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Where Do the Cardinals Stand?

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After failing to land either of the big fish they were at least theoretically pursuing this offseason, it may be time to ask if the Cardinals are in real trouble, both in terms of the team on the field and the perception of the club amongst the ticket-buying public.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

-George Orwell, "Animal Farm"

Coming into this offseason, I honestly felt this could be a transformative time for the Cardinals. This was the offseason, I believed, when opportunity, capability, and impending crisis would all combine to forge a new way forward for the club.

The opportunity? Two free agents on the market, both sans draft pick attachment that could harm the future, who represented core talent in its very purest form. Two players, one a pitcher, one an outfielder, who were honest to god cornerstones upon which a great team could be built. David Price was the pitcher, Jason Heyward the outfielder. We saw what the Redbirds accomplished with one season of Heyward; what could a decade of his consistently elite-level contributions do?

The capability came in the form of this peculiar place the Cardinals find themselves, in terms of possessing already a pipeline of young, meaningful talent that has done an admirable job of constructing perhaps not the backbone of a team, but perhaps the shell. Not the most important parts of a great team, the elite-level core parts, but the bulk of such a squad, in the form of numerous average-at-least players in the early, affordable stages of their respective careers. The capability also came in the form of the remarkable financial flexibility it would appear the franchise has at the moment; the combination of incredible profitability, a fanbase willing to support the club to an almost unbelievable degree, and an almost complete lack of long-term contractual obligations put the Redbirds in position to invest in the backbone of the team. To install the engine in the body already built, like Frankenstein placing a brain in his cobbled together masterwork, just waiting for a proper jolt to kickstart the system and create a miracle. Finding core talent is difficult; considering how rare it is to find that talent just laying around in the part of the draft the Cardinals usually call home, and the constant competitiveness that makes a selloff to grab a potential core player extremely unlikely, meaning that monetary investment was the most likely avenue for the Redbirds to find an engine for their kit car.

And the impending crisis? Why, the monstrous National League Central division, of course. More specifically, a Cubs club rounding into form as an elite team built on the backs of numerous high draft picks and a tanking strategy the Cardinals themselves will almost surely never employ, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have emerged from 20+ years of disaster a lean, dangerous machine, built on their own high draft picks and an analytically-minded front office unfettered by a dugout obstruction. Staying power could very well end up an issue for the Buccos, but the near-term future, at least, is incredibly bright. Holding serve in the NL Central, and not being forced to contend with the whole of the National League to scrape into the play-in game, was going to require the Cards to dig deep, to get creative and acknowledge that competing was going to get much more expensive very soon. There is also the fact the roster, at least the core of it, is aging as currently constructed. Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright are all on the downslopes of their respective careers, and that backbone is going to need to be replaced in the very near future.

So there was a need, in that the Cardinals were no longer the 600 pound red gorilla of the division anymore, an ability to be aggressive, thanks to a huge new television deal made possible by that incredible fan support and interest, and an opportunity -- two opportunities, actually -- to add the sort of player capable of transformational play over the next handful of years. Sure, Jason Heyward was technically already a part of the 2015 squad, so calling him transformational beyond what he already contributed feels a bit dishonest, but remember: the 2015 club he was such a huge part of was also a club still very much in the nascent stages of whatever it is going to be in the coming years. The all-around excellence of Heyward as the basis of a roster with multiple growing parts was pretty much the ideal scenario for a club looking at how to begin constructing their next run of greatness.

The talk coming in was all of financial flexibility, of payroll muscle, of a desire to go outside the comfort zone to nab elite talent, and of an expansion of scope, all in the service of remaining realistically atop (or at least near the top), the mountain upon which the Redbirds have lived for the past several years.

I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I believed the Cardinals had developed what they could, and would go out and get what they hadn't been able to develop. That they would extend themselves, utilise some of those vast resources they've been hoarding, in order to continue this run of success they've been on since roughly John Mozeliak's second year on the job.

And it appears, at least where we stand right now, that I was wrong.

This offseason has, to date, most definitely not been transformative. Or, perhaps it has been, in the sense the Cardinals are transforming into a much worse team, and seemingly a fringe contender, relatively quickly.

Rather than extend themselves beyond their comfort point in order to acquire those kinds of transormative players which are so incredibly difficult to find, the Cardinals remained disciplined. When the Boston Red Sox came along and blew the Cards' David Price pursuit out of the water, the Redbirds held back, maintaining that the rotation is not the greatest area of need, and watched what was, by far, the best investment on the market walk away. And then, in the course of their pursuit of Jason Heyward, the Cards failed to learn the lesson of the Red Sox. They refused to either get creative with the structure of their contract offer or bid right on past whatever difficulties there may be, and they ultimately whiffed on both of the truly transformative, core-level players which were on the market this year.

Worse still is the specific club the Cardinals lost Jason Heyward to; the team which began 2015 as pursuit and arguably ended the season in the catbird seat just took away six wins off the Redbird roster and added those wins to their own.

Of course, John Mozeliak and Company are spinning their failures to sign either player as the ultimate example of the discipline they've employed all along. Not so much a refusal to adapt, but a stubborn (in a good way), insistence on efficiency, and the perfect example of the discipline they've employed in the past. Personally, I think it's going to be awesome, watching the most efficient, disciplined, well-constructed third place team in all of baseball next year. Super stoked for that.

The question I find myself dwelling on at the moment is this: will it make any difference in the buy-in the club has managed to get from fans, these failures to invest? It's easy to say no, of course not, Cardinal fans are loyal to a fault, and Mo and Co. will find something to invest in, eventually; in the meantime, the fans will keep showing up to the games day after day.

