While musing about the exasperating state of his team heading into the All-Star break, Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein noted that executives are performers, too.
“Front offices can go in slumps," he told reporters. "Sometimes you go through a Murphy’s Law period — everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The same thing can happen with front offices."
Yes, well, ask the Cardinals about that. Like the Cubs, they are in a jam this summer.
The Cardinals are accustomed to perennial contention. They have maintained a self-renewing talent base through smart drafting, savvy international investment and strong player development.
They kept growing replacements in their farm system and trading from their surplus. But their surplus has been depleted by trades and injuries, like the broken hand that shelved promising third baseman Elehuris Montero.
The "Hackgate" sanctions hurt, too, costing the franchise two high picks in 2017. As they sit at .500 past the halfway point of the season, they don't have a ton of near-term help in the minor leagues.
The Cardinals also lack payroll flexibility after making big commitments to Paul Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas and Matt Carpenter. Earlier contract mistakes (Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, Mike Leake) left a mark as well.
Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has made corrections on the fly in prior summers. Last season's bullpen overhaul was a prime example of that.
Such moves will be tougher this year. The Cardinals aren't handcuffed, but they appear constrained. They still have some long-term assets, but not in the quantity and with the quality they possessed before.
Remember when the Memphis Redbirds were a Triple-A juggernaut? Well, they're an also-ran now (with a 36-54 record). So are the Double-A Springfield Cardinals (30-40).
Perhaps this lull was inevitable. That the Cardinals rolled through 11 consecutive winning seasons is amazing. They eschewed the tank-and-rebuild tactic the Cubs popularized while finally winning a World Series championship.
Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. vehemently opposes deliberate losing, so his team kept trying to win. At some point that can catch up to a franchise . . . and perhaps that time is now.
To understand the dilemma, consider the franchise's outfield scenario.
Dexter Fowler has rebounded from his nightmarish 2018 season to play OK, but he's due $33 million for the following two seasons. That adds to the franchise's payroll inflexibility.
Jose Martinez can hit, but he's really a designated hitter. Young center fielder Harrison Bader is an elite defender but an unpolished hitter. Young outfielder Tyler O'Neill has tremendous power but he, too, struggles to make consistent contact.
The Cardinals hoped Cuban prospect Adolis Garcia would develop into an impact hitter, but he hasn't. He is at Memphis with outfielders Randy Arozarena and Lane Thomas. These guys can all fill-in as big leaguers, but can they make a difference?
Speedy outfielder Magneuris Sierra exited with excellent pitching prospects Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen to Miami in the trade for left fielder Marcell Ozuna. A shoulder injury marred Ozuna's 2018 season, then a hand injury interrupted this one.
Will the Cardinals sign Ozuna to a lucrative new contract, thus justifying the high trade price paid to get him? Will they let him leave as a free agent? Might they (gulp) deal him as a rental player in a bailout trade?
Outfielder Dylan Carlson is an excellent prospect at Springfield, but the Cardinals must keep him after blowing through a lot of outfielders.
Look back at some of their trades. The Cardinals moved Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham and Oscar Mercado, and got Yairo Munoz, Max Schrock, Dominic Leone, Connor Greene, Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera, Roel Ramirez, Connor Capel and Jhon Torres.
Right now you can't feel good about that return. Mitigating circumstances led to some of these trades, but the result was erosion of the talent base.
Oscar Taveras was going to become a right field fixture until his death in 2014, which set off an organizational chain reaction. The Cardinals had big expectations for high school outfielder Nick Plummer, picked 23rd in the 2015 draft, but wrist injuries derailed his development.
Things happen. Look at the team's diminished arms supply. Closer Jordan Hicks blew out his elbow, perennial prospect Alex Reyes keeps breaking down and Mike Mayers, Austin Gomber and Ryan Helsley also landed on the injured list this year.
In the past, the Cardinals could trade pitching for offense. Marco Gonzales went to Seattle for O'Neill and Luke Weaver was in the package that fetched Goldschmidt. But the team ran short this season, which is why Cabrera got rushed to the big leagues before he was ready.
"There are cycles that come and go," Epstein observed in Chicago. "The key is not to let the down periods cut at the fabric of the organization.”
DeWitt is a steady operator, so that won't happen on his watch. But he, Mozeliak, general manager Michael Girsch and the rest of the baseball operatives are on the spot.
They need to think of something. And it better be good.
JOHN GANT, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON GANT: Subtract his one awful outing this season — those four runs he allowed the Los Angeles Angels on June 23 — and his record is nearly spotless. Gant (7-0 with 11 holds, three saves, 2.22 ERA) transitioned beautifully from fill-in starter and long reliever to his set-up role in the bullpen. He has limited opponents to a .172 batting average and held them scoreless in 33 of his 39 appearances.
JORDAN HICKS, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON HICKS: He performed very well as closer before blowing out his elbow and joining this franchise's long list of bullpen casualties. Hicks went 2-2 with a 3.14 ERA, three holds and 14 saves in 15 tries. He struck out 31 batters in 28 2/3 innings and held batters to a .163 batting average. Alas, throwing a fastball 100 miles per hour takes a toll on the arm. Now he faces an uncertain future after Tommy John surgery and months and months of rehab.
GIOVANNY GALLEGOS, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON GALLEGOS: He suffered a rocky start this season by allowing four runs in 6 2/3 innings in his first six relief appearances back in April. But in his last 18 appearances, Gallegos (1-1, six holds, 2.66 ERA) has allowed just two earned runs on 11 hits in 20 innings. He has built a sturdy bridge from the starting pitchers to the late-inning specialists.
DAKOTA HUDSON, Starting Pitcher
GORDO ON HUDSON: Not much has gone according to plan for the Cardinals pitching staff this season. But Hudson (7-4, one save, 3.51 ERA) has emerged just as management hoped. He met the quality-start standard in eight consecutive outings during May and June. Hudson must cut down on his walks (41 in 92 1/3 innings) so he can keep his pitch count down and work deeper into games. He has retired more than 18 batters in just four starts this season.
CARLOS MARTINEZ, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON C. MARTINEZ: He was hoping to work his way back into the starting rotation after rebuilding his shoulder strength this spring, but the loss of Hicks forced him into the closer's role for the foreseeable future. Martinez (2-0, three saves, 2.37 ERA) posted a 4.15 ERA in his first nine appearances. But he has allowed just one run in 10 1/3 innings in his last seven outings, striking out 11 batters and walking only two.
DANIEL PONCE DE LEON, Starter/Reliever
GORDO ON PONCE DE LEON: He has walked 11 batters and allowed three homers in his 25 innings as a fill-in this season. But overall, Ponce de Leon (1-0, 2.16 ERA) has shown great promise during his three starts and his three relief appearances hopping off the Memphis shuttle. Opponents are hitting just .145 against him. If he keeps this up, Ponce de Leon could earn a rotation slot on a more permanent basis.
RYAN HELSLEY, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON HELSLEY: He brought the heat earlier this season before joining several pitching colleagues on the injured list. In seven relief appearances, Helsley (3.48 ERA) struck out 12 batters in 10 1/3 innings. He walked five batters and allowed two homers, but he could give the Cardinals another power reliever if he can stay healthy.
JOHN BREBBIA, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON BREBBIA: He excelled during his first 25 appearances, posting a 1.53 ERA over 29 1/3 innings. He picked up where he left off last September after recovering from a forearm injury. Then Brebbia (2-3, seven holds, 3.12 ERA overall) lost his way in June while allowing 12 runs (10 earned) on 13 hits and five walks in nine innings during a stretch of 10 appearances.
ANDREW MILLER, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON MILLER: Back on April 24, he carried a bloated 6.75 ERA and looked like still another free-agent bust for this team. Miller allowed nine runs (six earned) on 11 hits and eight walks in 9 1/2 innings during his first 13 appearances as a Cardinal. Then he settled in. During his next 26 appearances, Miller (3-3, 12 holds, one save, 3.81 ERA overall) allowed just five earned runs.
ADAM WAINWRIGHT, Starting Pitcher
GORDO ON WAINWRIGHT: After making just eight starts last season, he got healthy enough to take one more spin with an incentives-laden contract. So far Wainwright, 37, has held up. After a difficult May (1-3, 6.33 ERA in five starts), he has allowed three runs or fewer during his last five starts. His bottom line (5-7, 4.31 ERA in 16 starts) is about the best that could be reasonably expected at this very late career stage.
JACK FLAHERTY, Starting Pitcher
GORDO ON FLAHERTY: He met expectations during his first 12 starts, going 4-3 with a 3.76 ERA. Flaherty, 23, was allowing too many homers (11) and walking too many batters (20) to that point of the season, but he was powering through. Then he allowed 22 runs in 25 1/3 innings his next five starts before heading into the break on Sunday's high note — holding the Giants to one run on two hits in seven innings. Imagine the difference Flaherty (4-6, 4.64 ERA) could make if he pitches like that during the second half.
TYLER WEBB, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON WEBB: He had a nice run going until the Giants beat him up Saturday. Webb (0-1, one save, 4.45 ERA) strung together seven consecutive scoreless outings prior to that. Overall, Webb has held lefthanded batters to a .194 batting average and on-base plus slugging percentage of .582.
DOMINIC LEONE, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON LEONE: He earned his demotion to Memphis by allowing 19 runs during an 18 1/3-inning span in April and May. Leone (one save, 6.83 ERA) has been better since returning from the Triple-A level, allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings over five appearances. With Hicks gone and Martinez forced to close, the Cardinals need Leone to handle some high-leverage work.
MILES MIKOLAS, Starting Pitcher
GORDO ON MIKOLAS: His isn't commanding his fastball as well as he did a year ago. His slider has lost some bite. Lefthanded hitters have raked him for an .882 OPS, up from last season's .722. So after going 18-4 with a 2.83 ERA last season to earn a $68 million contract extension, Mikolas is just 5-9 with a 4.53 ERA. He has allowed as many homers (16) in 18 starts this season as he did in 32 starts last season. Last season he allowed three or more earned runs in just nine starts. He has already done that 11 times this season.
MICHAEL WACHA, Starting Pitcher
GORDO ON WACHA: He has looked like his old self at times this season. Wacha allowed two runs or fewer in seven starts during the first half. He posted a 2.84 ERA in June during four starts and one relief appearance. But Wacha (5-4, 5.54 ERA) has been more bad than good in the walk year of his contract. He has allowed 18 homers and walked 30 batters in 72 1/3 innings. Righthanded batters are hitting .324 against him with a 1.006 OPS.
LUKE GREGERSON, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON GREGERSON: He kept the training staff busy during his mostly unsuccessful return to the Cardinals organization. Gregerson finally got healthy enough to give it one more try this season . . . and it didn't go well. In six relief outings, he posted a 7.94 ERA — while allowing 11 hits in 5 1/3 — before hitting the waiver wire.
GENESIS CABRERA, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON CABRERA: Well, we know that he has a lively arm. And we know he needs lots more polish before he can stick in the big leagues. The Cardinals rushed him out of necessity. Cabrera (0-2, 6.17 ERA) lasted just 11 2/3 innings during his two starts and three relief appearances. He allowed 15 hits (including two homers), walked seven batters and hit a guy.
MIKA MAYERS, Relief Pitcher
GORDO ON MAYERS: In a potential pivotal season in his career, Mayers struggled early before shutting down with shoulder trouble. He allowed five earned runs on 10 hits and five walks in 8 1/3 innings. Mayers is currently on a rehabilitation assignment at Memphis, working to get one more shot.
ALEX REYES, Starter/Reliever
GORDO ON REYES: He was going to blossom into a top-of-the-rotation starter. Or he was going to become a shutdown reliever. Those were the hopes, anyway, until one injury after another derailed his career. Reyes appeared in four games back in April, walking six batters and allowing five earned runs in three innings.