The last 12 months for the Cardinals have been unique, to say the least. They rode an incredibly deep roster and historic value from players aged 25 and under to 100 wins, best in all of baseball. But the success and good vibes of the regular season quickly dissipated under the weight of an enormously disappointing post-season and off-season. First, their long-time rivals at Wrigley defeated them on the field in the NLDS with their own impressive batch of under-25 heroes. Then, that same rival poached the Cardinals’ top pitcher and hitter in 2015 (using WAR) in free agency. Suddenly, a franchise accustomed to residing at the top of their own division and league appears to be on shaky footing. This all begs the question- what has happened to teams like the Cardinals, with a run of recent success and a healthy dose of value lost via free agency, in the broader context of MLB history?
First, let’s establish some parameters. We’ll use all teams since 1988. This gets us past the collusion woes in the league’s free agent pool from 1985 to 1987. This also places roster construction in a slightly comparable context to today, a fact that doesn’t hold true through the first decade of free agency (1975-1985).
The most easily accessible database of free agents for this time frame (1988-2014) comes from Baseball-Reference. One caveat here is that BB-Ref’s database only includes WAR3- the collective 3-year WAR of each individual free agent in lieu of the WAR from the most recent year for a free agent. Rather than using the 2015 WAR of the Cardinals’ batch of free agents this off-season, we’ll instead use WAR3. Before Opening Day, they will have lost 28.6 WAR3.
We also want to create a fingerprint for the current Cardinals. First and foremost, they have had an impressive run of recent success. Over the last four seasons, the Cardinals have averaged 93.75 wins. For our comp list, we’ll look at teams with a four-year average of between 90 and 98 wins.
Another part of the current Cardinals fingerprint is that they employed a historic level of production from under-25 players in 2015. Their WAR in 2015 from this group was 22.7, which is in the top 98th percentile of all teams in MLB history. Unfortunately, that group also includes a WAR of 6.0 from Jason Heyward, one of the players who departed via free agency. Their WAR from returning under-25 players (16.7) is still very impressive, though, ranking in the 90th percentile all-time. It’s a defining feature of the team. For our comp list, we will find teams whose under-25 WAR fell between 12 and 20.
Payroll is an important consideration. After all, lower payroll teams frequently lose lots of value in the free agent market simply because they can’t afford to pay those players after arbitration. On the other end of the spectrum, high payroll teams frequently pay for top-end production, eventually losing it in free agency. Neither of those scenarios is true of the Cardinals, who rest on neither extreme of the payroll spectrum. Moreover, teams on those extremes are either well equipped or poorly equipped to replenish lost free agent value by signing their own free agents. The Cardinals under Bill DeWitt’s ownership have almost always fallen between 8th and 15th in overall payroll, and that’s the spread (in the following season) we’ll use in finding our comps.
We also want to know what kind of farm system these comps have. The Cardinals placed 3 players in the Baseball America top 100 in 2015. It’s a rough tool for estimating overall farm system value, to be sure, but it works in a pinch. For our purposes, we want to find teams that are neither barren (0-1 players on the list) or in possession of a bumper crop (5 or more). The target for our comps will be 2, 3, or 4 players on the BA top 100.
And finally, returning to the reason I’m even asking this question, we need to find teams whose value lost via free agency is comparable to the Cardinals and their 28.6 WAR3. We’ll use all teams who lost between 23 and 33 WAR3 via free agency. There’s a wild card here, which dictates that we’ll need a second group of comps. In addition to free agents lost, the Cardinals also lost Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery as soon as the season ended. For that group, the WAR3 figure in St. Louis is 37.6. For that group of comps, we’ll find all teams with 33 WAR3 or higher. While it’s tempting to include Lynn, it must be done with a massive caveat. Specifically, many of the other teams in the sample set ALSO lost key players for extended time the following season. That being the case, the Lynn group starts out with a strike against them.
Two categories are mandatory. We’re looking for teams with a 4-year win average between 90 and 98 who lost between 23 and 33 WAR3 in free agency. From there, no team satisfies the other three categories- 2-4 players in the BA top 100, teams ranking 8-15 in payroll, and between 12 and 18 WAR from players 25 and under. We’ll use teams who satisfy two of the three categories. That search yields only one comp:
2001 Cleveland Indians
4-year average wins: 91.8/ WAR3 lost: 27.2/ BA Top 100: 2/ 2002 Payroll Rank: 9
The difference here is that the Indians received only marginal value (4.9 WAR) from players 25 and under. Moreover, while the Indians did satisfy 2 other categories, the Indians’ payroll rapidly descended from 9th in 2002 to 27th in 2003 and 2004, and 26th in 2005. These reasons alone make the Indians’ fingerprint deceptive in its similarity to the Cardinals. This is not a good comp.
