It’s time to bring this ship into the shore
It’s time to wrap up my series, The Mozeliak Years. There’s been a lot of outcry from fans for a change at the top of the Cardinals organization. Before deciding if that’s a good idea, I wanted to do a multi-week deep dive on how the Cardinals have fared during the long tenure of John Mozeliak as the head of baseball operations. We’ve already covered the way the St. Louis Cardinals have performed on trades, free agency, draft and development, and extensions during the Mozeliak years. It’s finally time to wrap it up, first by covering miscellaneous items (the international market, off-field controversies), and then an overall assessment. You can find the other articles in the related links below.
As detailed in Howard Megdal’s impressive book The Cardinal Way, we know one of the reasons Mozeliak was hired to replace Walt Jocketty was his role as a unifier. The front office was fractured at the end of the Jocketty years, with the old guard fighting the new guard. The organization was hampered by the failure of all parts to pull in the same direction, particularly in incorporating the use of quants. Mozeliak had been a leader in recognizing this problem at the time. By all accounts, he was successful in rectifying it. From the outside, it’s impossible to know if any other fractures have developed since the era covered in the Megdal book. If there has been any kind of fracture, though, it certainly hasn’t been public. For a franchise that dreads controversy, there’s value in that.
That’s not to say the Mozeliak years have been free of controversy, primarily because of the hacking scandal. Former scouting director Chris Correa hacked into the Astros internal database, committing a federal crime. Involvement by other individuals was not discovered during the investigation by MLB and in the Cardinals’ own internal search. It was a black eye for the Cardinals, one that cost them multiple draft picks, even though Correa was the only individual found responsible. That said, it’s impossible to hold Mozeliak personally responsible and the organization’s reaction once suspicions came to light- dismissing Correa, full cooperation with MLB and the FBI- were deemed appropriate.
Matheny and Fowler
Less controversial but still troubing was the end of Mike Matheny’s tenure as manager, which featured controversial remarks from Mozeliak himself. Matheny’s final year and a half were riddled with problems. He offended Yadier Molina with comments that he was tired. Kolten Wong was frustrated with his role. Matheny allegedly wasn’t even talking to Dexter Fowler. He also made awkward comments about Bud Norris “badgering” then-rookie Jordan Hicks, with Matheny referring to the game as having gotten softer (huge hat tip to our own Scooter for compiling these just before Matheny was fired). It was all a disaster.
On top of that, Matheny was by all accounts one of the worst tactical managers in the game, and was given six and a half years to figure it out. The organization under Mozeliak allowed it to fester too long. Mozeliak himself took part in the Fowler fiasco, unwisely questioning his effort just as Fowler went on paternity leave. I don’t feel comfortable as an outsider questioning Mozeliak’s motives in making his comments about Fowler at the time, but they were extraordinarily tone deaf. It’s easy enough to move on now, three years later, and that’s a testament to how few other situations like these Mozeliak has in his tenure. As for the Matheny situation, it’s understandable why the team didn’t fire him in the 2012 to 2015 window when they were making the playoffs. However, a clear argument could have been made as early as the end of 2016 and at least the middle of 2017 when the clubhouse fissures became apparent. It took them a full year after that to finally pull the trigger. The 2017-2018 window was the nadir of the Mozeliak years in so many ways, not the least of which was sticking by Matheny long past his obvious expiration date.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their performance on the international market, though it’s hard to grade them against the rest of the league. I’m going to file that away for a future article. That said, they seem to have done well.
Successful international signings in the Mozeliak years include Carlos Martinez, Oscar Taveras, Randy Arozarena, Sandy Alcantara, and Alex Reyes. They’ve found secondary contributors- some still developing- in Junior Fernandez, Johan Oviedo, and Edmundo Sosa. Still others have been highly regarded enough to be part of deals for bigger names. Magneuris Sierra was part of the Marcell Ozuna deal and Elehuris Montero was part of the Nolan Arenado trade. Two others- Ivan Herrera and Malcom Nunez- are currently fringe top-100 prospects. It feels like cheating, but technically Kwang-Hyun Kim qualifies as well, a clear success.
I’m not sure that they’re top of the league in international success but they’re clearly not the bottom of the league, even after a big miss on Luis Robert.
I set out to determine whether or not it was time to make a change and discovered that it’s more complicated than that. For all of the malaise around the franchise since 2016, there are plenty of successful areas.
- Extensions for players in their cost-controlled years
- Identifying which of their own free agents to re-sign and which to allow to walk… until recent years (Lynn, Ozuna, and Wong look like mistakes, or did until Ozuna’s off-field issue)
- Draft and development, particularly given their draft position and their lack of barren years. They’ve been extremely consistent from year to year.
- Navigating the trade deadline. Clearly, there are arguments to be made that they could have done more, especially today. But when they’re contending and adding to the roster, they’ve either found good value or not hurt themselves by subtracting future value. Unfortunately, they haven’t truly had a deal like this since 2017, which speaks to their fringe contention and the changing economics of the game.
- Free agent forays into Asia have been successful (Kwang-Hyun Kim, Miles Mikolas, Seungwan Oh).
- The recent Nolan Arenado trade was a huge win, and they deserve credit for swinging big on Paul Goldschmidt. They needed star players after 2016-2017 and they’ve since added Arenado, Goldschmidt, and Ozuna (before letting him walk).
On the other hand, the Cardinals rank 11th in MLB in wins since 2016 (and 2017). They’re 3rd in their own division, which is unacceptable. They’re 10th if you’d rather look at the last three admittedly awkward years (2019-2021). Barring something unforseen in the next 2 months, the Cardinals will have made just two playoff appearances in the last six years. One of those two only happened because of the strange expanded playoffs in the pandemic season. You have to go back to the 20th century to find another stretch like that for the franchise.
In their playoff-free seasons, they’ve finished 1 game back of the Wild Card, 17.5 back in the division in 2016; 4 back in the Wild Card and 9 in the division in 2017; and 3 back in the Wild Card, 7.5 in the division in 2018. This year through Wednesday, they’re 7 back in the wild card and 9 back in the division.
This team hasn’t been close to more than a berth in the coin flip game in their down years. They haven’t been snake-bitten by bad luck or highly competitive divisions. Too frequently, they’ve been slightly above average in the most impotent way possible.
Avoiding the more glaring errors since 2016 would have helped them get at least a shot in the coin flip game in several of those years, including (probably) this season. I’m talking about the gobs of dollars lit on fire for ineffective top-end free agent relievers. Or panicking when the Cubs surged, going past their puke point in signing Dexter Fowler. Or extending Matt Carpenter at least 12 months early. Or possibly underestimating the trade value of their own prospects like Randy Arozarena, Zac Gallen, Luke Voit, or Sandy Alcantara. Or not seeing their prospects reach their full potential with the Cardinals thanks to changes in approach, like Carson Kelly and Adolis Garcia.
I’m willing to grant a mulligan on that last one as several stalled prospects and MLB players seem to have unlocked a new level this season (Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Nick Plummer, Delvin Perez, Malcom Nunez, Juan Yepez, and more). They may well have found a way to address that issue.
The Cardinals can continue with Mozeliak at the top of baseball ops, but something has to change if he stays. There’s enough good in the later Mozeliak years to keep the franchise right on the lip of contention, but not enough money or other strengths to overcome the unforced errors, ending with too many silent Octobers. So they remain stuck on the lip, surpassed first by the Cubs and now the Brewers. They need to fix those issues or develop other strengths to compensate. The expanded quant department is a great start, as are the hitting and pitching labs. Whatever the case, two playoff appearances in six years is too much for this franchise.