2016 PECOTA Projections

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections are out. They have the Cardinals finishing 82-80 in third place in the NL Central and 10 games back of the division winning Cubs.

It’s not a glowing endorsement from PECOTA, though last year they projected the Pirates to go 81-81 and they won 97 games last year. So there’s that.

Part of the problem is that projection systems will find it difficult to project the Cardinals because of the injuries that plagued them last season. They won’t reflect full seasons from guys like Adam Wainwright or Matt Holliday or even new additions like Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk.

So it is safe to say that if the Cardinals can manage to stay healthy, they’ll outperform that projection easily.

Adding Leake shores up rotation

John Mozeliak finally got someone to take his money. And while Mike Leake certainly isn’t David Price, he will do the trick. With the deal happening quickly today, the Cardinals introduced their first Major League free agent acquisition in an afternoon press conference at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals and Leake agreed to a 5 year, $80 million deal that has a mutual option for 2021 that would make the contract worth as much as $94 million, according to reports. That deal makes the largest deal that the franchise has given out to a player who had never played for the franchise before.

Leake’s new deal will also give him full no trade protection, so he will be in St. Louis through at least the 2020 season. He also now has the longest contract on the Cardinals. If there is a downside to this deal for St. Louis, it is the no trade clause. However, it can be seen as a calculated signal from an organization that intends to compete over the life of the deal. After all, contending teams don’t trade away MLB talent anyway, and the Cardinals haven’t had a losing season while the four digit year has started with a two.

Leake turned 28 last month and posted a 3.70 ERA and 11-10 record over 30 starts and 192 innings between the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants. After spending the previous five and a half years in Cincinnati, Leake was dealt in July to the Giants. Leake posted a 3.87 ERA with a 62-47 record over his time with the Cardinals’ NL Central rivals.

There are a number of reasons that this deal is good for the Cardinals.

First, Jason Heyward is 1-for-14 against him. Checkmate, Mr. Heyward.

Second, he had a 3.87 career ERA in Cincinnati while playing half of his games in the very hitter friendly Great American Ballpark. His numbers bear that out too, showing a 4.28 ERA in GABP and 3.48 ERA on the road, including a 2.91 ERA on the road last season. With my unscientific projection model, I think you can easily knock half a run off that career ERA to set your expectation. I believe he’ll win 13-15 games with a 3.30 ERA this year.

Third, he is a workhorse. Over the past four seasons, Leake has started at least 30 games in each and has thrown the 17th most innings of any pitcher in baseball. Over the past three seasons, he’s averaged just shy of 200 innings as well. When Lance Lynn’s 200 innings hit the disabled list in November, the Cardinals had to find a way to fill those effectively and Leake has shown he is more than capable of delivering them.

Fourth, I think about the kind of pitcher that Mike Leake is. He’s a guy who truly knows how to pitch and doesn’t rely on cruising a fastball by the batter to get outs. There’s a lot there that reminds me of Kyle Lohse who, when healthy, was excellent for St. Louis.

There are some differences though. Most notably that Leake does a better job of putting the ball on the ground. Plus, you can count on Busch Stadium turning some of those home runs into fly ball outs. They’ve both got some facial hair too.

Fifth, it’s a great price tag. Yeah, $16 million per year in average annual value does sound like a lot for someone who isn’t going to be an elite level pitcher, but considering Jeff Samardzija got $18 million per year from the Giants just a month or so ago, it’s a good deal. On the whole too, Leake has been better than Samardzija too. Generally, Samardzija may seem to have more upside, courtesy of his 2014 season, but he has been heavily inconsistent while Leake has been the model of consistency.

Sixth, Leake will be 28 for all of next season. He’ll be a free agent after the 2020 season and will turn 33 years old following that season. So the Cardinals are getting the widely perceived “peak years” from Leake in this deal. That’ll be great, especially with a pitcher who pitches rather than just throwing the ball as hard as possible (looking at you Lance Lynn).

Once you factor all those things together, I believe Leake will perform much better than people expect him to. I tweeted earlier this winter that Leake was probably going to be the best value addition on the market just because he was best positioned to outperform his contract.

The main objections I’ve seen today about the deal is that he isn’t an ace caliber pitcher like Price and that Tim Cooney could probably pitch just as well.

On the first point, I agree. Mike Leake is not and will probably never be a staff ace. But that’s not what the Cardinals need. In a rotation that features Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez, another ace is a luxury item. What the Cardinals really needed was someone who could go out there, be relied on to take the ball every five days, and be penciled in for 200 innings. He can do all of this. And for half the price of David Price.

