Complacency is considered the enemy in sports. No matter if it's the player or the fan, nobody wants to settle for a certain notch achieved on a belt that doesn't equal a championship.
For the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals, complacency will be the wire that the team and fan base balance themselves on as the offseason gets under way in a matter of weeks.
After a stirring, if consistently frustrating, season came to an end on Tuesday night in Washington, the Cardinals can now look back on a season that began with promise and ended with a thud. The Nationals halted every bit of excitement generated from that 13-1 drubbing of the Braves last week, sweeping St. Louis in the NLCS.
Washington outscored the Cardinals 20-6, holding the Redbirds to 16 hits for the entire series. While the Cardinals' pitching did what they could to keep the Nationals in check, it was the lack of offense and poor defense that marked this team's undoing.
The lineup couldn't crack Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin, and had issues finding much luck with their reloaded bullpen. Sanchez and Scherzer carried no-hitters late into the first two games, and the latter two benefited from an early barrage of run support.
Seeing the Cardinals' defense come unglued in the final two games was a shock, but when you are pressed against the wall and you can't make any mistakes due to a lackluster offense, mistakes happen.
All in all, Washington dominated the Cardinals, showing them their true colors as 2019 expired.
You couldn't find a more blatant picture of the main issue this team had than the situation that developed in the eighth inning. The bases were loaded and Matt Carpenter came to the plate representing the go-ahead run. One swing, the game changes instantly. The first two pitches from Nationals' closer Daniel Hudson were fastballs, and Carpenter couldn't touch them with a banjo.
After working the count to 2-2, Carpenter grounded out weakly. Reduced to a platoon player, Carpenter lacked that October magic. More blatantly, the Cardinals lacked that big hit in a big moment. That was, as they say, that.
When you have a weak offense and it's confronted with a pitching staff firing on every cylinder, the outcome isn't hard to figure-but few saw the Cardinals getting swept. But that's the sign of another oddball year in the National League. The Braves finished above the Nationals in the NL East, but couldn't get past the Cardinals, who were then destroyed by Washington.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were allergic to losing in the regular season, but couldn't get past the Nationals, who were 19-31 through the middle of May. The game is a humbling experience that never fails to provide conclusions draped around the phrase, "you never know."
While it was a pitiful way to exit the playoffs, there was a lot to cheer about this season in St. Louis. After spending three straight Octobers watching from the couch, St. Louis battled back from a midseason gut check to win the division. It took all 162 games to best the Milwaukee Brewers, but the end justifies the means in sports. The Cardinals won 91 games, three more than 2018 and enough to climb on top of their rival Chicago Cubs, who fired their manager, Joe Maddon.
When they were matched up with the Braves on the road in the NLDS, most pundits had Atlanta moving on, but after five hard fought games, the Cardinals moved on.
The honest truth is I don't think you are an official postseason team unless you win a game. The Cardinals won three and challenged for the pennant, even if that word may seem far-fetched.
Couple that with the mightily improved defense and baserunning, in addition to the emergence of Jack Flaherty as the ace of the rotation, and 2019 should be considered a successful journey.
Think about it this way. There were 15 National League teams, and the Cardinals were the second best in the end. If that's not improvement over 2016-18, I don't know what is.
It simply can't quench the thirst of this team's front office. John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. have to find a way to improve this team's offense, or else 2020 may not even produce a division win. If you think the Cubs and Brewers are backing down, think again. They will reload and sprint back at the Cardinals.
If Mozeliak is complacent, selling this comeback season as a sign of a method working, then the Cardinals are in trouble. You won't win in 2020 on this formula. The idea is for fans to be satisfied with the extra baseball and competitive team, but for the front office to remain hungry and keep gunning for more.
Look at the St. Louis Blues. They won the Stanley Cup, and then General Manager Doug Armstrong went out and made an impact trade. There was no rest or settling there, just a hunger to win more.
The Cardinals performed well in 2019, moving forward, but there's no time to slow down. In the end, they were demolished by the Nationals and must improve.
It's feasible to go into 2020 expecting something better from Paul Goldschmidt, who went hitless in the NLCS and had the worst season of his career. It may be more of a stretch to expect Carpenter to fully bounce back from a disappointing season. He'll be 34 next month and just got a two year extension, but hasn't looked right since August of 2018.
The outfield needs sorting out. Who is playing left and center field next season? One would assume Dexter Fowler is back in right field, but out of a legion of young guns and a free agent veteran, who fills the spots? Marcell Ozuna had a better season in 2019 and hit well overall in the postseason, but always leaves you wanting more. He's the sirloin steak you have on your plate when you are dreaming about a filet mignon.
If Ozuna doesn't return, who replaces his production? Dylan Carlson seems ready, but will the Cardinals fully commit? Tyler O'Neill couldn't buy an at-bat in September, so I wouldn't count on him for everyday work. Harrison Bader has great defense but a Mendoza line bat.
There isn't a ton of wiggle room on the payroll without significant alteration, but the team must commit to youth or figure out a way to squeeze as many wins out of their veteran mix to produce more hits. The Cardinals finished 22nd in the Majors in OPS (which combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage). That can't happen again.
There may be a trade on a talent performing at its height (such as Kolten Wong), or perhaps the team takes on more salary to keep pace with the league. Whatever it is, the feet need to move forward.
On the pitching side, one would expect Carlos Martinez to re-enter the rotation, along with returnees like Austin Gomber and possibly Alex Reyes in what seems like his sixth comeback trail. Michael Wacha is most likely gone, but Adam Wainwright may come back for another ride. He certainly earned it.
Ryan Helsley was the secret weapon in the playoffs, which may imply he's a candidate to close in 2020 until Jordan Hicks returns. Andrew Miller finished the season better than he started it, and John Brebbia should be a reliable arm once again.
There may not be a ton of change in the roster, but the front office has to lock down a strategy for the outfield and their lineup. For example, if Carpenter doesn't have it, Tommy Edman needs to be the third baseman regardless of salary. The same goes for Fowler and a guy like Randy Arozarena. A poorly handed out salary can't dictate playing time. Not on a World Series contending club.
There will be plenty of time to slice and dice next year's roster. For now, savor the bittersweet taste of the end of the road. The Cardinals were the second-to-last National League team standing, and that spells success.
Let's hope it's the beginning of a new winning era and not a one and done journey. After all, this should only be the start of the comeback.