The NLCS is a disappointing place to lose because it's the boundary between a season becoming memorable and being just another season. It's the point at which a year becomes eligible for its own documentary DVD with a title like Wild Cards or The Redbirds' Run—where team members earn lifetime passes based on what they did to push the team into the World Series. The 2012 St. Louis Cardinals were already fully stocked with those moments—the infield fly, Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso's NLDS heroics, David Freese's return engagement after one of the best postseasons ever—so it was disappointing when they had to buy our World Series tickets back, if only because they were going to take their sweet time about it.
So they disappointed, and that's been magnified, in an indifference-inducing way, by just how little we have to talk about. They almost certainly won't sign Kyle Lohse, and we don't yet know much about what they'll do with Adam Wainwright, and that's about it; the biggest move for which I'm agitating is Hiroyuki Nakajima for utility infielder.
For 2013 these Cardinals are victims of their own successful strategy; they've managed to become average just about everywhere on the roster, with a combination of outstanding player development and astute free agent decisions, and that's about where they sit in the offseason. They're still average-or-better nearly everywhere, and they still didn't win the NLCS.
The last NLCS losers—the 2005 team—were more gut-wrenching. We expected more from them, and coming off a brutal World Series we had more to lose. As of that November 6, they—well, they'd let a bunch of players become free agents and signed John Webb, who'd just finished striking out 4.7 batters per nine innings for the AAA Durham Bulls.
They were a great team, and an old one, and their farm system didn't really exist except as a vague idea of where Anthony Reyes lived at a given moment, which left them equally inclined to stand pat even though they had fewer reasons to do so.
So out went several above-average contributors—Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, Abraham Nuñez, somehow, along with erstwhile rotation anchor Matt Morris—and in to replace them flowed... nobody in particular. Witness Walt Jocketty running out of ideas and marketable talent: The Cardinals tried to shore up the outfield and infield with one move by trading Ray King for Larry Bigbie and Aaron Miles, and having done that they acquired every middling veteran upside bet within 500 miles of the wrecking ball outside Busch Stadium.
In came a bunch of names I haven't thought about—well, probably since January of 2007. Ricardo Rincon, Brian Daubach, Sidney Ponson, Braden Looper, Junior Spivey, Jeff Nelson, and the bizarre capper to the Big Lots shopping spree—a three-year, $15 million deal with Juan Encarnacion, a 30-year-old with a career OBP of .316 and one of those vague reputations as a malcontent.
That's how you turn a great team that's built around three MVP-caliber players into an average team that's shockingly reliant on three MVP-caliber players, and that the Cardinals were somehow rewarded for it, despite an inconsistent season from Jim Edmonds, is one of the great infuriating mysteries of baseball history.
Meditating on 2006 aside, that's the model these Cardinals are inevitably going to be shunted toward. They don't have the money to add a big piece to this team, and unlike the 2005 model they don't have a lot of places in which to put one. This is less disastrous than it was then because the Cardinals aren't at the end of a cycle of mortgaging their farm system to buy veterans, but it's still what's haunting about the Cardinals' boring-looking offseason.
Before 2005 there was 2002, and a team with even more season-making narratives than last year's model. Winning for Jack Buck and Darryl Kile until the moment they ran into Barry Bonds, local Public Enemy No. 1 for breaking Mark McGwire's home run record the year before.
That team had already made a franchise-changing move at midseason—just as 2013 will really be the second year post-Pujols, 2003 was the first full season in which the Cardinals were built around Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen.
Looking at that team now it's pretty easy to see the upswing they were set up for—in 2003 Pujols would be 23, Edgar Renteria 26, J.D. Drew 27, Scott Rolen and Matt Morris 28. Sensing that, maybe, Jocketty spent most of his time acquiring suspect complementary parts. In came Brett Tomko, coming off an ERA+ of 84; in came a parade of aging bullpen parts—Jeff Fassero, Cal Eldred, Lance Painter, Russ Springer, Joey Hamilton, Al Levine. The biggest acquisition? Would you believe Orlando Palmeiro? (In Jocketty's defense, he also signed Chris Carpenter that year.)
That 2003 team was pretty good, but it was caught off guard by a Chicago Cubs team that looked even younger and even more impressive, especially in the rotation.
When a team loses in the NLCS it might not seem, in November, like they're coming off a season in which everything broke right, but for the most part they wouldn't have gotten that far if it hadn't. Whether you're the best team in baseball, like the 2005 Cardinals, or a team on the rise, like the 2002 model, you earned that title because a lot of things happened that might not happen again.
So I worry about the 2012 Cardinals resting on what's left of their laurels. This is a good, broad-based team with a great farm system, so they're better served by staying put than these other two NLCS losers. But teams that almost win the World Series are no less in danger of falling back to earth than the teams that manage to do it; whether it's committing fully to their farm system or making some medium-dollar moves at the edges, I hope the 2013 Cardinals are something more than the 2012 Cardinals plus one year.