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How Did We Get Here? (Part 2)

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This is not a short story, no matter what I might promise.

St Louis Cardinals Introduce Mike Matheny As New Manager Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

On Sunday, I wrote a piece in which I eschewed my customary level of season-ending sentimentality, and attempted a proper post mortem analysis of what went wrong in 2017, and how the Cardinals found themselves on the outside looking in for the second season in a row. Maybe you think I did a good job, maybe you think the column was poorly executed. I think, for my part, I said most if not all of what I wanted to say there. What happened in 2017, the how we got here of how did we get here, is on the page, I believe.

Now I want to take a little longer view.

I will try to make this a short story; after all, we’ve got all offseason to talk about the Cardinals and the things they will do and the things they have done and the things they have not done and all the things we wish they would do. The things they should do, and should not do, and the things, the things, the things. We’ve got all night, sweetheart, so please don’t make me take my time.

But yes, I will try to make this story short.

So for this story, we will go back a ways. Back to 2011, specifically. Why? Because 2011 was the year the Cardinals entered a new era of their history, germane to this story. The Redbirds won the World Series in 2011, and then the world sort of exploded. Tony LaRussa retired, and Albert Pujols headed for the coast. The two most important figures of the 2000s in Cardinal baseball left following the franchise’s eleventh world title.

A quick digression to justify saying those two were the two most important figures of the 2000s. I’m sure some are thinking, “What about Yadi? He’s been the catcher who has defined this era of Cardinal baseball more than anybody,” and that’s true. But Yadi didn’t come along until 2004, and didn’t take over full-time duties until 2005. There was a whole lot of success and drama that took place between 2000 and 2003, which Yadier Molina had zero part in.

Jim Edmonds was the player who truly kicked off the Cards’ decade of dominance; his arrival in 2000, along with the pitching duo of Daryl Kile and Matt Morris forming up to create a dynamic front of the rotation, was really the bellwether for the Redbirds’ success. But Jimmy Baseball, as much as he was my personal favourite player of that era, was done as a productive member of the Cardinals by ‘06. He was one of the holy triumvirate of the MV3, then went up against the center field wall in Chicago one fateful day in 2006, landed awkwardly, and hit his head. Concussions are bad news, and the Jim Edmonds we had known on the baseball field was gone, at least from the Cardinals. Jimmy would be traded for David Freese, whose own place in Cardinal history could help bolster Edmonds’s case for defining player status, but the fact he was gone by the time the Mozeliak rebuild began to bear fruit knocks him down one notch, I think.

Adam Wainwright didn’t arrive until ‘06 as a meaningful force; he’s obviously part of the story of the 2000s, but really straddles two decades. Scott Rolen was a comet shooting across the firmament; it’s almost impossible to remember that Rolen was only a Cardinal for a little more than five seasons, and missed two-thirds of one of them. Rick Ankiel, I suppose, one could make an argument for as a defining player of the decade, as his story spanned the 2000s almost perfectly, and his arrival, dominance, and collapse created ripples that ended up affecting everything the Cards did in the following years. If Ankiel doesn’t get the yips, there’s no Mark Mulder trade, and the Cards have Chris Carpenter, Rick Ankiel, and Dan Haren throwing in their primes all at once. But still, no. We should not define eras by absence, by opportunities missed.

Carpenter himself probably has the strongest case of any non-Albert player as the defining force of the 2000s. He won the only Cy Young award of the decade for the Redbirds, pitched them to a championship in 2006, and came back from a second major arm surgery in 2008 to dominate again. But again, Carp was signed prior to the ‘03 season, rehabbed a full year following shoulder surgery, and emerged in a larval form in 2004. Chris Carpenter in ‘04 was still a caterpillar; Chris Carpenter in 2005 was a motherfucking monarch. Still, those years from 2000 to ‘03 defeat him.

No, the two forces who truly defined Cardinal baseball, and Cardinal success, in the 2000s were LaRussa, who was there before the millennium turned over, and stayed through the 2011 championship, and Pujols, who missed the first year of the run, admittedly, but served as essentially a nitrous tank for the Redbirds’ rise. He was the greatest player of the decade, the centerpiece around which everything was designed to work, and the bulwark against irrelevance that allowed a quick turnaround when the organisation decided to change course in the middle of the decade, moving toward an internal development model that ultimately created the team that would inherit the wind when Albert’s path led to California.

