It’s time for a long-term look at the Mozeliak years, starting with free agency.
With the Cardinals season spiraling out of control over the last month and a half, it’s time to start asking questions about turnover. Unlike other organizations, roots run deep for the St. Louis Cardinals. John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch, and Mike Shildt have been in the organization for a collective 61 years. Shildt and Girsch’s presence in leadership positions, however, points to Mozeliak. Nobody has had more of an impact on the Cardinals’ on-field performance since the 2008 season. Only Branch Rickey (24 seasons) and Bing Devine (20) have had longer tenures managing baseball operations in franchise history than Mozeliak’s 14 years, and that follows 13 prior seasons that Mo was involved in countless ways. Gauging the Mozeliak years is complicated. He built tremendous good will with fans by authoring one World Series champion, two NL pennants, and one of the most successful eras in franchise history from 2009 to 2015. The franchise has been clunkier since 2016, muddying his legacy. Before determining whether or not it’s time for a change, let’s take a deep multi-week dive on the Mozeliak years.
Over the next few weeks, measuring Mo’s leadership will include:
- Free Agency (players signed, players allowed to walk)
- Draft and Development, and Extensions
- Miscellaneous. For Mo, this category will be about filling out a staff, optimizing their big league talent, and any off-field controversies.
Admittedly, anything unearthed here is attributed to Mozeliak because his stamp is all over the franchise, but we can all be honest and acknowledge that these decisions are made collectively with input from ownership, Girsch, scouts, field staff, the team of quants, and so many more.
We’ll start with free agency.
Major Signings: Non-Relievers
I’ve mostly defined a major signing as a total $10M or more. That’s lenient, but there’s a pretty clear break around there. These players were intended to be regular contributors and not cheap gambles. For these signings, I’ve found the $/fWAR figures for the market in which they signed (here, here, and here). With this type of cash outlay, it’s simple to judge. How did they perform as Cardinals ($/fWAR) and how does it compare to the cost of a win when they signed? Note that none of the players active here for 2020 have had their 2020 fWAR pro-rated. Any 2021 fWAR is through June 30th.
Frequently, big dollar free agents won’t match the market, particularly at larger dollar amounts. Teams pay for past production, plus a premium. Simply coming close to the market’s $/WAR is a win, and outperforming it is a huge win. Through 2015, Mozeliak was very good. Holliday was arguably the best big dollar free agent signing in franchise history. Westbrook was mediocre but held serve on a value basis. Beltran provided a two-year version of the Holliday contract. Jhonny Peralta’s last few years were ugly, but he did enough in his first two years to compensate. Furcal and Berkman went belly up in 2012, but Beltran’s performance more than erased those errors. Note that this was Berkman’s second one-year contract. For the first eight years of his tenure, Mozeliak handled free agency with aplomb.
Then… he signed Mike Leake for the 2016 season. The $/WAR for his tenure in St. Louis in the table is a little misleading. Technically he signed for $80M and only provided the Cardinals with 4.2 fWAR. However, the Cardinals “only” paid $44M of his contract. His $/WAR using that basis is a much more reasonable $10.48M, below market value but similar to the Peralta deal. Still, it represented a split from Mozeliak’s previous success.
Mo signed Dexter Fowler the following off-season. It was a disaster, with Fowler providing 3.0 fWAR in St. Louis for $82.5M. Stung by some free agent near-misses the year before and frustrated by the ascendance of the Cubs, the organization panicked and it backfired.
Mozeliak rebounded with shrewd dips into the Asian market for Miles Mikolas before 2018 and Kwang-Hyun Kim before 2020. The two collectively gave the Cardinals 8.3 fWAR for $23.5M, and that includes Kim’s truncated 2020 and only half of 2021 for Kim.
Amazingly, if we average all of this out, the Cardinals have paid $7.73M per win, and the average market value of those players signed is $7.91M per win. If we adjust Leake’s dollars down to the $44M the Cardinals actually paid, the Cardinals have paid $7.08M per win. They’ve beaten the market on their major signings, collectively, even with the Fowler, Leake, and Berkman/Furcal missteps. That’s good, because as you’ll see with the next category, they needed it.
Major Signings: Relievers
This is where it turns ugly, and all of these signings are since 2018. Using fWAR for relievers is pointless- relievers don’t provide value the same way- but you don’t need fWAR or $/fWAR to know how bad these signings have been. Win Probability Added (WPA) is my tool of choice for relievers:
2017 Brett Cecil
0.4 fWAR as a Cardinal, -2.13 WPA (11th worst among relievers from 2017-2020)
2018 Greg Holland
0.0 fWAR, -2.00 WPA (7th worst among relievers in 2018)
2018 Luke Gregerson
0.0 fWAR, -0.44 WPA in just 18.1 Cardinal innings
2019 Andrew Miller
-0.1 fWAR through Wednesday, -0.65 WPA (bottom quartile since 2019)
That’s $92.5M for some of the worst performing relievers in baseball. Worse, it happened in an era in which folks have known for some time that spending big on relievers is fraught with peril. The good news is that they haven’t done this for two consecutive off-seasons after doing it four times in three years. Maybe Mozeliak finally learned to stop putting his hand on the stove. But the damage is done, and these missteps erase the good will of his major free agent successes.
Notable Mid and Low Range Signings
The most notable mid and low range signings follow the same pattern from major signings. In his early years, the first signing of Lance Berkman ($8M for 2011) and Nick Punto ($700k for 2011) returned a whopping 6.5 fWAR. Re-signing Adam Wainwright for 2019 and 2020 ($7M plus incentives for both seasons combined) has returned 3.3 fWAR, with 2020 truncated by the pandemic. He’s been an enormous value even beyond fan nostalgia, and it has continued into 2021. Brad Miller was a diamond in the rough last year, producing 0.8 fWAR (again, short season) for a paltry $2M.
