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If January is the New December, are moves coming?

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A Saturday stream of consciousness on the Cardinals’ unwillingness to make moves this winter and Jeff Jones’ instruction to me to “work on believing it.”

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

First, let me apologize.

I know that’s a terrible way to begin an article. I was taught that if you begin any form of communication with “I’m sorry you have to read this” you’re giving your audience a reason to check out. That’s normally a bad thing for a communicator to do.

It’s necessary here though because I’m going to give you bad news today and I am truly sorry that I’m going to do that.

For the last month, I’ve tried to write more optimistically about the Cardinals. I’ve done this because there is a lot of negativity floating around the ballclub. Some of it is legitimate. The team wasn’t very good in 2020. The financial situation is discouraging. The inactivity is maddening. The obvious impending labor dispute is soul-sucking.

At the same time, there are a lot of things about this Cardinals club to be optimistic about. There are intriguing players on the club and on the way. Carlson, Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, Austin Gomber, Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong, Jack Flaherty, Gio Gallegos, Kwang-Hyun Kim… I could go on. With so much noise on the negative, there’s reason for a few voices to accentuate the positive.

Today, I can’t do it. I have to throw a bit of cold water on Cardinals’ Kingdom.

Just before the new year, I had an interesting conversation online with Jeff Jones, Cardinals’ beat writer for the Belleville News-Democrat. He had some pretty direct advice for me. You can find the conversation in this Twitter thread:

Jeff’s point is simple and it’s one I completely agree with. Because of the financial situation throughout baseball, clubs have a unique opportunity. Difference-making talent is available. It’s available cheap. An “opportunistic team” could choose to take advantage of that market, acquire talent cheaply, and build a highly competitive club for far less than normal market costs.

He references the Padres, who signed free agent shortstop Ha-seong Kim out of the KBO two days after trading for the Cubs’ Yu Darvish and the Rays’ Blake Snell. While the Padres had to sacrifice a significant number of prospects to make these two impact trades, the general consensus is that they paid far less for this kind of talent than they would have in a normal year.

Just this week the Mets traded for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. New York’s other club has now acquired an elite shortstop, a quality starting pitcher, and a very good starting catcher in James McCann this offseason. The cost in both dollars and prospects was, again, less than they would have been in a normal market year.

The Padres and Mets are “going for it”. They’ve identified a market inefficiency and they are taking advantage of it. They should be commended for this.

So far, the Mets and Padres have dominated the offseason. They, along with the White Sox and perhaps (surprisingly) the Royals, are the only clubs making any significant additions.

Everyone else in baseball is either actively cutting payroll or avoiding any payroll additions.

That’s where I bring the Cardinals into the conversation. The front office entered the offseason by immediately declining Kolten Wong’s reasonably priced option. As objectionable as this move was, it made sense for the club based on two realities.

The first was the presence of an on-roster replacement in Tommy Edman, whom the club rightly feels can step in as the starter at the league minimum without losing much production at the position.

The second reality was the club’s need to gain immediate financial flexibility. In November, when the pandemic was raging and uncertainty regarding the game’s revenue streams in 2021 reigned, the Cardinals raced to their payroll floor.

My hope, and I was not alone, was that the Cardinals would hit their floor, carefully watch what happens with the virus and vaccine and use the flexibility gained early in the offseason to react with some reasonably priced additions later in the winter.

Isn’t that what Mozeliak implies with his statement that “January is the new December?” The club rightly expected the market to be unusually slow this year as the financial state of the game would not become clear until after the new year.

Well, it’s January. December is over. The market is beginning to move for a few teams who have already shown a desire to spend. Is the rest of the league about to follow suit? Should we be gearing up for a potential move by the Cardinals soon? After all, there are still “plenty of ways to improve, if they choose”. Right, Jeff?

Here’s the cold water.

Jeff replied, “They’ve already chosen.”

Hmm… I trust Jeff. I’m a fan of his reporting. He’s always been quick to answer my questions and point me in the direction of the information I need. So, when Jeff reports something that goes against my reason or expectations, I have learned to listen. The same thing applies to Anne Rogers, Derrick Goold, and the other beat writers.

Of course, I wanted to argue. It just makes so much sense, doesn’t it? With the market flooded with cheap talent, surely (SURELY!) the Cardinals would take advantage of it to grab a player like Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, or Tommy LaStella on the cheap. Any one of those guys – plus a handful of others – on one-year deals for $10M are less is SUCH A GOOD DEAL! If the DH returns (and I still believe it will), the Cardinals have a million reasons to make such a deal.

They have one reason not to.

It’s not about talent in house. Don’t let anyone convince you it is. There’s plenty of roster space and playing time available for the team to make a couple additions and still give significant opportunity to young players, even if the DH doesn’t return.

No, the reason is money. Because of lost income in 2020 and uncertain income in 2021, the Cardinals do not want to spend.

It’s hard to believe that they won’t take advantage of the buyers’ market in front of them – even if it’s to a much lower extent than the Padres and Mets. But they really might not.

When I pushed Jeff on this, he simply answered “you should work on believing it.”

My point? We should probably start taking Jeff’s advice. That applies not only to the possible free agent additions but potentially to the club’s legacy players, too.

It’s January. December is over. Maybe the moves by the Mets and Padres will warm up a cold market. Maybe the financial state of the game is so bad that the market will never warm up. Maybe the slow rollout of the vaccine will be enough to encourage teams to spend a little as they can begin to project some fans in stands in 2021. Maybe the owners are using this as an opportunity to reset the player’s union and their salary expectations.

So many maybes.

If January is the new December, then is February the new January? Is March the new February? Is April the new March? When will the conditions be right for the Cardinals and some of these other quiet teams to start spending money again?

It’s likely that, as Jeff implies, the Cardinals and other teams have already made their choice.

If that’s true, I don’t know what it will mean for the game. I don’t know what it will mean for talented still-in-their-prime players like Kolten Wong and Jurickson Profar, who should have jobs in this league. I think I do know what it will mean for older, hoping-to-hang on players like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina.

For the rest of us fans, I think it means that we have to learn to embrace the baseball that we have and give up, for now, the baseball we wish we had. Some fans won’t want to do this. The angst is already high for many, and a season of .500 ball followed by significant cuts in payroll and talent, all while ignoring obvious opportunities to improve will be enough to push them away.

Other fans – and I put myself in this category – will watch anyway, aware of what the club is missing but enjoying the game on the field regardless. I likely won’t be able to take Jeff’s advice. I’ll work on “believing it” but I’ll fail. Give me a week or two and I’ll have another article out on some player the Cardinals should sign and why I think the Cardinals just might do it. Can’t change who I am!

Speaking of which, I just now read a report suggesting that Molina’s return to the Cardinals was “inevitable.”

There you go! A whole article full of cold water, but a nice mug of hot coffee at the end.

Don’t let the bad signs ruin your Saturday. Baseball is just baseball. You can continue believing if you want. Enjoy your weekend!