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The 2017 Cardinals: Maybe John Mozeliak Knew What He Was Doing All Along

Question: Could it be that John Mozeliak was right all along?

It sure looks like it.

I’m talking about Mozeliak’s approach with the big-league roster  during  the season. Eschewing deadline trades for “name” acquisitions, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations stayed with his pragmatic, steady philosophy. Instead of parting with upper-tier prospects or solid minor-league to swing transactions to firm up the roster, Mozeliak protected his birdhouse by giving big-league opportunities to players already in the Cards’ system.

And though there’s no predicting what will happen over the final 19 regular-season games — the Cardinals could win 15 or even lose 15 — I have to say that Mozeliak is getting the results he wanted. And he’s improved the roster, and the Cardinals’ chances for the postseason, without subtracting from the team’s future. Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch might offer up good prospects to make offseason deals in preparation for 2018 … we’ll see.

But for now I’m talking about in-season moves.

Or maybe this is a better way to say it:  in-season non-moves. 

As I’ve said and written dozens of times this season,  the 2017 Cardinals were in transition. They weren’t tanking. They weren’t rebuilding. They were trying to churn the roster, prune the roster, freshen the roster, and replace tired talents with younger talents. And for the most part, the strategy has worked — whether we want to admit it or not.

At the All-Star break, the Cardinals were 43-45 for a .489 winning percentage that was tied for sixth in the 15-team National League.

Since the All-Star break, the Cardinals are 32-23; their .582 winning percentage is No. 3 in the league over that time.

An offense that averaged 4.57 runs per game before the break (10th in the NL) ranks third after the break with an average of 5.02 runs.

Moreover, the  pitching staff  has improved, going from an overall ERA of 3.97 before the before All-Star break and trimming that to a 3.69 ERA during the second half.

A tighter, more reliable defense is one of the underlying reasons for the Cardinals’ moving up to second in the NL in run prevention after the All-Star break.  Opponents scored 4.42 runs game against St. Louis before the All-Star festival and are averaging 3.91 runs post-break.

Except for last week’s trade to reinforce the bullpen with the addition of RH reliever Juan Nicasio — who wouldn’t be eligible to pitch in the postseason because the trade was consummated after Aug. 31 — the Cards’ roster fixes have been handled by grads from their minor-league system. And this cast of players has really made an impact since the All-Star break.

Let me explain …

In the second half, the Cardinals’ position players collectively rank second to the Cubs in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). And it’s pretty close, with Cubs position players accruing 11.0 WAR compared to the Cardinals’ 10.2

And 5.6 of that second-half  10.2 position-player WAR has been produced (collectively) by outfielder Tommy Pham, shortstop Paul DeJong, outfielder-first baseman) Jose Martinez, outfielder Harrison Bader, and outfielder Mags Sierra. All except for Martinez opened the season in the minors. Pham has been the team’s top all-around player this season with 4.7 WAR. DeJong leads the club with 21 homers and has upgraded the defense at shortstop as the replacement for a declining Aledmys Diaz. Sierra has energized the Cardinals when summoned as an emergency fill-in. And Bader has played very well since getting the call to come to the big leagues.

The players I just mentioned (plus a few others that made cameos) accounted for 18 percent of the Cardinals plate appearances in the first half. Since the All-Star break, those same players have taken 37 percent of the team’s plate appearances … and remember, the offense is No. 3 in the NL in runs per game during the second half.

So yeah, the Memphis muscle has mattered.

Really mattered.

Let’s see … 10th in the league in runs per game with these guys taking only 18 percent of the PA in the first half … and third in the NL in runs per game during the second half, with these gents taking 37 percent of the plate appearances. Hmmm…

So … if your offense improves from 10th to 3rd and the substantial improvement has been triggered by players that you already had in the system — it was just a matter of turning to them for help — then why would I or any reasonably sane person still be shrieking at the moon because Mozeliak declined to throw away prospects in REALISTIC deals that wouldn’t have made as much impact as the guys the Cardinals already were paying? Makes absolutely no sense.

I include Martinez on the list because he began the season as the 25th man, and he could have been sent to the minors at any time … something that actually happened (briefly.) Point is, instead of the dealing away a prospect for a Martinez-type player who could supply solid depth, the Cardinals Martinez his shot. And Martinez — who has been a terrific hitter for the second-half Cardinals — is showing what can happen if a talented but fringe big-league receives expanded playing time.

