As Major League Baseball pivots into the offseason, no front office is under more pressure than the St. Louis Cardinals’ management team of chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, and GM Michael Girsch.
1. The Cardinals are on the short list of the most successful and prestigious franchises in baseball history. They are generously, and faithfully, supported by a devoted fan base. The standards are high. The attendance is high. The revenues are high … and escalating. Even with a couple of down seasons, the Cardinals maintained their reputation for rating among the smartest and most disciplined baseball operations in the industry. With vast resources, a guaranteed 3-million-plus in annual home attendance and a new $1.1 billion TV deal commencing in 2018, there’s no legitimate justification for the Cardinals missing the postseason for a third consecutive year. The transitioning Cardinals still managed to have MLB’s ninth-best winning percentage over the past two seasons, and there’s no shame in that. The 2016 and 2017 teams were flawed but competitive. It isn’t enough. These are the St. Louis Cardinals. They are not supposed to be also-rans. They are supposed to be playing October baseball games at Busch Stadium.
2. There pressure is turned up because of elevated expectations. Buster Olney, Bob Nightengale and many other respected baseball scribes have been talking up the Cardinals as being a busy, aggressive, daring, move-making, wheeling-dealing offseason hive of activity. The fans are expecting the Cardinals to do Many Bold Things. If it’s a relatively quiet winter, this will displease the consumers of Cardinals baseball.
3. Because of pride, no Cardinals executive, manager or coach will acknowledge this, but it’s humiliating for a proud franchise to be dominated by the Chicago Cubs. After having decades of fun, slapping the Cubs around, the Cardinals are on the ground, absorbing a bully’s punches. Since the beginning of July in 2015, the Cardinals have lost 33 of their 52 games against the Cubs including the ’15 NLDS. The Cardinals have won only two of their last 16 series against the Cubs, with two splits. Over that time the Cubs have invaded Busch Stadium to win 15 of 24 games.
4. Postseason baseball was once a St. Louis tradition. That’s changed. The Cubs’ four-game knockout of the Cardinals in the 2015 NLDS became the unofficial turning point. From that playoff showdown to the end of 2017 postseason the Cubs have won 52 more games than the Cardinals, postseason included … the Cubs have the MLB’s best winning percentage (.606) to the Cards’ .515 … the Cubs have won 19 postseason games, five postseason series, a wild-card game, and a National League pennant and World Series championship … the Cubs advanced to the NLCS for three consecutive seasons. The Cardinals have one postseason victory over that time, Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS. That’s it.
5. The Cardinals won 83 games in 2017, down from 86 in 2016. But the ’17 Cardinals also fell behind the Milwaukee Brewers who took second place in the NL Central. That ‘s abnormal, because STL hadn’t finished worse than second in the division since 2008. Hey, it’s one thing to lose significant ground to the Cubs. But now the Cardinals are also chasing the Brewers, who were 54 games below .500 from 2014 through 2016? Really?
6. DeWitt, Mozeliak and Girsch are steadfast in their support of manager Mike Matheny, who was rewarded with a three-year contract extension the morning after the 2016 Cubs won World Series Game 7. Matheny’s new deal kicks in next season, and takes him through 2020. Management’s loyalty to Matheny is so strong, it led to an unusual course of action following a second consecutive disappointing season in 2017. Rather than address their dissatisfaction by changing the manager, the bosses cleared out many of Matheny’s coaches and put a largely new staff around him in an effort to enhance his development as a manager … this, coming six seasons into his job.
These men are in charge of the franchise. Choosing a manager is their call. Standing by their manager only reaffirms their support. And holding the coaching staff accountable — rather than the manager — is certainly an interesting option. But Matheny is their guy … absolutely … 100 percent. If the latest plan works, and the modernized coaching staff can get Matheny up to speed, great. But if Matheny remains set in his ways — clinging to hopelessly outdated tactical beliefs, and mishandling the bullpen — then management’s coaching-staff experiment will fail. And given the depth of management’s unshakeable loyalty to Matheny, another failure would qualify as a complete embarrassment. DeWitt, Mozeliak and Girsch have doubled down on their bet on Matheny. That’s bold. It could also explode on them. We’ll see.
7. The obvious challenge for the bosses: give Matheny and his coaches an improved roster. And this is where the pressure really warms up, The Cardinals have a lot to do this winter. Here are the most important items on the shopping list:
* The so-called “big bat” though I’m really burned out on the BIG BAT terminology. Hell, just make the lineup deeper and better. Remove some of the weak links. Put more of a burden on opposing pitchers by making them work harder to get outs. Make sure to have the thinking-man’s coaching staff convince Matheny to put hitters in the right spot. The BIG BAT won’t make as much impact if your team continues to bat Yadier Molina 5th. I don’t need to see some comic-book action-adventure superhero in the middle of the lineup. BIG BAT? Heck, give me two really good bats and that will work just fine. Another thought here: the BIG BAT types don’t age well. Visit Viva El Birdos for more info.
