[This is our second piece from SB Nation's Designated Columnists. Today we've got Bill Parker, of The Platoon Advantage.]
Early yesterday, knowing I was going to be writing something about the Cardinals, I did something I do with different teams about three times a week. I spent some time tooling around Cardinals sites -- Viva El Birdos and the various other Cards blogs, the official team site, local news sites -- to make sure I was up to date, catch up on what's been going on with the team.
I'm going to tell you something you already know: there is nothing going on with this team. Don't get me wrong, the sites have good content, but it's in the nature of 2012 retrospectives and long-term speculation and predictions. There's no news, no serious rumors - today's story about a possible Adam Wainwright extension was the first peep in quite awhile, and that's hardly an urgent matter. It's not as though we have anything like perfect information, of course, but it appears as though people aren't saying anything because the front office isn't doing anything.
It makes some sense. Unless you count Lance Berkman -- without whom the 2012 squad did just fine -- the team's only noteworthy free agent is Kyle Lohse, and every baseball fan should probably be hoping that his or her team isn't the one making that four- or five-year mistake. They're already set at most positions, and this isn't the kind of offseason in which they're going to be looking to add a Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday. What's more, they've got two great prospects to reload with, in Shelby Miller and Oscar Taveras. It's not a team that needs to be scrambling to put something together..
On the other hand, though, I don't need to tell you how close this team came to a chance to defend its title in the Series, or that in falling short, some real weaknesses were exposed, and not weaknesses that Miller or Taveras (or Carlos Martinez or Matt Adams) can fill. The team is a bit of a contradiction -- it looks about as well set as any in the game, but those unfortunate last three games drew attention to at least a couple pointed weaknesses that should probably be addressed. So what to make of the (apparent) complacency?
I've been thinking about it, and I suspect it's a good thing. More often than not, what comes from acting right now is severely overpaying for questionable talent, like Brandon League or Ervin Santana.
Considering the Cardinals' particular needs (as I see them), acting too quickly seems like a particularly bad idea. I think those needs are twofold. First, this team has several second basemen, but none of them are good, and it has a good-but-injured shortstop in Rafael Furcal, but a probably-inadequate backup with a good 26 games (and nightmare postseason) in Pete Kozma; it could use a better second baseman, and ideally one who can slide to short effectively if Furcal continues to have injury issues, though there aren't many of those out there. Second, it could use one really good bullpen arm to shut down lefties; I've been a big fan of Marc Rzepczynski for a long time -- not only because I can spell his name without looking -- but there's no doubt he took a big step back last year, and that became a problem.
Both of these are exactly the kind of thing on which you don't want to act too quickly. The closest thing to a premier free agent second baseman right now is Marco Scutaro, and he's almost a lock to stay with the Giants. After him, you've got names like Kelly Johnson, Maicer Izturis, Jeff Keppinger, and Freddy Sanchez; not identical players by any means, and one or two of them would be more interesting than the others, but they're close enough that you don't want to be the team that signs one of them for $18 million over three years in November only to see the rest go for $5 million, one-year deals in February. The same concept applies more strongly to relief pitchers, where contract sizes seem to vary wildly and almost randomly, and of course their performances are almost as unpredictable thanks to the low sample size. There will be plenty of lefties who can get lefties out on the open market, and more on the trade market. Don't be the one who pays way, way too much for what turns out to be one of a dozen.
Beyond the cost certainty, the Cardinals are in a position to sit back and keep an eye on what the competition is doing. They're in a weak division, and while their position in the wild card race is weakened by not having the Astros to kick around anymore, they figure to be one of the two favorites to win the division in 2013, weaknesses and all. As things sit now, it probably doesn't matter how they fill those holes, so long as they're improvements on what they already have (which isn't hard to do); if the Reds or Brewers make some big surprising move, though, maybe you angle specifically for Keppinger (or Scutaro, on the off-chance he's available) and go after a real shut-down lefty like Jeremy Affeldt, or try to swing a trade for one like Darren Oliver (assuming he doesn't retire).
The kind of implosion the Cardinals suffered through in the NLCS would drive many front offices towards making rash, sweeping moves in the early part of the offseason, and one that I assume makes a lot of diehards wish they would (heck, I get pretty emotional about my team, and I imagine I'd be pretty frustrated with the appearance of total inactivity after being gut-punched the way they were). This is a team that knows what it's doing, though, and this is a time to play it safe. It's boring for fans and (especially) for bloggers and journalists, but the calm after the storm, if you will, is the right thing for the team right now.