Here’s Bill James, Sunday afternoon, describing a common way good teams fail:
Below-average players do in fact have value to championship teams; in fact, MOST value consists simply in being average. Every year, pennants are lost because teams cannot find average players to fill some roles.
The 2015 Los Angeles Angels missed the playoffs by one game despite getting a ridiculous .592 OPS from their left fielders, 131 points below the league average. Had their left fielders been merely average or NEARLY average, they would have made the playoffs easily—and not merely the left fielders; had their catchers been near average, they would have made the playoffs, or had their second basemen been near average, they would have made the playoffs, or had their third basemen been average, they would have made the playoffs. They were far below average at all of these positions, and this is what cost them the chance at post-season despite having the league’s best player, Mike Trout.
In fact, I would argue that the Angels have cratered precisely because they believed in the philosophy that you are advocating: that average players don’t matter; all that matters is the stars. The Angels believed that, so they invested huge amounts of money in acquiring a few stars—and crashed and burned because they didn’t make book.
If you remember what John Mozeliak sounds like—you don’t get pregame and postgame on MLB.TV, so I have no idea—try it in his voice: Good teams fail because they can’t find creditable baseball players at every position.
Every year there are good teams, even successful teams, who stare down the concept of replacement level and spit right in its face. The Mets, who it feels like the Cardinals have been chasing for a hundred years now, gave James Loney 342 plate appearances at first base. You have, in the last couple of days, probably been made aware that the richest baseball team on earth started Howie Kendrick in left field for half their Major League Baseball games.
Late in the season, a baseball team attempted to shore up a position by acquiring Coco Crisp. The position was 1) left fielder on the 2) 2016 3) American League Central champion Cleveland Indians, because God as my witness, 4) Rajai Davis will go into their books as the left fielder of record.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals were adequate all over despite their eight most expensive players, making a total of $102 million, contributing—whatever you think Yadier Molina was worth this year.
Baseball-Reference says the other seven were worth about four wins above replacement, a not-insignificant portion of which comes from Adam Wainwright the batter.
The 2016 Cardinals didn’t just prove they weren’t the Angels—they proved they could succeed without the Aging Core we chewed up so much offseason talking about. And while on some level every successful team is unrepeatable, the core that emerged from the 2016 team can probably get the 2017 Cardinals much of the way to 86 more wins.
Only, try to name it. Yadier Molina, still. Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez, definitely. Aledmys Diaz, hopefully. Stephen Piscotty is valuable in a boring way; Randal Grichuk could stand to be more boring. Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver pretty soon.
You realize pretty quickly, just looking up and down the WAR column, that the Cardinals didn’t replace their aging core with a young core—they replaced it with something that is not recognizable as a core. You build a young core around Kolten Wong; you build the Cardinals around Kolten Wong and two replacements.
I look at the roster the Cardinals will carry over into 2017 and I see all kinds of players I can pencil in to be roughly average, though I have no advance idea of the particular combination that will get me there. And Bill James is right: Most value comes from getting all the way to average. Every year pennants are lost because teams can’t do it. I think the Cardinals have done most of the work, and I don’t think they’ll fail like the Angels have failed.
If they don’t try to become the Angels—if Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes aren’t aces next year, and Aledmys Diaz can’t really slug .500, and we’ve seen all we’re going to see out of Adam Wainwright, and the Cardinals can’t find anybody in free agency they like better than the understudy they've already lined up for him—they’ll still be incredibly hearty. They’ll do the same laudable job of finding value where nobody else sees it, and they’ll escape from situations that would destroy other teams.
They’ll compete, and they’ll be a hundred times more fun to watch than teams who have to—or think they have to—tank their way to the place John Mozeliak has fought to establish as the equilibrium. But if they don't reintroduce the risk that got them Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, they’ll still risk failing like the Cardinals fail, like this team failed: Barely.