It's not over until the tiny Nick Stavinoha swings.
If the Cardinals are now Out of It, I can't think of a more terrifying finish than Aaron Miles tripling in a game-winner—not against a Tony La Russa special but Fernando Salas, one of Our Guys—and Matt Holliday getting so distraught about it that he inserts a moth deep into his own ear. I can't fault La Russa for going to a reliever, because in the stats/instinct dichotomy he's playing against type there; relievers are better than gassed or near-gassed starters, left-handers are much better against Andre Ethier than right-handers, and Fernando Salas normally retires Aaron Miles, on account of how bad he is at baseball.
It didn't work, anyway; not a lot has since June, although in a year in which the Brewers weren't powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive the Cardinals' near-.500 summer wouldn't be quite so depressing. This is a team built to win 90 games that, as currently constructed, looks like an 85-win club when firing on all cylinders—it's a team that's opened up the owner's infamous wallet for two superstar-caliber hitters and traded its cheapest potential star for single-season help yet skimps, relentlessly, on its middle infield.
Monday bgh talked about Tony La Russa's managerial failings, but—whoever you blame it on—those issues are exacerbated by the way this team was built. If you're in for Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols, let alone Edwin Jackson and Octavio Dotel, starting Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker up the middle is just being coy.
I'm not saying the team needs to go the Yankees route now that it's committed itself to a star-based, high-budget strategy—in fact, from the moment the Cardinals signed Matt Holliday they've needed to do the opposite. The Cardinals need David Freeses, Colby Rasmuses, Brendan Ryans—players who are likely to approach average, able to do better than that, and playing under team control.
If you don't have those players, though, or feel a compulsive need to trade them for spare parts, the time has come to throw good money after also-good money. Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot are perfectly useful bench players, guys who are likely to give you a win above replacement level, able to do better or worse than that, and cheap enough that it's not really important how you acquire them. They are not a championship-quality infield, and they don't belong on a contender unless it's the Marlins or Rays, winning with a core of team-friendly stars and unable to spend a dime more on the complementary players.
This is far from the Cardinals' worst roster construction, which is why the 2011 team frustrates me so. (You could argue that they cheaped out on the bullpen, but bullpens are meant to be cheap, and to complain about this particular one is to just sneak Ryan Franklin's awfulness in through the back door of your Mozeliak/La Russa indictment.) Whoever you have at the top of your Cardinals roster-management pyramid lost the team several games, but they didn't lose the division; Adam Wainwright, David Freese, and the rest of Albert Pujols all contributed, but it's the 76-53 Brewers that have the most to do with it.
I haven't been satisfied with Tony La Russa's performance this year, or John Mozeliak's, but for me this isn't the kind of year that necessitates a braintrust transplant on its own merit. I'm more worried about next year.
The Albert Pujols question has combined with the team's win-while-the-Brewers-can't-lose transactions to make the 2012 Cardinals—let alone the team's plan for 2013 and beyond—almost entirely opaque. Matt Holliday will be around, and Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia. And Jake Westbrook.
But until the Pujols decision comes down from on high it's impossible to tell what standard I'll have to hold a returning Mozeliak/La Russa regime to. So here's two of them:
1. Pujols signs and the Cardinals commit to running an expensive, probably past-its-prime, but extremely threatening middle of the order out there for the foreseeable future. It becomes more difficult to win with this team (with its resources allocated properly) every year, so the Cardinals need to upgrade at starting pitcher and Theriot and everywhere else they're weak as soon as possible.
Some near-the-Majors position prospects would be helpful here, but Zack Cox at his best looks like a healthy version of David Freese and Matt Adams plays first base. By 2013 the Cardinals will begin to draw on their much-improved farm system, but the gap between the Skip Schumaker era and the Kolten Wong era will need to be filled with veterans—ideally several of them in the Lance Berkman mold available on one or two year deals.
If the Cardinals sign Pujols, sniff around, say, Rafael Furcal and Chris Carpenter in free agency, and throw their hands up—that's the moment Bill DeWitt should open DeFront Office and shake all the cruft out of it. That strategy will win 85 games indefinitely, but $100 million is a lot of money to spend on a team that will only reach the playoffs when all of its rivals top out at mediocre.
2. Pujols doesn't sign and the Cardinals are in a very strange position. They've got some great prospects, but most of them are high-ceiling, low-floor pitchers who won't be ready in 2012. They've got Matt Holliday locked up indefinitely, playing Scottie Pippen to nobody in particular. It seems perverse, but I bet Chris Carpenter is more likely to return to the Cardinals in this scenario than the first one.
The Cardinals are left with two options if Pujols doesn't sign. They can sign a big free agent and a sidekick (Jose Reyes and Carlos Pena, something like that) and replay the number-one scenario, or they can try to build a team that's average-with-upside everywhere and compete in a scrappy-go-getter, Twins kind of way until the farm system gains provide a new focal point.
The post-Pujols landscape is so nebulous that I'm not sure I could pass judgment on the braintrust immediately—except for letting one of the best baseball players ever leave as a free agent, that is. I just want to see a plan, anything to convince me after Rasmus that they've regained the ability to plan two years into the future.
Tyler Greene is now hitting .340/.425/.637 in Memphis, with 14 home runs and 15 stolen bases. Toss in his time in the Major Leagues and he's hitting .293/.373/.516.
If the Cardinals are just looking to get him everyday at-bats (at 28), I can think of a few places where he would fit nicely in their lineup.