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On Housecleaning, Patience, and Taking the Bad With the Good

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As the trade deadline draws ever nearer, change seems to be in the air. Along with frustration and impatience.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Today is the 30th of July. The trade deadline is now less than 36 hours away. Thus, all the gigantic, franchise-altering moves we’re expecting will be made in extremely short order. So that’s exciting, right?

Except, of course they won’t. And we all know it.

That’s not me being cynical, by the way; it’s just that we all know not every bit of work the Cardinals need to do to turn over this roster will get done by four p.m. or whenever it is tomorrow. It’s reality. A lot of the work has started, but let’s face it: basically what we’ve seen so far has been wholesale change to the bullpen. And while, yes, a bullpen can absolutely sink a season — case in point: well, you know — it is not going to be a long-term foundation for a franchise. The big moves, that truly and properly redirect the franchise from this disappointing little cul de sac back onto something resembling a proper road to somewhere are going to be tougher to pull off. And they’re probably going to take longer than we would necessarily like.

One of the really common threads I’ve seen an awful lot of around here lately is a continuing, and very loud, lamentation that Harrison Bader is not getting enough playing time. Actually, that’s not entirely true; I’ve heard two versions of the Harrison Bader not getting enough playing time thing. The first version is, “Harrison Bader is the Cards’ best defensive outfielder, and he should really be playing more often for the purpose of run prevention.” That take is entirely sensible. The other version goes something like, “How the fuck can this team not see that Harrison Bader should be playing every day no matter what? I’m sick of these other bums! Aaarrrggehheerieheeooooohhh!” Which, okay, I understand is your feeling on the matter, but some perspective should maybe be exercised here.

First off, we should keep in mind what Harrison Bader is, and what he is not. He is, in fact, a very good defender in the outfield. And, yes, if given my druthers he would probably be my 2019 starting center fielder, with Pham moving to left field. (Barring any major additions that would substantially change the makeup of the outfield, mind.) What Harrison Bader is not, however, is a six- or seven-win player, as I saw someone asserting in a comment thread a couple weeks ago.

We’re talking about a very good glove guy with an average-ish sort of bat. That’s a good player; not a Hall of Famer. In fact, he’s basically what we hoped Peter Bourjos was going to be for the Cardinals. The young version of Bourjos who hadn’t yet had those leg injuries that sapped his speed and overall athleticism, that is. That’s a really, really good player, and one you want to keep around, certainly. But it’s worth noting that Bader strikes out nearly 30% of the time, has an isolated slugging percentage under .150, and while I’ve been mostly encouraged by the improvement in his walk rate this year, his offensive value is still heavily, heavily driven by a very high BABIP right now. I like Harrison Bader a lot. I was on him from before he was drafted as a really interesting outfielder, overlooked because he was playing a corner next to one of the greatest center field talents in college baseball history at Florida. But pump the brakes on declaring he’s a franchise cornerstone just yet, okay?

Secondly — and this is really the more important point — the Cardinals right now, playing Harrison Bader less than maybe it seems like they should, are looking toward the future. This came up in a comment section sometime over the past several days, but I want to put the whole thing here as well for everyone to see. It seems paradoxical that looking toward the future involves playing the players of the past, when the player of the future is sitting there on the bench. And yet, it’s not really a paradox at all. Harrison Bader’s future with the club is secure. Barring a big trade that brings in a Nolan Arenado-type player to build around, Bader is not going to be shipped out. And I think it’s fairly clear the club has decided he’s one of their guys going forward, at least in the short term. Harrison Bader is going to be here next year.

You know who isn’t? Or who might not be? Dexter Fowler. Maybe Marcell Ozuna, too. That all depends, of course, on what kind of deal the Cards might be able to work out to move those players, but the front office is absolutely trying to figure out a way to get out from under the Fowler contract without just releasing him and paying the full freight for him to go somewhere else for three more years, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they had already decided to move on from Ozuna as well. That’s obviously less of a certainty; we’ve seen in the past what kind of talent Ozuna has, and you don’t quickly give up on that kind of player, but it’s been about as bad an acquisition as I can recall when you look at the delta between what Ozuna could have been for this club, and what he has actually produced.

So here’s the secret little thing we all need to keep in mind: the players the Cardinals are most committed to right now, at least in the outfield mix, are the players they aren’t playing. Again, it seems paradoxical, but let’s unpack it a bit. If you have an underperforming asset, and you want someone to buy said asset, what do you do with it? Well, if you take the underperforming asset and hide it, the only thing anyone is going to remember is that last, bad thing they saw the asset do. If you want to sell it, you have to try and give a buyer some reason to believe it’s worth buying. Now, it’s possible, of course, that the underperforming asset will just get worse, and completely tank its value entirely. Which, hey, that sucks. But when you’re talking about players who have been so very bad so far, but who physically have the capacity to be better, then you have reason to believe they’re going to improve, and possibly make your sales pitch a whole lot easier.

