As John Mozeliak sits at his desk inside his Busch Stadium office, your eye is drawn quickly to the black shadow box on the shelf behind him. The box displays a dozen minor-league championship rings Mozeliak has collected in his time with the Cardinals. The four championship rings dearest to his heart, however, are in a more secure location.
Considering the way Class AAA Memphis, Class AA Springfield and Class A Palm Beach have played this year, Mozeliak will probably earn another minor-league championship ring. It’s not quite as easy to project the big league club’s potential.
After 102 games this season it’s still unclear what to think about the big league Cardinals. One thing is certain, though, they need some help from the outside on the trade market and from the inside through the men in the clubhouse.
The Cardinals — players, staff and front office — must decide if winning is their priority. You can talk about being sellers, buyers or both all you want, but it will ultimately depend on the players cleaning up the small details that have derailed them at times. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, the next 60 games should be about improving and figuring out which players deserve to be part of the team’s core.
The Cardinals’ future was on display all over the diamond Thursday night in the opener of a four-game series against the Diamondbacks. The lineup included only two players who were in the opening-day lineup against the Cubs. Conversely, five players who began the season at Memphis started.
Where would the Cardinals be without rookie shortstop Paul DeJong, who is already manning the No. 3 spot in the lineup? Center fielder Harrison Bader, who debuted Tuesday, was batting fifth. Top catching prospect Carson Kelly was behind the plate for righthander Luke Weaver’s first big league start of the season.
Leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter and cleanup hitter Randal Grichuk, who has bounced back well from his drop of shame to Class A Palm Beach this season, were the only starters who also started on opening day.
The Cardinals have received a major boost from their farm system, but they must go outside of the organization for the answer to their most pressing need at the back end of the bullpen.
“I’m not ruling anything out, but it does feel like if we’re going to find help for our bullpen it’s likely external at this point,” Mozeliak said.
The next three days will be crucial. On the field, the players must find a way to win the four-game series to go above .500 for the first time since June 1, when they were 26-25 after beating the Dodgers. They fell to .500 on June 2 in a loss to the Cubs to start a seven-game losing streak. They have been trying to claw back to .500 ever since.
The Cardinals sacrificed the third base coach and altered the coaching staff after returning home from that trip on June 9, the day Mozeliak said nobody’s job was safe.
Mozeliak’s job is more than safe, though. He was promoted to president of baseball operations on June 30, and Michael Girsch was elevated to general manager. Manager Mike Matheny’s job is also safe.
Only the Cardinals with no-trade clauses are viewed as untouchables heading into Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline, even though Carlos Martinez is very close to untouchable.
“It’s a very difficult team to pinpoint,” Mozeliak said. “I do feel if you look at the last few weeks finding some consistency in our bullpen may be top priority because for the most part the rotation has been strong.
“For the most part you’ve seen a more consistent offense. For the most part you’ve seen a more consistent defense. As July 31 approaches it is something that if we could address we’re going to try.”
Some have argued that Mozeliak must trade righthander Lance Lynn to make sure they don’t lose him for nothing via free agency. Lynn’s trade value will become more clear after Sonny Gray of the A’s and Yu Darvish of the Rangers are moved. The Cardinals won’t trade Lynn just for the sake of getting something back in return. They’d rather keep him for a run this year if teams won’t give up much value in return.
The Cardinals are open for business and willing to trade Lynn if a team makes an overwhelming offer, but lower your expectations if you expect a blockbuster.
“I think that there’s a chance that some of the things this roster needs to see happen we might be better off addressing in the offseason than trying to do something right now,” Mozeliak said. “When you’re looking at trading players, sometimes it’s easier to deal in the trade market in the offseason than simply trying to work with teams that are contending. Most people that are active at the trading deadline are trying to make short-term upgrades because they want to remain as competitive as possible through August, September and potentially through October. Whereas in the offseason you’re really dealing with all 30 teams looking to find ways to get better.”
The Cardinals’ system is strong enough to make a run at multiple minor-league titles this year. Patience and a modest addition for this inconsistent team might make more sense to see which players will fit for a legitimate run next year at the only titles that count in the majors.