When the St. Louis Cardinals made a managerial change in July, Team Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. made a statement about the state of the team and where he thinks they need to be. While winning 83-to-88 games is nice and all, that isn't good enough for the Cardinals. DeWitt Jr. isn't interested in being a good team that fails to make the playoffs.
"That's not who we are," DeWitt Jr. said.
As the curtain falls on the 2018 season without playoff action for the third consecutive season — which hasn't happened in nearly 20 years — I am here to tell you that it's a good thing the Cardinals didn't make the wildcard game on Tuesday. While it would have been exciting to have even a hint of playoff action in October around St. Louis again, it would have been a pale impersonation of competition for a team that was once a guaranteed contender. The one-game play-in berth would have been a surreal occasion: a lucid baseball dream for their fans. No one needs that tease around here.
Now that the playoff-less baseball at Busch Stadium has become a trend, an unfortunate streak, the front office will have to reorganize their ambitions and fully grasp the fact that the landscape has changed before their eyes over the past five seasons. You can build from within and stay away from decrepit losing seasons if you want but winning a World Series and entering October action takes more action and work than cultivating prospects and finding diamonds in the rough.
For every Miles Mikolas sighting, there's a nasty Greg Holland spotting. For every Bud Norris rediscovery, there's a Brett Cecil mistake. For every recognition of a Harrison Bader arrival, there's an unsafe Dexter Fowler contract zone that shouldn't be crossed without a hard hat. John Mozeliak, formerly General Manager and current President of Baseball Operations, has been able to pull some wondrous moves that kept the Cardinals in the conversation without making them THE conversation. Somewhere along the line, the idea of how to contend and how to win it all built a gap that the team has to figure out how to cross before the 2019 season.
Please understand I am not here to tell you about the pitiful state of Cardinal Nation. This team won't lose less than 80 games for the foreseeable future. If a rough season is 83 wins like last year, fans can't complain too much. If Cardinals fans are mad about the look of the team, take a ride up to Kansas City, where they just lost 104 games and may lose 100 more next year. Go to the South Side of Chicago and check in on the White Sox, who have bloodied their socks with a 100-loss season. It's not that bad, folks ... but it needs to get better. If DeWitt Jr. wants his word to mean anything, he needs to truly change the way he and Mozeliak play the game.
Here's the thing: If the Cardinals made it into the wildcard game and won it only to get swept in the National League Division Series, what good would that have done? That would have equaled one game of playoff revenue for Busch Stadium, and some merchandise that found the back of the closet before Christmas came along. It would have given Mozeliak a chance to run out his best line about being in a position to win it all and coming up short...or something like that.
Look, you can fawn all over Mozeliak's record as the chief suit behind the front office's successful ways, but the good times have ceased, so he needs to get to work. The cleanup work he did at the end of July was solid, but it also came along too late. The Cardinals were rolling down the hill, and when Mozeliak stabilized their chances, the clock had been ticking for too long.
It seemed to work for a while. The Cardinals rolled off a great five weeks of play, bursting back into the playoff picture, and coming into the final week of play with a 79.5 percent chance of making it in. They followed that up by losing five of six to the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs, their rivals in the race for the Central, which is still up for ownership this week and next year. When the going got tough, the Cardinals folded.
The bats died down, the terrible defense returned and the once-ferocious young arms were overwhelmed with the heat of a playoff race. Interim-turned-permanent manager Mike Shildt couldn't pull any tricks out his hat, and neither could hitting coach Mark Budaska and pitching coach Mike Maddux. There's only so much you can do with a certain amount of proven talent. Please note the word, "proven", in the previous sentence. The Cardinals need more proven talent. Players that scare other teams, not ones the other manager has to look up in order to identify.
Players not named Marcell Ozuna or Fowler, who are two guys who can fill a pillar of an attack without being the stabilizing force behind the structure. As unbelievable as Matt Carpenter was for a three months, he is always going to be a very good player who needs help in being the needle that moves the offensive attack along. He is not an MVP, at least not over an entire season.
Jose Martinez may be more than meets the eye career-wise, but he's a man without a position, which should keep him out of the everyday lineup...unless you want horrific defense to go with a .300 batting average. Paul DeJong may be a 5.0 WAR player sometime, but he isn't going to scare other teams and can disappear for stretches. Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader's defense is elite, but what about the rest of their game. Can Wong stay healthy for an entire season?
Yadier Molina is resisting the urge to age gracefully, instead hitting like the old days and maintaining a respectable, revered status behind home plate. Jedd Gyorko became normal this season, putting up decent numbers without the blaze his bat provided the past two years. He's only getting older, so don't expect anything larger from him.
