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The St. Louis Cardinals: Perennial Wild Card contenders

Winning just enough to get into the play-in game looks like it is still The Cardinal Way™.

Wild Card Game - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves
Here’s a picture of a bunch of trash on the field.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Steamer projection system pegs the 2019 Cardinals for 86 wins, two behind the Cubs in the NL Central. That would also put the Cardinals in the first Wild Card slot, just a game ahead of the Mets.

Do we really expect that to improve before Spring Training?

Obviously, things will change. Big name free agents will be plucked out of the ether and boost one team or another. Trades will happen. Eventually, we’ll have ZiPS and Baseball Prospectus and other projections as well, but they will all more or less line up. That’s how the world works now.

The clubs all have internal projections, too. And sure, we don’t know what we don’t know about those. But even with their super secret data and proprietary algorithms, everything is going to fall more-or-less in line with the public projections.

That’s a long-winded, caveat-filled way of saying that the Cardinals Front Office knows how many games they will win and they are okay with it. The team has not been projected to win the division since 2015, and that’s exactly what has happened. Their performance has been in-line with their projections, and they’ve remained Wild Card contenders, but fallen just below the cut every year.

How high the Cardinals push their win projection will tell us a lot about how ownership feels about being competitive in the current environment of Major League Baseball. What that win projection shows us may be very different than what club officials tell us.

We’re never going to get a press conference where DeWitt and Mo and Girsch announce that they believe staying in Wild Card contention is sufficient to maintain fan interest. They won’t admit that the playoffs are enough of a coin flip that they believe pushing upwards to 95+ wins is not worth the cost. But that doesn’t mean that’s not what they believe internally. It also doesn’t mean they would be wrong.

It cannot be overlooked that the Cardinals slide from perennial division winners has coincided with the rise of The Tankers: The Cubs and Astros. Yes, there have always been teams who are “rebuilding,” but the model has swung hard and fast to a dichotomy where teams are either tanking or going all-in.

The Super Teams - namely the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox - may spend the resources to push their win projections into the upper 90s season after season. And that’s always been the case. But now we’ve got these clubs who are emerging from a successful tanking who are also burying the needle at the top of the win projections. So if your favorite ball club is 1) not a Super Team and 2) not on the upswing from tanking, is it really possible to compete? At what level?

I think that’s an open question. As to how the Cardinals feel about it, their win projections - not their words - will tell us the answer. And this offseason will tell us more than we’ve known before.

For the past few seasons, let’s be honest, there was no way the Cardinals were going to eclipse the projected win totals of those Cub teams. But Chicago’s post-tanking window is beginning to close. The Goldschmidt acquisition pushes the Cardinals back up, at least into the ballpark of the Cubs, at least as the teams are currently constructed.

From here, make no mistake: The Cardinals could build an absolute juggernaut. They could sign Bryce Harper. They could trade even more of their prospect depth and acquire Corey Kluber. They could do even more than that and still stay under the luxury tax. They could enter the 2019 season projected as the best team in baseball by a wide margin.

Building that juggernaut would open a huge window, but it would increase the odds that the window closes in a few years, and maybe even the Compete Every Year Cardinals need to reTANKbuild.

For all my hand-wringing about the Cardinals not doing more, I’m grateful that they still find a way to compete every year. It beats the hell out of losing 100 games on purpose for three seasons. The front office may genuinely believe that these 80-something win Wild Card contenders are the best they can do while remaining competitive every year. They may be right. But I’d like to see them try to do more.

Frankly, I’d like to see them try to build the juggernaut. Teams like the Dodgers play without a net like this all the time, trusting their financial and intellectual resources to be able to rebuild on the fly. The Cardinals should still have the smarts to pull this off. As for the cash... it would take an increase in spending that they have been reluctant to make. In fact, as Site Manager Emeritus Craig Edwards noted recently, the Cardinals spending has actually been going in the wrong direction:

We’ve heard the talking points about “flexing payroll muscle” for years now without ever seeing it materialize. Maybe it never will. But the landscape of baseball has changed and the only way for the Cardinals to truly Compete Every Year might well be to push their payroll to the luxury tax and join “The Big Clubs.” Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox... Cardinals? That sounds good to me.

If the real estate billionaire who owns the team is unwilling to do that, this is probably our best-case scenario: Perennial Wild Card contenders.