In Howard Megdal's excellent book, The Cardinal Way, Bill DeWitt, Jr. is one of the absolute heroes. From the time his ownership group purchased the team in 1995, they made a series of smart hires and innovations that have made the Cardinals the most successful team in baseball in the last 20 years.
DeWitt's bold vision for the team was especially evident in his hiring of Jeff Luhnow, the subsequent revamping of the team's statistical and player development departments, and ultimately in DeWitt's decision to fire a GM with the track record of Walt Jocketty when it became clear Jocketty's skill set was not in-line with the new vision for the ballclub.
That kind of innovation has been less apparent over the last five years, a fact that hit me especially hard during the last couple weeks, when the two biggest press releases out of Busch Stadium were a contract extension for Mike Matheny and Ballpark Village Phase Two.
The Matheny thing is most frustrating in the context of previous personnel moves like hiring Luhnow and moving-on from Jocketty to Mozeliak. In those instances, the team had an eye out for how the game was changing, and as a result they got out ahead of the industry.
Since the moment Matheny was hired, the Cardinals Brass has warned us that he would face a learning curve as he got up to speed as an on-field tactician. Why on earth would this organization, previously so savvy and aggressive with its personnel moves, settle for a novice manager?
The Cardinals have treated Mike Matheny like the ne'er-do-well son who is given a high position in his family business after a decade in the wilderness. Everyone is asked to be patient while Junior learns the ropes. After five seasons of Mike Matheny as manager, it feels like we are still in that same position.
The Ballpark Village thing is a little more complicated. I'm not a resident, so as to whether or not BPV2 is a good thing for downtown St. Louis... I'll leave that to others. But it is a reminder that the owner's priorities are not just winning championships. While the dominant narrative of The DeWitt Years has been "native son returns to restore legacy of iconic ball club," it's also possible to frame the story as "Cincinnati investor manages popular St. Louis attraction."
Both of those narratives are true, and that's fine. As fans, we'd prefer to see our billionaire owners devote all of their resources into our beloved sports franchises. As grown up adult people, we understand these are executives managing a very valuable investment. I don't know about you, but I never feel like more of a serf than when I wish for the benevolent owner to bestow my team with just a bit more cash to bolster the bullpen.
Still, if you asked me what was this ownership group's top priority, improving the product on the field or real estate development, my answer from 2012 to today would be different than it was from 1995-2011. During that time, these owners set an incredibly high standard. Maybe they are still driven by the same principles, but to my eye, the last five years look more like treading water than moving forward.
In the wake of the Cubs horrific World Series victory, several national writers dreamed of a Cubs/Cardinals rivalry and arms race to rival the Yankees/Red Sox battles of the early 00's. I would love to see that, but I doubt this ownership will spend the cash to make it happen.
Now in fairness, the Cubs resources dwarf the Cardinals. While they rank a seemingly close 5th and 7th in terms of franchise value, the Cubs at $2.2 billion tower over the Redbirds at $1.6 billion.
Without dipping too low into the sports talk radio "open DeWallet" takes (hopefully), one resource the Cardinals have been particularly reluctant to devote to improving the team is money.
Correction: An earlier version suggested the Cardinals team payroll had only increased by $10 million since 2012 and had decreased slightly in 2016. Those numbers were incorrect. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, their Opening Day salary for 2016 was $145.5 million. In raw dollars, that is in-line with the average MLB team increase over that period of $38 million, though on a percentage basis, the Cardinals 30% salary increase over that time is slightly lower than the average increase of 41%.
Whatever the payroll he's given to work with, John Mozeliak continues to manage it with ruthless efficiency. And yes, the team has made the playoffs four of the last five years, and yes, many of the big dollar free agents they "just missed" have gone on to be busts, but efficiency can only get you so far before you have to put additional resources into the system if you want to stay on top.
After a decade and a half of innovation, this organization has been complacent for the last five. For most of that time, that was still enough to stay on top. But it is not anymore.