And so, tangent over, we find ourselves in 2011, with a fresh championship trophy sitting in the trophy case, and the two defining forces of the franchise choosing to move on. Albert to the West Coast, Tony to semi-retirement, at least for a little while. The best hitter in recent franchise history is leaving, and the organisation must find a new captain for the ship. For the captain part, they tab Mike Matheny, the former catcher turned Little League coach turned Little League manifesto composer turned major league manager, apparently, and now that I say it yes, it does sound crazy.

But anyhow, tangent resolved, we must embark on another before I can get to this story proper. Actually, this isn’t really a tangent, but it is a point that will not be important for a little while still. Now, though, is the time to bring it in, even though we won’t need it again for a bit.

A few years back, in the 2014-2015 offseason, a pitcher from Chesterfield was on the free agent market. His name is Max Scherzer, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he was from right here in St. Louis. By pretty much all accounts, Scherzer had a pretty serious jones to pitch for the Cardinals, but it didn’t happen. The Cardinals, in fact, seemed to show very little interest at all in Max, which seemed strange to me at the time, and seems completely incomprehensible now. Here was a top five pitcher in the game, who apparently wanted to come home, and the organisation just...didn’t want him.

Ben Humphrey, the site manager at the time, was hosting the VEB podcast, and that offseason he and I recorded several times together. In one particular show, he and I debated the relative merits of Scherzer vs Jon Lester, who was the other big free agent pitcher of that offseason. Ben liked Lester, I liked Scherzer, and seeing as how both guys have been more or less awesome since then it’s probably safe to say signing either would have worked out well. Which free agent hurler we each preferred was not the only question on the table, though; there was also the issue of Carlos Martinez, whose time had seemingly come to step into the rotation.

At one point during the podcast, Ben asked me point blank if I would be willing to sign Scherzer and relegate Carlos to the ‘pen for another year, to which I eventually replied, after some hemming and hawing, that yes, I would. However, my plan at the time, in as much as we can talk about plans for people who are really just imagining things and then telling other people about the thing they thought of the other day, was to sign Scherzer, slide Martinez into the rotation anyway, and then trade Lance Lynn. Lynn had three years of club control left at the time, was coming off arguably his best season, and I felt his value would never be higher. For the record, I wasn’t really predicting injury; I just thought Lynn had reached his personal ceiling in 2014, and there was a chance to upgrade that rotation spot, flip the guy coming off a career year for huge value, and still open up the opportunity for the phenom.

I’m rehashing this bit of personal history not to once again tell everyone how smart I am; I happen to think it was a very good idea, and a very good plan, but it’s not as if I was the only person in the world to think of it. Rather, I bring it up for a bit of context, and to point out that what I was doing, advocating to sign an extremely expensive pitcher while trading a very predictable asset to open a spot for a relative unknown, is exactly the kind of thing amateurs on the outside, with no real skin in the game, can talk about with impunity. Now, would the Cardinals have been better had they done what I was suggesting? Oh, absolutely. But it’s easy to see why they didn’t. There are real-world consequences when you have to actually make the signing, and pay the player, and take the risk the Dominican kid with the monster talent actually develops.

Still, at the time it seemed like a unique opportunity to me. Top five pitchers who also just happened to grow up a half hour from your stadium don’t come along all that often. David Price made a ton of sense the next offseason, but Scherzer wanted to be here, and the deal he ended up signing with Washington was structured in a much more team-friendly way than it might have initially appeared, and considering he’s been worth something like 21 wins above replacement in the first three years of said contract, he’s already more or less earned the full value stated, even if we pretend it was really worth $210 million and not something significantly less because of the deferred money.

In other words, the idea of signing Scherzer at the time seemed so simple, and such a unique situation for the Cardinals, that it felt incomprehensible they would have no interest in doing it.

Now that our second tangent/future callback is out of the way, let’s get to the story.

