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Let’s Face It: The Cubs and Cardinals Are Competing On Different Levels

To the surprise of no one, the Cubs and Yu Darvish agreed to terms on a six-year contract that will pay the RH starting pitcher $126 million.

Cardinals fans reacted calmly to the news.

Actually, no…

They did not.

Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of  baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch are getting reviews nastier than leading “Worst Film of 2017” candidate “Mother,” starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Let’s clear some smoke and assess the Darvish damage.

1. Was anyone stunned by this? If so, why? Since 2015 the Cubs have always gone big … whether its trading elite prospects for closer Aroldis Chapman in 2016, trading more prospects for starting pitcher Jose Quintana in 2017, spending  $32 million to sign starter John Lackey away from the Cardinals, unexpectedly bringing back their own free-agent center fielder Dexter Fowler during 2016 spring training. Sensing they were nearing a breakthrough after voluntarily sentencing themselves to several losing seasons (re: tanking), the Cubs before 2015 spent $155 million to sign the postseason-certified lefty Jon Lester. They spent $56 million (wisely) to bring in super utility man and emerging leader Ben Zobrist. And the Cubs  spent way too much — $184 million! — to sign free agent outfielder Jason Heyward after the 2015 season … thus saving Cardinals’ management from making an awful investment in  J-Hey. It was one of the nicest things the Cubs ever did for the Cardinals. Other than that, the Cubs are merciless and determined to dominate. And Cubs baseball CEO Theo Epstein stops at nothing to give his team an advantage in the quest for championships. Darvish signing with the Cubs was predictable.

2. The Cubs already had the better overall team and a stronger rotation than St Louis. But for the six or seven people remaining out there who still wanted to compare and debate Cubs vs. Cardinals, this should muffle the argument.  With Darvish set as the newest resident of Wrigleyville, we can close the books on the Cubs’ extreme makeover of their pitching staff. They’ve spent $215 million this offseason to sign six free-agent pitchers: starters Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and (the rehabbing) Drew Smyly — plus relievers Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, and Brian Duensing. At the time of writing, no other MLB team had spent more than $114 million (the Rockies) this winter. So yeah, go ahead and tell Theo that the Cardinals have an edge in pitching.

3.  The Cardinals had a more moderate, measured plan for improving their pitching for 2018. They’ve signed two free agents, starter Miles Mikolas and reliever Luke Gregerson, at a combined cost of $26 million.  The Cards acquired a potentially effective reliever, Dominic Leone, in the trade that sent outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Blue Jays. (And on Monday, the Cardinals signed RH Bud Norris … yeah, THAT dude … to a one-year contract.)

4. So why have the Cubs outspent the Cardinals by a nearly 8-to-1 ratio so far this offseason? After getting slapped around and kneecapped by the Cubs since Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS, shouldn’t the Cardinals be conducting an all-out operation to overtake the Cubs in the NL Central? Shouldn’t the Cards be the aggressors here? The question invites the usual “DeWitt is cheap and doesn’t want to win” quick-twitch response. It’s little more complex than that.

5. The Cubs have put another $215 million on their long-term payroll commitments for a simple reason: they had no choice. Their best prospects were traded for previous fixes. Their system is essentially bereft of quality pitching. As the Cubs began their famous tanking project, Epstein chose to prioritize hitters, elite position-player talent, to establish a powerful core lineup. It was a smart read by Epstein. And the Cubs have built around Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Ian Happ, Albert Amora Jr.  the Cubs didn’t worry about developing young pitching. So now, when staring at a void in the rotation and in the bullpen, the Cubs can’t solve the problem internally. They can’t plug in a prospect. They have to spend money — and they came up with a lot of it to win the bidding for Darvish. The Cubs were willing to take on the risk of giving a six-year contract to a starting pitcher who’s entering his age 31 season. And the Cubs know there’s a chance (in two years or so) of the payroll being clogged by declining, salary-heavy starters. But that was a secondary consideration. The Cubs can deal with that later. The only thing that matters to them right now is winning another World Series title or two, to go along with the epic triumph in 2016. This window won’t stay open forever, but as long as the Cubs have the pieces to win additional world championships. they’ll go for it — and pay up — without fear of the future.

