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Rumination at season’s end

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In which the author ponders the Cardinals’ third consecutive regular season exit and what lies ahead for the organization

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

This is not the article I was supposed to be writing today.

For quite a while now, I knew that my scheduled Tuesday VEB Daily post was going to coincide with the NL Wild Card Game. Even as I worked on various stories in recent weeks, ideas about what I wanted our first playoff game day post in three years to be roamed throughout the back of my mind.

But alas, here we are...again. Stuck at home, sitting on the couch...again.

Based on discussions I have had with fellow Cardinals fans, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that narrowly missing a postseason berth stings more this time around than in 2016 or 2017. I would imagine there are a multitude of factors at play as to why this is. Chief among them are likely the general emotional rollercoaster of a 162-game slog–headlined this year by a managerial firing and a late-season surge that ultimately proved to be for naught–in addition to a lead in the wild card standings that suddenly evaporated in the final week of the season. Just to rub a little more salt in the wound, the Cardinals fell on the wrong side of a numbers game in what was a remarkably balanced National League playoff picture this year. St. Louis just became the first of seven teams with an 88-74 record in the double wild card era to not qualify for postseason play. Even 87-75 clubs are 4-for-5 in finishing with at least the second wild card position.

Most of all, we will inevitably spend no small portion of the next month and ensuing winter agonizing over various “what-if?” hypotheticals. What if Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, and Kolten Wong remained on the field for the combined 99 games they missed, or Alex Reyes, Carlos Martínez, and Michael Wacha avoided the injuries that forced them out of the starting rotation? What if Greg Holland and Dexter Fowler contributed serviceable production rather than -2.9 bWAR between them? What if the Cardinals’ bullpen investments panned out as expected, the club held onto Tommy Pham at the trade deadline, or opened the season without Mike Matheny at the helm?

Any team is prone to asking themselves similar questions given the nature of baseball and its flukiness, I suppose, but the Cardinals’ perennial position on the win curve at 85-90 victories renders them especially fragile to the variabilities that make this sport what we know and love, but also begrudgingly hate in moments like this. On Saturday, Bclemens6 expressed his general approval for “Medium, Incorporated” and the value of consistently playing meaningful games down the stretch. I am sure much digital ink will be spilled both at this website and elsewhere around the Cardinals blogosphere in the coming weeks regarding specific transitions (i.e. which free agents to sign, players to trade, etc.), but we first need to establish answers to some more macro-level questions before delving into gritty roster construction details.

  1. Is the Cardinals’ current operating model compatible with the tanking-to-superteam cycle that has become increasingly prevalent in Major League Baseball?
  2. How much should the Cardinals invest in maximizing their window of contention in 2019?

Regarding the first question, one’s answer depends on what one considers a successful season. If your objective is solely to win as many championships as possible, the worst possible strategy is to sit pat if you are a team caught in the middle between buying or selling, as you are neither cashing in on your future assets for a chance at the title later down the road nor supplementing your current roster with talent to pursue the World Series right now.

Moreover, this approach–presumably including its fair share of years devoid of much hope for October baseball–is not necessarily optimal for an owner from a generating revenue standpoint or, at least personally, the long-term fan experience. Besides, take the Washington Nationals, for example. They are the second winningest team in baseball since 2012, highlighted by four years with at least 95 wins in the regular season. They won a combined seven playoff games in that span and have yet to escape the NLDS. With Bryce Harper set to potentially depart in free agency, it appears probable that the randomness of short postseason series has claimed another victim. Even the Royals, who did break through to win a world championship in 2015 after acquiring Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist at the trade deadline, have limped to a .451 winning percentage since then and a 58-104 record in 2018 at the hands of a depleted farm system. If each season is like the lottery, how many tickets do you discard at the expense of modestly better odds in shorter spurts but virtually no tickets in others? That goes both ways as it pertains to the Cardinals’ organizational methodology: they seemingly never tank or throw all their chips on the table for a short-lived window of title contention.

At the heart of the second question in particular is an evaluation of the Cardinals roster as it stands entering 2019. The only notable expiring contracts are Adam Wainwright, Bud Norris, Tyson Ross, and Matt Adams. Although they totaled just 0.7 fWAR for St. Louis this season, their impending free agencies clear over $20 million off the Cardinals’ books. With the Brewers unlikely to repeat their 33-19 record in one-run games and the Cubs losing payroll flexibility by the year as their young core grows more expensive and their dearth of prospects hinders their ability to execute another blockbuster trade, the Cardinals are well-positioned the reclaim lost ground in the Central.

As to what those upgrades look like, the Cardinals could retool a bullpen that was collectively worth a paltry 0.5 fWAR in 2018. Given the uncertainties surrounding the futures of Jose Martinez and Dexter Fowler in St. Louis, an outfield bat could also be in play to insert alongside some distribution of playing time for Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill. A third baseman and/or shortstop–let’s hypothetically name him Manny for the time being–would provide greater offensive firepower and defensive flexibility on the left side of the infield to complement Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong, thus freeing up Jedd Gyorko for either a platoon or utility role.

While much of the talk this winter will understandably fixate on where the superstars atop this monster free agent class land, the Cardinals are not automatically doomed to fail if they once again strike out on these premier names. This offseason should not be defined by a binary paradigm of “either the Cardinals reeled in the big fish or they didn’t” without any middle ground in between. If this winter entails trading Jose Martinez to an American League team with the DH at its disposal, shoring up the bullpen, and making several other relatively minor moves, the Cardinals have assembled enough internal depth to where they would begin 2019 in a similar, 85-90 win situation as they have found themselves in. Perhaps a Cardinals’ playoff drought extends to four years for the first time in the Bill DeWitt era, or perhaps things break their way and we will be previewing postseason baseball at this time a year from now.