In 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals missed the postseason, finishing one game behind the San Francisco Giants for the second Wild Card berth. In the off-season, they signed Dexter Fowler to replace, in a roundabout way with Randal Grichuk as an intermediary, Matt Holliday, and Brett Cecil, effectively replacing the Tommy John surgery-bound Zach Duke. Following the 2017 season, in which the Cardinals finished with a worse record and further out of playoff position than the year before, the Cardinals reacted by making a relatively big trade for Marcell Ozuna, a cost-controlled arbitration-stage outfielder, and limiting free agent signings to less costly pitchers such as Miles Mikolas and Bud Norris.
Particularly with these off-seasons following the relatively stagnant 2015-16 one, in which the Cardinals lost their best position player and best pitcher of the 100-win 2015 squad to the arch-rival Chicago Cubs and signed, um, Mike Leake, the perception, fair or not, has grown that the Cardinals are overly cautious, afraid or unwilling to make big moves to improve the team.
This stands in stark contrast to the other major professional sports team in St. Louis, the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues. Last season, the Blues missed the postseason for the first time in seven seasons, and once free agency kicked off last week, the Blues got moving. On the morning of July 1, the team signed forward David Perron for a third run with the Blues, following a career year with the Vegas Golden Knights. A couple hours later, the club signed former Toronto Maple Leafs centre Tyler Bozak to become a new center for the St. Louis Blues. And that night, somewhat under the radar after both the NBA and NHL had their biggest free agents sign earlier in the weekend (LeBron James and John Tavares, respectively), the Blues acquired Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly via a roster-shaking trade in which, in addition to two draft picks, the Blues sent away two veteran forwards, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and prospect Tage Thompson.
Yesterday, it was reported that the Blues weren’t done yet and are looking to sign forward Patrick Maroon, a native of the St. Louis area and the most famous person to attend Oakville High School in the mid-aughts that isn’t currently writing this sentence. Last night, NHL.com’s Lou Korac reported that it was effectively done. Whether this move, or the moves from July 1, actually turn out to be good moves, remains to be seen, but it is undeniable that the St. Louis Blues are being more aggressive in response to a disappointing season than the Cardinals have been.
The contrast, particularly with the public relations disaster that last week was for the Cardinals, is sharp. The St. Louis Blues, who did not win a championship in its first fifty seasons of existence, is adamant on winning. The St. Louis Cardinals, the second-most successful team in Major League Baseball history, is complacent. Or so it seems if taking a broad overview of the situation.
There is something to be said about the level of loyalty of the fan bases. Fan loyalty is generally viewed as a good thing for a team, but in this case, it might not be. The Cardinals are still selling tickets at similar rates to previous seasons, despite their relatively mediocre performance, while the Blues had the single-lowest attendance in the NHL in the not-so-distant past. Context is important here–the 2005-06 Blues were the single-worst team in the NHL and the 2006-07 team wasn’t much better, and particularly following a lockout which canceled the 2004-05 season, the desire across North America to watch a non-competitive hockey team couldn’t have been lower.
But it did establish a precedent that merely existing wasn’t enough for the Blues to count on near-sellout crowds. But if the Blues got good, attendance would jump back up. And it did. A popular pastime among Blues fans is to mock the sudden spike in Chicago Blackhawks attendance which correlated with their dynastic run in the early 2010s, but a similar effect happened in St. Louis.
Now, on principle, I hate the idea of telling people that they are hurting their team by attending games. Blaming somebody who just likes going to sporting events for going to sporting events rather than inert team executives feels like getting mad at somebody for driving a truck beacuse it’s bad for the environment while ignoring far more significant factors harming the environment. You might technically be right, but this isn’t the battle to pick. Ultimately, you should do what you want. If you want to go, go. Or don’t.
Surely, the types of moves with which the Cardinals have succeeded in recent years motivate them to try to make similar moves going forward. The Dexter Fowler contract, the closest thing the Cardinals have signed to a major free agent deal since Matt Holliday, will likely go down as the worst free agent signing in franchise history. The Mike Leake era in St. Louis eventually ended with the Cardinals effectively paying the Seattle Mariners to take him off their hands. More lucrative free agents that by all accounts the Cardinals attempted to sign such as Jason Heyward and David Price have turned out to be notable underachievers with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, respectively. Meanwhile, marginal signings like last offseason’s pickups of Miles Mikolas and Bud Norris have paid off, and the more lucrative signing of Greg Holland inspired months of frustration.
Unlike the St. Louis Blues, who are up against a strict salary cap, the Cardinals have the option to spend more money than they do. When they don’t, fans are annoyed, but ultimately, the Cardinals haven’t really been hurt by it, because practically speaking, players in their prime are rarely free agents (Max Scherzer is a bit of an exception to this, but he was also signed in an off-season in which the Cardinals traded Shelby Miller and still needed a Jaime Garcia injury to find room in the rotation for Carlos Martinez–pitching wasn’t exactly a priority). I’d stop well short of declaring that spending money is bad–after all, a team that overpaid for Jason Heyward, for instance, could always, you know, just not play him–but their lack of success doing it isn’t much of a motivator to do it more.
The Blues have made moves this off-season which are meant to build the current roster, but at each of the last two trade deadlines, unlike the Cardinals (who held on to Lance Lynn last July for a postseason run which did not come to fruition), the Blues dealt a star player with a soon-to-expire contract for packages centered around draft picks–in 2017, dealing Kevin Shattenkirk for prospect Zach Sanford, a first-round pick, and a conditional future second-round pick, and in 2018 dealing Paul Stastny for a package headlined by a 2018 first-round pick.
As a Blues fan, though admittedly not the savviest one, I like both the selling moves of the trade deadlines and the buying moves of this free agency period, and there is some inherent comfort merely in taking action. It’s hard to not feel like the Cardinals are stuck in something of a holding pattern, whether that’s fair or not. At this point, I have no idea if the Cardinals are going to buy or sell or, once again, do nothing at the trade deadline this year, and perhaps this is my least favorite option of the three because it means being unsure of what to make of the Cardinals. And it also suggests that perhaps the Cardinals don’t know what to make of themselves.