Cardinals fans could not be expected to notice, considering they probably had their heads in their hands for most of the Nationals’ dugout celebrations during the National League Championship Series.
But down there in those parties, one player’s go-to dance after the Nationals scored told us something about Washington’s team, and raised a question about the Cardinals.
While his teammates hopped and hollered, here came first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shuffling toward the group with an imaginary walker. He wasn’t the only old man — relatively speaking — on the dance floor. Zimmerman is 35. Second baseman Howie Kendrick and catcher Kurt Suzuki are 36. Ace reliever Sean Doolittle is 33. Ace Max Scherzer is 35.
The Nationals ended the Cardinals’ season and moved on to the World Series because they have a dangerous rotation, a budding superstar in Juan Soto, a dangerous, deep lineup and the right run of luck required for any club to go from 19-31 to one of two that will be left standing next week.
They also have a shot at a championship because their old dogs tricked an increasing trend in baseball that tells us players on the wrong side of 30 are old news.
Scherzer gave the Nationals’ senior citizens a name. “Viejos.” It’s Spanish for old.
NLCS MVP Kendrick said success is even sweeter for an old man in a young man’s game.
“They're really young in my heart and my eyes,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said about a team that has an MLB-high average age of 31.1. “They're playing like they're 22, 23.”
As much fun as it would be to lift up the Nationals as a counterpoint to the group-think that has infected baseball, that’s not exactly relevant here. The Cardinals have put a lot of trust in 30-plus players. And a lot of money. Perhaps too much.
We don’t yet know if starter Adam Wainwright, 38, will return for another season of hushing his haters.
We do know that four of the highest-paid Cardinals in 2019 were 30-plus position players who did not play very well in the NLCS.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, 32, heaped blame upon himself after he mustered one hit in four losses to the Nationals.
Catcher Yadier Molina’s solo home run in Game 4 was one of the 37-year-old catcher’s two hits against Washington.
Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter, both 33, started Game 4 on the bench and finished the sweep a combined nothing-for-19.
This isn’t a refusal to turn the page on the NLCS. And it’s not singling out the Cardinals’ older players, because we all know some of the younger bats went just as silent in the NLCS.
It’s raising a question about 2020, and beyond.
Goldschmidt’s five-year, $130 million contract extension, signed in March, means he will make a team-high $26 million in 2020 unless the Cardinals add a bigger deal to their books. The first baseman started 164 of the Cardinals’ 171 games, played Gold Glove-caliber defense and led the team in most power-producing categories. He also missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2012 and posted the lowest adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (112 compared to his career average 141) in his nine-season career. For the second consecutive season, he struggled against max velocity pitchers.
Molina also missed the All-Star Game for just the second time since 2009 and finished with his lowest adjusted OPS (85) in three seasons. Remember, league average adjusted OPS is 100. The catcher is owed $20 million in 2020, the final season of his current contract.
After a late surge turned a dreadful 2018 into one that ended with National League MVP consideration, Matt Carpenter found no salsa boost in 2019. His adjusted OPS of 91 was 52 points down from his 2018 mark. He set career lows in average (.226), on-base percentage (.334) and doubles (20). Because the Cardinals extended Carpenter in April, he is owed $18.5 million in each of the next two seasons, with a vesting option for a third.
Fowler bounced back from a career-worst 2018 to set career highs in home runs (19) and RBIs (67) while proving he still could handle time in center field. But his adjusted OPS of 98 fell seven points short of his career average (105). Of the 48 MLB outfielders who totaled more than 450 at-bats this season, Fowler’s adjusted OPS ranked 38th. He has two seasons left on a contract that includes a full no-trade clause, each for $16.5 million a season.
Other than starter-turned-closer Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals’ highest-paid relievers this season were 34-year-old Andrew Miller ($11 million) and 33-year-old Brett Cecil ($7.75 million). Miller posted his highest ERA (4.45) since he switched from starter to reliever in 2012. Because of a season lost to injuries, Cecil didn’t throw a pitch. Both are under contract for 2020.
Baseball’s so-called old guys still can make magic. The Nationals and Wainwright stand as examples.
The question is, how much trust can the Cardinals have in their group to beat the aging curve when this season showed so many signs of the opposite?
They are heavily invested in their viejos.