ST. LOUIS — There is extra restlessness among St. Louis Cardinals fans this winter, and for good reason.
~Will they make a move to improve the outfield?
~Can they upgrade the lineup?
~Will Mike Shildt be able to get over the fact that Yadier Molina may not be catching baseballs for the Cardinals next year?
Everything is up in the air over at Busch Stadium, where budget cutting is already in place and 2020 Gold Glove players like Kolten Wong have already been all but shown the door.
Meanwhile, up the street at 14th and Clark, the St. Louis Blues are mad busy improving their roster and preparing for a January season launch. One that could very well include newcomers like Torey Krug and Mike Hoffman skating on their team. Difference makers of the highest order, these two players fill two gaping holes left on the team following last season's early playoff exit.
General Manager Doug Armstrong wasted NO time in bolstering his roster.
He's not pulling his foot off the gas pedal just yet. The minute Alex Pietrangelo wasn't coming back and talks were going nowhere, Armstrong pivoted and signed the next best guy on the market in Krug. An undrafted physical southpaw who left it all on the ice, the new defender gave the Blues some much-needed "come get some" in the corners, as well as a great power play presence.
Hoffman is a 26-goal-producing machine who has been harnessed on bad teams for too long. He's the one good mechanic at the auto body shop that lost its license three years ago. He's currently on a peculiar but ultimately sensical professional tryout contract with St. Louis, but that's a loud way of saying, "We'll find the money, stand by." He isn't going anywhere. If you can't fit a 65 point guy into "your system", your system sucks.
Imagine if John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch, and their boss, Bill DeWitt Jr. wisely spent money on upgrades for their team. Imagine if the Cardinals were more interested in winning World Series #12 than placing gigantic trophy models in their brand new Ballpark Village addition. "Competing" has become an old hat for just enough energy to show a pulse around the over-muscled Stan Musial statue.
Keep in mind I mentioned, "spend WISELY" when referencing the Cardinals. They do spend money, as evidenced by their yearly payroll that has sat around $160 million for years. DeWitt Jr. and company's Opening Day payroll has ranked 12th or better in the Majors in 16 seasons since 2000. What about their 2019 payroll? The Cardinals ranked 7th in the league. Bowed out in the second round.
The Birds just don't spend wisely. It's like they fly south for the winter and forget how to manage a checkbook or something. They overpaid for Dexter Fowler, because they badly needed an outfield rescue. They handed Matt Carpenter an extension that wasn't exactly required. Remember Brett Cecil? He currently doesn't have a Major League zip code to throw baseballs in, but he should be okay after collecting nearly $30 million from the Cardinals.
Cecil didn't even throw a pitch in an official game during the final two years of his four year contract. That's how bad it went, and don't act like that blown deal hasn't scared the team away from making better offers to relievers. The Cecil collapse left scar tissue on the Cardinals' negotiating table.
The Blues don't even have half the payroll of the Cardinals. After all, they are a mid-market NHL team, a league that is still trying to convince casual sports fans to watch their games. The Blues are constantly up against the salary cap. Just look at the professional tryout paperwork right now with Hoffman. Armstrong, along with a resourceful primary owner in Tom Stillman, knows how to squeeze every penny out of a transaction.
The Philadelphia Flyers still feel like Terry Benedict after Armstrong swindled Brayden Schenn from their roster (He grew a modest beard and won a Cup, Philly). He absolutely stole Ryan O'Reilly in the dawn of the free agent light two years ago from Buffalo. Schenn recently received an eight year contract, and Mr. O'Reilly is the latest Blue to be named Captain.
It's not like the Blues GM is a longtime marvel. He made his fair share of duds, in other words the last contract extension for Patrik Berglund. Armstrong refused to sign David Backes, but gave Alexander Steen four years of rich money instead. Neither would have been good moves. Armstrong was becoming the Oprah Winfrey of no trade clauses too, giving them to even second unit defensemen.
But then he got smart. Real smart. He traded fan favorite Ryan Reaves for Klim Kostin, who I think will make a dent when the opportunity arrives. In addition to the Schenn and O'Reilly moves, Armstrong secured the services of Justin Faulk before last season. He didn't have a very good year, but near the end of the season and playoffs, the former Carolina Hurricane started to feel at home. I think he's going to be great this year.
The Blues could teach the Cardinals how to manage a budget. Instead of going overboard like Michael Bay on his third "Transformers" film, they make tightly edited and financed indies that sometimes rock the big ship. Armstrong and Stillman know when to cut the sentimental value, and just move on. By now, Army would have already signed another catcher and said talks with Molina had gone downhill. He knows when to cut bait and run. Just look at the Pietrangelo ordeal.
Do the Cardinals have the brazen ability to make a couple great moves next winter? Forget this offseason. They're slicing payroll, still have several players to sign, and have little energy to even secure the very valuable Wong. But when next year rolls around, and contracts fall off the books, can the Birds make good deals? With money to spend and a widespread vaccine kicking things back closer to normal around the beginning of 2022, I have my doubts. Maybe the Cardinals aren't that hungry anymore to be among the elite, instead sitting next to the elite for a couple weeks.
I think they should call Armstrong and the Blues first. Call a franchise that knows what it's like to be the little guy in a league and still get things done. Call a team that NEVER stops being hungry. Five years ago, I would tell you Mozeliak can do no wrong and that Armstrong had to go. These days, I have more trust in the other guy. That's sports for you.
I don't know if I can say there's a new king in town, but there's one team making great moves who just won a Stanley Cup, and there's another team who hasn't won an NLCS game in six years looking up at the ceiling. The little brother is not so little anymore. You be the judge.
Who should be instructing who?