The Cardinals keep rolling out pretty good teams with pretty good players. Pretty good prospects keep sprouting from the farm system, too.
But the Cardinals haven’t featured a transformative superstar since Albert Pujols departed as a free agent. This makes fans understandably antsy.
They yearn for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado in free agency. They clamor for Nolan Arenado or Paul Goldschmidt via a trade.
“Finding that type of franchise player or face of a franchise, is something that we recognize that we haven’t had since Albert left,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak acknowledged during a chat with reporters Tuesday morning. “Yet we still managed to win.”
Well, yes, the Cardinals have reeled off 11 consecutive winning seasons, finishing at least 10 games over .500 in 10 of those years.
Yet the Cardinals have missed the postseason three straight times. They haven’t won a playoff round since 2014 and they haven’t staged a celebratory parade since Pujols exited after the 2011 World Series championship.
“We’ve won consistently since Albert left,” Mozeliak noted. “Now, have we won the big prize? No. Did we come close? Yes.”
Landing another true superstar would make retooling for next season and beyond much simpler. “It’s a different way of building a club when you don’t have it,” Mozeliak admitted. “I do think it’s a little harder.”
Without adding such a catalyst, the Cardinals could climb back to 100 victories by adding depth to their batting order, minimizing fielding and baserunning blunders, maintaining an elite starting pitching rotation and building a bullpen with seven high-leverage relievers and no Jedd Gyorko.
That’s a long to-do list. Like Mozeliak said, the process is harder without a perennial MVP candidate parked in the heart of the batting order.
Fans assume Mozeliak’s failure to land one is just the lack of “want to,” but that’s not entirely true. The team bid on $325 million slugger Giancarlo Stanton last winter, but Stanton refused to OK a trade from the Miami Marlins. He preferred big markets on either coast and landed in New York.
So Mozeliak landed prime-age outfielder Marcell Ozuna on the heels of his 37-homer, 124-RBI season. Had Ozuna repeated that production, he could have filled the void.
The Cardinals might still be playing today and Mozeliak would be talking contract extension with Marcell’s people.
But Ozuna regressed, in part due to a bum shoulder, so the Cardinals will keep shopping the trade market. Maybe another rebuilding team will offer up a high-end hitter for a pile of pretty good prospects.
The Cardinals could certainly use a Harper or a Machado, but signing one of those seems unlikely. If the market for them gets crazy (10 years, $350 million?) you shouldn’t fault the team for staying sane.
The back end of super-sized contracts often handcuff a franchise, as Pujols did to the Los Angeles Angels. Advancing age and chronic foot injuries reduced El Hombre to a shell of his former self and he still has three years and $87 million left on his deal.
Remember when Cardinal National begged for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki? That poor guy has spent about half of his adult life on a gurney. He failed to play a single game for the Toronto Blue Jays this season due to injuries and he still has $38 million left on his deal. Ouch.
Mozeliak insists that his recent free agent whiffs (Dexter Fowler, Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, Mike Leake) won’t make him timid. Nor will his fortuitous misses (Pujols, David Price, Jason Heyward).
But Mozeliak’s dual mandate from owner Bill DeWitt Jr. — to contend every year with a moderately aggressive budget — makes the bigger plays dicey.
“We may have to take some risk,” Mozeliak said. “And some might be gambles that pay off and some might be gambles that don’t. A lot of those gambles may not necessarily look at 10 years.”
Ideally the Cardinals will somehow develop their own Ronald Acuna Jr. (Atlanta Braves) or Juan Soto (Washington Nationals). Maybe top 2018 draft pick Nolan Gorman could someday become such a player. Perhaps third base prospect Elehuris Montero will be that guy.
“Do I agree that you need some level of elite talent to compete at the highest level? Yeah, I would accept that,” Mozeliak said. “Ideally, in the perfect world, you’re developing that. But we have not been able to. And part of that is, think about where we pick. We just haven’t had that opportunity to be up at the top.”
Consistent success limited the team’s draft opportunities. The Cardinals have selected and developed an army of elite pitching prospects, but position graduates like Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader are just pretty good.
To overcome that, the team became more aggressive in Latin America. But, again, the Cardinals have done better developing pitchers than hitters.
So the superstar search continues while fan patience fades.