted to replace him in center field. We saw that this spring when he said that Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko were going to start the season out in a platoon after the organization had told Wong he was going to start.

And back at Winter Warm Up, Matheny spoke about solving some of those fundamental problems and aggressiveness on the base paths and he spoke about the difficulty of getting players to buy into his message. That was a big red flag to me. It felt like he was throwing his team under the bus.

The Cardinals may wait until the end of the season and let Matheny go as John Mozeliak has talked about not liking to fire guys in the middle of the season. He’s talked about how players don’t like to feel like they got someone fired.

But this team still has a chance. It’s time to finish the job and send that warning shot at the clubhouse. They need to feel like they got someone fired. Matheny has been given his opportunity to turn this club around and they are as bad as ever.

Mozeliak talked this weekend about being unhappy with the attitude and culture around the club. The quickest fix for that is to remove the guy who is paid to set that tone.

Column: Diagnosing Randal Grichuk

This has to have been a frustrating season for Randal Grichuk on many levels. He gets demoted last year to work on his swing and then comes up and hits .269/.300/.554 with 16 home runs in 70 games and seems to solidify his hold on center field with fielding metrics that allow you to make the case that he is one of the top-10 center fielders in baseball.

Then you find out two months later that your team has signed Dexter Fowler to play center field and move you to left field. And then late in spring training you hear to this crazy idea to try out Matt Adams in left field and that crazy idea turns into a fairly regular thing to open up the season, at least for a little while.

You run into a snag again in May and slump hard and find out the team’s going to send you to the minors to work on your approach and pitch recognition. All the way down to single-A.

So in the span of about six months you’ve been moved from center field by a player you can make the case is worse defensively, you lost your starting left field job to a career first baseman, and then got busted back down to single-A. Ouch.

Yes, I’m aware that Grichuk was sent there specifically to work with Palm Beach’s hitting coach, but the point remains. Single-A still hurts.

Grichuk returned triumphantly on June 25th, batting cleanup against the Pirates where he went 2-for-5 with a home run in the win. And the next night, he batted second against the Reds and went 2-for-5 again, adding another home run. He batted sixth the next two nights against the Diamondbacks and went 0-for-8. Then was back in the second spot for the series finale where he went 3-for-5 with 5 RBI as the Cardinals romped to a 10-4 victory.

That victory would make the Cardinals 11-0 this season when Grichuk starts and bats in the front half of the lineup (4th or higher). Dating back to last season, the Cardinals are 27-7 when Grichuk starts and bats in the front half of the lineup.

This season, we see a completely different Grichuk in the front half of the lineup. He has hit .291/.314/.563 with 3 home runs in those 11 games in the front half this season and just .198/.266/.346 with 4 home runs in 46 games in the back half of the lineup (5th or lower). That’s a stark difference, even for the small sample size.

Common baseball strategy suggests that you see better pitches when you bat higher in the lineup because you have better hitters around you. The last thing a pitcher wants to do is walk you with a good batter coming to the plate. But if you’re in the back half and the next batter is Greg Garcia or Eric Fryer, there is little fear, so there is no need to go after you with the same directness. They can try to make you chase.

And after about a week of compiling data, I’m about as frustrated as he has to be because I can’t find an obvious reason why Grichuk struggles so much.

Sixty percent of the pitches Randal Grichuk has seen this season have been balls, and 37% of those have been down and away. But when I look at some other players, this does not seem to be a ridiculously high figure. In fact, it’s slightly lower than the percentage of balls that Matt Carpenter sees.

But there doesn’t seem to be an enormous difference over the whole season sample as far as how he much opposing pitchers ask him to chase based on lineup position.

So on to pitch mix. And Grichuk actually sees more breaking pitches when hitting in the front of the lineup versus the back. Not what I expected to find. In the back of the lineup he sees more fourseam fastballs, in the front he sees more sinkers. Those are his biggest differences in pitch mix.

However compared to last year, he is seeing more sliders compared to previous seasons. He saw sliders 20.2% of the time in 2015, 20.4% of the time in 2016 and now 21.8% of the time this season. And based on Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights, he’s struggling against the slider worse than ever. And the curveball too.

Maybe now we’re getting somewhere, so this is about where I suggest something as simple as he just needs to stop swinging at balls. But he’s actually swinging at fewer pitches than ever before. His overall swing rate is down from 53.9% last year to a career low 50.4% this year. And last year he swung at 39.7% of pitches out of the zone compared to 37.2% this year.

He’s not even fooled by those sliders down and away we all talk about him being a sucker for. Last year he swung and missed on sliders down and away 31% of the time. This year it’s just 25%.

So all this to say that I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Cardinals should just tell him to swing away and bet on his talent. It is what got him here and is what put together incredible stretches the past couple seasons.

With the way he has hit in the front half of the lineup this season and the Cardinals’ lack of reliable bats in those lineup spots, I’d think really hard about slotting him in third and betting on his power to make a difference more often than not. Mainly because, even while I can’t find any evidence of it, I think the lineup protection is doing him some good.

Grichuk is one of many players the Cardinals have that needs to develop his plate approach. And that’s not going to change in a day or a month regardless of whether he’s working with Mark Budaska, George Greer or John Mabry.  Aledmys Diaz is in this same boat right now and I expect Paul DeJong will join him at some point. Behind them, Harrison Bader looks like the same kind of player. Enough talent to tantalize in short spurts, but ultimately lacks a plate approach for sustained success.

When I wrote on Tuesday about how the Cardinals should approach Kolten Wong‘s return, I never mentioned Grichuk and suggested Stephen Piscotty as the team’s fourth outfielder. It was intentional.

If the Cardinals are unwilling to let Grichuk bat where he has demonstrated the ability to be successful, they need to send him to Memphis to complete his development. And not call him back up until he’s proven himself ready.