To the second point, I also agree. Tim Cooney is probably capable of pitching just as well as Leake is. While I was never high on Cooney as a prospect, after seeing him pitch in St. Louis last summer and get better every time he took the mound, I’ve become a big fan. Unfortunately, you have to look at the bigger puzzle.

If Jaime Garcia could be depended on to make 32 starts, I believe you can take the risk on Cooney being your fifth starter because you’re more willing to gamble on the next man up role. But that isn’t the case and the Cardinals have a history of getting lots of use out of the next man up by having a starting rotation injury in April or May every year. You want Cooney in that next man up role.

Because if Cooney is pitching every five days in St. Louis and Garcia goes to the disabled list, who steps up? Who is the next man up? Is it Marco Gonzales who spent a great deal of time on the disabled list last year? Is it Alex Reyes (maybe if he didn’t get caught smoking marijuana again)? I think if those guys are healthy, it’s a very different decision for John Mozeliak.

Being able to let Leake pitch without an innings limit will be a big positive for the Cardinals over a guy like Cooney or Tyler Lyons. The Cardinals needed to bring in a pitcher. David Price would have been nice, but Leake may be the best value on the market.

The only downside to this deal that I can see is that he’s going to wear the #8. A pitcher in a single-digit jersey? That’s just not right. It’s unnatural. If I were Mozeliak, I’d have voided the contract right then and there.

How the Cardinals turned a strength into a weakness in four easy steps

Step 1: Waive Peter Bourjos
Step 2: Trade Jon Jay
Step 3: Lose Jason Heyward in free agency
Step 4: Have Randal Grichuk undergo sports hernia surgery

Easy peasy, right?

When the 2015 season wrapped up a month and a half ago, the Cardinals had five players on the roster that you could be comfortable with playing center field everyday. Now a week before Christmas and the only one that could go out there and play center field today is Tommy Pham. Which is ironic, considering injuries have basically defined his minor league career.

For the Cardinals, that should probably mean that there is shopping to be done, but this really shouldn’t be a simple window shopping expedition. This is a 2 am trip to Walmart.

I’ve already mentioned Pham. In addition to him, the Cardinals have two other center fielders on their 40 man roster: Randal Grichuk and Charlie Tilson.

As we learned earlier this week, Grichuk had sports hernia surgery and should be ready for spring training. But let’s be honest here. We’ve heard that story before. “Oh, he had surgery, but he’ll be good to go for spring training,” means a delayed start to spring workouts which means still waiting to get approval to see game action three weeks into March. Then the player struggles into May because they’re a month behind everyone else in preparation for the season.

Insurance against that is what the club needs right now. And with Grichuk’s own injury history, perhaps it would be a wise move even if both he and Pham were healthy.

Pham is a dynamic talent and excelled last year when given opportunities. He amazed in spring training and was likely pushing Grichuk out of a roster spot until a quad injury dropped him on the DL for over two months.

He made it back for a great September run that ended with many calling for him to be the club’s regular center fielder in the playoff series against the Cubs. They didn’t get their wish, but he did hit a pinch hit home run in Game 1 of the NL Divisional Series.

Pham’s spring training injury wasn’t a one off. While his 2014 season was about the only season he’d been able to remain injury free, it gave him an opportunity to show off the type of talent he has. We got a glimpse, but staying healthy–perhaps a much overlooked sixth tool–has always been a question for him.

The “internal option,” is Charlie Tilson.

For those unfamiliar with Tilson, he is a 23-year-old former second round pick of the Cardinals from 2011. Viva el Birdos described him as a “veritable toolbox of talent” last spring during their top prospect series. He makes a lot of contact, has a lot of speed, plays good outfield defense, and is very capable of sticking in center field.

The question with him is that his bat probably isn’t ready for the big leagues. Last season he hit .295/.351/.388 with 4 home runs over 134 games in Double-A Springfield. Considering Hammons Field is generally hitter friendly, those power numbers are disappointing. But the things that I like to use to gauge a hitter’s development and abilities have improved season-to-season every year he’s spent in the minors, though he still has work to do.

And as we learned the past couple seasons, getting a prospect the right development time in the minors is really critical to them sticking in the Majors out of the gate. Both Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk struggled in their first trips to the Majors. Meanwhile Stephen Piscotty hit from the get go. The difference? Piscotty got that second year in Triple-A.

So the Cardinals’ center field situation includes the oft-injured Grichuk and Pham as well as a not quite yet ready Tilson. They need someone who can play center field should both options go down. And even you want another option just in case one goes down or you’ll be looking at a Kolten Wong-esque overuse situation.

The Cardinals have been linked to Carlos Gonzalez from Colorado. And though I’m not totally convinced that it isn’t just national sports writers looking to fill inches (like all those Troy Tulowitzki rumors were), it would still be a good fit.

