The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the biggest franchises in baseball. Despite a relatively small market, they have had continued success decade after decade.
Despite a city population of just under 320,000 (St. Louis county has just above 996,000 people), the franchise continues to finish top two in attendance, and the reason they aren’t number one is because Dodger Stadium fits about 15,000 more people. They are in the bottom half of market size in baseball but continue to win and draw. After missing the playoffs from 2016- 2018, they returned to the postseason in 2019 where they won the NL Central outlasting the Cubs and Brewers. They beat a Braves squad who was more talented than the Cardinals but self destructed in Game 5 and then got swept by the Nationals, scoring only two runs in the first three games and only putting up a four spot after falling behind 7-0 in game four. This is where the frustration crept in.
The market size and Midwest feel is going to make it hard for the Cardinals to recruit any major free agents. Routinely, they have lost free agent battles to the mega markets in New York, Chicago and Boston. The way the Cardinals have to do things is to develop players, trade for them and then sign them long term such as they did with Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Holliday, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. For a franchise like this to never have to tear it down and rebuild like the Cubs or Astros did is impressive, but it has gotten stale. The team has become a high floor but low ceiling organization as it stands right now.
So, looking forward to the 2020 season, what needs to be done? Anyone who kept track of the Cardinals last season knows it is offense and even more offense. The bats were extremely inconsistent outside of Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman for most of the season. The offense finished in the bottom half of the league in a lot of categories, and they haven’t done anything so far to heal that. Marcell Ozuna hit cleanup for most of the 2019 campaign but bringing him back just means the status quo is back. Doing that means you have to really rely on guys like Matt Carpenter to have bounceback seasons and that Edman and Wong continue to spray the ball all over the field. What would help even further is if Goldschmidt got back to his MVP level. He was fine in 2019 but everyone knows he has another gear. That’s a lot of ifs for a team that has a talented pitching staff and bullpen. In the pipeline they have Dylan Carlson and Nolan Gorman who are extremely talented but won’t help this season more than likely. The ifs and hopefully when’s become even more prevalent should Ozuna sign elsewhere.
So what can the front office do? Well, with so many marquee names available for trade it is rather obvious. Francisco Lindor, Mookie Betts and Nolan Arenado are all available. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on Arenado. The Cardinals, though, appear to be unwilling to trade major prospects or assets to acquire a superstar talent like the Rockies third baseman. It is like that joke from Family Guy “Nolan Arenado is Nolan Arenado but the prospects could be anything, they could even be Nolan Arenado.” The other hold up is the fact that the front office doesn’t believe it could bring in a $35 million contract. The internal cap according to owner Bill DeWitt is about $170 million. The payroll as it stands is around $156 million. What is frustrating about this is the fact that DeWitt is the third richest owner in baseball and the Cardinals are worth $2.1 billion. From an outside perspective, they could easily add that kind of money and they could try and bring back Ozuna. After the Rockies’ GM shut down any idea of trading Arenado, the superstar spoke out about how he felt disrespected by the organization and hinted that he wants out. So, the price just went down on an MVP caliber player and at the moment it appears the Cards aren’t even interested because of the cost in both money and prospects or MLB level players. With two moves, the Cardinals could elevate themselves from postseason hopeful to bonafide contender but appear disinterested in doing that.
Should the Cardinals even go for it this year? They have some young talent, I mentioned the two big prospects already and Jack Flaherty who looks like a Cy Young contender for the next several seasons, is still young. Then you remember this could be the last season for Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Two franchise legends who they have paraded around and shown off for everyone and two players who have done everything they possibly could have and more for the organization. This may be their last hurrah and the front office, instead of doing what they can to send them out on top, appears to be okay with sending them out with a third place finish. They know Cardinals fans will show up for a goodbye tour (they show up anyway) and buy all the gear anyway.
That is the frustration of Cardinal fans. Like any other major team in any major sport, they expect championships or at least ready to compete year in and year out. It looks like, however, the goal of the Cardinal front office is to keep payroll down and bring in the revenue from three million plus fans every season. The team is seventh in revenue and 10th in payroll. That doesn’t appear to be that large of a gap, but fans are tired of being lied to and told they don’t have the money. The team has seen their biggest rival beat them in a playoff series and go on to end the most famous drought in sports and instead of doing what they can to be better, they have remained stale, getting lucky on the fact that what looked like a could be dynasty in Chicago has whimpered out.
Unless something changes, gone are the days of bringing in guys like Holliday, Larry Walker and Scott Rolen to give an already good team a big boost. Now, if something does change and they do bring in a legit superstar, then I will be the first win to sing the praises, but as of this moment, all I can say.