If we expand our group to include Lynn’s lost value, now finding teams in the WAR3 lost range of 33 or higher, we get two more comps.
2002 San Francisco Giants
4-year average wins: 92.0/ WAR3 lost: 53.2/ BA Top 100: 4/ 2003 Payroll Rank: 9
The Giants’ massive attrition via free agency only featured one premium performer- Jeff Kent- but several other valuable players (Bill Mueller, Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton). In fact, the Giants’ 53.2 WAR3 lost is the 2nd highest amount of value lost by a team in a single free agent cycle since 1988, running only behind the 1992 Blue Jays. The Giants’ payroll remained in the Cardinals’ sweet spot for several years, but their under-25 group was atrocious in 2002 (only 1.1 WAR). Add the 2002-2004 Giants’ star-and-scrubs roster construction and you have a franchise built almost completely the opposite of the Cardinals’ deep-but-starless roster with healthy doses of under-25 production. And while the Cardinals’ value lost in free agency (and with Lynn’s injury) is a bit extreme, it’s nowhere near as pronounced as what the Giants lost in the 2002-2003 off-season. Like the 2001 Indians, the 2002 Giants only work as a comp on a surface level. Digging deeper, they really don’t match up well with the current Cardinals. This finally brings us to…
2008 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
4-year average wins: 94.5/ WAR3 lost: 35.4/ BA Top 100: 4/ WAR 25 and under: 14.0
The category missing here is that the Angels’ payroll in 2009 ranked 6th. While that doesn’t fit our strictest standards (between 8th and 15th), it’s reasonably close. Additionally, the Angels’ win total is an almost perfect match for the Cardinals, and the WAR3 lost is just 2.2 less than the Cardinals minus Lynn and their free agents. Last but not least, the 2008 Angels generated considerable production from their under 25 group, falling just 2.7 WAR shy of the Cardinals minus Heyward. The Angels’ payroll slipped to 8th in 2010 (placing them directly in the Cardinals’ range) before slowly amping up to 4th in 2011 and 2012. We have found our comp for the 2015 Cardinals’ segue into 2016.
Similarities in the actual players lost are eerie. They lost their brief possession of the top prize in the free agent market (Mark Teixeira in the role of Jason Heyward) and a durable (if unspectacular) starting pitcher in Jon Garland (in the role of John Lackey). Francisco Rodriguez also departed. The trio works well as a stand-in for Heyward, Lackey, and Lynn.
The following years were not kind to the Angels. They are a precautionary tale for the Cardinals. They won 97 games in the first year after their Cardinals comp year, but the end of that next season saw them lose another whopping amount of value to free agency (43.6 WAR3, the 10th highest in history).
Their under-25 WAR slowly sank, down to 7.2 in 2009 and then just 2.7 in 2010. The farm system remained average, placing 2 players on the BA top 100 in 2009 and 3 each year from 2010 to 2012. To compensate for lost free agents and poor under-25 value (aside from the obvious counterpoint- Mike Trout), the Halos turned to the free agent market. Cardinals fans know all too well how that turned out. The Angels have only appeared in the playoffs twice since their roster most matched the Cardinals, and only once in the last six seasons. If not for a once-in-a-lifetime talent (Trout), that figure would most likely be zero appearances in six seasons.
This all leaves the Cardinals with heavy questions to answer, standing at an organizational crossroads. While ownership anticipates loosening the purse strings moving forward, the franchise is still unlikely to swim in the same pool as the Angels’ most recent squads (ranging from 4th to 7th). This means free agency is not a likely option to cure their ills, nor would it fit the organization’s traditional modus operandi. That being the case, much more pressure is placed on developing under-25 talent and getting value out of those players on the MLB roster, or making effective trades that add to the team’s long-term core (until the farm system can replenish the bumper crop graduated to the roster in recent years). Failing in either or both tasks could send the Cardinals into a spiral into mediocrity.