The Major League Baseball script writers* have outdone themselves. (*To borrow a setup from Men in Blazers.)
The St. Louis Cardinals, knocked down and facing an 8-count, have one last chance to get up off the mat... against their arch rivals, the North Chicago Cubs. But the Cardinals, who have looked past their prime all season, may just have a new spring in their step thanks to a plucky new manager.
This is 80-grade narrative, my friends.
The 2nd half of the season begins tomorrow with a grueling series against the Cubs - five games in four days. Then after a quick 3-game series against the Reds, the Cards and Cubs square-off again for a 3-game set in St. Louis. And that brings us right up to the trade deadline.
These series always carry a little extra weight. Even for all those years when the Cubs were losing on purpose, there was still an intensity. But aside from the 2015 Division Series, the results of which I cannot recall at the time, it would be hard to remember a series with more riding on it.
The Cardinals have been on a long, slow slide out of the playoff race for most of the first half. They enter the “2nd half” with a 23% shot at the playoffs, per Fangraphs. Four teams that don’t currently lead their division are given a better shot. The odds have gotten long.
As long as a month ago, I floated the idea that the team should consider a Yankees-style rebuild. If they look likely to finish the season bobbing around .500 again, trading off a few assets - especially those who will be free agents after this year or next year - makes a lot of sense.
The team finally made its first move over the weekend, and it wasn’t trading off a player but dumping the manager. That raises some interesting questions about how the organization may view the rest of this season.
As I suggested a while back, because it’s been clear for awhile that the club was grooming Shildt for the manager’s role, it makes a lot of sense to let him take over midseason. Shildt has the confidence of the front office, but his managerial track record is all in the minor leagues. If he’s being considered against candidates with name brands like Joe Girardi, Shildt’s inexperience and low profile would likely draw the ire of some fans.
If Mike Shildt has managed the Cardinals for even half a season, and if the team has shown marked improvement or even made the playoffs, it becomes a lot easier to simply remove the interim tag. So the next few months are clearly an audition for Shildt.
But in reality, the next two weeks are probably also an audition for the next couple months.
In the press conference and subsequent interviews following the Matheny firing, John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt said repeatedly that they believed the team that they had was more talented than the results they have earned. They even talked about “salvaging” this season. It sounds very much like they believe this team - if it played up to potential - could still be a playoff club this season.
And again, at one-in-four playoff odds via Fangraphs, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. But the front office has 12 days to decide if they are buyers or sellers. It just so happens that eight of eleven games during that stretch are against the Cubs. So if this year’s Cardinals are going to have any shot of remaining relevant this season, they are going to have to beat the piss out of the Cubs.
I, for one, hope they do it.