In Season 3/Episode 3 ("Dead Soldiers") of The Wire, drug kingpin Stringer Bell chastises soldiers in the Barksdale crew for failing to bring in business above the status quo. Too many "40-degree days," he tells them. You can find the exact quote here but I'll paraphrase for clarity and PG purposes: People (through the lens of Baltimore denizens) will complain when the weather is in the 30s or below. Rise above 50 and everyone is happy. But no one remembers an unremarkable 40-degree day all that much.
The Cardinals offseason has been like a 40-degree day. Hardly a disaster but no one's barbecuing in celebration either. Earlier today David Cameron of FanGraphs wrote about the ten best transactions of the offseason, including eight honorable mentions. The Cardinals don't appear once whereas the Cubs, to the shock of no one, come off as big winners. The Cardinals are ranked 13th in preseason rankings in Jonah Keri's first edition of The 30 for Sports Illustrated. Other than the loss of Jason Heyward, Keri doesn't directly address the Cardinals' activity this offseason, but since this is the team that had the best record in baseball last year the #13 ranking says enough. But the Cardinals aren't an offseason punching bag either - they're not the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Mike Leake signing wasn't the big splash everyone wanted when the Hot Stove season was in full gear but it was certainly reasonable, especially if he's able to eat innings and mitigate this year's loss of Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery
So it came as a surprise last Friday when Cliff Corcoran of SI.com graded the Cardinals offseason an A. Concluding, Corcoran wrote:
The Cardinals' farm has been so productive that St. Louis almost seems to be playing a different game than the rest of the league in terms of roster construction. It feels unfair, but it's very much the result of hard work by the same front office that would otherwise have to be more aggressive over the winter. I'm not grading the productivity of the farm system here, only the Cardinals' effectiveness in fleshing out their roster for another competitive season. There are no deductions or extra credit for the fact that they had less work to do because of the talent coming up from within. Nonetheless, the willingness and ability to trust that talent made things easy for general manager John Mozeliak and company, who once again aced the off-season.
It's true. Most teams aren't lucky enough to lose a player of Heyward's caliber and have the in-house options the Cardinals do to solidify the outfield without having to wade into the expensive free agency pool. That's not to say it would have been a mistake to sign a Justin Upton, but it sure is nice having a 25-year old who had a 133 wRC+ in 256 plate appearances in 2015 (that would be Stephen Piscotty) waiting in the wings if you don't. And as Corcoran acknowledges, losing John Lackey is acceptable when his production can be being replaced with a full season of Adam Wainwright.
Corcoran is basically saying the Cardinals get an A because they had already put themselves in a position to barely have to do anything at all. And that's a fine point but his overall assessment is still wrong. You can't ace the offseason when you publicly whiff on the two elite free agents that you so clearly coveted.
Tim McKernan of InsideSTL.com met with Chairman Bill DeWitt, Jr. today at spring training and discussed losing out on Heyward and David Price.
From Bill DeWitt: We really went after Price, and he wanted to be a Cardinal. But the Red Sox went all-in, and that was the difference.— Tim McKernan (@tmckernan) February 15, 2016
Frm DeWitt: It was a more of a surprise to lose Heyward, b/c I can't recall the last time we made a significant offer to keep 1 and lost out— Tim McKernan (@tmckernan) February 15, 2016
The Cardinals went hard after Price and lost out to a team willing to go much harder. Perhaps learning their lesson, they made a comparable top-dollar offer to Heyward and still lost. So it goes with the inherent risks of free agency. John Mozeliak probably wishes he could now take back the infamous "flexing payroll muscle" quote, not because it wasn't true but because a lot of people assumed he'd be exercising it no matter the circumstances. To Mozeliak's credit, he didn't panic to placate the fanbase after failing to land Price or Heyward and as we stand today, USA Today is somehow still picking the Cardinals to win 97 games.
Will Leitch was Derrick Goold's guest on an excellent episode of the Best Podcast in Baseball last week and was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Corcoran and, I assume, USA Today. While talking more broadly about the calamity of losing to the Cubs in the '15 NLDS, combined with the defection of Heyward and Lackey to the North Siders and the possible punishment from the hacking scandal looming overhead, Leitch more or less called the offseason a disaster. Without generalizing Leitch's viewpoint too much, that assessment is a bit off, too - a 40-degree day is not a disaster - but this outlook seems closer to the mark and probably resonated better with the fanbase than Corcoran's.
Someone has to be right and with results often come validation. If Randal Grichuk, Piscotty, Leake, et al perform above projections, a 40-degree day might be enough to win a whole lot of games in 2016. With the juggernaut the Cubs have built, a Plan B offseason resulting in another NL Central title really would be Mozeliak and DeWitt's magnum opus. If the Cardinals instead lag behind in 2016, this offseason could be looked at as the pivotal moment the Cardinals surrendered NL Central dominance to their division rivals.