Step 1: The Cardinals play a season and have a winning record.
Step 2: They either just miss the playoffs or get in and are knocked out super-fast.
Step 3: Other teams that spend more and take bigger risks win the pennants and World Series.
Step 4: Cardinals share offseason optimism about both the present and the future.
Repeat Steps 1-4.
This happened eight years in a row.
Every year, starting in 2015.
Eight years in a row — one playoff series win (the 2019 National League Division Series).
Just one more playoff series win than the Pirates or the Rockies.
But Cardinals ownership doesn’t measure success based on playoff success.
Success to them is earning a berth into the tournament.
“I think the key is to get into the playoffs — I think of really good teams that went far, we caught our breaks,” said chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., who has long cherished the importance of winning the division (and what comes with that in October). “The key is to get there, and anybody can win.”
But they keep losing in these small-sample-size rounds of the early postseason. DeWitt Jr. brought up how some recent playoff games could’ve gone either way and came down to just Ryan Helsley’s finger or Chris Taylor’s bat. OK, so why not overspend and build an indestructible tank of a team that can bypass the new wild-card round (with a bye) and steamroll its way to the World Series?
Why didn’t they take a risk on signing a big-name pitcher or shortstop Trea Turner (like the defending pennant-winning Phillies did) or, entering 2022, lefty slugger Kyle Schwarber (who starred for those same Phillies)? They still could’ve improved the team and not mortgage the future. They stopped short.
I asked DeWitt Jr., during his first official media availability since the 2022 season ended about the level of the Cardinals’ offseason aggressiveness. I brought up how teams such as the Mets are spending exorbitant amounts of money to try to win. I brought up how teams like the Astros and Dodgers, even in this crazy era, have sure figured out how to be consistent pennant-winners.
“I would say that we make every effort to have the best team we could possibly have,” DeWitt Jr. said. “And you get to the point of — what can I do to actually make it better? And what is that cost? And I don’t mean necessarily what you pay a guy, but what is that overall cost over a period of time? And is that worth throwing all your eggs in one basket, hoping this is the year or next year is the year, rather than building and having a really good team and more coming, hopefully?”
Well, you haven’t sniffed the pennant in nearly a decade, you haven’t won a single game in the National League Championship Series since 2014 and you currently have two of the three best hitters in the National League. If there was ever a time to consider that eggs-in-a-basket plan, wouldn’t it be right now?
What’s the worst thing that happens? You don’t make the World Series, yet again, but this time the consequences are harsher on the roster and you have some rough years because of it? At least then you can say you gave it your best shot and pushed the pedal down.
And sure, the prospect Masyn Winn may be the next Turner — but why not sign the actual Turner to help you win the 2023 World Series? Again, what’s the worst thing that happens? Winn is blocked at shortstop by an elite big-league shortstop, so you trade him for a really great player at a different position of need? And a terrible contract doesn’t look as bad in the shadow of a championship flag.
At a public question-and-answer session with fans Monday, team president Bill DeWitt III was asked: What do you wish fans would know about running the organization? He brought up shortstop in his revealing and honest answer:
“Well, I would say that a lot of fans get their information — as they should, how else is there? — through the media. And the media is following the club closely. They understand what’s going on in the industry. And it’s all good. But sometimes I think what you see behind the scenes — that I would love for fans to see — is how we think about roster construction.
“Let’s say a potential free agent is out there. And, you know, the bidding starts getting beyond what’s reasonable, the front office quickly pivots to other opportunities and other ideas — and they’re constantly thinking about ways to make the team better. And then it’s also thinking about our younger players in the system. You might get better this year, if you signed a big shortstop, for example — a little bit this year — but then what about the shortstop we have coming up in the system who’s due to be maturing next year? So it’s sort of that multiple-moves-down-the-chessboard type of thinking that the general manager and the front office has to think about, which goes deeper than just the headline, who’s out there (on the market) and what should what we should do.”
But it’s Groundhog Day (or Year). Every offseason since I moved back home in 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals have talked about hoping to win now in the playoffs but also preserve their assets to win in the future. Well, they didn’t win in the playoffs then or now (in the future that has become the present).
DeWitt Jr. pointed out that the Cardinals finished last season 12th in revenue and 12th in payroll.
“We do have big spenders in the National League, no question about that …” he said in reference to the Mets, Padres, Dodgers, Braves, Giants and Phillies. “So we’re kind of where we are. It’s not to say we can’t, if an opportunity presents itself, spend some money and improve the club. But it’s hard to do. We don’t want to do something that down the road we’re going to say, ‘Oh, we’re stuck with this,’ and it would prevent us from doing at that point in time what we wanted to do.”
But we’re having this same conversation every winter. So how many years do we go until you say, “No, we have to change this up?”
“There are a lot of long-term contracts this year from free agency,” DeWitt Jr. replied in reference to contracts, such as Turner’s, that last a decade or longer. “One team does it, then the next team does it. So, you know, each to his own. We look at today’s game, we look at next year’s team, and hopefully, we can continue to have winning teams, year in year out — playoff-type teams that have a chance to win a world championship.”
Round and round we go on the merry-go-round on the corner of Clark and Eighth, while all along taunted by a nearby 30-foot World Series trophy, on display to rekindle fans’ memories from what sure seems like long ago.
@hochman on Twitter