There is a lot to like about Gonzalez. He did hit 40 home runs last season and 16 of them came in his 76 road games. But he also failed to post a .300 on base percentage. Like Matt Holliday before him, his home/road splits scare me, but I was wrong about Holliday. I’d like to be wrong about Gonzalez too.

He isn’t really a center fielder, but he could probably fill the job in a pinch.

More recently, the Cardinals have been linked to the Rays for starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi. They’ve also got a few solid outfielders pushing their Major League roster, which might make a guy like Kevin Kiermaier availabile. He is, at best, a league average bat, but his defense in center field would make St. Louis fans’ hearts sing.

Mozeliak does like all in one trades that fill all his needs too.

On the free agent market, a great candidate would have been Justin Ruggiano. I’ve liked Ruggiano ever since I saw him playing in Triple-A for the Durham Bulls. He has since put together a couple good seasons off the bench in a reserve outfielder role. But he just signed with the Texas Rangers.

You have Yoenis Cespedes and Denard Span out there too, but neither really fit what the Cardinals need.

As you can see, the options are few, especially for guys who can play center field. Mozeliak isn’t the kind of GM who likes to cross his fingers and hope for the best. He’s a risk manager. He hedges on young players and gets insurance for the oft injured. Hopefully Mozeliak can find a way to eliminate some of the team’s risk in center field.

Heyward chooses the Cubs

The news broke early this afternoon. Jason Heyward will be the newest member of the Chicago Cubs. Reports are that he turned down a pair of offers expected to have been around $200 million over 10 years from both St. Louis and Washington to accept an 8 year, $184 million deal with the Cubs with a pair of opt out clauses. Those opt out clauses come at the end of the third and fourth years of the deal, so he could see free agency again as a 29 or 30 year old player.

While many have chosen to take the angle that he took “less money” to join the Cubs–while technically true–he really didn’t. While the offers from St. Louis and Washington would have paid Heyward roughly $20 million a year, the deal with the Cubs will play him an average yearly value of $23 million and that opt out can easily be worth quite a bit of money. Zack Greinke turned his opt out into an additional $10 million a year over the deal he signed just three years ago.

The move looks to be a huge win for Theo Epstein and the Cubs, who have now taken the Cardinals’ top two WAR players and added them to their own roster. Heyward was worth 6.5 WAR last year, while Lackey was worth 5.6 WAR. The third place Cardinal was Matt Carpenter who accumulated 3.9 WAR

Even though Heyward’s deal with the Cubs is two years shorter than the Cardinals’ offer, Heyward took the deal that paid him more per year and sets himself up for a run to make even more money three to four years from now. Even if he stays in Chicago for the length of the deal, at age 34, Heyward should be able to easily recoup the $16 million he turned down to accept the Cubs’ offer.

He’s also hit exceptionally well in Wrigley Field for his career.

For the Cardinals, they now have a couple concerns. The first being that they still need to add an offensive piece to their lineup (and a starting pitcher too). Reports say that they are centering their approach on former Kansas City Royal Alex Gordon.

I identified Gordon as a good Plan B option for the Cardinals earlier this winter. He is a very similar player to Heyward, but trades less speed for more power. He is also a whiz defensively, which is good because that should make the move to right field easier.

I also believe that Gordon is a better fit for the Cardinals because, at age 31, he requires less of a long term commitment. It’s been projected that he’ll get a contract just over $100 million for 5 years. It’s basically the back half of Heyward’s contract.

He may also be a better fit because he fits what the Cardinals do offensively better. As fast as Heyward may be, his speed wasn’t going to be utilized in St. Louis under Mike Matheny.

The second concern in all this is John Mozeliak’s ability to close in a crowded free agent market.

I can think of four big free agents that the Cardinals have seriously pursued over the last five years. Three of them were this winter and Mozeliak has struck out on all four.

Yes, we did end up on the positive side of missing out on Albert Pujols, but the notion still stands. When the Cardinals have found themselves in a competition to sign a player at the top of the free agent market, they lose. Which is a curious place for the best run organization in baseball to be.

In an offseason where the organization bragged about having money to spend and very clearly marking Jason Heyward as the #1 priority, they failed. Mozeliak failed.

The difference between the Cardinals’ reported offer and the Cubs’ reported offer is very tangible. The Cardinals were asking Heyward to give up the potential raise he could earn after an opt out clause and asking him to give them two extra years at $8 million a year. Based on average annual value alone, Heyward will make $24 million more in those 8 years with the Cubs versus the first 8 years with the Cardinals. I wouldn’t have accepted the Cardinals’ offer either.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the Cardinals didn’t offer an opt out clause and I hope it’s indicative of a franchise rule going forward because I hate the very essence of opt outs. It only benefits the player. But to seemingly misread a player’s contract desires that severely? I found it concerning.

