The St. Louis Cardinals made the playoffs in 2020, as per usual. That “as per usual” sounds nice to the journeyman fan. It’s reassuring in a way that the average Cardinal devotee can breathe a sigh of relief that the club is still on the right path. It has a ring of certainty to it, too, an inevitability. The Redbirds participate in October, like the sun rising in the east and Harrison Bader swinging at sliders in the dirt: part of the natural order. However, when you consider the sole reason that the Cardinals were able to ply their trade in the postseason was the vastly expanded playoffs of the 2020 COVID season, that warm and fuzzy feeling vanishes faster than a golf ball annihilated by Mike Trout. With annual reassurances from the likes of owner Bill DeWitt and President of Baseball Ops John Mozeliak that every year is “win-now”, the St. Louis fan base has fruitlessly placed their faith in the front office like dutiful sheep plodding along after their shepherd, with hopeful optimism quickly dissipating to resigned acceptance by June. This comfortable routine of playing just well enough to eke into the postseason only to get eliminated by vastly superior teams has become stale and wearing, and it feels as if the Cardinal’s front office has one season of falsehoods left before the people turn against them. 2020 was a turning point, and only two options remain for 2021: spend, win, and deliver a welcome “We told you so!” to fans, or admit that after a generation of success followed by middling results, a retooling is in the cards for the Cards.
The chasm between that tandem of choices looms wide and deep. It would be unsurprising for the Cardinals to stay the path and claim competition with an core of exciting young players on the way and a rock-solid stable of pitchers already established, from the starting rotation headed by Jack Flaherty to returning fireballer Jordan Hicks slamming the door in the ninth. However, just as easily, Cardinal brass might use the departures of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, Cardinal legends and leaders, and the end of an era in St. Louis as an excuse to step back and admit that the World Series might be off the table for the next several years as that youthful core slowly trickles into the League and develops. Let’s peer into the future and witness both worlds, one where the front office insists on competition, and the other where Molina and Wainwright no longer don Cardinal red and a championship is several years away.
Enter scenario one, in which Mr. Mozeliak hushes a crowd of virtual, socially-distanced members of the press, and gives a sermon akin to the one Cardinal fans are so familiar with. It goes: “We’re the St. Louis Cardinals, we have the best fans in baseball, we compete every year, we’re always aiming at October, we want to watch the free agent market develop, it’s the Cardinal Way to grow our own talent and we trust in our player development division.” This continues for fifteen minutes. Now, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that Cardinal fans are beyond spoiled and hardly know it. While Astros and Marlins fans have watched their teams implode for seasons at a time just to make it back to competition, the Redbirds last season under .500 was in 2007 (.481), and the one before that was in 1999 (.466). I was a one-year-old in 1999, I know not the pain of a 100-loss season. The Cardinal front office is a major part of why I’m so spoiled. For every Luke Voit and Randy Arozarena trade, there is a Paul Goldschmidt acquisition. But, with the privilege of success comes the burden of expectation, and Cardinal fans are heavy with it. So, while other franchise supporters might roll their eyes at Cardinal fan’s angst, I urge them to consider that perpetually being the groomsman and never the groom, always attending the wedding and never staying past the vows to enjoy the cake and open bar, might be more grating than not being invited to the wedding at all. At least you get to stay home and watch Netflix, instead of being forced to watch the newly-joined couple feed each other that rich, velvety, luxuriously-iced, three-tiered delicacy without getting a bite yourself.
Ultimately, if St. Louis management claims competition this year, they have to prove it. They have to show their hand instead of posturing and watching and waiting. I’m not suggesting hastiness or even blowing payroll on a big-name free agent, a trophy is too far away to commit to that, but rather taking tangible, encouraging steps towards meaningful progress. With the 2020-2021 free agent market looking like a nuclear wasteland, it’s hard to imagine any of that happening. An easier, effective, and certainly more frugal route, then, would be to eschew any declarations of contention, and admit concession for a year or two.
With that being said, we move to a realm in which St. Louis relinquishes its tenuous hold on the NL Central and plays for 2022 and beyond. Now, to some, Dylan Carlson’s lackluster freshman season would signal a disheartening beginning to this epoch. However, I think that a combination of disheartening annual team results, an aggressive media, and hyperbole has led to an inflated expectation of Carlson. After years of subpar baseball, the fanbase was scrabbling to latch onto a new messiah, a Pujols or Wainwright figure to lead them out of the darkness that is the median of the National League Central. Then, suddenly, reports of a young man with superstar tools began appearing in local media. Expectations were heightened. To make things more dire, this young man performs at every level, and now the masses have their savior. Desired or not, this is the mantle that Carlson has assumed and one that he now must exist within, as his highs are lauded and his lows are mourned, both in excess. Simply put, the kid did fine for his first taste of the Majors. A permanent fixture in the St. Louis outfield moving forward, Carlson will do nothing but improve, both on-field and as the next-generation’s clubhouse leader.
Looking to 2022, the way will be clear for young talent to take over the starting duties of the ballclub. Flaherty will be a seasoned starter, the only veteran contracts remaining being Paul Goldschimdt, Carlos Martinez, and Miles Mikolas (presuming Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Andrew Miller are not extended or re-signed), and payroll will be nearly chopped in half, preparing the front office to spend big shoring up holes in the ship. Further, the emergence of such talent like eventual everyday third-baseman Nolan Gorman, recently acquired and highly-touted southpaw Matthew Liberatore, and young catcher Ivan Herrera will solidify the infield, bolster already impressive pitching depth, and give manager Mike Shildt even more offensive options.
Regardless of which route the front office takes, those talented, youthful players will eventually arrive in St. Louis. The Commissioner’s Trophy will be returned to the city. Therefore, what is being decided now is the future of the Cardinal Way. A new age dawns in the Gateway to the West, and an identity must be established to accompany this next era. Do the leaders forge anew what it means to be a St. Louis Cardinal, and how the organization operates? Do they look to the future, adopt a new ideology, and restructure their existing philosophy? Or do they stay the course, re-commit themselves to tradition, and trust the path that brought the franchise two championships in the past fourteen years will return them to prominence? We shall see.
Featured Photo: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (www.stltoday.com)