It’s 2011, and Mike Matheny is the new manager of the Cardinals. Albert Pujols has just left, and his wife has pissed off a bunch of people on their way out of town. The Oh Yeah! energy drink billboard I pass on my way to work still has Albert on it, but won’t for much longer; within about a month it will be promoting a nearby veterinary hospital. It was perhaps the only time in my life I’ve ever been really fascinated by a billboard, waiting to see how long an advertisement with a virtual pariah would stay up.

So here we are in 2011, and Albert is gone. Something should be done. And something was done.

The Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran shortly after Pujols signed with the Angels; the former Met, former Astro, and former Royal inked a two-year deal with the Cardinals a few days before Christmas of 2011. No single player was going to be able to replicate the offense Albert was taking with him out west, but Beltran was a very good start. Lance Berkman, fresh off his 2011 renaissance (and, sadly, last hurrah), would move to first base, taking Pujols’s spot in the field. Between Berkman and Beltran, the Cardinals were hoping to squeeze out a little more of that old Killer B’s magic. Albert wouldn’t be replaced easily, but Beltran was the best attempt to fill that sudden need you were likely to find on the market.

It worked out remarkably well, too; Beltran played two seasons with the Cardinals, stayed mostly healthy, and put up about five and half wins’ worth of value over that time. The Redbirds and their fans had long been enamoured with Beltran; when he finally got here to St. Louis is was almost as good as we had hoped it would be.

The signing was also a brilliant, surgical strike to bring in a bat to try and fill a hole. As I said, no one player was going to replace Pujols’s production, but in grabbing one of the best free agent bats on the market the front office brought in exactly what they needed to try and fit that need.

Onward to 2012. The Cardinals saw their season end a bit earlier, losing out in the NLCS to the hated Giants, who just couldn’t stop ruining our fun in those years. Kyle Lohse put together a career year in 2012, and was the ace of the staff. Wainwright returned from Tommy John surgery and had an up and down year. On the offensive side, the bad news was that Lance Berkman did not stay healthy, and 2011 really did prove to be his last great year. I will personally never forgive Berkman for stances and comments he would later take and make, but I will also never lie and say I didn’t love watching him play in a Cardinal uniform. He played one more season with the Rangers, but was a shadow of his former self. The good news was that it didn’t really matter that Berkman contributed little to the 2012 Cardinals, as Allen Craig took over as the more or less full time first baseman and put up a 137 OPS+. David Freese had a career year. Beltran posted a 128 OPS+. Yadier Molina emerged as an MVP candidate. Matt Holliday was the club’s best hitter, barely edging out Craig and Molina’s twin 137 marks with his own 138 OPS+. The Cardinals that year had five hitters — Freese, Craig, Beltran, Yadi, and Holliday — who put up OPS+ figures of 128 or better. Oh, and Pete Kozma put up a 157 OPS+ in 82 plate appearances. So, you know.

There were no major moves made in the offseason from 2012 to ‘13. The ‘12 squad felt a bit like a one-off, with so many players leaving afterward, and it proved to be a bit of a transition or bridge season to 2013, when the Cards boasted the best farm system in baseball, and began graduating a wave of talent to the majors in earnest.

So we move to 2013, and the Cards went back to the World Series. Beltran finally got to play in a fall classic, even if he had to leave after just two innings due to sacrificing his ribs to save a grand slam off David Ortiz’s bat. (It’s really a shame the Cardinals lost that series, and so that play has been almost entirely forgotten.)

The real upgrade to the 2013 club came in the form of Matt Carpenter moving from utility man to everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter extraordinaire. Waino returned fully to pre-surgery form and was awesome. Beltran looked old and slow, but still hit magnificently. Shelby Miller was really good. Michael Wacha came up late in the year and looked like a future legend. Lance Lynn was really good. The pitching, in general, looked like the strength of the club for years to come.

There was really only problem. Thing is, though, it was a doozy. Pete Kozma, who put up a 157 OPS+ in late 2012, did not do that in 2013. He was a good defender at short, but his bat was...painful. A .548 OPS and 53 OPS+ forced the Cardinals to make a move, lest they suffer another replacement level season at shortstop. It’s not often you see a World Series team with a literal replacement level player in a starting role, but the Cardinals managed it with Kozma.