6. The Cardinals aren’t competing at the same level as the Cubs … so let’s just drop the pretense. The Cubs are relentless in the hunger to collect more World Series teams. The Cardinals are trying to improve enough to hunt down a wild card spot. The Cardinals aren’t tanking … they’re “wildcarding.” …. The Cardinals are trying to navigate a narrow path to the postseason without squandering and losing young assets along the way. In that sense the Cardinals are striding the line that connects the present to the future. It’s tricky. It requires discipline. And patience. And maybe if the right deal comes along, the Cardinals will let go, and get after it, and go BIG — giving up assets to be more assertive in elevating the major-league roster.  Don’t ask me when this will occur. But the Cardinals obviously believe their good supply of young power arms will eventually give them an advantage over the Cubs. I’ve said it before: DeWitt and Mozeliak and Girsch are playing the long game here. But there’s also risk involved in this strategy: young arms break, young arms are wild and cannot find the strike zone. And young pitchers can lose confidence and never come close to fulfilling the hype.

7.  Realistically, the Cardinals are a real long shot to catch the Cubs in 2018 … so why do something short-sighted that they’ll regret later? The Cubs can have their run — and eventually the empire will have a shot to strike back. That’s the theory, anyway. calendar. But with the Cardinals in the wildcarding mode, their real  competition are teams like the Brewers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Giants, Mets. The Cubs are competing with teams such as the Dodgers and Nationals for NL supremacy.

8. No disrespect intended, but fans and media hollering at the Cardinals to go out and do something brash to counter the Darvish signing — sign Jake Arrieta! — have missed the bus, the boat, the train, the flight, the trolley. If the Cardinals had a strong desire to go do something dramatic and risky to improve their rotation, they would have gone hard after Darvish as he sat unclaimed on the market for multiple months.

9. It’s important to remember how the Cardinals operate. When management really wants something, they’re proactive. Think of the Matt Holliday trade and signing way back in 2009 … the trade for Heyward after the death of Oscar Taveras … the free-agent signing of Jhonny Peralta … the free-agent signing of Mike Leake … the free-agent signing of lefty reliever Brett Cecil … the aggressive but unsuccessful pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton … and even the quick signing of Mikolas this offseason. At times it takes longer than finalize a contract — Dexter Fowler, for example — but their strategy is to strike early. The Cardinals aren’t reactionary. They don’t go nuts in an impulsive response to an Epstein-Cubs maneuver.  The Cardinals maintain their discipline and — presumably — pick their spot for a bold move.

10. I’m not saying I agree with this strategy; I just recognize it’s worked well for this management team. With one notable difference… During the DeWitt years (1996-present) the Cardinals never never had to take on an division opponent like the Cubs: wealthy, intelligent, daring and driven to win championships. But the Cardinals, while disappointing in 2016 and 2017, haven’t had the floor collapse on them. They didn’t sink into a chasm, to be lost at the bottom of the standings for 10 years. They aren’t even rebuilding … they’re wildcarding.

Finally:  At some point the St. Louis front office will have to move out of its comfort zone — just as they tried to do with Giancarlo Stanton. It’s all there for the Cardinals. Everything they need. The Cardinals have abundant revenue that will continue to grow with the cash infusion from the new local TV contract. The Cardinals can count on loyal fan support. The Cardinals received, like all MLB teams, a $50 million payment from the sale of MLB advanced technology. The payroll has plenty of space, and isn’t cluttered with long-term miscalculations. The Cardinals have replenished their farm system, moving up to the No. 12 spot in Keith Law’s 2018 organizational rankings at ESPN. Their prospect collection is stocked with enticing power arms, and outfielders who are budding sluggers, “plus” athletes, or both.

Add it all up and  clearly the Cardinals franchise is posted up … standing in a strong position.  The Cardinals have the financial might and prospect power to drop bombs. But when will the Cards go for it? They’ve been keeping the damn powder dry for so long, I hope it hasn’t dissolved in the kegs.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Cardinals Lineup Ranks Highly According to MLB Network, Pitchers Not So Much.