Doubly so because of all the players the Cardinals could have pursued while Heyward decided. For Mozeliak’s sake, he better get a couple good deals done soon or things are primed to get ugly pretty fast no matter how successful the young players continue to be.

Cardinals add Gyorko, solidify middle infield

John Mozeliak pulled off his first move of the winter meetings in typical John Mozeliak style. All was quiet, until it happened. That move would be adding infielder Jedd Gyorko and cash from the San Diego Padres in exchange for outfielder Jon Jay. And at first glance, it seems like a great deal for the Cardinals.

Middle infield depth was something that Mozeliak spoke of needing to find this offseason to help handle the duties at second base and shortstop. Both Kolten Wong and Jhonny Peralta saw their usage skyrocket this season as a result of the struggling offense and injury plagued roster. As a result, their performances slipped heavily in the second half of the season.

Finding a way to alleviate that potential issue was a top priority for the organization.

Enter Jedd Gyorko.

Gyorko, 27, hit .247 last season with 16 home runs and a 94 OPS+ in spacious Petco Park. He is under his current contract through the 2019 season and has a $13 million option for 2020. It is being reported that the Cardinals will receive $7.5 million from the Padres to help cover the remainder of Gyorko’s contract. Regardless of who pays, Gyorko is due a minimum of $33 million over the next four seasons.

On the surface, 4 years at $25 million might seem excessive for a utility infielder, but he isn’t that far removed from being a top-100 prospect. It’s a worthwhile gamble for a player just three seasons into his Major League career.

Gyorko hit markedly better on the road last season, going .262/.319/.410 with 7 home runs in 62 games. Getting out of Petco Park may add to his overall offensive performance.

He’s appeared at second base the most through his career, but has also played quite a bit of third base as well. He has some time at shortstop, as well as an inning at first base under his belt.

He should immediately slide in as the backup at third base and shortstop as well as have platoon value at second base alongside Kolten Wong. The right handed hitting Gyorko hit .282/.348/.445 against left handed pitching last season while Wong hit just .229/.275/.277. A vast improvement.

In exchange, the Cardinals sent outfielder Jon Jay tot he Padres. San Diego is a popular destination for ex-Cardinals outfielders. Ray Lankford. Jim Edmonds. Ryan Ludwick. And now Jon Jay.

Jay’s single happy hitting style might actually play well in Petco’s open spaces. Being a year removed from the wrist surgery that cost him most of his 2015 season and his spot in the Cardinals’ future, should help return Jay to that career .295 hitter he was before the surgery.

For the Cardinals, Jay was set to be no better than the fourth outfielder behind Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty. And that’s even before you talk about bringing back Jason Heyward. At just over $6 million, that’s a steep price for the role Jay was set to fill.

That’s ultimately what I like the most about this deal. The Cardinals acquired something they needed, middle infield depth, for a spare part. That’s not meant as a slight towards Jay either. Just the reality of the situation where there were more talented outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart and hopes that they’ll add another.

Mozeliak chasing as Cardinals wait

It all started on Tuesday morning as news broke that David Price had agreed to a 7 year, $217 million deal with the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals had been the runners up. Not only that, but Price reportedly began a round of golf that morning with the expectation that he would be joining the Cardinals that afternoon, but Boston went $37 million over the top and Price agreed at lunch time to join the Red Sox.

Then today, Jeff Samardzija signed a 5 year, $90 million deal with the San Francisco Giants and, once again, the Cardinals were reported to be the second best offer on the table.

Cardinals fans have been left frustrated as the best pitching names are coming off the board this week and they have yet to secure one. David Price. Zack Greinke. Jordan Zimmerman. Jeff Samardzija. John Lackey.

The movement has left many fans debating whether they can put their dislike of Johnny Cueto to rest for a few years. But Cueto recently was reported to have turned down a 6 year, $120 million offer from the Diamondbacks.

While it would be nice for the Cardinals to have gotten an ace caliber pitcher like David Price, that was always going to be a luxury. With the losses of John Lackey to free agency and Lance Lynn to injury, the club needs to fill quality innings more than anything else.

And in that regard, there are still some good options out there that don’t require you to do the soul searching related to signing Cueto.

Of all the pitchers on the board, Mike Leake is probably my favorite option. The fear is always that while Leake is the youngest pitcher on the board, he may end up overpaid because of that fact. But my gut says that he is perfectly positioned to outplay the contract he ends up with. Plus, he doesn’t have any drat pick compensation attached to him.

