The Cardinals sit at 43-45 at the All-Star break. The last time the team had a sub-.500 record was in 2007.
The Cardinals were not considered dominant in the 2000s and 2010s. They made the playoffs most years, but not all. They had one superstar, but not four. The Cardinals were always tough to beat, but rarely the best team in the National League.
But the lack of dominance was not what sticks in people’s minds about those teams. It was their consistency from year to year. It was their ability to give any opponent a tough game every day. The Cardinals were never perfect, but always strong. Opponents respected that strength and knew how hard it was to play a series against the Cardinals.
Perhaps that’s what makes this season so tough to understand. The Cardinals of the past two decades were different teams, and this one doesn’t seem as good. However, fans are still waiting for the Cardinals to start winning like they have for the past twenty years.
The Cardinals have had a winning record in 15 of the past 16 seasons. That includes 9 first place finishes in the National League Central and two World Series titles. In the one year they did not have the .500 record (2007), the Cardinals still won 78 games and finished just seven games out of first place.
Instead of pacing what appears to be a weak NL Central, the Cardinals are seven games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. In recent years, if the Cardinals were seven games out of first, it meant that the first place team was seven games ahead of everyone.
Because of the Cardinals’ second place standing, the team is debating a question that they rarely do: buy or sell? The Cardinals haven’t been big buyers under John Mozeliak with the exception of the Matt Holliday acquisition. But they have also always been contenders, and thus not selling. Instead of doing neither, which is the usual plan of action, the Cardinals could do either. When was the last time the Cardinals really had the option of buying or selling?
2007 and 2017
The 2007 season has some interesting similarities to this one for the Cardinals. Team winning percentages are about the same, and the Cardinals are seven games behind first, just like they were in 2007. The one season where the Cardinals couldn’t muster enough victories to reach the .500 mark over the past 16 years is a little bit like this one. Like the 2007 team, the 2017 has talent, but it hasn’t translated into enough wins yet.
Advanced metrics show a different story. The 2007 Cardinals had a Pythagorean win expectation of .439. Pythagorean win expectation is a winning percentage estimator calculated with only runs scored and runs against. It tends to be a better predictor of future winning percentage than winning percentage itself. Analysts use it to suggest that teams are playing better or worse than their record indicates.
According to Pythagorean win expectation, the Cardinals simply did not play well enough to contend in 2007. In 2017, the Cardinals sport a .515 Pythagorean win expectation. Over on Baseball Prospectus, you will find a third degree Pythagorean expectation. This statistic uses metrics that calculate a team’s expected runs scored and allowed instead of just the actual runs scored and allowed. In this metric, the Cardinals actually lead the NL Central.
The Cardinals are actually playing well enough to compete for a playoff spot, but their record doesn’t show it. Of course, record also determines who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t. Record hasn’t been a problem for a couple decades for the Cardinals, but the team finds itself struggling to win games in 2017.
Getting back on track
As previously mentioned, the Cardinals could go either way at the deadline. Trading for a big name like Josh Donaldson or Marcell Ozuna might push the Cardinals into a winning season for 2017, but would certainly make it harder to keep that trend going in two or three years. On the other hand, selling would likely mean forfeiture of this season, but the potential for a much better team in two or three years.
I think the right move for the club is to go for future seasons. Anthony Schramm had some pretty good ideas for how the Cardinals can trade good players now and stay competitive next year. However, I do think the Cardinals can upgrade now and come away happy with the return. The decision isn’t as obvious as their record might indicate.
The real key is that the Cardinals don’t panic because they haven’t been here before. They have not had to go get an impact player in the past 16 years, and they haven’t had to blow it up in the past 16 years. Many teams push the panic button in this situation because they don’t know how to handle it. John Mozeliak has had a nice career as an executive, but he has rarely been here.
I would have more faith in Mozeliak than an average general manager or president of baseball operations, but I don’t think it will be easy for him. The Cardinals could easily end up acquiring a player for way too much, sacrificing too much of the future. They could also easily trade away a player without getting enough in return, setting back the franchise a little in the process.
The team has long had the luxury of being able to search for bargains and hold on to its young core. This season is different. This season represents uncharted territory for recent Cardinals teams. The Cardinals are not the team consistently towards the top of the National League that they have been for many seasons, and the unfamiliarity may affect the way the team operates.
Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports