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Gordo: Cardinals need more from their veterans, or a rebuild is in order

Gordo: Cardinals need more from their veterans, or a rebuild is in order

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St. Louis Cardinals' Paul Goldschmidt, right, is congratulated by teammate Dexter Fowler after hitting a solo home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Saturday, July 27, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Whenever management fails to upgrade its talent for the stretch run, we ask the same question: How can team executives look their players in the eye after standing pat?

On the other hand . . .

When the key players continually underachieve, aren’t they the ones trying to avert eye contact with the bosses?

So it goes for the Cardinals, whose management team failed to add more pitching before the trade deadline and whose top-paid players have mostly failed to perform to their previous levels.

The players can be miffed by management inactivity — including the failure to add another free agent (Dallas Keuchel!) — and the previous asset mismanagement that left the Cardinals poorly positioned to trade in July.

And management can be vexed by all the veterans who have failed to meet expectations. So there will plenty of blame to go around if the Cardinals miss postseason play again.

Like the Blues, the Cardinals made their big moves before the season started. The blockbuster trade for Paul Goldschmidt improved the team’s fielding and added heft to the batting order. The signing of free-agent reliever Andrew Miller bolstered the bullpen.

Contract extensions for Goldschmidt (five years, $130 million), Matt Carpenter (two years, $39 million) and Miles Mikolas (four years, $68 million) underscored management’s commitment to the veteran nucleus.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak believed he had a sturdy everyday lineup and plenty of good young pitching ready to step up if some veterans faltered. On paper the outlook seemed bright.

Ah, but on the field the Cardinals quit hitting in May. The starting pitching faltered, injuries shelved veterans and prospects alike and the team sputtered into July.

Management could have purchased some help during that downturn, since MLB has no salary cap and the Cardinals were miles from the luxury tax threshold. But this wildly profitable franchise chose not to spend.

Mozeliak could have traded for pitching of some description because a few teams (the Detroit Tigers in particular) weren’t picky about the trade return. But he didn’t.

Now the Cardinals are getting healthier, adding key veterans from the injured list rather than outsiders via trades. Now these front-line players must prove they are good as management believed they would be back in spring training.

The Chicago Cubs made multiple upgrades before the trade deadline, but they are also getting better production from their high-paid players too as they work to overcome injuries.

Starting pitcher Yu Darvish has struggled to stay healthy and perform consistently since signing his $126 million deal, but lately he has been nails. He has posted a 2.17 ERA and struck out 38 hitters in his last 29 innings.

Outfielder Jason Heyward has been just a small cog in the Cubs offense since signing his $184 million free-agent deal, but he hit .309 in July and lately he has filled the critical lead-off role.

The Cardinals need their veterans to step up in this fashion. Goldschmidt delivered a nice power surge after struggling for three months, but through Monday his on-base plus slugging percentage (.808) was still more than 100 points off his career norm.

Carpenter failed to hit at the end of last season, didn’t hit this season before getting hurt, didn’t hit during his rehabilitation assignment and continued scuffling upon his return.

Mikolas carried a 6.75 road earned-run average into Tuesday night’s game against the Dodgers and ace Clayton Kershaw.

Shortstop Paul DeJong, who is locked into a six-year, $26 million contract, was batting .208 with runners in scoring position through Monday’s game and .194 with RISP and two out.

Outfielder Dexter Fowler, who is locked into a five-year, $82.5 million contract, hit .343 back in April but followed that by hitting .171 in May, .235 in June, .256 in July and then .083 on his first four games of August.

Second baseman Kolten Wong has hit well since June, but only after struggling mightily in April and May. Pitcher Carlos Martinez has filled in nicely for the injured Jordan Hicks as the closer, but only after failing to build the shoulder strength needed to open the season in the rotation.

Had key Cardinals consistently met their previous standards through the season’s first half, this team would have built a nice division lead. Perhaps that would have inspired Mozeliak to dig a bit deeper to seek further improvement.

Going forward, the Cardinals will render the deadline inactivity complaint moot if their key players keep failing. Another pitcher or two wouldn’t have saved a team suffering wholesale regression.

Such regression would worsen the outlook for the next several seasons. If the cornerstone players keep crumbling, that proves Mozeliak and Co. constructed this roster poorly.

Then this team will need a new blueprint and a total rebuild for the long term rather than patchwork repair for 2020. And that’s a much bigger concern than what did or didn’t happen at the trade deadline.

Gordo's grades for position players

Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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