He just turned 28 years old and is a former first round pick. He debuted in the Majors without having never thrown a pitch in the minors. Over the past three seasons, he has a 3.59 ERA and a 105 ERA+ while averaging just shy of 200 innings a season. That’s not bad when half your starts are happening in the hitter friendly Great American Ball Park.

Then you have Doug Fister. While Fister’s 4.19 ERA over 15 starts and 10 relief appearances for Washington doesn’t inspire a lot of desire, he is known as a ground ball pitcher who might see added success in front of St. Louis’ infield.

There is also Scott Kazmir who posted a 3.10 ERA over 31 starts last season between Oakland and Houston.

The problem with both of those guys is that neither have proven they have the ability to consistently throw 200 innings like a guy like Leake has. Between the losses of Lackey and Lynn, the Cardinals are looking to fill 393 innings. Some of those will obviously be filled by Adam Wainwright‘s return, but a reliable arm is still needed with a question-filled rotation.

If you’re looking to take a flier, you’ve got Cliff Lee, who hasn’t pitched since 2014 with an elbow injury. Then there’s Mark Buehrle who has said for years that he wants to pitch in St. Louis. There’s also Kyle Lohse who is coming off a rough season in Milwaukee, but has had past success in St. Louis.

Mozeliak could also explore the trade market. The Tampa Bay Rays are believed to be shopping any starter not named Chris Archer while Atlanta is shopping Shelby Miller. But I doubt this is an avenue that Mozeliak will pursue.

Hopefully though, by the time next week’s winter meetings begin, the position player market will pick up and we can be talking about the return of Jason Heyward.

While pitching is the luxury, this team has a real need on the offensive side of the ball. If missing out on some pitching forces the team to spend more on offense, maybe it’s worth the frustration after all.

Could John Lackey accept his qualifying offer?

This afternoon at 5 pm Eastern is the deadline for teams to make the qualifying offer to their outgoing free agents. For 2016, the qualifying offer is a 1 year deal worth approximately $15.8 million. If a player gets a week to decide whether to accept or decline the offer. If he declines the offer and goes on to sign with another team, the team he left receives a compensatory draft pick from the signing team.

The Cardinals announced that they have made two today: Jason Heyward and John Lackey.

Heyward was the obvious choice. At 26 years old and coming off perhaps the best season of his career and expecting to net a giant free agent deal (with projections as high as $200 million), Heyward will most certainly be declining the qualifying offer. He has no reason to accept it. So there’s a potentially free draft pick.

For Lackey though, the response is less obvious unless his agent has already told you that they’ll be turning it down. Which is doubtful because it would damage your bargaining position in free agency.

John Lackey turned 37 in October and is at the tail end of his baseball career. He experienced a resurgence last season after being acquired from Boston at the deadline. Part of the reason the deal was made is that he had an option for 2015 at the league minimum, thanks to some creative bargaining by Theo Epstein in case Lackey had another arm injury. He did.

Over his 43 starts in St. Louis, Lackey posted a 3.10 ERA and a 16-13 record. His 2015 campaign saw him win 13 games with a 2.77 ERA in 33 starts and his ERA+ of 143 makes it the second best season of his career. His best season would be a 150 ERA+ season where he finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting. The similarities to that season are uncanny.

But all the on field production in the world can’t create a way to ignore the fact that at 37, Lackey’s best baseball seasons are behind him. The odds of getting a repeat performance are slim.

Down the stretch this season Lackey talked about how he enjoys pitching in the postseason and was glad to be somewhere he was going to get that opportunity. I think that’s important to note. Remember when the Cardinals acquired him last summer and there was some question as to whether he’d honor that option year? I do, and I think it’s because he’d been considering retirement rather than making league minimum for a last place team.

Given what we’ve seen in the past, when a player gets tagged with a qualifying offer, it hurts their market value unless they are a star player.

For example, you wouldn’t think twice about giving up a pick for 26 year old Jason Heyward, who you’re going to lock up for 7, 8, or 9 years. But for a 37 year old John Lackey who has a couple good seasons left in him, the question is how desperate you are.

For a small market team that needs prospects flowing through their system to remain viable, they’re not going to spend it on a 37 year old pitcher. That eliminates a number of contenders.

The last Cardinals pitcher to turn down a qualifying offer was Kyle Lohse. At 34, Lohse was coming off a 16 win campaign with a 2.88 ERA, a 133 OPS+, and a 3.51 FIP. Lohse stewed in free agency until finally signing a 3 year, $33 million deal with Milwaukee.

His season wasn’t that far off of Lackey’s. At three years older, Lackey posted 13 wins, a 2.77 ERA, a 143 ERA+, and a 3.57 FIP.

