In the past decade or so the Cardinals have become enviably good at marketing their history, tradition, National League-leading 11 World Series championships, and, of course, bobbleheads to entice more than 3.4 million to Busch Stadium.
The front office would like to be as successful luring one.
Six years to the date that three-time MVP and franchise icon Albert Pujols spurned the Cardinals for a better offer from the Los Angeles Angels, Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, used his no-trade rights to veto a move Friday to the Cardinals. Stanton becomes the latest of the Cardinals’ high-profile pursuits to turn them down, joining Jason Heyward and David Price, just in recent winters. Stars are shooting elsewhere. The chase for Stanton and the significant offer the Cardinals made to acquire him from Miami were, in part, spurred by this trend that has the team’s attention.
An edge the Cardinals used to flaunt — come, flock to where championships are won, the city paints itself red, and the ballpark is packed — has dulled or been surpassed.
During a recent appearance on KMOX (1120 AM), the 50,000-watt bullhorn that has helped amplify the Cardinals’ brand as “baseball heaven,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recited a familiar brochure: centralized travel, cost of living, 3 million fans, spring training location, even thin traffic. He also conceded their “playbook” needs an update.
“I still think that St. Louis is a very attractive place to be. I still think it’s a desirable place to play, and when we sit down with that agent or that player, that’s what we’re selling,” Mozeliak said on the radio show. “Ultimately that is the challenge for team operators — to make sure that you stay relevant, to make sure that you still stay desirable. We had a playbook that we could use 15, 20 years ago that is changing. Why is it changing? People got smarter. People got more money. We do need to reflect on that and know that as the landscape changes, the St. Louis Cardinals have to go with it.”
That can start this week, down the street from a place called Fantasia Gardens.
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At Walt Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin Resort, advertised as “located in the heart of the most magical place on earth (sic),” Major League Baseball officials, agents and team executives will gather for the annual Winter Meetings. The weeklong gathering revs to life Monday and ends with Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. With all of baseball stuffed under the same roof, there is, Mozeliak said Friday, “the opportunity to be active.”
The hot stove is about to become a microwave.
At the outset of this offseason, the Cardinals, losing patience and irked by a third-place finish, outlined how they intended to chase a middle-order hitter, a closer, a setup reliever, and, should the market bend their way, a starting pitcher. So far, they’ve signed a starter, Miles Mikolas.
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The first two months of their offseason have been focused — but not fixated — on the potential transformative trade for Stanton. The Marlins’ new ownership did not hide their intention to molt salaries, and the Cardinals recognized Stanton’s availability as a rare chance to add a rare talent without a bidding war and limited rivals. The Cardinals offered to assume almost $250 million of the $295 million remaining on Stanton’s contract, and, according to sources, they offered the best bundle of prospects any interested team did. They took their recruitment presentation — packed house, history, strong farm system, tradition, billion-dollar TV deal — straight to Stanton, in person.
He declined a week later.
Stanton also rebuffed San Francisco on Friday and used his no-trade clause as a crowbar, steering a deal to a preferred team. The Yankees, being the Yankees, played vulture Saturday and reportedly had an agreement with the Marlins that Stanton would accept.
In the wake of Stanton’s choice, Mozeliak described the “unique opportunity” those talks presented but stressed the search for “an impactful way to change our team” continues.
It was recent misses that informed the Cardinals’ push for Stanton and will be a compass as they move forward with free agents and other teams this week. The Cardinals learned from Heyward how offering the larger guaranteed deal doesn’t assure a signing, and they saw with Price how a fatter-wallet team can always trump their offer. Heyward picked the Cubs, Price picked Boston and $217 million. The Cubs sold Heyward on the culture, the good-time manager, and the quest to be the first team in more than a century to win a championship for Wrigley Field.
A rival executive of the Cubs and Cardinals noted at the time how teams had “closed the gap” on the Cardinals’ royal narrative. An agent said appeal in the division had “flipped.” Lots of teams have money to spend; some have bigger cities to offer. Others have beaches.
The Cardinals readily acknowledge they cannot sell the thrill of breaking a curse. That’s not their thing. They have considered reasons why their status as a destination team has been challenged. These could range from the view of their roster, to the perception of the clubhouse, to their spot in the standings, and even to the social unrest in the city.
A year ago, the Cardinals asked Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith to visit with Dexter Fowler, of the curse-breaking Cubs, and help him buy into the Cardinals’ offer. The day the Cardinals left last year’s Winter Meetings they had an agreement with Fowler in place, and he was jetting to St. Louis for a physical. To land him, the Cardinals added an extra year to their offer — “going over the top,” one source said, for Fowler.
That was what it took to get their prioritized free agent.
Here they are again.
The Cardinals have adopted a pragmatic view of next year’s windfall of free agents that will include Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, and know they have not had success in such auctions. Consider their early exit from Max Scherzer’s market.
As a result, they’ve become the Magellan of the trade market this winter — circumnavigating the league to discover the swap for a middle-order hitter they haven’t been able to sign as a free agent since Carlos Beltran (2011) and haven’t developed since the passing of Oscar Taveras (2014). The Cardinals will seek out conversations with Toronto about former MVP Josh Donaldson, and they have had talks with Tampa Bay about Evan Longoria and closer Alex Colome. Such talks are expected to accelerate in the coming days. The Marlins still need prospects to nourish their rebuilding, and the Cardinals know from the Stanton negotiations they have the talent should Miami want to trade Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna. Either would bat in the middle of the order for the Cardinals.
Not one of those players has a pesky no-trade clause to get in the way. That would get a player to Busch Stadium and then his own experience would determine if he stays. Or, the Cardinals could just use other currency of recruitment.
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“Money still matters,” Mozeliak said on KMOX.
He later added how he and his staff, including general manager Michael Girsch, have been “kicking a lot of tires” already this winter. They’ve had initial discussions with the agents for relievers such as Addison Reed and Brandon Morrow. A source described how the Cardinals had momentum with Reed at one point this winter. Others have described how the entire market for relievers has “stalled.” Not one of the relievers the Cardinals covet has signed.
This time of year, the team is making the pitch.
And as much as the 3.4 million fans, World Series banners, rich tradition and devoted city remain key parts of the Cardinals’ identity, the offer has to be more than what it’s been, more than the team they were or even the team they are.
This is a good time to convince everyone of the team they intend to be.