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BenFred: Pandemic's pinch should not excuse Cardinals from finding ways to bolster lineup

BenFred: Pandemic's pinch should not excuse Cardinals from finding ways to bolster lineup

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World Series Rays Dodgers Baseball

Tampa Bay Rays' Randy Arozarena celebrates a home run during the first inning in Game 6 of the baseball World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Baseball is a business, and the pandemic is hard on business.

Prepare to hear this message often from the Cardinals this offseason.

Message received. Loud and clear.

Especially after the Cardinals on Wednesday passed on a $12.5 million option for Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong, paying the 30-year-old leadoff hitter $1 million to hit free agency instead of bringing him back to help anchor one of the best defenses in baseball. Wong’s 1.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference, ranked second among Cardinals on the 2020 team. Don’t underestimate the impact of his departure on a defense that just led MLB in defensive runs saved.

If you are expecting the money saved to be directed toward upgrading the Cardinals’ lagging lineup, that would seem to be an optimistic assumption.

Listening to Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak’s Wednesday night teleconference with media members, the Cardinals do not sound like a team shifting from run suppression toward run creation.

It sounds like one downshifting toward a payroll cut.

“Revenues are going down,” Mozeliak said. “So, it will be most likely where payroll will go down.”

The Cardinals won’t be the only club pointing to these talking points in the coming weeks. But they should not be surprised if the fans who so loyally fill the team’s coffers during the good times respond accordingly.

Right now, many of those fans — and not just the vocal minority of angry Twitter users — are feeling frustrated, fairly, because a team with excellent pitching and excellent defense will not make a clear commitment to finding ways to improve its glaring weakness. The Cardinals’ offense has spent the past two seasons residing in the National League’s bottom-third in most hitting statistics. Twice in two postseasons, the Cardinals have showed up to the postseason with the lowest slugging percentage of any playoff team.

The knife was twisted in 2020, when former Cardinals led MLB (Luke Voit), the National League (Marcell Ozuna) and the postseason (Randy Arozarena) in home runs. Finding out why former Cardinals are clobbering baseballs elsewhere is a must. Finding Cardinals who can clobber here also seems important.

The Cardinals were quick to re-commit to hitting coach Jeff Albert for a third season despite an unimpressive first two. If Albert is not the problem in the team’s eyes, he needs better hitters to coach. What should be an obvious conclusion seems awfully cloudy. Something about business and the pandemic.

“When you go from having 3.3 or 3.4 million fans in your ballpark, to having zero, it’s a big hit,” Mozeliak said. “You have certain operating expenses that just don’t go away. Obviously, when you have fixed commitments and contracts, those are not going away. Obviously, we are trying to figure out how we can best forecast revenues for next year. Hopefully we can react in a positive way to help improve this club.”

Ignoring baseball’s current financial reality — or hoping teams will ignore it — is unrealistic. The pandemic shortened the season and kept fans out of stands. Revenue streams were impacted, especially for teams like the Cardinals that are so handsomely rewarded with whopping attendance totals. On top of it all, no one — not the Cardinals, not Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, not the president of the United States — knows what 2021 will bring.

Will there be fans in stands? Will there be a designated hitter in the NL? Will there be another shortened season?

Great questions. No answers. At least not yet.

Not exactly the easiest time to plan. Not exactly the smartest time to spend like crazy.

But there is another side of the conversation to consider, one that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention these days. Cardinals fans are making business decisions during a pandemic, too. They’re deciding if they will sign up for season tickets when the gates open again. They’re wondering if their Christmas shopping lists should include Cardinals gear. They’re confused about how a baseball business that booms year in and year out can be so drastically altered by one bad year. They’re figuring if the Cardinals start taking seasons off, they might, too.

Busch Stadium won’t be closed forever. Ballpark Village is going to need to fill those restaurants and condos. Some in that red wave of 3.3 million or 3.4 million fans will want reasons to come back.

Runs would help.

“So, your question is how do we maintain excitement even though we are under some pandemic challenges, and still keep people engaged?” Mozeliak asked me when I mentioned the balancing act.

Yes. Exactly that.

We’re hearing a lot about how the Cardinals need to adjust to having no fans in the stands in 2020. We’re not hearing much about why fans should be fired up 2021.

“We still have a very exciting core,” Mozeliak said. “We still have excellent starting pitching and depth in our bullpen. And we will certainly look at ways to either understand what our internal upgrades might look like. And as I’ve stated from the beginning, we will certainly understand what these (external) markets may look like. I just don’t know the answers to some of these questions today, but I hope our fanbase will be excited about the product we put out there.”

The product got worse Wednesday. The Cardinals parted ways with a second baseman who helped a strength. They sound uncertain about improving a weakness. There are ways to improve an offense, even during a pandemic. The Cardinals owe it to their fans to find some.

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