When you’re cleaning your house, say in the spring, and I mean cleaning like getting rid of old stuff that needs to go, or that quesadilla maker your mother’s best friend got you for Christmas a few years ago and you’ve literally never used because that’s a really stupid gadget to need and it’s just more as seen on tv garbage to entice stressed-out people walking through Walgreen’s to get a prescription filled (you know, hypothetically), rather than just cleaning house, what do you do with all the stuff you’re looking to get rid of? Well, you could just throw it away, certainly. But that seems wasteful. So maybe you donate it. Goodwill needs stuff, and the Salvation Army, or maybe a local shelter if you’ve got one. Or maybe you want to try and get some value back from your stuff, and you have a garage sale. And then anything you don’t sell gets donated, and maybe if there’s stuff they don’t want then it gets thrown in the trash.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Yes, in this analogy Dexter Fowler is a panini grill with a balky hinge on the one side. At the very least, though, when you’re getting rid of things you either don’t want, don’t need, or are going to replace with a newer version, don’t you at least check to see if the thing you’re trying to get rid of still works? Of course you do.

Which brings me to a slightly larger point, which is all about patience. We Cardinal fans are not, as a general rule, a very patient group. Now, we might like to think we are, that we’re really smart, very canny baseball fans with a view of the long-term, and we can really take that view when we need to. But let’s face it: the Cardinals did nothing but win for basically fifteen years, minus the briefest of retooling periods in 2007-’08, and now, after three seasons of moderately disappointing results the fanbase is grabbing pitchforks. The Cardinals haven’t even been bad! They’ve been just pretty good. Frustrating at times? Sure. But bad? Not in the slightest. And yet you would think it has been decades of futility and occasional mailbox bashings by the front office members that Cardinal fans have had to put up with.

But then, I see the other side as well. This is a fanbase that supports the franchise it follows in a way that very, very few other fanbases do. (I almost said ‘through thick and thin’, but then realised there hasn’t really been any ‘thin’ in twenty years, so that’s kind of a pointless idea.) Certain colleges enjoy the kind of rabid support Cardinal fans provide. Green Bay Packer fans are in that class. Toronto sports teams in general have amazing fans. But there really aren’t that many places where a team gets the kind of love showered upon it as what we see here in St. Louis. And there’s a responsibility that comes with that. When you have that kind of fan support, it should be treasured, and nurtured, and respected. The fans are right to have high expectations, because they offer support that is difficult to match anywhere else. And an overwhelming majority of the time, this ownership group has done everything possible to put the best team on the field for these fans.

However, there’s a dark side to both that level of love, and that near-constant success. When things don’t work out the way you want, those expectations can boomerang and turn into a real problem. When a team engenders love to the level this one does, you aren’t just dealing with normal fandom. And constant success, much like spoiling a child, can create a group of people who are so used to getting what they want, all the time, every time, and right now! every time that they lose perspective.

What I’m trying to get at is this: if we want the Cardinals to turn and head down a different path, then we have to be willing to be patient when things are bad. If you really believe the team needs a change of direction, and you say you don’t care what happens this year because they need to retool, then you can’t furiously call for people’s heads when something goes wrong. If you want them to look at the long-term health of the club and get back on track, then you have to understand that the short-term gratification we’re used to most of the time probably isn’t coming.

Now if, on the other hand, you’re one of those people who demands constant winning, and cannot help but obsessively criticise the club for not winning because they’re JUST NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH, and everything would be fine if they would just make bigger moves, and spend more, and do more and more and more stuff, fuck the consequences, then I suppose you have the right to not be patient, and not try to understand that when things go wrong, or the player you want to see playing isn’t starting in the cleanup spot on a given night, or it doesn’t seem like all the changes have happened yet and it’s been like, two weeks, it may be because before you can put in new appliances in your kitchen you have to remove the old ones. I mean, I won’t particularly think much of your opinion, and I might even think you’re a short-sighted idiot, but you’re entitled to that opinion all the same.

So we have less than a day and a half left until the trade deadline, and lots of things have happened. Lots of things still have to happen before we can really start to feel like the Cardinals are headed in the right direction. But I think we all understand, one way or another, that everything that needs to be done probably won’t get done in 30 hours or so.

And so I will leave you this morning with the admonition to enjoy the present, enjoy thinking about the future, and demand excellence from the team. But don’t expect that excellence to get here today. Or tomorrow. That refrigerator is going to be a real bitch to get out through the door.

And don’t even get me started on the quesadilla maker.