I've heard some rumblings, though, from people who support the club, who go to tons of games, but are not the same sort of fans most of us here on this blog are, and those rumblings are a bit...dissatisfied. According to the best estimates we have (by which I mean the numbers Forbes came up with last year), the Cardinals are the single most profitable team in baseball, with a 2014 operating profit of something like ~$70 million. I'm sure the organisation would quibble with that figure -- after all, they have a vested interest in appearing much less profitable than they really are -- but it appears to be a fairly safe bet that this club is making money hand over fist, and has been for some time. That's on top of the fact that Bill DeWitt Jr.'s actual purchase price for the Cardinals in 1995 amounted to something like $50 million, and the most recent valuation of the club and its assets is $1.4 billion. That's billion with a B, and a return on investment of, oh, 25-30 times. Not percent.

Like it or not, those numbers are out there for Cardinal fans. And while plenty of the gas station-type fans are somewhat fuzzy on how the finances of a baseball team actually work, they are more than capable of seeing $70 million in one-year profits, seeing a Cardinal team with obvious needs and real competition coming up behind them for the first time in quite a while, and then seeing said Cardinal team fail to make any meaningful upgrades, and then formulating in their heads a fairly reasonable question about just how devoted to winning the organisation truly is.

One of my closest work friends is a man named Denny, who lives in Waterloo, Illinois. Denny is in his early 40s, has a wife and three kids, and spends hundreds of dollars every year on baseball tickets. He's not so much on the analytics, but played baseball all the way up through college, and understands the game on a pretty high level. He orders multi-game packages every single season, in addition to making multiple single-game purchases throughout the year. I follow the team more closely, probably, considering how much I watch, and how much I break down, but this is a man who pours dozens of times as much direct cash into the club's coffers as I do year after year.

Denny, after watching the Cardinals swing and miss at their targets this offseason, and completely without prompting from me in any way, shape, or form, has decided he isn't going to order any ticket packages this year. At least, for now.

I have no idea how meaningful this situation is; an algorithm with an n of 1 is not going to be very predictive whatsoever. And yet, it's the kind of sentiment I'm beginning to feel is percolating more and more throughout this insanely supportive fanbase. Maybe I'm wrong. But I don't think so.

And for the record, this isn't an individual refusing to order tickets; this is strictly a wait and see approach from an individual who has put his money where his mouth is every single year for as long as I've known him. I really do wonder if there are other fans out there who feel the same way; who want to see what the club is going to do with record profits and obvious needs, other than make unsuccessful attempts to play in the big leagues of the market.

In other words, I feel like there are people out there watching the Cardinals rake in record profits, refuse to do what needs to be done to reinvest those profits in maintaining their position at the top, and are starting to get really, really pissed off.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and the fanbase as a whole is happy to continue lining the pockets of Cardinal ownership with their entertainment dollars. And really, there are still things the Redbirds could do to improve, even if the two best opportunities on the market have passed them by with nary a wave, so maybe it gets better soon. But as it stands now, this looks to me like a roster which will struggle to make the playoffs over the Pirates and Cubs in-division, and may or may not have the firepower to outrun what has to be a better Washington Nationals club in the East, a Mets team which returns all its starters, and a suddenly-improving NL West.

There were transformative moves the Cardinals could have made this offseason, and they didn't make them, preferring instead to maintain an admirable level of discipline in the face of an increasingly hostile landscape. Discipline and efficiency are cold comfort, however, in the face of a potential third-place finish and no October baseball. And if that particular scenario does, indeed, come to pass, I honestly think this franchise could be facing an out and out fan revolt. This club has enjoyed an almost unprecedented level of support from an insanely loyal fanbase; with that level of support comes an expectation of stewardship, and an expectation that at some point the club will spend some of that giant war chest they've been saving up to actually improve when needed. If that trust is betrayed, I shudder to think of what the response is going to be.

Of course, that puts us, the long-term view fans, in the unenviable position of hoping the Cardinals' front office does not make bad moves just because it feels like some sort of move is absolutely necessary. Doing nothing, and heading into the 2016 season with the roster they currently have and a plethora of draft picks, almost feels preferable to me at this point then sacrificing one or multiple picks to sign mediocre upgrades that won't net anywhere near the bang for the buck the Cards could have gotten from the elite, if also far more expensive, options they didn't pony up for.

Then again, that might also just be because I write about the draft, and extra picks directly benefit my work. So, you know, moral hazard and all that.

There were transformative moves the Cardinals could have made this offseason, and they failed to make any. Instead, it's been another tease by this club, a promise of playing in the deep end of the pool, only to see them act more like the small-market team they are not, paying lip service more than taking action.

I have to say, I don't blame anyone for whatever level of anger they might be feeling. I'm not too very happy myself. And I really do wonder where the team goes from here. Next year's free agent crop might as well not exist, and the trade market appears to have gone completely crazy, unless you're dealing with Arizona, in which case you might as well be running a Savings and Loan in 1985. There is reason to believe things are not going to be getting better, unfortunately, which is basically 180 degrees from where we were when this offseason began.

It seems strange to feel things are so dark, considering this is a club coming of a 100 win season. And yet, here we are. The hell of it is, I can't really even say I disagree. This club feels like it's in real trouble, absent further moves we don't yet see coming.

One thing I do know: I'm going to be watching, very closely, to see what the early ticket sales numbers look like. And I'll bet the organisation will be, too.