The Cardinals currently sit just 2 games behind the division lead and 3 games behind the second Wild Card. Even though the team stayed around .500 for most of the season, the Cardinals are now in playoff contention. And it isn't the way they were supposed to do it. Instead of building on the team's positives last season, the Cardinals are doing it with a new wave of players and prospects.
In case you're not in on the joke, fans often call the August/September Cardinals the Memphis Redbirds. This is because their lineups consist of mostly players who spent time in AAA this year. Some of these players started on the major league roster, like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. But others had to make their way to the roster.
Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty all play key roles on the Cardinals. And players with no clear path to playing time at the beginning of the season, such as Jose Martinez and Tommy Pham are also big pieces.
But it's the rookies who are breathing new life into this team. The four players mentioned above plus Carson Kelly and Sandy Alcantara are part of the future for the Cardinals. John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch pushed the fast forward button and made them part of the present.
Youngsters in a playoff race
There is a long line of thinking amongst baseball fans that you need players with postseason experience. I have not seen one study that suggests that having been there before actually makes one a better player down the stretch or in the postseason. Instead, I see young players often change the atmosphere in a clubhouse.
The Milwaukee Brewers, who you should not forget about, are one of the youngest teams in baseball, and they have as much fun as anyone. Fans criticized the Cardinals last season for their lack of energy. Young players and rookies bring energy more than free agent signings do. Both fans and players get excited about the next top prospect coming to the majors.
It also just so happens that the Cardinals best bet might be to ride their rookies in September. Bader is one of their better center field options, especially with Dexter Fowler and Pham nursing injuries. DeJong has been in the middle of the order for months, now. Weaver has been their best starting pitcher since joining the rotation. And with the team's bullpen struggles, why not give Alcantara a shot?
The roster that was mediocre over the first four months of the season showed what it is. They're a good team, but not good enough. The rookies might not make the team good enough, but they can be upgrades at a few spots. At the very least, these players should be getting time at the start of next season, and that puts the Cardinals in a unique position.
The Cardinals probably can't go too far with the roster they have had all season. And next season, they have to go with a different look, anyway. When the rosters expanded to 40 players, the Cardinals finally had space for their rookies. Rather than push their way to the end with the old look, the Cardinals can both make small upgrades today and transition to the next season by playing their rookies.
Aging Curves Make it Smart
In addition to the arguments about possible upgrades today and the next season, the Cardinals have little to lose by bringing up their players now. The average MLB aging curve shifted downwards a lot over the past 30 years. Players now peak around their age 25 season. It makes sense to have players work with major league coaches more often prior to that point.
Some might cringe about Flaherty being 21 years old and pitching in September. I say go for it. He will be under Cardinals control for his peak seasons even if he starts pitching now. Teams are starting to bring up players earlier because of the earlier peak, and it has worked.
Young players have become big contributors at younger ages, too. Mike Trout recorded his highest single-season WAR at the age of 21. Manny Machado had his at age 23. The contributions teams get from younger players is significant, and teams don't have to wait for development.
How much can they help?
Because it's only one month, the total effect probably won't be that large. Unless, of course, Weaver continues his dominance as a starter, and the rest of them follow suit. But adding Bader, Weaver, and Flaherty and subtracting Randal Grichuk, Mike Leake, and Adam Wainwright is an improvement. Bader's defense makes him a good asset, and the two pitchers should be markedly better.
The Cardinals improve even more by adding Carson Kelly in place of Eric Fryer and Alcantara over whoever your least favorite relief pitcher is. Because these players have played so little, it's hard to project what they will actually do. Using projections that shade towards average, I am guessing that all of those improvements are worth a little more than one full win for the rest of the season.
That one win isn't much, but it does give the Cardinals a better chance at catching the Cubs or Rockies. And it gives them a better chance of knowing what they have before next season. Either one of those reasons alone could be enough to switch to the younger players.
Both of them at the same time is a no-brainer. The Cardinals front office recognized the opportunity to switch to the next generation of Cardinals. Now, fans get to watch both the present and the future in baseball games down the stretch.