Lohse had to wait and took a salary hit courtesy of the draft pick compensation he was tied to.

In a Twitter conversation with Dan Buffa yesterday I put my expectation for Lackey at 2 years, $26 million. He was much more optimistic at 3 years, $45 million. But I think all changes with the qualifying offer involved.

I remember a conversation I had with Matthew Leach, current MLB.com columnist and former Cardinals beat writer for MLB.com, where he told me that teams are willing to gamble dollars on a player. But when it comes to years and prospects, they are much less willing.

So teams are going to be reluctant to give up that draft pick for Lackey. If he wasn’t tied to compensation, I think most contending teams would give him a call. I think Pittsburgh would have been a great destination for him.

Lets add up the situation now. We have a 37 year old pitcher who wants to pitch in the postseason. That means he wants a contender. You’ve already made him a qualifying offer which has likely torpedoed his marketability.

When you consider all of this, I can easily see him becoming the first player in Major League history to accept a qualifying offer. Which brings me back to my initial point. Teams don’t usually make a qualifying offer (or in the old system, offer free agency salary arbitration) to players they think might actually take it.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Players have until November 13th at 5 pm Eastern, a week from today, to decide whether to accept or reject their qualifying offers.

Is it a good idea to use relievers on back-to-back days?

As fans we see it all the time. Another tight game and the manager makes the walk to the mound to bring in your bullpen’s best pitcher for his second or third consecutive day of work. Either by routine or by role, the manager makes this decision, in most case, purely out of habit without consulting whether the statistics say it’s a good move. But he’s a pitcher the manager has faith in to get the job done.

Every night during the season a situation like this happens. But when you dig into the numbers, it probably shouldn’t be done for the majority of pitchers in baseball.

On the largest sample size–the entirety of Major League Baseball–the concept of using a reliever who pitched the day before puts you at a small disadvantage. The combined ERA of a reliever rises from 3.69 to 3.70 and the WHIP goes from 1.28 to 1.30.

It’s a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. For most teams, that’s maybe a run or two over the course of a season.

But when you consider why a team would use relievers on back-to-back days–close games–those one or two runs may mean the difference between a win and a loss. Between a playoff spot or an October full of tee times.

So maybe my initial argument that the whole league should stop using relievers when they had pitched the day before isn’t totally accurate. But this is something that organizations and managers should be paying attention to on a pitcher-by-pitcher basis.

The Cardinals had the second most appearances of any team by a pitcher who had also pitched the day before last year. The differences in their stats are also larger than the league averages. For Cardinals relievers, the ERA jumped from 2.79 to 2.92 and the WHIP went from 1.23 to 1.39 when using a pitcher who had pitched the day before.

If you compare what that means for the 111 innings that Cardinals relievers pitched after having pitched the day before, and instead substitute the average Cardinal reliever, putting relievers out there on back-to-back days potentially cost the Cardinals 14 runs and an additional 18 base runners late in games.

How many extra wins would 14 runs in close games have given the Cardinals? Enough to clinch the division a few days earlier? Enough to give the guys coming off the DL more time to get their timing back and making them better in October? Perhaps.

For the sake of argument, lets dig into the Cardinals “Big 3.” That’s Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and Trevor Rosenthal. They’ve got some interesting differences of their own.

Seth Maness on 1+ day rest: 4.04 ERA, 1.59 WHIP
Seth Maness on 0 days rest: 4.71 ERA, 1.24 WHIP

Trevor Rosenthal on 1+ day rest: 1.91 ERA, 1.13 WHIP
Trevor Rosenthal on 0 days rest: 2.49 ERA, 1.57 WHIP

Kevin Siegrist on 1+ day rest: 1.53 ERA, 1.07 WHIP
Kevin Siegrist on 0 days rest: 4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP

Before I jump in here, if you’ve paid much attention to my writing in the past, WHIP is one of my favorite metrics to analyze relief pitcher performance because of the way runs are charged to relievers. The basic goal of any reliever is to keep guys off base and get outs. WHIP measures that ability. Perhaps better than any other metric.

So when we look at Maness, he was probably a push in 2015, but when you go back and look at his 2014 season, one where he was much better overall, he clearly becomes a pitcher you didn’t want to put out on the mound on back-to-back days.

Meanwhile Rosenthal and Siegrist go from dominant relievers to below average ones overnight. Literally.

So with Rosenthal and Siegrist, you’re talking about pitchers that, when pitching on consecutive days, have a WHIP of 1.57 and 1.50 respectively. Only two Cardinals relievers put up worse numbers last season, Marcus Hatley (2.25) and Mitch Harris (1.59). And neither ever sniffed the mound in the 9th inning of a one run game.

