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On Wishing, and Being Careful About Those Wishes

The Cardinals have done nothing this offseason. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.

St Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Morning, all. Hope everyone’s New Year’s celebrations were good, whatever form they took in this bizarro world in which we find ourselves currently. I wish I could say I’m more optimistic about 2021 than I really am, but I find I am very much on the grizzled/skeptical/bitter track of aging, as opposed to the warm/avuncular/ThreeLittleBirds track. Not shocking, given my personality, but a bit disheartening all the same. Maybe I should start smoking weed again, see if I like it better in middle age than I did as a youngster.

Anyway, let’s talk about a little baseball, shall we? Seeing as how there’s only a little baseball about which to talk, it’s probably the best we can do. If you’re a Padres fan these days there’s a lot of baseball you can talk about; the rest of us are kind of stuck in purgatory right now.

I’ve been frustrated this offseason by the Cardinals’ lack of moves, mostly because I think they’re missing out on a fairly incredible opportunity to add a lot of talent, probably at bargain prices, because the market is so fully and truly fucked right now. To my mind, the Cardinals could jump the line and get a huge head start on building their next contending team by biting the bullet and making some investments this offseason, rather than waiting for next offseason, when a bunch of payroll will fall off and they can make some moves without the weight of a pandemic-torpedoed season immediately in the rearview mirror. To my mind, it’s pretty clear the Central division is there for the taking, and seeing the Cardinals with so little interest in grabbing it is, to put it mildly, annoying.

You know who is much more upset by the whole situation than me, though? Pretty much, well, everyone, seems like.

To be fair, when I say ‘everyone’, what I’m really talking about is probably just the most vocally dissatisfied elements of baseball/Cardinal Twitter and our own very passionate comments section here, neither of which, I assume, are really all that reflective of the wider population. I cannot imagine the average baseball fan out in the world has the same level of either passion or vitriol, not to mention the simple mental and temporal investment, as those of us who spend a huge portion of our time online thinking about, researching, and arguing about baseball. Then again, once upon a time I thought anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theories about pizzeria-based pedophile rings were only fringe elements, and yet I look around now at a country I barely recognise as my own these days, and I think maybe I no longer have a good idea of what constitutes ‘fringe’.

The primary mood I see pretty much everywhere I look in Cardinaldom these days, though, is anger. Anger at a terrible front office that clearly doesn’t care if the team is any good or not, never mind that ownership sets the direction, while the front office only invests the resources they’re given. Anger at ownership for not spending, which I actually do sympathise with. (The anger, I mean, not the ownership group.) Anger at greedy players who want to get paid what the market says they’re worth, just like every other free-market zealot, just so long as it’s me getting paid, and not someone I don’t think deserves it. Anger at the media for not holding everyone’s feet to the fire, for not exposing the conspiracies and the sinister forces at the center of every aspect of life, for not forcing someone to do something, or at least screaming bloody murder so long as they don’t. Cardinal fans are an upset lot these days, it seems, and my own relatively modest complains seem pretty bland by comparison.

Here’s the thing, though: this offseason of inactivity? It is, in a very real way, exactly what we’ve all been asking for. Now, I should specify that I don’t feel this inactivity is entirely justified, because I think the circumstances of the division should dictate the Cardinals be more aggressive. However — and this is key — anyone who is of the mind this team should go big or go home, go for the gold or just not bother running at all, that it’s title or bust every year, well, this is what you get.

This is what it looks like when a team abandons the half-measures that Cardinal fans like to bitch and moan about endlessly. I hope everyone is enjoying it.

See, most of the time, we would see the Cardinals head into an offseason like this one, with the holes and needs on the roster they have, and we would throw around a bunch of very ambitious plans, spending a bunch of hypothetical money on a hypothetical team that could compete for hypothetical championships, and then the club would spend some real money on a real roster that is really going to win about 87 baseball games. And then we would throw our hands up, accuse the team of not wanting to win, and everybody could just buzz angrily to themselves until spring training begins. I think most years we could pretty safely bet on Joc Pederson coming to the Cards, and a lefty reliever, and maybe a back of the rotation starter, or a super utility player who can hold down third base on days when Matt Carpenter is DHing. (If the DH is a thing this year, which I sure do wish they would figure out soon.)

