In one of the tinier rooms off the tiny visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park, a room accessible only to team personnel and tucked out of sight, several Cardinals were overcome by finality.
The club’s 2013 season concluded Wednesday night with a Game 6 loss in the World Series to the victorious Boston Red Sox. Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina, two mainstays of four National League championship teams, and a handful of others gathered in this adjacent room, gravitating together because of their emotions.
A few players were unavailable to comment after the game because of how shaken they were. For several, like Carpenter and Jake Westbrook, it is likely the last time appearing in a Cardinals jersey as a player. For others, like Molina and Adam Wainwright, their next time in the Cardinals clubhouse will be their first time without a mentor like Carpenter.
These Cardinals saw the World Series as an ending.
But, this World Series saw the Cardinals only just beginning.
“There is that feeling when you realize there is an ending, that in this business the faces change,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “But this group has to realize it’s a young, talented group. They have a bright future. When you reflect on this year and how we got here to see it being done with our youth movement, it really bodes well for our future. Clearly, at this time, you’re reflecting on the what-if and what-could-have-been.
“But when you look at the long view,” the general manager added, “you have to be pretty pleased with what you see.”
A year after finishing one win shy of an NL pennant in 2012, the Cardinals cleared that hurdle and returned to the World Series for the second time in three years and fourth time in a decade. Their 106 wins total were the thirst-most for a Cardinals club since 1944.
GORDON: CARDINALS REPORT CARD
The route they took to an NL-best 97 wins in the regular season was not the one mapped back in March. Potholes like early injuries (Carpenter, Jaime Garcia) and ongoing struggles (Westbrook, David Freese) jarred them off course. A core of Molina, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran, Wainwright and ascendant Matt Carpenter kept them in contention. Around that group, the Cardinals force-fed their prospects to a cause that fell two wins shy of the franchise’s 12th World Series championship.
The World Series became a showcase of a team built for the future winning now. The Cardinals set a record for most innings pitched by rookies in the postseason (67.0). Seven of the Cardinals’ nine wins in October and 71 percent of the Cardinals’ innings in the World Series came from pitchers 26 or younger. Of the 16 players who appeared in Game 6, only one is a free agent (Beltran) and 11 have three or fewer years in the majors.
When the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series it was with a fading, aging core that deteriorated through a difficult 2007. The 2011 World Series victory marked the final games for two franchise icons, manager Tony La Russa and first baseman Albert Pujols. Endings are inevitable. Fall is defined by them. Like leaves, teams change. But this October, the Cardinals leave the World Series with a different vibe – more hello than goodbye. In autumn, their youth bloomed. They’re chasing a goal identified by manager Mike Matheny last spring.
The Cardinals should contend annually – for an era.
“For years, we’ll continue to have a shot at winning a World Series,” Holliday said. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll get back. But we have a lot of young players who have a ton of talent and showed up big time. We have a great opportunity here.”
On Aug. 10, Holliday hit two home runs against the Cubs but the Cardinals couldn’t close the game and lost for the 13th time in 17 games. Matheny slammed a door so hard it rattled a clubhouse wall. He tersely told the media the team had “to do things a little different.” They were four games out in the NL Central. From there, the Cardinals won 31 of their final 46 games. They went 19-8 in September and won baseball’s most competitive division race – one that produced three playoff teams. September offered the first hints of the youth movement ahead.
Shelby Miller, 22 at the time, won three starts. Joe Kelly, 25, and Lance Lynn, 26, combined for seven quality starts and a 2.11 ERA in September. Michael Wacha, 22, earned a spot in the postseason rotation with a 1.72 ERA in September and 8 2/3 no-hit innings against Washington in his final regular-season start. Trevor Rosenthal, 23, moved into the closer role and had three saves in the season’s final six games. Matt Adams, the 25-year-old sub for injured Craig, set a club rookie record with eight homers in September.
“We’re fortunate that we have kids that show up ready to go,” Matheny said. “And we’re not afraid to put them in there. We were able to have some openings toward the end of the season and these young guys stepped in. They’re not just fillers. They took advantage of it and took control and said this is the job I want.”
The Cardinals entered the postseason with the youngest 25-man roster of the five NL playoff teams. The Cardinals’ pitching staff had an average age of 26.8 during the regular season. Only two teams were younger, Miami (25.7) and the White Sox (26.7).
Of the Cardinals’ 162 regular-season games, pitchers 26 or younger started 109 of them. As the postseason arrived and the Cardinals’ distilled their pitching staff down to its best arms – shedding struggling starters and middle relievers – it got younger. Rookies pitched 44.1 percent of the innings in the playoffs, 50 percent of the innings in the World Series. The World Series roster featured eight players drafted in the past four years, five from the 2009 draft alone.
“I think it’s a good situation for us to be in to see who really rises up,” Matheny said. “We haven’t seen the ceiling with a lot of these young players.”
While that strength of their organization continued into the World Series, they lost to Boston, four-games-to-two, partially because a strength of the season wilted. The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored (783) and run differential (plus-187) because of a lineup that was historically timely. The Cardinals hit .330 with runners in scoring position and five of the top six averages in the NL with runners in scoring position were Cardinals, from Craig’s .454 down to Molina’s .373. The Cardinals had the highest RISP average in at least five decades.
The Cardinals were a also team of contrasts. They set a franchise record for fewest errors (75), and yet were pedestrian defensively. Their lack of range contributed to a minus-39 Runs Saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Only one NL team was worse. The cracks showed throughout October, adding outs and giving bases. Their success with runners in scoring position was essential because they also lacked power. Only three teams, all losing teams, hit fewer home runs than the Cardinals’ 125. The Cardinals hit two homers and sunk to a .214 average with runners in scoring position in the World Series.
Their World Series will be remembered for the Cardinals stranded on a plane for seven hours and the Cardinals stranded on base in six games.
“When you get to the World Series, you’re supposed to win it. You’re not looking for moral victories or looking for what we did in the past,” infielder Daniel Descalso said. “Hopefully we learn from this and come back, we’re in the same spot next year.”
Of the 25 players on the Cardinals’ World Series roster, the team holds control of 23. Beltran and Edward Mujica became free agents last week. The Cardinals must weigh offering contracts to arbitration-eligible players like reliever John Axford and third baseman David Freese. The Cardinals have approximately $47 million coming off an opening day payroll of around $115 million. The club has $16 million committed in raises to players including Wainwright, Molina and Jason Motte. The Cardinals and the other 29 big-league teams will also receive a $25-million jackpot from national broadcast rights fees.
Club officials have said they have enough payroll flexibility for 2014 and beyond to consider and pursue a core player.
One position on the shopping list is shortstop. The free-agent market is thin on impact shortstops – Stephen Drew is the best – so the trade market could be more fruitful. The Cardinals could re-engage Texas about Elvis Andrus, talk to Colorado about high-priced Troy Tulowitzki or seek a younger option to develop. If it’s a trade the Cardinals make for a shortstop or another impact position player it will cost a familiar currency.
Like October, it’s all about the pitching.
The Cardinals showed they have the most valuable commodity in the game, young pitching. The riches that elevated them to the top-rated farm system to start the year and kept them playing to the end of it, are the reasons they’re set to contend in 2014. The pitching also gives the Cardinals assets needed to deal for upgrades. Wednesday may have brought an end, but the Cardinals see 2013 as something else.
They’ve only just started.
“We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a young team,” Mozeliak said. “How this team is put together and how it’s made up leaves you with a high level of confidence moving forward. We’re not perfect. There is room for improvement.”