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The Coming Arms Race

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The National League Central in 2017 will have a completely new dynamic, whatever happens in game seven tonight.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Nothing like a game seven, eh?

While I was, admittedly, rooting for the Cleveland Indians in last night’s game, so as to simply end this run by my ancestral enemy, I must also admit there is some attraction to the fact we now get a game seven. There is nothing else in the sporting world quite like a game seven, really; there is something about the very definitiveness of the experience, the fact that the previous six months of living and dying nightly, and the accumulated petty hatreds of the previous six games, all come to rest on the finest razor’s edge, ready to fall either way with the slightest provocation, that embodies the very best baseball has to offer. The season is so long, and the attachment so gradual, that when it all comes down to one single moment, the result is almost unbearably intense.

But really, I’m not here to talk about game seven tonight, or the World Series in general. However, the fact that by tomorrow morning we will have our answer as to where the Chicago Cubs will be heading into 2017 (barring weather-related issues, of course), makes for an intriguing backdrop to talk about where the Cardinals will be.

When the 2017 season dawns, the Chicago Cubs will either be defending their first world championship in over a century, determined to prove it wasn’t a fluke, and trying to consolidate their dominance over the NL Central, or chasing that elusive title they came within one win of capturing. If they’re chasing still, they may be even hungrier, more determined to finish the job, like the San Antonio Spurs of 2014 avenging their seventh game defeat of the year before. Then again, history also tells us that there is a substantial World Series hangover effect, largely due to the simple fact that the Cubs and Indians will play their final game of the season tonight, a full month after two-thirds of the league finished up their own seasons. Even with off days scheduled left and right throughout October, that last month of grinding seems to take a real toll on the clubs that do it. Not always, of course; just often.

Regardless of the exact goal the Cubs have for 2017, and the exact state of readiness in which they begin the season, it seems fairly clear they are not going away anytime soon. They have a young nucleus of talent that’s the envy of all baseball, with dual MVP candidates in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, possibly the best second tier of position players in the game, and more on the way. Think they shortened their window substantially by dealing Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman? Well, watch out, because they have Eloy Jimenez, just as impressive a young Latin talent, coming up anyway. Sure, he doesn’t play the same position, but look at it this way: Jimenez will be replacing (most likely), the fairly disappointing Jorge Soler. Torres, on the other hand, would come up either displacing Addison Russell, or overriding Ian Happ, who just came off putting up a 147 wRC+ in High A and a 111 mark in Double A in his age-21 season.

In other words, the pipeline the Cubs built through their massive tank job/construction project is nowhere near dry yet.

And that’s really the context we have to consider as we look toward what the Cardinals will do in the next couple years. Sure, they could simply concede the division to the Cubs, and go sniffing around for the table scrap of the wild card, but I’m somewhat doubtful the Redbirds are going to be comfortable doing that. I don’t think this front office and ownership group particularly cares for also-ran status, and even if I didn’t believe they dislike it, the very real dips we saw in attendance toward the end of this past season would suggest to me that the fanbase expects more than finishing nearly 20 games back of the club’s most historic rival. I know, election season and all that, but the fact remains the Cardinals were still in line for a potential game 163 berth on the last game of the season, and there were noticeably more fans dressed as seats down the stretch than we normally see here.

All of which leads me to believe that there is a very real possibility we see an authentic, knock down, drag out arms race in the next few years between the Cardinals and Cubs. And if we don’t see one, then the Redbirds have, in fact, simply conceded, because as currently constructed this roster simply isn’t strong enough to go toe to toe with Chicago’s assortment of talent.

Honestly, though, I don’t have any real worries about the Cardinals simply conceding, and settling for second place without a fight. Now, they may very well need to reconsider what it means finishing second in negotiations if they don’t like finishing second in the standings, but I’m not going to equate a slightly too conservative approach with a lack of commitment to winning.

What is interesting is that if the Cardinals and Cubs do, in fact, end up engaging in an arms race of some sort, it will be the first of its kind in the National League, at least that I can recall.

A decade and a half ago, the Yankees and Red Sox began engaging in the most well-known arms race in recent baseball history, as baseball’s most famous rivalry heated up to previously unseen levels. There was a rapid escalation of payrolls, huge pushes by both clubs to build not just competitive, but dominant rosters, and a run of epic playoff clashes. The Yankees were dominant in the early part of the arms race, but Boston eventually took over as the greater power, winning a trio of championships once they ended their own long drought.

It was, like it or not, one of the more compelling storylines baseball has seen in a very long time. Call it media hype or East Coast bias or whatever you want, but Yankees/Red Sox in the mid-2000s was much-watch television, even if must-watch meant you had to watch a four hour pitch-taking exhibition.

There was an interesting effect throughout the AL, as well. Plenty of analysts and pundits since that time have theorised that it was the dominance of just a couple teams looming over the rest of the junior circuit that indirectly led to the AL beating up on NL teams in interleague play and the All-Star games since that Northeast Corridor arms race began. Any club wanting to have a chance in the American League had a very clear bar they knew they had to clear, and it was the pair of behemoths slugging it out atop the AL East. Clubs had to work harder to try and catch up, and the overall quality of the league improved as a result. Do I personally buy that theory? To an extent, yes.

