In 2013, the St. Louis Cardinals made it to the World Series. Things didn’t quite work out for them at the end of the year, but it was a good year. When we think of Cardinals eras, we often cut things off at 2011, the last year of Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, and the last Cardinals championship. That era really extended to 2013 with the continued primes of Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Adam Wainwright. Their declines in 2014 made for a transition year. This is now the Cardinals fourth straight transition year and absent major changes, they are headed to a fifth next year.
Pujols and La Russa did leave after 2011, but the core of the Cardinals remained intact and great for another couple seasons. Molina went from MVP candidate from 2011-2013 to merely good in 2014. Matt Holliday went from great hitter through 2014 to merely very good in 2014. Adam Wainwright remained an ace in 2014 before suffering from injuries and inconsistency since.
With Calros Beltran and David Freese gone and the core in decline 2014, the team transitioned. Is this merely hindsight? Don’t take it from me. Here’s Bernie Miklasz in August 2014:
The Cardinals are in transition. Trades were made for two starting pitchers. The rotation has been modified. Hitters have departed. Rookies Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong are lineup regulars. Adams is a full-time starter for the first time. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski was signed to replace the injured Molina. Wacha is healing. And more changes could be on the way.
John Mozeliak seemed to agree, per the same piece:
“Nothing stays the same forever,” Mozeliak said. “Teams that quickly adapt and adjust have the best chance for consistent success. I think we’ve done a pretty good job in that area.”
Mozeliak wasn’t wrong in his self-assessment at the time. His signing of Jhonny Peralta proved to be a very good move that year. He then saw a team struggling so he jettisoned another playoff hero in Allen Craig along with Joe Kelly and landed John Lackey and hoped to create playing time for Oscar Taveras. Mozeliak’s deft moves—his ability to adapt—helped that transition as the team finished the season playing .600 ball the last two months before an unfortunate walkoff against Michael Wacha ended the season.
Mozeliak continued to adapt, trading for Jason Heyward, a trade made in possible partly due to the innings that John Lackey could provide. Jason Heyward, a great Cardinals defense, the continued great play of Matt Carpenter and healthy, strong starting pitching masked what was another transition season in 2015. Lackey and Heyward would be free agents at the end of 2015 as Molina, Holliday, Wainwright, and now Peralta continued to grow older.
Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Kolten Wong, and a younger Tommy Pham all showed promise in small samples. Carlos Martinez emerged and made the All-Star team, but only John Lackey made it healthy to the postseason from the rotation that had been so good all year long and the Cubs took care of the Cardinals.
After a failure to bring in a star in free agency, 2016 was billed as a transition year where the new young core would establish itself while the old guard made one more run. Carlos Martinez continued his ascendance by pitching a full season, and Aledmys Diaz came out of nowhere, but Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong were benched and demoted. Stephen Piscotty stalled in the second half. Michael Wacha couldn’t stay healthy.
Adam Wainwright and free agent addition Mike Leake were adequate, Yadier Molina had a good season, but Jaime Garcia could not put together two good seasons in a row, Matt Carpenter was merely good, not great, and Matt Holliday couldn’t stay on the field. Jedd Gyorko, another Mozeliak trade, proved fruitful, but the expected transition, the new core did not come to pass, and the team missed the playoffs fro the first time since 2010.
So here we are in 2017, watching yet another transition season. Paul DeJong is the new Aledmys Diaz. Carlos Martinez is still Carlos Martinez. Lance Lynn has provided innings , while Michael Wacha has been surprisingly healthy. Luke Weaver shows promise as does Jack Flaherty. Tommy Pham is having a season it would have been unreasonable to ever expect from Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty. Kolten Wong’s injuries have kept him from a full season, but he has performed well. Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko have proven to be a little above average, though not completely healthy. The same is true for Dexter Fowler.
If you believe Tommy Pham, Paul DeJong, and Luke Weaver are for real, then this Cardinals team is a 90-win team on paper, and they have played like a 90-win team even if collectively they have come short of that total. This is a transition year, but it should be a transition year where young players like Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong establish themselves as regulars. Where Tommy Pham firmly puts himself in the core for at least the near-terms. Where exciting young pitchers like Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty join Carlos Martinez lead the Cardinals to a somewhat surprising playoff berth where anything can happen.
It should be a transition where the view of the team is one where the offseason brings excitement about additions to this younger core are made to return to the playoffs again in 2018. As things stand, we will not be viewing 2017 as a positive year in transition. Blame the bullpen. Blame the lack of expenditures. Blame the manager. Blame bad luck. These are fair criticisms.
The Cardinals made bold moves acquire John Lackey and Jason Heyward. Guaranteeing Jhonny Peralta $53 million coming off a PED suspension falls in that camp as well. Those bold moves, the moves that show the franchise is adapting have not been there the last few seasons. Signing Mike Leake, Dexter Fowler, and Brett Cecil to be innings eaters, and stabilizing forces in the outfield and bullpen are safe moves. Holding on to prospects to the point of having impossible to use depth and losing players in the Rule Five draft is the safe move.
Firing a third-base coach and trying to hire a smart caddie for on-field decisions when the manager sets the baserunning tone, encourages players to constantly look over their shoulders with inconsistent playing time, can’t manage a bullpen, and blames everyone but himself is the safe choice. Safe choices helped the Cardinals fall short of the playoffs last season, and barring a miracle will do so again.
Maybe trading Mike Leake is a bolder move, even if the Cardinals didn’t get much value and still owe him money. Bolder moves need to follow to avoid more transition seasons. The Cardinals are good. They desperately need to get better on the field, in the dugout, and up through the organization. They have the resources, and they have shown a willingness in the past to make tough, but necessary decisions when it looked like the team was getting stale or in danger of falling below the expected level of contention. They are there right now. It’s time to adapt.