There seems to be more dissension lately regarding how the Cardinals have gone about their business of late. After a decade of division titles, including two World Series Championships, the Cardinals missed the playoffs. While it is difficult to argue against a plan where a franchise keeps winning, a missed playoff berth makes the time ripe for criticism of the parties involved. Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This is really about the Cubs.
Last week, Ben Godar wondered if Cardinals ownership had become a bit complacent when it comes to winning. Yesterday, Alex Crisafulli noted correctly that while, Busch Stadium fills up every summer, it does not do so because simply because the Cardinals have great fans and will support their team no matter what. Fans support winners, and the Cardinals have been winners. It has been so long since the franchise lacked hope that we forget what sustained losing can do to a fanbase.
These comments and criticisms have come on the heels of a louder, more vocal section criticizing the Cardinals lack of spending. Chase Woodruff noted that the Cardinals spending has not kept up with revenue. This is undoubtedly true, but there are also problems with the argument. The argument would have been better made from 2007 to 2014, when spending was pretty stagnant compared to both Cardinals revenues and MLB spending on players overall.
The last two years, the Cardinals have seen healthy increases in player salaries, and are likely to see another increase this year. It’s more difficult to call out an organization for being cheap when the team is winning. This isn’t dissimilar to the timing for calling for a manager’s job. The message is more likely to be received in times of trouble. Despite an 86-win season on a team that performed like a 90-win team, the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs.
It wasn’t just that the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs. It was that they failed to make the playoffs one year after getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Cubs. It was that in the offseason, the Cubs signed two free agents who were a big part of the Cardinals success in 2015 to big contracts while the Cardinals settled for Mike Leake. It was that those same Cubs finished 17.5 games ahead of the Cardinals, and then went on to win the World Series.
All of that together makes fans more receptive to criticism. We want to know what went wrong, and what we can do to fix it. It’s possible that a lack of money invested in the Cardinals caused these problems, but that really isn’t it. The Cardinals botched last year’s offseason. If the team had gotten David Price or retained Jason Heyward and didn’t try to mess with his swing, the Cardinals probably make the playoffs, and have a shot at taking out the Cubs.
The Cardinals saved some money for a decade, and it had little bearing on wins and losses. They developed a plan last winter to add or keep a star player, but they failed and it cost them. In his piece yesterday, Alex mentioned Jesus Ortiz’s piece in the Post-Dispatch calling for a $200 million payroll and of Mozeliak:
He must figure out a way to sign Dexter Fowler and Yoenis Cespedes or Edwin Encarnacion. He must make a run at elite reliever Kenley Jansen. And while he’s at it, he needs to see if he can acquire White Sox ace Chris Sale.
I’ve advocated the Cardinals go after Sale, but Edwin Encarnacion would do little to help the Cardinals, relievers are often a big waste of money, and Dexter Fowler and Yoenis Cespedes might help in the near term, but neither is likely to be transformative for the franchise.
What Ortiz is advocating is similar to the Cubs, but not to the present-day juggernaut. That strategy is what the Cubs employed a decade ago when they were chasing the Cardinals. The Cubs $77 million payroll in 2005 increased by 29%, then 17%, and then another 13% in 2008, increasing by 70% over a three-year period in order to keep a small run of success alive and catch up to the Cardinals. The plan worked. In 2007 and 2008, the Cubs won the division with veterans on large, long-term contracts.
In 2010, the Cubs started a five-year run where they averaged 69 wins a year while the Cardinals won two more NL pennants and another World Series. The Cubs stepped up to the Cardinals and in 2008, after a disappointing 2007 season, the Cardinals mostly stood pat on the way to an 86 win season, nearly a dozen games behind the Cubs. They didn’t do much that offseason either, waiting until 2009 to acquire Matt Holliday and then sign him to a long-term deal.
By waiting for the right player, the Cardinals lucked out a bit, but not panicking helped the team to it’s success over the last half decade. The team thought it was getting the next Holliday last offseason to help build a bridge with a young team that has more to offer further down the farm. Either poor approach or poor execution caused them to miss out, and now the organization is regrouping and still needs another great player.
It’s easy to call the organization cheap and lazy, just like it is easy to criticize a player for not running out a ground ball. The focus should probably be on getting the player to stop hitting ground balls for easy outs or how to put a better player in that spot. It wasn’t lack of money that caused the Cardinals to miss out on the playoffs. It was a failed offseason, poor managing, players who came up just short, and bad luck.
None of this changes the fact that the Cardinals have a lot of work to do to catch the Cubs, and that should still be their goal. Pointing solely to money as the reason the Cardinals were behind the Cubs this year is a copout, and pointing to money as the easy solution for next year, while hurting the team long term isn’t the answer. Last year’s failure has put the Cardinals behind this offseason.
The Cardinals need to make bold moves to catch the Cubs. Some of the answers might be found in free agency, but the bulk of them won’t. The Cubs look invincible. They aren’t. The last two Cubs’ runs of successes were built on spending and then tanking followed by spending. Neither should be options for the Cardinals. The former isn’t sustainable, and the latter isn’t necessary or enjoyable. The reason Cardinals fans are unhappy is the Cubs, and they are also the reason the Cardinals must get better. This is the offseason of the Cubs, but it is up to the Cardinals to change the narrative.