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A Placeholder for Christmas, and a Hypothetical

A short piece of consideration, following up on another writer’s work, as the author of today’s piece realises he’s worked himself into a corner this holiday season.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is the morning of the 24th of December, which means that today is, basically, a holiday, and so Happy Christmas to any and all of you who celebrate it.

I have to start off with an apology; I had planned on having the third installment of this year’s prospect list ready to publish this morning. Even as of just a couple days ago, when Craig sent around an email to the staff asking if everyone was or was not planning on writing something for the site over the next week or so, I was planning on prospects #20-11 going up this morning.

Well, as I’m sure you can guess, that’s not going to happen.

Your ol’ buddy Aaron has absolutely bitten off more than he can chew this particular holiday season, and despite my best intentions, the list just isn’t done yet, and I don’t have time to finish it up. I shall endeavour to get the rest done sometime today or tonight, so that I can have it up and ready to go tomorrow. I still plan on having the whole chunk done by the morning of New Year’s Eve; I’ll have enough time this coming week to plow through the rest of the writing. But hitting a deadline on Christmas Eve is, to be frank, a little overly ambitious.

In the meantime, I have to say how much I enjoyed my colleague John Fleming’s piece yesterday, on the subject of the Cardinals needing another Albert Pujols. Personally, I can get behind that; having the best hitter in baseball on a team-friendly deal for a decade was pretty fun.

Of course, I had another takeaway pretty much immediately from reading that piece; I thought to myself, “Self, there are going to be at least a handful of people who read this and interpret it as just another way of saying the Cardinals are mediocre, were mediocre, and have been mediocre for even longer than they thought.” After all, that is the current thrust of thinking amongst a seemingly substantial minority of the fanbase: cheap, out-of-town ownership, incompetent front office stooges, a lack of any real commitment to winning, and a bunch of players who frankly are just not that good as a result.

Personally, though, my actual takeaway from the piece was to reflect momentarily on just how easily success can fall apart in sports. The Cardinals had the biggest head start in baseball for eleven years with Pujols, and yet look how hard they had to work to build those phenomenal clubs of the mid-2000s all the same. They still ended up forced into a mini-rebuild in 2007 and ‘08, even with Albert at basically the height of his power, once the MV3 (assembled through great effort on the trade market), stopped being the MV3.

It’s also worth pointing out that even if one wished to argue that the Cardinals essentially got lucky back in ‘99, and that they were only a decently run organisation outside the Pujols pick, then one would be almost forced, I would think, to acknowledge how remarkable a job the front office has done in building a run of winners without that lucky head start. Of course, that doesn’t fit with the hissy fit currently being thrown by a lot of the more cynical segments of the fanbase, but it’s hard to deny from where I’m standing.

And, of course, it is worth considering just how important getting those breaks now and again is in trying to build a winner. You can do everything right, but without a lucky break here or there, you may be stuck perpetually swimming against the current.

Take, for instance, where the Cubs currently stand with Kris Bryant. Now, in the interest of avoiding hypotheticals wherein I postulate a person’s depth, we’re absolutely not going to consider where the Cubs would be if something horrible had happened to Kris Bryant. Rather, let us consider for a moment that Kris Bryant, having ascended to Triple A Iowa, was taking a bus trip between stops at some point a few years ago, and spotting a corn palace, decided his life’s true passion was to become the world’s greatest corn palace architect. He calls up Theo Epstein, announces his retirement from baseball immediately, and heads off to learn all about the designing and construction of corn palaces.

What does that mean for the current Cubs’ roster? Well, it means that, essentially, the Cubs no longer have their 90% of Albert Pujols-sized head start working for them right now, and we can lop off 6.5, 8.3, and 6.7 wins from their last three season win totals. At that point, the Cubs over the past three years have won something like 91, 95, and 85 games, which is still a very good run, but a far cry from what they’ve done in the real world. Obviously, we shouldn’t assume replacement level performance entirely, but it’s instructional to note just how quickly it changes a club’s outlook when you knock off the value brought by their best player. The Cubs tanked for multiple years to get where they are, and they pulled plenty of rewards in in the process. But in the end, how much of the seemingly-insurmountable lead they have on the Cardinals right now is down to the fact they knocked the second overall pick in the draft out of the park, and the Cardinals haven’t had a second overall pick in....I don’t know. Decades? Certainly not in this century.

That’s not to say, of course, we shouldn’t demand more of the Cards. This club enjoys fan support on a level very, very few sports organisations can boast. The fans demand quality in exchange for their loyalty and adulation. But it’s worth keeping in mind that that head start the Cardinals had on their nearest competitors all through the 2000s is very much the kind of head start the Northsiders have on them right now.

We could, of course, expand out the hypothetical to the Cardinals not losing Oscar Taveras, and even if we only believed he would ever be a 2.5-3.0 win player, fitting in brilliantly with the rest of this good-but-not-great roster, there would be the value of Shelby Miller available for some other trade, perhaps the Inciarte-Swanson swap Arizona actually agreed to.

All of which is just a way to say that, when analysing and obsessing over, and also of course complaining about, the way that rosters are built and constructed, it’s always important to keep in mind how much big trends can turn on both small things and also big things, but big things that are not at all, or barely within, the control of the team doing the roster constructing.

Anyhow, that’s enough out of me for the moment; I have family and social obligations to tend to all day, and I’ll try to get the prospect list section finished up tonight some time. In the meantime, Happy Christmas to all of you who celebrate it. I’ll see you soon.