* The bullpen may not be a total teardown, but we’re talking about a substantial project. The Cardinals need a closer. A reliable, fearsome closer who won’t tinkle when the big-stage pressure is on. Good luck. Established, veteran closers come with a scary price tag and limited warranty. The expensive arms are a risky free-agent investment. (See: Melancon, Mark.) But the St. Louis bullpen needs a helluva lot more than a closer. This bullpen requires a several new residents. Durable relievers. Unless new pitching coach Mike Maddux can get Matheny to rethink the reliever work load and reliever usage, the manager’s favorite book will always be “A Farewell to Arms.”
* I forgot to mention this in my first draft, but the Cardinals need a veteran starting pitcher for insurance. With so many young pitchers in the queue, and Adam Wainwright a year older (and coming off elbow surgery) the Cardinals need a steady hand capable of providing innings. And ideally this pitcher could provide bullpen support if necessary.
8. The Cardinals have approximately 829 outfielders, and though I intentionally exaggerate there, the organization’s outfield surplus is real, and it must be thinned out. There are some tough decisions to make. Who do the Cardinals give up? Who will they protect and keep and build around? Suppose the front office makes regrettable choices? Trading the wrong outfielders. Keeping the wrong outfielders. The type of Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell trade that haunt general managers forever. Mang, that’s pressure.
9. The same applies to the organization’s bountiful supply of young pitching talent. Be careful out there. Sure, it can work out great. Sometimes you can flip a promising prospect — say, Carl Pavano — and acquire future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. WIN!
On the other hand….
You can trade a struggling talented young pitcher — Jake Arrieta — for Scott Feldman and a backup catcher … not only that but the Orioles packaged Arrieta with a young reliever, Pedro Strop. And the O’s watched in horror as Arietta won a Cy Young in 2015 and helped the 2016 Cubs win their first World Series since 1908.
Sometimes you include a young pitching prospect in a deal for Eli Marrero and J.D. Drew — and that prospect turns into Adam Wainwright.
Sometimes you send a pitching prospect to the NY Mets to acquire an aging knuckleball pitcher (RA Dickey) who just put up an outlier season that he’d never come close to duplicating. And the young pitching prospect who went from Toronto to New York was a fellow named Noah Syndergaard.
Sometimes you see the Tigers deal a pitching prospect named John Smoltz to the Braves in exchange for some long forgotten veteran starter. Smoltz had a Hall of Fame career. The aging starter that went to Detroit, Doyle Alexander, made 78 starts for the Tigers in two-plus seasons and went 29-29.
Sometimes, if you are the Diamondbacks, you talk yourselves into believing that young hard-throwing starter Max Scherzer will have a short career ruined by injury … and you trade him to the Tigers where he wins his first of two (and probably three) Cy Young awards. And you, the D-backs, gave up this future Hall of Famer for journeyman pitcher Edwin Jackson and the serviceable starter Ian Kennedy.
That stuff makes me cringe.
Like I said, be very careful.
10. Finally, the pressure is on because there is a growing perception of DeWitt among Cardinals fans … that he won’t spend money … that the team’s payroll is too low … that he isn’t committed to winning … because he knows the fans will file into Busch Stadium each year, 3 million strong.
Frankly, I think much of this is nonsense. Find an MLB owner who has won more consistently than DeWitt since his purchase of the Cardinals before the 1996 season. If anything, DeWitt is fortunate that some free agent players (Mike Hampton, Albert Pujols, Jason Heyward, David Price) declined the Cardinals’ massive offers. And last offseason the Cardinals spent $112 million on two free agents, Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil.
I do understand why there’s some fussing over this; according to Spotrac the Cardinals’ 2017 payroll was just under $150 million, which was below the MLB average of $152.3 million … and the Cardinals’ payroll ranked 16th among the 30 teams. The Kansas City Royals (13th) had a larger payroll than St. Louis in 2017.
But there’s a lot more to winning than crazily throwing money around. Trades can work well. Trades can improve your team. The teams that had the top eight winning percentages in the majors in 2017 had an average of 14 players on the 40-man rosters who were acquired through trades.
To me, the issue here is more about being overly conservative. Yes, I do think it is time for the front office to be more aggressive in making trades and, yes, increasing payroll. They Cardinals must do both.
The problem for DeWitt is how he’s perceived.
Fairly or unfairly.
If the Cardinals don’t get much done on the trade market or dish out meaningful free-agent money this offseason, the narrative of DeWitt the Cheapskate will grow — even if it’s mostly bogus. And as the perception grows, and as the questions about the commitment to winning intensify …
The heat on the front office will rise accordingly.
Thanks for reading…