“We have a busy July coming,” said John Mozeliak said a month ago when discussing the timing of the Cardinals’ promotion of himself to President of Baseball Operations and his assistant GM Michael Girsch to General Manager. Through the month he remained optimistic that the Cardinals would be making deals as the deadline loomed. And the deadline came and went and the Cardinals did not make a move. Not even a sniff of anything on deadline day. The closest they got to a trade today was when USA Today’s Bob Nightengale put Dexter Fowler’s name in a tweet instead of Dustin Fowler.
While other contenders made deals to shore up their clubs, the Cardinals, at 52-53 and 4.5 games out of the NL Central, chose to stand pat and ride it out. As Mozeliak put it, “As today unfolded unfortunately we weren’t able to get anything across the finish line.”
Yet another wasted opportunity for this club to choose a direction. Instead, they will maintain the status quo, as I suggested they would a week ago. They were too close to become sellers and too far away to be serious buyers. By all accounts this is a club that hasn’t shown they deserve to be invested in.
I get it.
But if the team won’t tell you which way to go, you have to look at the big picture and decide. The Cardinals could have chosen to make a push in Lance Lynn’s final year on his current contract because you don’t know what the rookie you replace him with next year is going to be able to put together. Alternatively, the Cardinals could have seen the group of highly talented prospects coming through the minors, the tip of the spear we’re seeing this year, and doubled down on that group by selling the valuable pieces we have that won’t be around then.
But they didn’t.
When I look at what it would probably cost to get a guy like Josh Donaldson from the Blue Jays, I understand why a team would be reluctant to spend the talent required to bring him in. But what the Cardinals were once really good was finding value in low hanging fruit in free agency and the trade markets. And there were several members of that club out there and available that the organization chose to pass on. Guys like shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and reliever Joe Smith who were both traded this season for proverbial pennies when we talk about prospect costs and would have improved the team. It wouldn’t have closed the gap on paper, but they would represent steps in the right direction.
But they didn’t.
Instead the organization apparently decided that holding onto their prospects and not exceeding their “model” was more important to them than improving the team’s odds of winning the field either now or in the future. The model got them here. And the franchise that has plenty of both money and prospects couldn’t be bothered to part with either.
But it’s more than just adding players. The Cardinals have a real problem with too many players in their outfield.
They have two guys in Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty signed long-term. They have Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Jose Martinez all playing well on the big league roster. You have Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra who have shown flashes in their first opportunities in the big leagues. You have Adolis Garcia and Randy Arozarena in the high levels of the minors on the top prospects list. And then they added Tyler O’Neill, yet another high level outfielder, a week ago.
All in all ten players on that list for three starting spots. That doesn’t work. Those guys can be dealt, preferably before their stock falls, for real players who can help this team win games.
At every turn over the last several years this organization has told us, from the top to the bottom, that they want to win. They tell us they have money to spend and intend to be aggressive in free agency, only to lose out because they weren’t aggressive at all. They tell us they expect to be busy on the trade markets, only to lose out because they weren’t comfortable with the price the market made.
When it comes time for Bill DeWitt Jr’s Cardinals to put their money where their mouth is, they choke.
And I say that because the more I watch this team, the more I’m convinced that it’s not John Mozeliak or Michael Girsch or anyone in leadership positions in the front office that can’t make the decision to part with prospects, it’s the owner. So it’s not going to change unless he does.
Somewhere between Walt Jocketty’s “Sell all the prospects to help the Major League club” and the “Keep all the prospects and build from within” is a strategy that creates a stable and consistent winner.
I feel like that is the strategy that the organization wanted to use when they let Jocketty go and made Mozeliak the team’s GM ten years ago. And yet here we are 10 years later and they’ve swung a complete 180 in the other direction.
Two years ago the Cardinals were coming off a 100 game season and facing their first real challenge in a decade with both the Cubs and the Pirates built to contend over multiple years. They talked tough about free agency and struck out looking.
Two years later they are listing, a game under .500, in third place and lacking both an identity and a star player.
As Mozeliak once said, “St. Louis is a tough place… There’s high expectations and winning is demanded.”
We demand winning, Mr. DeWitt.
It’s time to do what it takes.