And so, in the offseason of 2013-2014, the Cardinals made a move. That move was Jhonny Peralta, the top free agent shortstop on the market, who they signed to a four year, $53 million contract. The move was made extremely early in the offseason, before Thanksgiving, and represented a perfectly placed, surgical strike to address the club’s biggest need. (Sound familiar?) The Cardinals of 2013 had one huge issue, and they made one major pickup in the offseason to address it. The fit was perfect, and the Redbirds went from replacement level production from shortstop in ‘13 (exactly 0.0 WAR), to roughly five and a half wins above in 2014. So a ~5.5 win upgrade in terms of true talent from 2013 to 2014 at shortstop. That’s about as good as it gets.

Next year. The 2014 offseason rolls around, and...um, things go bad. I don’t want to rehash the tragedy of losing Oscar Taveras, but that happened. The point is, one way or another, the Cardinals of 2014 made it to the NLCS, again, and were bounced by the Giants, again. They headed into another offseason as serious title contenders, if they could just ever meet anyone other than San Francisco or Boston in the playoffs.

The 2014 team was actually sort of a down club from the previous couple seasons. Matt Carpenter moved to third and was good, but not great. This was pre-power Carpenter, remember, and his OPS+ that year was 112. Kolten Wong and Matt Adams moved into starting spots, and both were just okay. Matt Holliday was still a very solid hitter, but age was beginning to show on the Lego man a bit. Adam Wainwright was phenomenal, and Jhonny Peralta, that surgical strike of a year earlier, was the team’s best position player. He played plus defense, hit 21 homers, and put up a 117 OPS+. It was a fantastic all-around effort, and Jhonny earned the majority of his entire contract just that season.

The bad news was almost entirely confined to right field. Carlos Beltran moved on to the Yankees and a cushy DH spot. Allen Craig moved to right to make way for Matt Adams, and never really got on track. We know now that the foot injury he suffered in 2013 would essentially end Craig’s career, but at the time that was still unknown. Randal Grichuk came up and played pretty well, but in an entirely unsustainable way. Oscar Taveras came up and flashed the talent, but struggled overall to adjust to major league pitching. Overall, between Craig, Grichuk, and Oscar, the Cardinals’ right fielders were a collective two wins below replacement level in 2014.

And so it was that early in the 2014-2015 offseason, before Thanksgiving even, the Cardinals made a blockbuster trade, sending Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to the Braves in exchange for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden. Walden would throw a handful of innings total for the Redbirds, not really contributing in any meaningful way, but Heyward would step in to the right field void and completely turn that situation around.

The J-Hey Kid would, in 2015, post a 6.1 WAR number that made him the Cardinals’ most productive position player, by a fairly large margin over Matt Carpenter. When we look at the Cards’ -2 right field WAR in 2014 vs Heyward’s +6 in 2015, you’re talking about roughly an eight win swing in the club’s talent level. Surgical strike, perfectly filled need, etc. etc. etc. You’ve read this part before, right?

It’s really only fair that I also bring up the trade which sent Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Red Sox in exchange for John Lackey. Lackey was probably the Cards’ best overall starter in 2015, and played for league minimum due to a contract stipulation in his deal with Boston. That trade was as much about moving Allen Craig, who the Cardinals had clearly determined was broken beyond repair already, but obviously we have to give huge credit for the return being so good. The deal was similar to the trade made to get David Freese out of town, at least partially because he had developed a drinking problem exacerbated by the pressures of playing in his home town, as well as the trade sending Jon Jay to San Diego in exchange for Jedd Gyorko, who appeared to be damaged goods at the time. But we’ll get there in a moment.

