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

2019 Cardinals spring training

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., at spring training in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

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.

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