Just comparing statistics, you’re going to find that almost anyone in the bullpen is a better option to take the mound on that second or third day than Rosenthal or Siegrist would be.

The difference would be make up and experience in pressure situations. If you made the decision to pay attention to these statistics, more of your relievers would get opportunities in those types of situations. Some will flourish. Some will faint. Add that information into your decision making.

The Cardinals also develop most of their own talent, so they have the opportunity to get these guys late inning pressure exposure in the minor leagues. That way, when they get to the Majors, they are not unfamiliar with the concept.

Finding a way to better manage these situations is probably the next big advancement in bullpen management. We’re just waiting for the next Tony La Russa to help pave the way.

If the Cardinals are to contend, it’s time to commit to the new core

Last spring as the Cardinals descended on Jupiter, Florida, for spring training there was quite a bit of talk about the organization’s efforts to put together the team’s next group of core players that would carry the team through the next 5-7 years. Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina were the centerpieces of the current Cardinals’ core and at ages 34, 36, and 33 respectively, they’re also getting old.

“I think we will have an idea what that looks like,” said General Manager John Mozeliak to the Post-Dispatch in March when talking about the next generation of core players. “We don’t have to have the answer today.”

We didn’t have the answer that day, but after the 2015 season, we might.

Over the course of an injury plagued season, the Cardinals’ depth was tested like never before while players like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty showed that they deserved to be on the short list of potential members for that next group of core players. In many ways their performances also proved that it’s time to start making the shift and letting the younger players drive.

That starts by moving Matt Holliday out of the #3 spot.

When Matt Holliday first came to town in 2009 as a trade acquisition, he slid right in behind Albert Pujols in the lineup, batting fourth. He stayed there for most of the next two years, save for a few experiments in the second spot in the lineup. When Pujols left after 2011, Holliday assumed the third spot in the lineup. A place he’s held ever since.

Even this September and in the postseason after returning from a quadriceps injury that forced him to miss over half the season, Holliday returned to the lineup batting third and stayed there for the playoffs too, despite hitting just .158 after coming off the DL the second time.

That return forced him into the middle of a group of guys like Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Jason Heyward who had driven this team in his absence. The result was a disjointed offense that scored some runs in the postseason, but was never able to sustain a rally.

Matt Holliday will be 36 years old when he reports to spring training in February and could be entering his final year with the Cardinals. Even when he was healthy this year, he wasn’t showing the characteristics of a guy you want batting third. His .303 batting average and .394 on base percentage was more reminiscent of a guy you want hitting second. Or even leadoff.

He had just 3 home runs through the first 58 games of the season. That put him on pace for just 8 over the course of the season. For a guy reaching the end of his career who has hit over 20 home runs in every season with the Cardinals, is there another explanation than just decline?

No, John Mabry isn’t an answer to that question.

Just 8 home runs over a season. Even if you give him a few extras for the expected hot streak, it isn’t enough to justify having him hit third in the lineup next season.

While he is still a feared hitter, and deserves to be, he is not the same caliber of player he was when he first arrived in St. Louis. It’s time to recognize that.

Over the first four seasons of his $120 million, 7 year deal with the Cardinals, Holliday hit .301 with 99 homers and had a 145 OPS+. The past two seasons, he has hit just .274 with 24 home runs and a 125 OPS+. That’s a 14% decline in offensive performance relative to the rest of the league.

In comparision, guys like Matt Carpenter (134 OPS+), Randal Grichuk (133 OPS+), and Stephen Piscotty (129 OPS+) each had better numbers last season than Holliday averaged the past two years.

It’s time to begin the transition to guys who look to be headed to the center of the new core of Cardinals players. Through a tight division race and the postseason, they proved that they can handle the bright lights. They didn’t shy away from the pressure.

It’s time to take Holliday’s name out of the #3 spot on that lineup card, Mike.

So what’s the big deal about the #3 spot in the lineup? The biggest is that it’s guaranteed to come up to the plate in the first inning. Those three hitters are going to get the most plate appearances in any given game and that’s why you want to have the guys who will give you the most value at the plate in them.

Matt Carpenter, who will be 30 within the week, showed off his home run stroke this season, launching 28 home runs to go along with a league leading 44 doubles. That’s even with a heavy slump in May and June, and he still had incredible power numbers. He’s in the leadoff spot right now and probably will continue to be there. The odds of another year with those power numbers is slim, but getting solidly into the teens is definitely a possibility.

Stephen Piscotty, who will be 25 by the time the 2016 season rolls around, would be my target to hit second. When the Cardinals acquired Holliday, I always felt he was one of the model #2 hitters in the game. What does that have to do with Piscotty? Well, I see a lot of similarities between the way the two hit. I’m sure lots of prospect watchers are laughing, but I always felt that they were both guys who were better hitters than power guys. But they’re also good enough hitters that they get their fair share of extra base hits.