Fast forward another year, to the 2015-2016 offseason, and the Cardinals are trying to land themselves a couple of monster fish in Jason Heyward and David Price. Heyward they think they can retain, following his outstanding season in red, but it turns out they can’t. They think they can sign Price to step into Lackey’s grumpy shoes, both because the organisation loves David Price and because he has shown some interest in coming to St. Louis, but then along comes Dave Dombrowski with a dumptruck full of money and the Cards are out in the cold. They do make the Jedd Gyorko-Jon Jay trade, which is very smart, but they miss out on their biggest targets.

So then the Redbirds were facing a crisis. Lance Lynn underwent Tommy John surgery early in the offseason, John Lackey just left, Adam Wainwright was showing signs of slipping, Carlos Martinez looked incredibly promising, but very young and hadn’t yet shown an ability to hold up to a 180+ inning workload. Jaime Garcia’s last arm surgery contained a line item charge for chicken wire. The Cardinals needed innings, and bad.

Enter Mike Leake. Leake was something like the fourth or fifth best free agent pitcher on the market, I believe, and his primary value came in the form of bulk innings. He had never hit the DL in his career. He made 30 starts a year every year. Mike Leake is exactly what you need when what you need is a start made every fifth day and six innings thrown in most of them. Strike. Surgical. Perfect fit. Fills need. Again, heard it.

One more offseason to go, and in this case we actually have the Cardinals making not one, but two major moves. They focused in on center field as a need, as well as a potential leadoff hitter in order to move Matt Carpenter and his power into a more production-focused lineup spot, and Dexter Fowler presented the perfect fit. He plays center field, actually looked like a good defender the previous two seasons in Chicago, and has proven to be one of the best leadoff bats in baseball over the past handful of years. He gets on base like few other hitters, and brought the kind of athleticism to the club that the front office felt was missing from the 2015 iteration. They signed him surgically to need fill, and fits a hole he do thing to.

The other major pickup for the Redbirds was Brett Cecil, the left-handed setup ace of the Blue Jays, who they did surgical on before Thanksgiving familiar sounds. The club had traded for Zach Duke at the July trade deadline in 2016, but Duke was forced to go under the knife following the season, having Tommy John surgery and suddenly creating a hold the Cards thought they had just filled a couple months earlier. The solution was Cecil, who had served as a fireman for Toronto and compiled a tremendous record in doing so. He was about the third or fourth best reliever on the market last season, definitely behind Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, and probably a touch below Mark Melancon.

Fowler and Cecil were both perfect fits for the holes the Cardinals had. Now let’s go back to the beginning.

Since 2011, where we began this story, the Cardinals have been through six offseasons. In those six offseasons, they have made six major acquisitions. One year there were no major moves, last year there were two. The Freese, Craig, and Jay trades were all smaller deals overall, but all three were extremely smart bets to place on the players coming back, and I have to give the club plenty of credit for making those very smart trades.

But here’s the thing. All of the major moves the Cardinals have made have one thing in common.

Carlos Beltran was signed to fill part of the huge hole in the lineup created when Albert Pujols left.

Jhonny Peralta was signed because the Cardinals couldn’t run out replacement level production at shortstop again.

Jason Heyward was acquired because right field was a black hole in 2014, and the organisation’s top prospect (a right fielder), was killed in a car accident.

Mike Leake was signed because the Cards had a desperate need for innings after Lance Lynn went down with an elbow injury.

Dexter Fowler was signed because the organisation decided center field was the biggest hole on the roster, and a top of the order bat was the greatest need.

Brett Cecil was signed because Zach Duke, the Cards’ most recent lefty relief ace pickup, blew out his elbow, leaving them without a primary left-handed reliever, considering the warning signs around Kevin Siegrist and the long-relief status of Tyler Lyons.

In every single case, the Cardinals made a very smart, very precise signing to fill a serious hole on the roster. And in virtually every case, I have a hard time imagining a much better move they could have made. Cecil was frustrating this year, but his overall numbers actually aren’t all that bad. Fowler needs to be moved off center field, but the bat looks special. Heyward was everything the Cards hoped he would be, right up until he left. Leake made 30 starts and threw ~180 innings for a fairly reasonable cost. Peralta was one of the two best shortstops in the game the first year and a half of his contract. Beltran didn’t fill Pujols’s shoes, but that would have been impossible. He was outstanding in his own right, though, and exactly what the organisation needed.

