|The Cardinals' core is one of the most impressive around. (Getty Images/EOB)|
Our 'Core Values' series marches on with the team that's been a steady presence in the NL playoff picture for much of the last decade-plus -- the fightin' Cardinals of St. Louis.
As for our somewhat arbitrary definition of "core," here's a reminder. Feel free to skip over the blockquotes if you've been with us since the start.
What's a core? For our purposes, a team's core comprises a "cornerstone player," a "face of the franchise" and then the "future face of the franchise."
So what's a "cornerstone player"? For starters, it's one of the best players on the roster and perhaps the very best player on the roster. Beyond that, though, it's the player whom the organization has identified as the talent around which to build by signing him to a long-term deal. In other words, they've backed their faith in the player's abilities with the most powerful statement of all: lots of redeemable U.S. currency. Not only do they see this player as central to their current aims but also to their designs on future contention.
What's a "face of the franchise"? He -- and we're getting subjective here -- is the player who most prominently embodies the franchise in question. He's that player whom you think about when you think about this team. Is he the same guy as the "cornerstone"? Sometimes. But the cornerstone is primarily a financial designation. The "face" is, for lack of a better term, a cultural identifier. They're not mutually exclusive, but they're not not mutually exclusive, either. What about the word "values" that you see in the headline above? After we identify and evaluate the three elements of the core, we're going to slap a letter grade on the whole thing.
And now to the core of the Cardinals.
Cornerstone player(s): Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina
Without question, Holliday and Molina are the Cardinals' two most towering financial investments at present, and choosing between them is nigh impossible.
In January of 2010, Holliday, after having been acquired by the Cardinals via a blockbuster trade with Oakland at the 2009 non-waiver deadline, signed a free-agent contract worth $120 million over seven years (even more if the Cards exercise their 2017 option). Three years later, that remains the largest contract in franchise history.
Holliday's been highly productive as a Redbird (.308/.389/.528, 90 homers, 133 doubles since joining the franchise), but he still has another four years and $69 million left on his deal. There's a chance he'll be a payroll drag over the final season or two of his pact, but he'll have more than made up for it on the front end. Holliday hasn't been fully embraced by Cardinals fans for whatever reason, but he's been an extremely valuable member of the team throughout recent history. He'll remain as much for at least the next couple of seasons.
Molina, meanwhile, inked an extension in March of last year that's just now about to kick in. Starting with the upcoming season, he'll be locked in for the next five years (not counting a mutual option for 2018) at a minimum cost of $75 million. That's the third largest deal ever given to a catcher (Joe Mauer, $184 million; Mike Piazza, $96 million).
As for the prospect of committing to Molina for such a long time, that brings us to …
Face(s) of the franchise: Molina and Adam Wainwright
Depending on how confident you are in assessing catcher defense, Molina may have been the best overall player in the National League last season. We know Molina is a superlative "catch and throw" guy, as he's paced his league in caught-stealing percentage three times, finished second two other times (including 2012) and is the active leader in the category. As well, Molina, according to the research of Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus, grades out near the top of the loop when it comes to framing pitches, blocking balls in the dirt and fielding batted balls. In other words, he's a defensive colossus.
All of that is to say nothing of the strides Molina made at the plate last season and in 2011. To put a finer point on it, compare Molina's pre-2011 career batting line -- .268/.327/.361. -- to the numbers he's authored over the last two seasons: .310/.362/.484. Needless to say, that's a huge difference.
Broadly speaking, Molina's improvements are owing to a jump in BABIP and an increase in his home runs as a percentage of fly balls. Spikes in those measures can indicate a fluke-ish performance, but Molina's working on a two-year trend. It's possible, as a player in the midst of what should be his prime seasons, Molina's simply evolved into a better hitter.
In 2013, I'd expect some regression on the power front, but Molina has an established ability to hit for high averages, and he draws enough walks to afford quality OBPs. Throw in his defense, and you've got an All-Star performer, even if you knock seven to 10 homers off his 2012 total.
Despite it being an article of faith that catchers tend to age more quickly and, thus, decline more quickly than occupiers of other positions, that's not really the case. It's likely that Molina's contract, which, if the mutual option is not exercised, will run through his age-34 season, will reach into his decline phase. But the base of skills is in place to prevent this from being any kind of deeply damaging arrangement for the Cardinals on the back end.
As for Wainwright, the "rebound" season following his February 2011 Tommy John surgery went well enough: 198 2/3 IP, 97 ERA+, 3.54 K/BB ratio. He showed improvement in the second half of the season, and considering he's a pitcher who leans heavily on command and location (the last skills to return to a post-Tommy John hurler), we'll probably see more of the vintage Wainwright in 2013. There is a bit of the unknown surrounding him moving forward, however, and it's worth remembering he's eligible for free agency after the upcoming season. A strong start to 2013 will likely energize contract talks with the Cardinals.
Face(s) of the future: Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Shelby Miller
Baseball America has called the Cardinal farm system the best in the game, and it' hardly alone in that assessment. Taveras is quite simply the best pure hitter in the minors; Miller has a signature, swing-and-miss fastball (and, given time, the secondary stuff to be an ace); and Wong profiles as an above-average, steady performer in the middle infield. Can any other organization match the promise of a hitter-pitcher combo like Taveras and Miller? That's a rhetorical question.
Let's also not forget other young high-upsiders like Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez (who may be the shutdown closer in St. Louis some day).
Grading the Cardinals' core: A-
It hardly seems fair that a franchise that's made the postseason in nine out of the last 13 seasons and won two of the last seven World Series would have such an impressive array of young talent, but that's the case in St. Louis. They're dinged only because of the mild uncertainty surrounding Wainwright, both in terms of his post-surgery performance and his contract status. Those concerns aside, rare is the team as well poised as the Cards to contend both now and in the seasons to come.
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