As the 2016 season got underway, the Cardinals were feeling disrespected. Yes, they’d suffered a portentous NLDS loss to the Cubs the previous October, and then stumbled through a disappointing offseason, but from the top of the organization on down, they were adamant that they wouldn’t be relinquishing their NL Central crown without a fight. “I like the moves that we’ve made,” said Mike Matheny. “There are some players here who have done some pretty special stuff.” Asked about the “aging core” narrative that had sprung up over the winter, Yadier Molina didn’t give an inch: “We’re just getting started. We’ve got more experience. We stay in shape. We know the game better. We’ve got the advantage.” The divisional race “[is] going to come down to the end,” predicted Matt Carpenter. “I don’t think our plan is to fade,” said Bill DeWitt. “That is not in our mindset.”
The Cardinals, of course, finished 2016 with 14 fewer wins than the year before, losing the Central to the Cubs by 17½ games and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Things have gotten even worse in 2017, with the club sitting at or below .500 for most of the season thanks to a sputtering offense, an unreliable bullpen, and an absurd, off-brand fundamentals crisis. Just a year and a half after vowing that the Cards hadn’t lost any ground to the Cubs, and a few months after assuring fans they’d improved in the offseason, John Mozeliak is now publicly fretting about the team’s “attitude and culture” and conceding it may be time for a bit of a rebuild. “Watching a game like yesterday,” he told Jenifer Langosch last week, “it’s tough to justify going out and solely playing for this year.”
In the 18-month period over which the party line shifted from “We’re competing for the division” to “We may punt on this season,” it’s been difficult to detect any corresponding shift in how the organization actually goes about its business. Opening-day payroll dropped to 14th-highest in the league, its lowest rank since 1999, and a high-profile pursuit of Luis Robert ended with the club getting outbid by the White Sox. Jaime García, Matt Adams, and Marco Gonzales have been shipped off in a series of minor trades. A couple players got DFA’d and a coach was “reassigned,” but that came after a three-year extension for Mike Matheny and just before two big promotions for Mozeliak and Mike Girsch. For a team whose own self-assessments have fallen so far so quickly, and who have spent the season talking about “accountability” and bruiting “shakeups,” the Cardinals have sure seemed intent on sticking to business as usual.
That could change over the next few days, and fans have every reason to hope that it will. The greased skids of the trade deadline may represent one of the best opportunities the Cardinals will have for a while to alter the franchise’s present course—and it’s getting harder and harder to see how that course isn’t one of continued entropy and decline.
It’s true that in a proximate sense, the Cardinals have suffered from some bad luck in 2017; according to BaseRuns, they deserve a record five wins better than their current 50-51 mark. But luck is layered, and underlying the club’s solid run differential are an unusual number of performances that, for a variety of reasons, are probably not sustainable. Tommy Pham has almost singlehandedly redeemed the season, but no one’s penciling him in for 600 PAs at a 144 wRC+ clip next year. The same goes for a bounceback season from Michael Wacha and what has looked for long stretches like a career year for Mike Leake (not to mention the overall health of the rotation, generally). A year after Aledmys Díaz’s rookie campaign, plenty of caution regarding Paul DeJong is in order. Jedd Gyorko is probably not the team’s second-best hitter.
Sure, any one or more of these performances could be sustained into next year, and there are other players it’s fair to expect will improve. But Lance Lynn will be gone and Adam Wainwright’s halting decline will continue, with post-Tommy John rookie Alex Reyes expected to pick up the slack. Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler will both turn thirty-two. Yadier Molina will be starting six times a week and forcing himself into the five hole by looking at his manager funny.
As always, there are no certainties, and in the long run the club will eventually begin to reap the benefits of its well-stocked farm system. But without major improvements to the 25-man, the Cardinals are going to be counting on an awful lot of things breaking their way to end up as a better team next year, and the median outcome is probably one that’s slightly worse.
Between now and next April, the trade market is the only way major improvements to the roster are going to happen; DeWitt is already pleading poverty, and there aren’t many worthwhile upgrades in this winter’s free-agent class, anyway. The Cardinals don’t need to be deadline buyers in the classic sense, but at some point, if they want to be a better club next year and beyond, they’re going to need to add major-league talent to the roster in a blockbuster or two. At the very least, trading Lynn for a prospect who could be flipped later on seems like a good idea—but in the chaotic environment of the trade deadline, there are surely plenty of opportunities that won’t necessarily exist in December, and Mozeliak and company shouldn’t pass on any of them lightly.
It’s time for the Cardinals to take some risks, to make some bold moves, to chart any other course but the cautious, complacent hedging that got them to where they are now. Otherwise all the talk of shakeups and accountability will have been hollow, and fans can look forward to a near future just as middling and miserable as the present—and beyond that, who knows? A well-regarded farm system isn’t a guarantee of anything, and anyone expecting any big additions from the 2018 free-agent class is, to put it mildly, kidding themselves. Eighteen months ago, neither the Cardinals nor most of their fans expected things to get this bad. The last thing they should think now is that things can’t get worse.