So where’s the complaint, really? Well, every one of those moves filled a hole the Cardinals had, pretty much perfectly.

And they made basically zero other upgrades to the roster.

Credit where credit is due: Gyorko is a real upgrade. The trade was a huge win for the Cards, and somewhat inexplicable for the Padres, considering how little Jon Jay they got for this much Jedd, but even so, the trade was the Cards moving a former asset to clear up space and opportunity, and they believed, I’m sure, at the time they were picking up a solid utility player, not a borderline all-star third baseman. But that was a great trade.

But let’s go back to that Max Scherzer deal the Cardinals had no interest in. Or Jon Lester. Or any number of other potential moves that were rumoured, or floated, or just seemed obvious at some point, but didn’t happen.

The Cardinals have filled their needs with big acquisitions plenty of times since the current era began. But what they haven’t done is made any moves of opportunity. Signing Scherzer or Lester, moving Lynn, that would have been a case of taking an opportunity to strengthen your club when you didn’t actually have to, merely because making the team better is always the goal. Now, admittedly, when you have an internal candidate like Carlos Martinez, it may not feel pressing to make a move like that. But the opportunity was there. And how much better off would the Cardinals be right now had they taken it? You had a top five pitcher with a unique attachment to your city and team. Why were you so uninterested in that kind of opportunity? I realise it would have been a more complicated route than basically doing nothing and allowing inertia to carry you forward, which is essentially what they did, but the payoff could have been enormous.

Could the Cards have gone to Oakland and offered a package as good as what Toronto gave them for Josh Donaldson a couple years ago? Of course they could have. But they had Matt Carpenter at third and Matt Adams playing first, so where would they put him? Now, to be fair, they made the Heyward deal that offseason, and maybe that’s the reason you don’t make that trade. Maybe you can’t, considering what you just gave up for Heyward. But I think you still could have.

The Cardinals have made the fewest trades overall of any team in baseball since 2011. And for the most part, I don’t necessarily blame them. When a hole has opened up in the team, the front office has filled it almost every time. But there haven’t really been any moves made to improve the club that didn’t come as the result of huge needs. I don’t know other clubs’ trade and signing histories well enough to say other franchises definitely make more moves to bolster the major league team outside of serious, crushingly obvious holes, but I look at a team like Washington, who went out and got Scherzer, and has been aggressive in dealing players the last couple years to try and improve, and they ended up pulling Trea Turner in.

When I say I feel the Cardinals have been too conservative in trying to upgrade the team over the past handful of years, this is what I’m talking about. They’ve done an outstanding job in filling the holes, but have done virtually nothing in terms of taking opportunities to improve. If this club had been more proactive just once or twice over these years, instead of entirely reactive to needs opening up, I don’t think the club is in as tough a spot as they find themselves currently. I’m not talking about just spend, spend, spend; that’s a terrible way, in general, to try and build a winner. But this organisation has made a habit of sitting on their hands as the rest of baseball moves around them, and while in one way I can see that as admirable, that they stick with their plans, and their processes, and don’t overreact, it’s just as easy to look at the opportunities they haven’t taken to make a move that might necessitate clearing some roster space, or shaking things up to fit a talent in, and feel that they have allowed the game to move past them, when just a little more aggression in the past could have helped keep them from getting backed into this corner.

The Cardinals have filled their needs, over and over, since Albert left and we opened a new chapter in the history of the franchise. But they haven’t taken hold of opportunities, or gone out and made opportunities, over that same timeframe.

The story of the 2017 Cardinals can be summed up in a poor divisional record, a slightly-too-slow transition to new players (though they got there eventually in most cases), and some really poor luck of several different sorts.

The story of how the Cardinals really got here, though, has plenty of those things, yes, but also inertia, and hesitation, and a lack of proactive moves.

I can’t say the front office needs shaking up; by and large Mozeliak and Company have done an outstanding job over the past decade. But the game has gotten smarter, and better, around them, while the Cardinals sat still. And now they’re going to have to work hard to catch up.

I believe they will. But I also believe it’s going to be harder than it had to be.