There’s a Huge Gap Between the Cardinals and Baseball’s Best Teams

Soon after the Houston Astros began celebrating their World Series championship under a rainstorm of champagne and beer, a Las Vegas sports books posted the first set of betting odds for 2018.

Who will win the ‘18 World Series?

Here are the first 10 teams on the list:

Dodgers,  5/1
Astros,   6/1
Indians,  6/1
Nationals,  7/1
Yankees,  8/1
Red Sox,  10/1
Cubs,  10/1
Mets, 20/1
Diamondbacks, 20/1
Cardinals, 20/1

It’s fun to look at the odds, but the numbers don’t mean squat on Nov. 2.

The 30 MLB team rosters will change during the offseason. A few teams will undergo extensive makeovers. Others will make a few tweaks. A team’s spring-training outlook will reflect the offseason activity.

Seeing that 20-to-1 next to the Cardinals isn’t important.

Except for the symbolism.

The 20-1 odds show how the Cardinals are perceived from the outside.

The Cardinals are no longer viewed as a National League empire, a major-league sovereignty. A pretty good team, sure. A competitive team, absolutely. But in a break from tradition, the Cardinals aren’t characterized as an automatic, traditional, annual championship contender. Their status, while solid, isn’t as powerful as before.

I watched a lot of postseason baseball.  And after seeing the Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox — and even the Minnesota Twins — I came away knowing that there’s a significant gap between the Cardinals and the industry’s elite teams.

And one area especially jumped out: the young position-player talent that forms a core nucleus. And those teams can rely on their younger core position players to be in place for a while. That isn’t the case with every elite team; the Nationals will likely lose Bryce Harper to free agency after next season.

But the best teams I saw in October were loaded with the quality position players that supplied a ton of offensive impact. And the success of these teams will be largely be sustained by the young bats.

Using the Play Index research tool at Baseball Reference I took a look at the listing of position-player fixtures that ranged between age 20 and 27.

The Cardinals are lagging by comparison.

I used the Baseball Reference version of Offensive WAR (wins above replacement) for the hitters on each team that fit the designated age category. I didn’t include fringe guys who didn’t play much.

Let’s inspect, and I won’t list every name here … only the most pertinent.

Again, keep in mind that these Offensive Wins Above Replacement totals are collective, culled from hitters in the age 20 to 27 class during the 2017 season.

ASTROS: Offensive WAR of 25.7  … Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa.

DODGERS: Offensive WAR of 18.4 … Corey Seager, Rodney Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson.

CUBS:  Offensive WAR of 20.1 … Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Amora Jr., Kyle Schwarber.

NATIONALS:  Offensive WAR of 15.7 … Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Michael Taylor, Victor Robles, Brian Goodwin.

INDIANS:  Offensive WAR of 12.9 …. Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor.

YANKEES:  Offensive WAR of 21.1 … Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Starlin Castro, Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier.

RED SOX:  Offensive WAR of 13.8 … Xavier Bogarts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley, Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers.

TWINS: Offensive WAR of 14.4 … Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler.

The Arizona Diamondacks had a collective 5.8 Offensive WAR from younger players, most notably Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury. The Colorado Rockies had 7.6 Offensive War from younger hitters, but the excellent Nolan Arenado delivered most of that.

OK, but what about the Cardinals?

The 2017 Cardinals had a collective Offensive WAR of only 6.5 …

With Paul DeJong (2.8) and Kolten Wong (2.0) responsible for the bulk of it.

No offense to DeJong and Wong, but when you see the elite teams packed with young-hitter foundations — with multiple players that already stand among the best in the game — it’s rather startling to realize that the best the Cardinals can counter with are DeJong and Wong.

I’m concentrating on young hitters here for a couple of reasons:

1. The Cubs’ entire strategy for building the team into a colossus was based on stockpiling young power bats via draft, trade, or international signings. And team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer succeeded. The Cubs’ baseball executives made a shrewd calculation in reading the future, betting that there would be a shortage of impact hitters … cost-controlled hitters especially. And the teams that went with an alternative roster-building approach would be scrambling to find hitters and catch up.

“It’s hard to find bats, but it’s even harder to find them in free agency,” Hoyer said. “So many teams right now are searching for young bats that they can build the lineup around. Our thought was, ‘Let’s be aggressive and build our offense and build our lineup for a long time.’ ”

The Cubs weren’t alone in their batters-first philosophy. The Astros, Yankees and Dodgers have gone the same way. Go get the young hitters … and then fill in your team’s starting rotation with veterans. When Epstein was the GM of the 2004 Red Sox — who won the organization’s first World Series since 2004 — his pitching staff was among the oldest to ever win the championship.  And Epstein’s 2016 Cubs had the eighth-oldest pitching staff among all-time World Series winners.

In baseball, it used to be said that a GM can always find hitting … and it was a lot more difficult to find pitching.

That’s now the other way around.

“You just can’t find prime age or pre-prime age players anymore,” Epstein said. “They’re not available in free agency. Players are getting tied up in long-term deals and most players that are getting to free agency now are on the wrong side of 30. If you have a player who’s mid-20s available and he’s not subject to any type of restriction, there’s 30 teams interested in that player, and it increases his market value.”

2. Among the top nine teams in MLB for park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) this season, seven made it to the postseason. And that includes the four teams  — Astros, Yankees, Indians, Dodgers — that had the highest total of park-adjusted runs created in 2017.

3. The Cardinals chose another strategy: focus on drafting and developing young pitching. But here’s the problem with that … too many young pitchers break … too many young pitchers suddenly lose their grasp of the strike zone … too many young pitchers never pan out and become young ex-pitchers.

A couple of years ago, Epstein told me that the Cubs had done a comprehensive study of past drafts and concluded that hitters — especially college hitters — had the highest probability of attaining success in the major leagues. And there was more risk — and a higher failure rate — in drafting pitching.

The New York Mets won the NL pennant in 2015 with a young rotation that included Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Those four starters combined to every Mets’ postseason start in ’15. But two years later, the 2017 Mets fell to a record of 72-90. And the collapse of their young pitching — due to injuries — was the No. 1 reason for the decline. Harvey, Syndergaard and Matz combined to make only 38 starts this season.

The Cardinals are hoping that their young-pitching movement will give them an advantage going forward. Maybe it will. Maybe the industry trends will revert back to the way it used to be. That’s happened before. This game is always changing.

But the 2017 postseason was glaring.

The Cardinals simply can’t match the imposing young-hitter firepower that provided an obvious advantage for the best teams.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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