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Why it makes sense for the St. Louis Cardinals to add an ace pitcher (it's not the Cubs)

Yes, the Cubs will be better in 2015, but that's not why the Cardinals are interested in adding an ace to their rotation.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard over the last week that the St. Louis Cardinals are still in the market for starting pitching. According to Jon Morosi and Ken Rosenthal of FOX, the Cardinals have put out feelers on trades for lefties David Price and Cole Hamels. St. Louis is also reportedly monitoring free-agent Max Scherzer. There are pros and cons to making such a major move, as we've discussed over the last several days. Today we continue our analysis of such a potential roster move.

Last week, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz weighed in on the Cardinals' reported interest in adding an innings-munching ace. The whole post is worth a read, but I want to hone in on Miklasz's third enumerated point:

This one won't go over well, and I'm not trying to troll anyone here. But I believe the Cubs' expedited rebuilding program under team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer is making the Cardinals a little nervous. If indeed the Cardinals view the Cubs as a rising power, then that's another reason to make a big move here to strengthen your roster for the long haul.

The popular belief in the Cubs' return to relevance is not lost on me. I have taken in dozens of Iowa Cubs games over the last two seasons. Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant horrify me as a Cards fan to such an extent that, when Aaron Finkel asked me which of the two players concerned me the most, I was stumped. Today it's Soler; tomorrow my answer will probably be Bryant.

I'm convinced the Cubs are going to be good, just not all that great in 2015. Depending on how their prospects take to the majors, Chicago may not be a legitimate Central contender till 2017. I can't speak for Miklasz, but he appears to view the Cubbies in a similar light, indicating that Chicago emerging as an NL power provides "another reason to make a big move here to strengthen your roster for the long haul."

I agree with Miklasz about the long haul, but I'm not so convinced that the Cardinals are exploring the addition of a proven veteran to their starting rotation because of the Cubs' future viability. I think the Cards' reported interest in big-name pitchers is about the here and now more than the future.

Matt Holliday turns 35 on Thursday and is under contract for just two more years for sure (with an option year for 2017). Yadier Molina turns 32 in July and will be a free agent after 2017. 33-year-old Adam Wainwright's contract expires after 2018. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta turns 33 in May and will hit free agency after 2017. The Cardinals' core, their very foundation, is aged and aging.

The Cards' interest in more aging pitchers isn't about improving their club for the long haul so much as improving it for 2015. This is part of a recent pattern.

The Cardinals traded a 26-year-old starter with some promise  in Joe Kelly (along with Allen Craig) for John Lackey's age-35 and 36 seasons. While the trade opened up right field for Oscar Taveras, the move was also meant to bolster the rotation with a proven innings-eater for a World Series push in 2014 and 2015.

After Taveras's tragic death, the Cardinals faced the unpalatable choice of going with Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty in right field. General manager John Mozeliak and company responded to this proposition by choosing neither. Instead, the Cardinals made a win-now move, trading former top prospect Shelby Miller, who has four years of club control remaining, and prospect Tyrell Jenkins for Jason Heyward, who has but one year of club control remaining, and reliever Jordan Walden, who had two years of club control to go (and has since signed a two-year deal with a club option for a third). Heyward may yet sign an extension with St. Louis or ink a free-agent contract to be a Cardinal for many years to come, but the November trade was about winning in 2015, the only year the Cards are guaranteed to have Heyward manning right field.

Then there is the Cardinals' reported interest in Jon Lester. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, the Cardinals indicated that their limit was $120 million during talks with the just-turned-31-year-old. I found the Cubs' interest in Lester kind puzzling because he'll likely be in his decline phase by the time their group of prospects is likely to coalesce into the core of a World Series contender. In Lester, Chicago will be paying a premium salary to starter past his prime. Consequently, I don't think the Cardinals' interest in Lester was about improving for the long haul so much as seizing the current window to win now. The same can be said, to an extent, for each of Price, Hamels, and Scherzer.

Aside from the ages of Holliday, Wainwright, Molina, and Peralta, why might the Cardinals be intent on a significant upgrade for 2015? It's not the Cubs, but the Pirates. Two Central clubs have made the postseason each of the last two years: Pittsburgh and St. Louis. On paper right now in January, the Pirates and Cardinals are once again the class of the Central.

Fangraphs has put out their projected standings for 2015. At present, the Dodgers project to be the class of the NL, with 91 wins. The Nationals and Cardinals come in second with 87 wins. Right behind them, at 86 wins, are the Pirates. The Cubs project to win 83 games.

Now, you're probably thinking: "91 wins as the most in the NL? 87 for Washington and St. Louis? What a joke!" That's an understandable sentiment that misses the point. The projected standings are based on projected performance. Individual player projections attempt to reflect a player's true talent, based on his statistical performance to date. There are very few teams that project to be a true-talent 90-game winner (as evidenced by the current projected standings), let alone 95, 97, or 100. But NL teams will surpass their projections just as others will finish with fewer wins than their forecasted total. Things will break right for some while circumstances go bad for others. That's the beauty of the American Pastime.

Right now, months before the start of the 162-game marathon that is MLB's regular season, the Pirates and Cardinals are neck and neck on paper. Thus, the addition of a Lester, Scherzer, Price, Hamels, or Shields has more value to the Cardinals than many other teams. Such an upgrade to the rotation for 2015 would put St. Louis in the Central's driver's seat, which means they would be well-positioned to avoid the brutish Wild Card play-in game come October. That is to say that it makes sense for St. Louis to pay a premium price for an upgrade because such an improvement to the roster will help them more relative to many other MLB clubs.

The Cardinals' reported interest in a rotation upgrade isn't about competing against the Cubs at some point in the future. It's about winning the division in 2015 because avoiding the Wild Card coin-flip game is the most tangible way by which a club can improve its World Series chances. With Holliday, Molina, Wainwright, and Peralta not getting any younger, adding a top-tier starter is an understandable gambit.