All of this brings me back to the point of PROVEN talent. As good as DeJong, Bader and Wong look, they aren't proven. They haven't produced at an elite level for three or more seasons. They aren't feared...at least not yet. DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak need to go out and get some feared and proven talent to not supplement, but lead this group of talented baseball players.
Manny Machado may not be a premier shortstop defensively, but he will change your lineup in a heartbeat. We are talking about a 26-year-old perennial MVP candidate with thump in his bat and slick ability in the field. Why move DeJong over? Well, he isn't Manny. That's why. If you flank Machado with guys like DeJong and Wong, he should be fine defensively.
What about Bryce Harper? The 25-year-old, explosively talented and charismatic outfielder who may have played his last game in Washington this week will command a pretty penny for the rights to his style of play. A style that turns some off, because I guess exciting actions on a diamond aren't everyone's cup of tea. There's some swagger and abundance of confidence to his ways, but 34 home runs and an .885 OPS in what many would say is an "off year" is something I'd like to obtain.
According to the Washington newspapers, Harper likes watching Grey's Anatomy instead of partying like a rock star, so that's nice too. Maybe he isn't like Giancarlo Stanton, who chose the brighter lights of the Big Apple over the tall Arch for his services over the next three-to-10 seasons. The Las Vegas-born Harper may like to gamble a little and take a chance with a team of young guns like St. Louis.
While I think the presence of Fowler and his remaining $49.5 million may be a boulder in the road for a Harper deal, perhaps the Cardinals throw caution to the wind and make the move. That has to be on the docket moving forward anyway. Throwing caution to the wind with the hopes of not coming to the 2019 Winter Warmup with glad-handing messages and hollow promises. Come to the Hyatt with a star!
If those two don't work out, go after Josh Donaldson on a shorter-term deal. Overpay the Bringer of Rain on a 2-3 year contract, place him at third base, and watch him blow up with 35 home runs and a .850 OPS. The body may be breaking down, but he can provide the fireworks that this team needs. All you have to do is look at what he's doing in Cleveland to understand why passing on him this month was probably a mistake.
Yes, passing on Donaldson, who would have cost you a small portion of salary and a plane ticket, was a bad idea. In hindsight, he would have given the Cardinals at least another couple wins this month with that unmistakable bat and lineup presence. But why would Mozeliak pass on Donaldson?
Arrogance. Yes, a fully matured arrogance that has been building for years. When you ride into the league as one of the younger executives and blow the competition out of the water in your first six years, a confidence begins to grow and turns into arrogance. Mozeliak thought he could ride this style of roster construction, building from within and slowly picking off options on the market for tryouts, for years. He still believed that this summer when he made zero impact moves at the trade deadline while other contending clubs like Milwaukee, Chicago and Los Angeles did. Mozeliak was too arrogant.
That needs to change. Ask yourself just one question: who was the biggest free agent player Mozeliak has signed? Matt Holliday doesn't count. Fowler may be the answer, and that's sad, because he's not very good. Whether it's Machado, Harper, Donaldson or someone else, the Cardinals need to make a statement by making a splash in the open market.
Armed with a chip on their shoulder for missing the playoff for the third consecutive season, a first since 1999, the Cardinals must go out and sign a difference maker. If you don't and hedge your bets on another band of could-be big-time talents, 2019 playoff entry isn't a sure thing. Sign a game changer. Or, fix your bullpen, sign a decent bat, add a journeyman arm, and hope that is enough.
The bullpen needs work, but it's more addition by subtraction. Find a lefthanded reliever who isn't terrible. Fill the rest of the spots with deadly young arms. Boom, you're done.
Here's the good news. Under Shildt, the Cardinals looked a lot better. The Mike Matheny era is dead, but his managerial career taught the team a lesson about what it takes to truly win in this game. You can have a great manager, and I think Shildt is going to be one, but you need great players.
DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak must continue the work they started in July, and add an eye-opening talent to their roster. A roster that they need to learn how to construct differently. Matheny managed in a way that suggested staving off the chances of losing, instead of just outright managing to win it all. The front office adopted that mindset, unfortunately.
They need to understand the fact that you can have young talent and proven playmakers on the same team. It's actually a great strategy.
If the Cardinals aren't appealing to big-time free agents, make yourself appealing.
If the front office doesn't make changes, you can expect more empty seats next year. Don't bother uttering the words "crime" or "school is back". 88 wins are nice, but a $100-150 million payroll with wildcard hopes isn't so cool.
When the Cardinals made a managerial change in July, they made a bold statement. DeWitt Jr. didn't want to be a bridesmaid anymore. What they did was put their own chips into the middle of the table, especially Mozeliak's bundle. There are no more excuses now, Cardinals. Make haste.
Missing the playoffs never feels good in October. Let's hope the front office uses this newfound adversity as renewed energy in taking action to make next October a red one.