Piscotty goes second because he’s a more disciplined hitter than Grichuk is. Mathematic lineup modeling demostrates that the #2 spot in the lineup is the most important. It’s why moving Carpenter back was even considered this past season. But I think Piscotty has all the tools to effectively fill this role.

Grichuk would slot in behind him, batting third. At 24, Grichuk is one of the youngest players on the Cardinals. He hit 17 home runs in 103 games before an arm injury landed him on the DL. He can play all three outfield positions, so he’ll have a regular spot in the lineup next year. Plus he has likely put concerns about his ability to hit right handed pitching to rest.

Regardless of the struggles, the power has always played, both ways, and that’s what matters here.

After that, I think you can consider sliding Holliday into the fourth spot in the lineup. A good batting average can be important here and he still has some power potential. That also lets you put Jason Heyward and Jhonny Peralta back in the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup where they are more comfortable and perhaps even overqualified to hit.

The key for me though, is to ensure that the three best hitters on the club get to bat in the first inning. Those three were the Cardinals’ three best hitters in 2015. Each played a critical role in the Cardinals’ successes last year. They deserve their shot.

I believe that Mike Matheny’s ability–or inability, as it may be–to move the veterans from their established spots in the lineup to give better performing and younger players an opportunity to play those key roles will define the 2016 season.

It’s time to throw the kids the keys to the car.

The 2015 season comes to a close

The final out was recorded and the Chicago Cubs celebrated on the field, clinching their first postseason series victory in 12 years and their first series clinching victory ever at Wrigley Field. Congratulations to the Cubs and their fans. I just hope that they don’t get used to it.

The saving grace for Cardinals fans of the loss–or just me, at least–is that it was a good series.

Neither team rolled over. Both teams played hard. The games went back and forth. Games weren’t over until the final outs were recorded. It was everything you could want in the first postseason matchup between longtime rivals. It didn’t disappoint in any way. Except the outcome.

So with the season officially over for the St. Louis Cardinals, we turn our attention to the offseason and diagnosing what was the cause for the early season exit and the Cardinals’ seeming step backwards.

The popular course of action will be to blame manager Mike Matheny for the team’s failures late in the season and into the postseason. In my opinion, that’s the lazy option and it fails to account for the realities of the situation that Matheny was in with a tight division race and many of our key players returning from injury.

Could he have made better decisions? Sure. But while many of the decisions he made were questionable, they weren’t obviously the wrong decision. They just had bad outcomes.

In the Divisional Series, the Cubs got to enjoy a worn out Cardinals’ pitching staff that had to keep the foot on the gas until the very last weekend of the season to secure the division. We saw the strain in September of that battle as the league’s best pitching staff posted their first monthly ERA higher than 3.00 with a 4.18 ERA in September and October.

The keys of the pitching staff, like Michael Wacha (7.88 ERA), Trevor Rosenthal (6.48) and Seth Maness (6.75), led the charge of guys that struggled.

Things may have also turned out differently if Matheny had had the luxury of resting these guys more in the second half of the season. Instead, they had to battle to the end and September was spent balancing playing time for guys returning from the DL and the need to win baseball games.

Winning the division was the goal. Matheny succeeded in that. But it probably cost us the postseason.

The final injury may have been the fatal blow to the Cardinals as well. All combined, the Cardinals had nine members of it’s Opening Day roster spend time on the disabled list, including their #1 starter as well as their #3 and #4 hitters.

Carlos Martinez being shut down in September turned out to be a big deal. Once the team struggled through Game 2, the lack of another dependable starting pitcher reared it’s head. Martinez, along with Lackey and Garcia, were the only three starting pitchers who were strong through September.

The trouble left the Game 4 starter in question. And it’s potentially very telling that Lance Lynn wasn’t trusted to take that start.

In the end, the Cardinals had their opportunities to win this series and failed. Take back just a couple pitches and the results of Games 3 and 4 swing drastically. The Cubs took advantage and that’s what good teams do. The Cubs were better. The trouble in actually admitting that is the potential that they’ll be very good for a few more years at least.

The offseason brings the Cardinals more questions than answers. Will they bring back Jason Heyward? What happens with John Lackey and Jaime Garcia? What does the future hold for Lance Lynn? Who is the answer at first base? How does the bullpen sort out for 2016 with lots of potential turnover?

With all the questions, this could easily be John Mozeliak’s busiest offseason as the Cardinals’ GM.

During his tenure, he has never faced a rival team that was built for sustained success. Until now.

It should be interesting to see how he responds.