How Much Longer Can the Cardinals Contend Without a Superstar?

missing player

There are a number of reactions you could have to yesterday’s rollout of the Sporting News’ Cardinal-less list of the 50 best players in baseball. You could make a convincing case that Matt Carpenter belongs on it. You could make a highly dubious case, as panelist Derrick Goold apparently did, that Yadier Molina belongs on it. You could raise an eyebrow at Eric Hosmer at #41, or Jake Arrieta at #5, or the fact that any relievers made the list at all. You could tie yourself into semantic and epistemological knots interrogating the meaning of the word “best.” You could breathe in deeply, feel the air fill your lungs, and expel it as you scream “BIAAASSSS!!!!!” in the direction of the nearest Sporting News writer like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

Or you could accept it as an imperfect and reductive but largely accurate portrait of where the franchise finds itself in 2016: fielding a decent team in the hunt for a wild-card spot whose best player is an excellent, tenacious, kind of bland 30-year-old infielder who in the collective judgment of 27 baseball journalists isn’t among the sport’s top 50 talents. No argument that Carpenter deserved to be #43 or whatever on this list is going to change the fact that the 2016 Cardinals don’t, by any stretch of the most shameless homer’s imagination, have a top-25 player in the dugout.

The Cards are the same team today that they were yesterday morning, before a website published a not-at-all definitive or prestigious list that, more than anything, they just wanted people to click on. But it’s an opportunity to reflect on the club’s lack of star power, anyway—on the fact, for example, that of the eight teams without a single representative on the list, only the Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays, who are clinging to life at seven games under .500 in a bunched-up AL East, have playoff odds that aren’t measured in tenths of a percent:

playoff odds

Rostering a superstar or two isn’t a golden ticket to the postseason, much less the World Series (hello, 2015 Nationals; hello, 2007–10 Cardinals). I doubt, meanwhile, that anybody on the 2014 Royals or 2005 White Sox would’ve made similar lists a few months before their deep playoff runs. There’s nothing prescriptive here beyond the tautological observation that the more great players you have, the better your team is.

I’d submit, however, that any metric whatsoever that lumps the Cards in with the Phillies, Twins, Braves, Padres, A’s, Brewers, and Rays is definitionally relevant, and definitionally miserable. It doesn’t help that the Cubs, the little brother who hit a growth spurt and is tired of our shit, boast (along with their 99.8% playoff odds) four players on the list and a few others who look like they could crack it before long.

And it certainly doesn’t help that it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Cardinals might again have a consensus top-50 or top-25 or top-10 talent on the roster, and who it might be. Stephen Piscotty earned a spot on Sporting News’ list of “rising stars” who could make the top 50 next year, which, hey, sure, could be—though it’s hard to imagine what anyone could see in Hypothetical Improved Stephen Piscotty that they couldn’t already have seen in Peak Matt Carpenter. Michael Wacha looks like a very good pitcher who is unlikely to meet the lofty expectations some of us couldn’t help setting for him after his first few months in the majors. I’ve stopped trusting myself to think rationally about Carlos Martinez, so who knows. Alex Reyes maybe? Aledmys Diaz, probably not. A few months ago I would’ve had to address Randal Grichuk here. A few more breaks go that way and all of a sudden we’re talking about a 2019 write-in campaign for Harrison Bader.

This is a bunch of things all at once. It’s the layoff from eleven years of taking Albert Pujols a little bit for granted. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that the only Cardinals besides Carpenter to have turned in top-15 seasons by fWAR since Pujols left, Molina and Adam Wainwright, are well on the wrong side of the aging curve—and so for that matter is Carpenter. It’s the direct result of going years without a draft pick high enough to allow them to grab the Correas and Bryants of the world. It’s the even more direct result of cheaping out on two star-caliber targets on the free agent market this past offseason.

Maybe the Cards can win a World Series without significantly augmenting this core group of players. Maybe they could win a World Series with a roster composed of nothing but two- to four-win dough-faced automatons. Probably not, though, and in any case this is more than just a competitive concern—it’s a weird blank space in Cardinals fandom. The chance to cherish a franchise player in his prime, to witness the rise of a generational talent, to navigate the hype-and-backlash cycles of modern superstardom—these are essential fan experiences, and they’re missing from the Cardinals right now. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long to see who fills the void.