Where it’s similar to the major signings is that Mozeliak has borked many free agent reliever signings, particularly in recent years. Bud Norris had the ninth worst WPA in 2018. Jonathan Broxton had the 20th worst WPA from 2016 through 2017. Randy Choate was mostly fine, but 3 years and $7.5M for a “fine” LOOGY is not ideal.
Prior to the reliever missteps, the club wasted money on versatility, trying to chase the Punto high. Ty Wigginton (2013) and Mark Ellis (2014) collected $10.25M for a collective -1.0 fWAR. I suppose the Punto/Miller bookends negate the Wigginton/Ellis mistakes. There are a lot more free agents in this category but nobody needs in-depth retrospective analysis on rock-bottom expenditures on Mark Reynolds, Felipe Lopez, and The Yadier Molina Backup Catcher Traveling Ballet.
Cardinal Free Agents Allowed to Depart
Here’s the same $/fWAR vs. Market $/fWAR table for the club’s notable departures. There are countless others, but they’re of the Octavio Dotel, John Axford, and Daniel Descalso variety. If you want to know about a specific departure not listed, ask in the comments.
Holliday provided 0 fWAR in New York- ergo his N/A figure. Glaus and Berkman had negative WAR in their new destinations, which is why their $/WAR figure looks so odd. Teams gave them free money to make them worse.
There are a few missteps, particularly recently. Ozuna was given a modest 1 year/$18M contract in Atlanta and then exploded. Wong will most likely provide the 3.5 fWAR necessary over two seasons to match his open market value. Lance Lynn in 2018 would have represented an upgrade over what the Cardinals received from their own staff. He has blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the game since leaving. Like Ozuna, it raises a huge question- why couldn’t the Cardinals unlock this production when they had him?
Beyond that, Mozeliak’s Cardinals have avoided overpaying on the open market for their own free agents. They correctly assessed that Glaus, Berkman, Lohse, Holliday, and Beltran would not be worth free market prices. Wacha was an easy decision. Piñeiro and Lackey might be considered modest missteps. However, both were bad in year two of their deals and out of the league the following season.
There are three relievers not listed here. Pat Neshek, Seunghwan Oh, and Edward Mujica easily could have appeared on that table. By WPA, Oh and Neshek were about average after leaving. Mujica was lower quartile. Oh earned a modest $2M, Neshek garnered two years and $12.5M, and Mujica got two years and $9.5M. Letting them leave was perfectly reasonable from Mozeliak’s perspective.
Now let’s talk about the two gigantic elephants in the room- Heyward and Pujols. Looking at how they’ve performed against the cost per win at the time of their free agencies, Mozeliak dodged two potential bullets. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. They would have been the same enormous busts even if Pujols or Heyward had accepted Mozeliak’s offers. For instance, Pujols signing for 10 years/$180M and another $30M deferred (the Cardinals’ alleged offer) still would have left them paying between $35-38M per win. The Cardinals reportedly offered even more than the winning contract for Heyward. Had he simply chosen St. Louis over Chicago, Mozeliak would have been paying the same $15M per win (or more), $5M+ more than market value.
The Cardinals like to talk about their “puke point” with free agents- the point at which the years and/or dollars would leave them exposed, where the signee going bust would severely hamstring the franchise. That’s understandable… except their offers to both Pujols and Heyward were still past the puke point, so to speak. There are some small points to be awarded for not going overboard with two players that eventually went bust, but that good will evaporates once you consider what they actually did offer.
Earlier, I mentioned that the 2009 to 2015 era was one of the best in franchise history, and then it gets muddy around 2016. This analysis shows some of the reason they’ve taken a step back. Their free agent decisions- signings and departures- from the former era almost always returned net positive value. Admittedly, they sat out the 2013 and 2015 markets other than maintenance signings, but even that turned out fine. They did no harm by spending beyond the market. The Pujols offer looks awful in retrospect, but it’s fair to grant a mulligan given that they began with a much more palatable 5 year offer. It ended up deterring Pujols from returning, but that type of outlay would have greatly diminished the overpay from what he actually got.
Since then, they’ve had at least one misstep in free agency every year.
2016: Leake was less than ideal, and the Heyward offer looks bad in retrospect.
2017: The Fowler and Cecil signings were disastrous.
2018: Holland and Gregerson were a wreck, somewhat mitigated by Mikolas’ contributions. However, there’s the spectre of Lynn in that class as well.
2019: The Andrew Miller deal has been bad.
2020: The Kim contract has been valuable but Ozuna’s monster 2017 and 2020 seasons elsewhere sandwich two average-ish seasons in St. Louis. Like Lynn, it raises development questions.
2021: This comes down to Wong.
It’s probably worth noting that this analysis doesn’t identify whether or not they addressed their needs in free agency or identified appropriate in-house solutions instead of dipping into the market. It’s more about whether or not they got appropriate value in the open market.
Mozeliak was good at this game early, and recent forays into Asia have been inspiring and valuable. Still, it’s impossible to ignore how much they’ve shot themselves in the foot in recent years with bad bullpen signings and an inability to unlock the potential of players like Lynn and Ozuna.
If you were looking for reasons to continue the Mozeliak era, recent free agent classes aren’t the most convincing argument. Come back next Friday when I’ll look at Mozeliak’s trade history.