The Cardinals gathered their equipment last night while the Red Sox sprayed each other with champagne, readying for a flight home that (one hopes) will go more smoothly, if less hopefully, than their last.
Even a few hours after a tough loss, it is hard to look back on the 2013 season as anything but a triumph for the Cardinals. After going soft in the middle of the summer, the Cardinals roared to the best record in the National League in September.
The most striking thing to me is the sustained success the Cardinals have had for three consecutive seasons. While it's no New York Yankees 1996-2000, we won the World Series in 2011, went to the NLCS in 2012, and went to the World Series in 2013. That's the best series of postseason runs from 2011-13 in baseball.
Don't let the loss last night make you forget that we are living in a truly exciting time in Cardinals history; put this together with another comparable run (at least in terms of postseason success) from 2004-06, and most readers at this blog have seen a run of success unparalleled since World War II. Four pennants and two rings in ten years is nothing to sniff at. The only better runs in Cardinals history would be the 1941-46 era (four pennants, three rings) and the 1926-1935 era (5 pennants, three rings).
The Whiteyball era yielded three pennants and one ring. The Gibson era brought us three pennants and two rings. Sticklers for history could, I suppose, count the St. Louis Browns in the American Association from 1885-1888 who appeared in four World Series, winning one and tying another (?). Perhaps someone can enlighten us about that long forgotten bit of history in the comments.
I don't think calling the Cardinals current run historic is any kind of hyperbole. Enjoy this while it lasts, because these sustained bouts of postseason success don't come regularly.
Acknowledging the unique run we have enjoyed and that caveat of success's impermanence, I will contradict myself a bit. The thing that makes last night's loss most palatable is the knowledge that, in the short term, we are likely to remain competitors for a long time to come. Maybe moreso than most years we have gone to the World Series, we have control over the core of this team for years to come.
Many of the essential players are very young and have years of club control remaining: Matt Carpenter, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, Kevin Siegrist, Joe Kelly, Seth Maness, John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Kolten Wong, and Michael Wacha are not going anywhere unless they are traded or nontendered. The older core of the club remains under long-term contract at least through 2016: Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, and (if he returns healthy) Jaime Garcia.
The club is left with only a handful of question marks after the season (albeit important ones).
In short order, we will see how the club plays out the Carlos Beltran scenario. Any qualifying offer must be made by Monday. I will leave the larger discussion of the Beltran contract for someone else to digest, but my best guess is that the club will give Beltran the qualifying offer, as well as a two-year offer at a lesser annual value. Two years at $18m or $20m seems like a decent settling point. Although Beltran could probably push the market for a slightly bigger deal, it can't escape his notice that the Cardinals finally got him to a World Series and seem as well poised as any NL team to take him back in 2014. Managing an increasingly hobbled Beltran will probably require more frequent rests and more appearances in right field by Oscar Taveras and Allen Craig.
I have trouble imagining the club not making a move to improve the shortstop position this offseason. Stephen Drew is a seemingly gettable shortstop free agent, and a number of clubs have shortstops that could move for a sizable bounty of prospects, which the Cardinals are very much positioned to provide.
I see that lots of commenters are very willing to say goodbye to Jon Jay and David Freese. Third base and center field are plausible places for improvement, but I suspect they are much lower priorities for the club. For one, both Jay and Freese are projected to regress to league average-ish performance. For another, the club could shift players around to relegate Jay and Freese to timeshares at their positions. A three-part time share of Kolten Wong, David Freese, and Matt Carpenter across second and third base would seem workable. Easing Jon Jay out of his starting role and easing Oscar Taveras into it could also work to the club's advantage. Especially if the club intends to trade Freese or reduce his playing time, it may also want to look at some sort of right-handed utility player; alternately, it could watch to see how Stephen Piscotty fares in Arizona and Memphis and consider him for a midseason callup.
Don't mistake these comments for an argument not to upgrade third base or center field. Those moves are definitely plausible, but they seem like secondary options. Deciding what to do about Beltran and shortstop are not optional; those moves are imperative.
The rest of the team requires very little sorting out. The club will have to make a couple of decisions about tendering or nontendering: Salas (non); Descalso (tender); Jay (tender). I don't think the club is likely to re-sign Mujica to any kind of contract. The club should probably make an effort to sign Axford to a contract in lieu of going to arbitration with him; otherwise, they could either let him walk, or put him through arbitration and then try to flip him to another team after he goes to arbitration. It doesn't make much sense to pay more than $3m or $4m to a guy who will probably compete with Seth Maness for a bullpen spot.
This team probably gets better just standing still, at least in terms of talent. Replace 19 Jake Westbrook starts with starts from the younger phenoms, and there's a couple wins. Remove some of the 2013 bullpen detritus; replace with more youngster innings. Add some playing time for Oscar Taveras and some regression upwards from Jay and Freese, and the 2014 team is at least as well positioned as the 2013 team without a single move from the club. Adding shortstop, or third base, or centerfield improvement would make the team a serious force to be reckoned with.
I would have much preferred a win last night, but I don't harbor a lot of regrets about the series. The series, and the postseason as a whole, was low-scoring (on both sides). The performances were not outstanding, but many of them were done under extreme duress. Beltran was swinging the bat with seriously bruised ribs. For the second year in a row, Allen Craig deserves some kind of medal for persevering with what must be an excruciating injury. While some of the games were sloppy and the overall offensive performance was lacking, I feel like the club really put its heart into the series. I don't think there's a serious attack to be made on the effort of the club in the postseason.
Some of the lack of run-scoring came from long-standing problems in the lineup. Some of the drought came from the Red Sox pitching. Some of it was just ordinary baseball weirdness. Over the series, the Cardinals and the Red Sox put basically the same number of runners on the bases; the Red Sox just drove in twice as many runs from the same number of base runners.
Mostly, I look back on the series and think that, in a match up of two really, really good teams, one team is going to lose. I'm not sure that there is any grand lesson for us in the Red Sox victory or the Cardinals loss. I think you could replay that series four more times with the same players and the Cardinals would probably win twice.
Let's congratulate the 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox on their well-deserved series win.
And let's look forward to the incredibly bright future of the 2014 Cardinals.