In the penultimate episode of the 3rd season of Breaking Bad, the hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold Mike gives a memorable speech about an incident when he was a cop, where he let an abusive husband off with a warning which led to disaster.
“The moral of the story is, I chose a half-measure when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again,” Mike says.
I often think about that scene as I watch St. Louis Cardinals teams of the Mozeliak era. But unlike Mike, I’m still on the fence about whether or not these half-measures are a mistake.
This facet of The Mozeliak Doctrine is more clear now that nearly every other team in the league is either all-in to win or all-in to dump and rebuild. The Cardinals are still playing the Perennial Contender Game, along with... who else? The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Giants, maybe?
Debate if you will the size of the Cardinals’ war chest, but their payroll capacity is certainly at least a tick below those other clubs. So the Cardinals charge is to contend every season without mortgaging the future, and without the cushion of excess payroll to absorb any dead weight they might pick up along the way. How do you run a team within those parameters? For Mo, it’s often been through half-measures.
Let’s take this last offseason, when the team seemed primed for an outfield defensive makeover. Some had dreams of Lorenzo Cain or Adam Eaton or Jarrod Dyson blanketing the outfield. Instead, the team acquired defensively average-ish Dexter Fowler, moved Grichuk to left and bumped Matt Holliday out of the picture. And that was it.
Does that improve the defense? Sure, but only just a bit. It’s what you might call a half-measure. It leaves a lot of room to question why they didn’t bring anyone more in, but it also leaves open the question of why they let Holliday go.
If not retaining Holliday was phase one of an outfield makeover, I think fans would by-and-large understand. But when the team’s only move was to shift Grichuk into his starting spot, then open the season with Jose Martinez and Matt Adams as the backups, and call-up an outfielder from A-ball a month into the season... it lends credence to the “shoulda kept Holliday” contingent. The team most certainly did not go all the way with their outfield makeover.
And yet, the Cardinals sit alone atop the NL Central. Acknowledging the Cubs are still the prohibitive favorite to with the division, the Fangraphs Playoff Projections still have the Cards winning 86 games and clinching the first Wild Card spot.
This further cements my belief that Mo and his quants have built metrics so refined that they can predict the final standings down to the decimal point. No need to build an 87-win team when an 86-win team will get the job done.
Alternatively, he may be a wizard.
In the nine years since John Mozeliak became GM (and make no mistake, Walt Jocketty was more of an all-in kinda guy), they have only missed the playoffs three times.
Half-measures are the aesthetic norm of the Mozeliak era, which means until further notice, they are the brand standard of the St. Louis Cardinals. Does this mean they are good or correct or superior to the other ways to run a baseball team? We’re talking aesthetics here, so it’s kind of in the eye-of-the-beholder.
It drives me a little crazy, to be honest, watching a team that has been engineered to do just enough to make the playoffs. When you cut it that close, you’ll go through stretches where you’re also watching a team that’s not good enough. And when you do miss the playoffs, it’s easy to see the few little improvements that could’ve been.
If Mo ever loses the ability to dial-in the 86-90 wins the team needs on a consistent basis, I’ll be the first lined up outside Gate 4 with torch and pitchfork. But until then, I will enjoy the regular October baseball and marvel at his ability to assemble playoff teams out of 2-3 WAR players.