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The Cardinals’ First Offseason Challenge? Get Smarter.

As you know, the Cardinals have been losing ground since the end of the 2014 season.

They won an NL pennant and reached World Series Game 6 in 2013.

In 2014, the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in their division round and got bounced by the Giants in the NLCS.

In 2015, the Cards failed to win a postseason series, getting blasted by the Cubs in the NLDS. It ws the critical turning point in the teams’ rivalry.

In 2016, the Cardinals didn’t even make it to the postseason. They won 86 games. They finished in second place.

In 2017 the victory total dropped to only 83 wins and the Cardinals got shoved down a flight to third place behind the Cubs and second-place Brewers. This was no fluke given the Cardinals’ abysmal combined record of 13-25 against Chicago and Milwaukee this season.

In the days to come we’ll pinpoint some of the specific areas that should be addressed this winter.

For now, here’s the first challenge: GET SMARTER.

For the longest time, the Cardinals had an advantage over opponents in baseball IQ.

Chairman Bill DeWitt was way ahead of his time (compared to fellow owners) in setting up a competitive model that would emphasize advanced metrics, big data, scouting, drafting, player development, and a more intelligent way of assessing player value.

GM John Mozeliak ran a savvy, cohesive baseball department. Mozeliak won most of his trades, big and small. One deal brought in left fielder Matt Holliday, an excellent core player. Another — the Colby Rasmus swap in 2011 — refurbished the rotation and bullpen in time for a postseason run that ended with a World Series parade.

The Cardinals had Tony La Russa in the dugout, and benefited greatly by the presence of one of the most successful managers in major-league history. La Russa had a superb coaching staff that was shrewd and alert in spotting opponents’ weaknesses to exploit. TLR was also a master at mind games, frequently distracting the other dugout with his intimidating guerrilla-style maneuvering. La Russa developed a team culture that reflected his personality: hard, unforgiving, unrelenting.

The Cardinals no longer hold those advantages.

Not even the fear factor; that’s gone, too. When the last-place Reds basically played the Cardinals on even terms in 2017 that’s all we need to know. When the Cardinals had an embarrassing 34-42 record in division games, that’s all we need to know.

Competitors have gotten smarter.  Every franchise had analytics departments now.

Every franchise has cultivated more evolved methods in scouting out talent and procuring it.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts recruited Theo Epstein from Boston to transform the Cubs’ hopelessly outdated and inefficient model. DeWitt and Mozeliak never had to compete against a rival that possessed Epstein’s brilliance. When a baseball executive builds Boston’s first World Series champion since 1918 and the Cubs’ first World Series title since 1908 … you’re going up against the best there is.

The Cardinals are also dealing with one of the brightest young minds in the game, Milwaukee GM David Stearns … who ironically learned from Houston GM Jeff Luhnow … the same Luhnow that  DeWitt hired in the early aughts to install an analytics department, set up a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic to mine international talent, and implement a new system that kept the Cardinals’ pipeline flowing with young talent.

Or, to look at it this way: DeWitt created Luhnow … who created Stearns … who now, in less than two full years, has moved the Brewers ahead of the Cardinals. DeWitt’s brainy ideas boomeranged back  to work against him.

This is why Mozeliak was promoted to president of baseball operations this past summer, with Michael Girsch moving up to GM. As Mozeliak told me, he felt it was important to have the time and the flexibility to get away from the daily grind to study the Cardinals’ way of doing things … to understand why they’ve lost the edge in the brain race. And to look at what the Cardinals can do to regain an advantage.

The Cardinals need to get smarter.

— Tommy Pham shouldn’t be wasting in Memphis for five weeks at the start of the season when the big-league team is doing foolish things like sticking backup first baseman Matt Adams in left field.

— You don’t continue to utilize an extreme defensive liability in center field (Dexter Fowler) when you can move him to a corner outfield spot and place the superior defender, Pham, in center field.

— Why did the team wait delay in making a belated decision to demote Aledmys Diaz to Memphis and put Paul DeJong at shortstop? Diaz was horrible defensively, and his park-adjusted runs created were 22 percent below league average offensively.

– Large free-agent contracts have been hit or miss: starter Mike Leake (miss), reliever Brett Cecil (not worth it in 2017), and Fowler. About Fowler:  too many injuries, defensive problems, but outstanding power. Too soon to pass judgment on the overall five-year contract.