Over in the National League, there has been no such striving between a pair of clubs, or even a small group. One might have expected such a thing to happen in the NL East, but Nationals’ run of greatness just missed out on the Phillies’ season in the sun, and while the Mets would seem to be an excellent candidate to play foil, they’re saddled with the Wilpons as owners, and only became relevant when a new Generation K came along. (And now it appears new Generation K might not last much longer than original Generation K, considering how the health question has gone for the Mets’ starters recently.) When the Braves were dominating the East for a decade and a half, the rest of the division was, mostly, a mess. The Expos were irrelevant (thinks of ‘94, sighs heavily), the Phillies were usually crap, the Marlins did win two titles but were a running joke the rest of the time due to Jeffrey Loria’s antics, and the Mets made some valiant efforts, but usually fell just a little short.

Out West, we’ve nearly gotten a proper arms race between the Dodgers and Giants, with the Giants piling up titles and the Dodgers piling up stacks of cash to try and manually climb to the mountaintop, but as much as it seemed the historic rivals of the West Coast were going to go at it in a concerted way, it just never really happened. Or hasn’t yet, anyway. The Dodgers are spending tons of money, sure, but they’re doing it in odd ways, rather than simply trying to build a superteam (though admittedly it did look like LA was going for that when they made the initial trade with the Red Sox that kicked off the new era of Dodgers baseball), and the Giants have largely just plodded along their own way, fielding solid but unspectacular teams that seem to overachieve in the playoffs every other year. And if we’re not going to get the game of oneupsmanship from the Dodgers and Giants we might be hoping for, it’s not going to happen elsewhere in the NL West. Let’s face it: the rest of that division is just a disaster.

And as for the Central, well, the Cardinals have more or less owned the NL Central for the last decade and a half. The Astros had a nice run of teams in the late 90s, and then again in the middle of the decade, but that was a franchise hindered by some very poor fundamentals at the strategic level, way up high in the organisation, that basically doomed them to a shorter shelf life than that 2004-2005 Houston team deserved.

The Cubs were good in 2003 under Dusty Baker, and good in 2007-2008 under Lou Pinella. They also had some truly horrific years in between those clubs. The Reds took a turn at the top while the Redbirds reloaded after the 2000-2006 run, and the Brewers even snuck up to the top for a brief moment, but neither of those clubs had real staying power. Milwaukee punches above its weight for the size of its market — a little like the Cardinals, actually — but the organisation is probably handicapped enough that it’s going to be closer to the cyclical model of franchise construction that a continuous, sustained run of dominance.

For the most part, though, it’s been the Cardinals’ division for most of the time the NL Central has existed. The Reds have won the division three times. The Cubs have won it four times. The Astros won three in a row from ‘97-’99, and then again in 2001, in the slightly disputed Central race which saw the ‘Stros and Cardinals finish with identical records, but the Astros beat El Birdos head-to-head that season, and so were declared division winners, while the Cards got the Wild Card. The Brewers won a single division title in 2011, which I’m sure we all remember, and the Pirates, despite their recent run of very good teams, have never won a Central division title.

The Cardinals have won the NL Central ten times. That’s twice more than the rest of the current division members combined.

And in all that time, the Redbirds have never faced anything like this current Cubs team. The Astros of the late 90s were closest, but at no point were they set up for the long term like these Cubbies.

In other words, for the first time since ascending to prominence with the coming of Jim Edmonds (among other things), in 2000, the Cardinals are facing a foe who looks to be legitimately just flat out better than them, and not just in a, “Oh, they had a great season this year, sure, but A, B, and C won’t go right again, and the Cards’ roster is stronger on the whole,” sort of way. The Cubs are better than the Cardinals right now, by a substantial amount, and they look to be better for the next three to five years, too.

So now the Cardinals are going to have to chase, and we’re going to see just how smart this group of decision-makers really is. Personally, I still think they’re really, really smart, in spite of my disappointment with how certain things have gone the past couple offseasons, and I think there’s a chance we really will get the flyover states version of the Yanks-Sawx arms race.

What I’m really interested in is if there will be any kind of rising tide effect if that does, in fact, come to pass. You look at the rest of the division, and the Pirates still have a solid young core of talent, but need some minor revamping. Cincinnati is pointed in the right direction, but they got a late start on their rebuild, and it hasn’t gone all that smoothly since they got started. Milwaukee looks to be building a very solid base of talent, but I wonder if their next window won’t be subject to sudden closing due to the same sorts of forces that slammed the last one shut prematurely.

There are potential challengers to the Cards and Cubs, but make no mistake: like the Cold War of my youth, the NL Central looks like a two superpower world going forward. And if the Cubs and Cardinals dominate the top two spots in the division, pulling two playoff berths every year into the Central, do teams in the other divisions find themselves forced to build bigger, and stronger, and better to try and make it into the tournament? And heaven forbid we get another situation like the NL Central of 2015, when there were three 95+ win teams in the division, and only one in all the rest of baseball.

Then again, perhaps the second wild card just generally reduces the barrier to entry for the postseason to such an extent that clubs will not feel the need to keep up with the Joneses, and will be content to simply build 85 win teams ad infinitum, hoping for that lucky roll of the dice that turns their 84-78 Pythagorean club into 90-72 wild card hosts and eventual world champions. I suppose that’s the dream, after all; perpetual competitiveness in the most mundane way possible.

Personally, I’m hoping we get the arms race the National League has not had in my lifetime. It felt like the Nationals were attempting to throw down the gauntlet of superteamdom when they signed Max Scherzer prior to the 2015 season, but that didn’t quite work out the way they had planned, for a variety of reasons. But for the first time that I can remember, we have a pair of bona fide rivals, in the same division, fighting for the same crown, and both with the resources to take on the other on a titanic scale.

I kind of hope it happens, regardless of whether it’s the Cardinals chasing the defending champions in 2017, or the Cubs talking about Unfinished Business and still sounding like the little brothers of the NL Central.