This year, though, none of those things have happened, and at this point I kind of feel like they’re not going to. The Cardinals seem content to simply take the winter off, with the possible exception of bringing back legacy players to placate a segment of the fanbase. And that sucks. It really does.

Then again, not doing nothing is how the Cardinals ended up with Dexter Fowler, and Brett Cecil, and Marcell Ozuna, and Greg Holland. One can, of course, argue that those were moves, yes, but just the wrong moves, but they’re still moves. They are still the thing that nearly every Cardinal fan I encounter is flipping out about the club not making.

If we want the Cardinals to make big moves, to embrace more of the boom and bust cycle of contention, rather than watch them set up endless bulwarks against disaster at the expense of potential greatness, then guess what? We’re going to have to deal with the bust part of that cycle too. This is what it looks like when a team decides that incremental moves aren’t really going to improve the on-field product all that much short term, and could very well limit their options long term. For everyone who has ever said if the Cardinals aren’t going to make big, meaningful moves to really build up the team they should just do nothing, here’s your offseason.

Again, for my part I’m frustrated, because I think the opportunity is there, and too tempting to pass up. But I have no interest in the Cards making a few middling additions. I want a Lindor deal. I wanted Ha-Seong Kim. (Especially at 4/$28, which I think the Cardinals are crazy for not beating.) I don’t think signing Joc Pederson matters, if that’s the only move you’re making. If the Cards were to add Alex Colome to their already-impressive bullpen, it would probably make the unit better. But how much better? Five percent? Three percent? Seven? There are places on this roster I think you can make real, tangible additions. But I don’t think futzing with the margins is the way to go. And if you’re not making the big additions due to ownership’s unwillingness to spend or a desire to get past the current contracts and reset or a preference to give the farm system a more normal year to begin to show what it has with some actual clarity, then doing nothing may very well be the thing to do.

This offseason of absolutely nothing is exactly what a team would do if they’ve decided to wait out their bad contracts, get to a point where payroll is extremely low, and then make a couple big moves when they know where they should invest, and have tons of space to do so. And it’s not fun, I admit. But according to a lot of the fans I see around here and on Twitter, a good but not great team is the most miserable experience any human being can endure, so it isn’t as if the Cardinals are making anyone happy these days regardless, it seems.

If it were up to me, the Cards would not bring back Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, either. Waino I could see back on a one-year deal, but Yadi wants more than one year, and I’m just not willing to give that to him. The Redbirds have nearly $60 million in four players coming off the books after this season (with a couple small buyout numbers) — Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Martinez. Miller was very strong for the club this past season, but he was disappointing in 2019, will be 36 this year, and his velocity is no longer high enough to be listed as ‘declining’. The other three? Well, ZiPS thinks they are likely to be worth less than four wins total between them in 2021, for a cost of $47 million. Getting out from under those contracts will be a blessing for the club, honestly.

The Cardinals could still make some low-impact moves this offseason, of course. The vast majority of players who were on the market in November are still sitting there now. But to me, this looks like a team who has decided that half measures just aren’t worth making right now, and are largely going to sit out the offseason. We can argue about their reasoning, but just remember: if you want the Cardinals to be one of those clubs that goes all-in when they have a chance, without worrying about the future consequences and trying to maintain the floor, then you have to expect there will be years like this, when the club basically does nothing good, nothing fun, nothing interesting. I’m not trying to criticise anyone or say that this is worse, or better, than any other model. I’m just saying, if you want the boom and the bust, you don’t get to pretend only one of those two things exist. If you don’t want the club to sign Dexter Fowler, then stop complaining when the club refuses to sign Dexter Fowler.