In 113 plate appearances since the All-Star break Martinez is batting .344 with 8 homers, has rocked an imposing .646 slugging percentage, and has delivered second-half offense that’s 81 percent above league average based on park-adjusted runs created (wRC+).

That’s why I think it’s funny when I hear or see or read people going batty and foaming at the mouth over Mozeliak’s failure to acquire a BIG BAT at the July 31 trade deadline. First of all, only one BIG BAT was traded: pending free agent J.D.Martinez went from Detroit to Arizona. And J.D. Martinez has done a great job for the Diamondbacks. But his park-adjusted runs created total is 17 percent less than the other Martinez — Jose — in the second half..

Just saying…

The Cardinals are doing swell with the Martinez they already had.

“Everyone is looking for that splash,” Mozeliak said on my radio show last week. “But you of all people should know that winning the offseason or winning the trade deadline really means very little. You gotta play the game … typically, long-term success, sustainable success is slow, patient, methodical, strategic. Finding ways to make that work. It’s not always headlines. It’s not always that sexy to hear that. But in the end, that discipline usually leads to long-term success.”

The Cardinals’ ponderous, meticulous, painstaking, fussy style can be frustrating.

But considering that they’re second in the majors in regular-season wins and first in postseason victories since 2000 … oh, and with four more NL pennants and two World Series added to the jewel case  … well, it probably doesn’t qualify as human suffering.

And though the last two  years have been upsetting in multiple ways, the Cardinals enter Tuesday’s series with Cincinnati with MLB’s ninth-best winning percentage since the the start of the 2016 season. Yeah, you want them to be better … but good grief. I constantly have to tell myself — not you — to try and have some perspective.

As transitions go, this one is moving along. The Cardinals have lost ground since winning 100 games in 2015 but still maintain a Top Ten record in their industry over the last 305 games. No need to call the Red Cross for assistance.

In another part of our interview Mozeliak said: “We’ve always tried to position this organization as self-sustainable. Where we can tap into the pipeline, tap into our minor-league system, and still find ways to win. Obviously we’re excited by some of the things we have going on in our minor-league system. And you’re seeing a lot of it take hold at the major-league level.”

Yes. But it should be must be pointed out that some luck was involved here. The Cardinals had essentially had given up on Pham but had little choice to bring him back to the majors after injuries left them short of outfielders in early May. But in a business that can sting baseball executives who make bad trades and bad investments, it’s OK to get lucky every now and then.

Similarly, the pitching staff has been aided by starters and relievers that became in-house solutions.

The injured Adam Wainwright and the ineffective (and trade) Mike Leake were replaced in the rotation by Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty.  And since Leake made his last start for the Cardinals on Aug. 26, the Cards’ invigorated rotation has a 2.22 ERA and nine quality starts in 14 games.

The bullpen was bolstered by Memphis call-ups John Brebbia, Ryan Sherriff and Sam Tuivailala … and, to a lesser extent John Gant and Sandy Alcantara.

I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t rip Mozeliak for not making a trade for a reliever or two before the July 31 deadline. Where was his annual move for a bullpen bail-out? At the time the bullpen was shooting off embers. And I still stand by my opinion that Mo-Girsch waited too long to promote Sherriff (among others.)

I’m not trying to sell you or anyone on the idea that Mozeliak has been perfect this season. No one in the organization can claim that … well, on second thought maybe the minor-league supervisors and staff were pretty close to perfect.

— Triple A Memphis finished 40 games above .500 (91-50) and won its division by 22 games.

— Double A Springfield went 77-63 and tied for first in its division (Texas League.)

— High A affiliate Palm Beach went 74-60 and was  co-champion of the Florida State League.

The Cardinals are two games out of first place as they resume play Tuesday.

Mozeliak has almost always played the long game.

And it doesn’t really matter how many times I refer to Cards’ management as  “passive,” or growl about the lack of aggressiveness.

Their long game is in position to pay off … again.

If not this month, then soon.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: As Yadier Molina Defies Age, the Cardinals Try to Defy the Cubs