— You don’t give 460 plate appearances to Yadier Molina in the No. 5 lineup spot — only one other MLB player had more PA batting fifth this season — when Molina’s offense is below average for that position in the batting order. Among NL players that had at least 250 plate appearances in the No. 5 hole this season, Molina ranked 10th out of 11 in park-adjusted runs created. Cardinals No. 5 hitters — with Molina taking the most at-bats by far — finished last in the 15-team league in homers, 14th in slugging percentage, and 14th in OPS.

— Why did it take so long to give Jose Martinez regular at-bats? Here’s a player that batted .309 with a .379 onbase percentage and .518 slugging percentage and was 35 percent above league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created. But Martinez had 29 plate appearances in July, and 61 in August, and didn’t reach 90 PA in a month until September. Was that smart? I don’t think so.

— You don’t distribute 401 plate appearances to Stephen Piscotty when he’s having a subpar year offensively. Piscotty finished 12 percent below league average offensively.

— The Cardinals have to be smarter about handling injuries, and take advantage of the 10-day DL instead of playing shorthanded for no reason that makes sense.

— The Cardinals need to ease up on making contract decisions, and determining playing time, based in large part on sentimentality and misplaced loyalty. The team’s interests should come first. Winning should be the only real objective that matters. Already, manager Mike Matheny is insisting that pitcher Adam Wainwright “absolutely” will be in the team’s 2018 rotation. That, despite Wainwright’s age (36), his scheduled elbow surgery, and his 4.81 ERA over the last two seasons that ranks 67th among 72 big-league starters that have made at least 50 starts over that time. We all love Waino … but at what point are decisions based on performance? Or does the team want to extend its two-season streak of missing the playoffs?

— The Cardinals need to be more careful about rewarding young players with big-money contracts before they’re eligible for larger deals — and haven’t fully established themselves as assets at the big-league level. I’m talking about second baseman Kolten Wong, and right fielder Piscotty. In the Cardinals’ defense, it made sense to give such a contract to young starting pitcher Carlos Martinez. And it worked out fine with Matt Carpenter.  I didn’t say they should suspend this practice; I’m just saying they need to be more selective.

— The bosses need to get aligned with their manager. Make sure the manager understands the best way to go about handling the personnel, and game tactics. Here’s an idea: some genuine accountability, maybe, instead of the constant attaboys?

Frankly, I’m baffled by the disconnect. Given DeWitt’s intelligence and Mozeliak’s cold eye for making evaluations, this unshakable belief in Matheny is incomprehensible.

How many times has Mozeliak intervened by making trades to prevent Matheny from using the wrong players because of his personal preference?

How many times has Matheny disregarded essential statistical information from the analytics department? Example: the Cardinals had only 3 Defensive Runs Saved on shifts this season; that ranked 22nd among the 30 MLB teams. By contrast, the Brewers saved 22 runs on shifts, and the Cubs saved 15. This obviously put the Cardinals at a competitive disadvantage. Maybe if the manager didn’t let  pitchers make the call on defensive shifts in some instances, the Cardinals wouldn’t be underperforming in this area.

How many relievers will be chewed up before the chairman and the baseball president get upset?

How many times must the Cardinals put a lesser lineup on the field — again, because of misguided loyalty — before the men in charge find it objectionable?

The Cardinals lost more runners on the bases, 110, than any NL team in 2017. When will the manager stop encouraging his players to push it on the bases when few have the speed or guile to make the aggressiveness work?

Why  did the 2017 Cardinals rank sixth among NL teams in sacrifice bunt attempts when they succeeded to advance the runner at a mediocre rate of 59.5 percent, which ranked 11th among the 15 teams?

Why does management look the other way when Matheny is frequently too slow in removing a starting pitcher from a game? Take a look at this research done by Tyler Kinzy at Viva El Birdos.

Hardly a novice, Matheny just concluded his sixth season in the manager’s chair.

I’m honestly not sure why this pattern of repeated managerial mistakes is so fine and dandy with the owner and the front office.

Unless this organization gets a helluva lot smarter, the Cardinals will continue to chase the Cubs. And the Brewers. And other aspiring teams that are on the come.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Karraker – What Happened to the Cardinals? Takeaways from a Disappointing Season