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BenFred: Time for Cardinals' front office to prove roster improvement doesn't have to wait until offseason

BenFred: Time for Cardinals' front office to prove roster improvement doesn't have to wait until offseason

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The Cardinals’ front office is on the clock.

A baseball season that has offered fans and followers of the team mixed messages multiple times has taken a turn for the worse. If this low point is going to be remembered as a launching pad instead of the beginning of the end of optimism for 2021, the path toward redemption will need to be paved by the determination and dedication of Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, general manager Michael Girsch and their fellow front-office decision makers.

Mozeliak has said the organization doesn’t feel comfortable rushing young pitchers such as Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson to the majors as potential stopgaps to the pitching crisis the Cardinals confidently insisted they could avoid but did not.

The team has all-but turned up its nose at the notion of taking a chance on any of the still-available free-agent starting pitchers out there, fearing the amount of rust that has gathered during months of not pitching regularly in games that count.

That leaves trades and waiver magic as the playable options for improvement from the outside, which has become a must.

It’s time to answer a question that has been asked often in recent years, one that, depending on the front office’s true motivation to make 2021 matter, could determine the season.

Can the Cardinals’ front office still figure out how to (and then also follow through with) a plan to improve the major-league team during the major-league season?

It’s a legitimate question presented without snark when discussing a team that has spent the past five trade deadlines making lateral moves, forward-thinking moves or no moves at all.

You have to go all the way back to 2015, when the Cardinals picked up Jonathan Broxton for the bullpen and Brandon Moss for power insurance after an injury to Matt Holliday to find a true example of a Cardinals win-now plan executed before the deadline. That team won 100 games along with the division but got bounced from the NLDS. In the five seasons that have followed the Cardinals have become comfortable at the edge of the in-season action, rarely dipping more than one toe halfway in. This is the season to splash.

If Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina were brought back for a reason beyond selling tickets, the roster should be fortified by the end of July. For all the happy talk between the Cardinals and Nolan Arenado about his long, bright future in St. Louis, nothing would do more to combat his approaching opt-outs than the Cardinals doing what the Rockies so often failed to do at the trade deadlines they depressingly dodged.

And then there is the milestone that is approaching, the one the Cardinals won’t be celebrating with stadium giveaways if it indeed arrives. No World Series championship in 2021 would mark a calendar decade without one for the NL’s leader in rings.

I’m not talking about the Cardinals going into full-blown forget-the-future mode. They don’t do that and they won’t, at least not under DeWitt.

Fans have a long history of relevant, meaningful baseball to thank for DeWitt’s dislike of tanking and rebuilding. Thank goodness. But I’m sorry, I don’t think a deadline deal for Max Scherzer’s expiring contract if the sub-.500 Nationals eventually put up a for-sale sign would forever derail the Redbirds. The Cardinals’ need for a proven starter has gone from likely to obvious, but there are other directions that could be pursued, too.

For a front office that has come under fire for regrettable contracts handed out and misjudged talent traded away, every day between now and July 30 offers a chance to make a big move, or small moves that turn out to be big ones.

It wouldn’t take an Arenado-sized splash to help the lineup. A crafty hitter who could help lift the NL’s third-lowest on-base percentage (.302) could add some needed grit. Adding a reliever or two who could sharpen the aim of a bullpen that is leading the NL in walks (140) might work wonders. For those who are insisting this is a team beyond repair, you are ignoring the standings. At last check, they still matter.

The NL Central remains right there for the taking. So does the NL. The defending champion Dodgers, the world’s darlings to repeat, are third in the NL West. The powerhouse Padres are just one game ahead of them. Both are trailing the Giants, the only NL team with a winning percentage above .600.

Meanwhile the future, something the Cardinals constantly keep an eye on, remains cloudy. For all. Check the latest headlines about the grievances filed between MLB players and owners regarding MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s imposing of the 60-game season in 2020. Assuming a new collective bargaining agreement is going to get locked in before a normal 2022 season is, well, optimistic. Even more reason to maximize 2021.

The Cardinals still can.

But not with the team they have at this moment, and not if they just keep hoping this injury-thinned team gets healthier. Because a fully healthy team is not going to happen. For any team. The injury bug is not just biting the Redbirds. It’s chewing through rosters across both leagues, more than ever before.

Many teams will get the chance to blame a lost 2021 season on injuries.

The Cardinals shouldn’t be one and won’t be, if the front office proves it still can improve a major-league roster before a season’s fate is sealed.

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