This is Part 4 of a series about an alternate timeline in which the St. Louis Cardinals decide to function solely to succeed in 2018, abandoning all interest in long-term player development and instead hoping to win this one title. You can read Part 1, about the first day of trades, which included the acquisitions of such superstars as Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and Bryce Harper, here. You can read Part 2, about the first month and a half of the season, which included trades for veterans Drew Pomeranz and Justin Smoak, here. You can read Part 3, in which the Cardinals are forced to counter the losses of co-aces Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Martinez with limited resources, here.

On September 8, the Cardinals stood eight games back of the Cubs at 78-64. The odds of winning the division were low. Also low: the odds of not making the postseason at all. The Cardinals stood 3 1/2 games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies for the first Wild Card spot and 5 1/2 games up on the Milwaukee Brewers for the second Wild Card. And the news came that Bryce Harper, who had been an MVP-like force for the St. Louis Cardinals, had a strained oblique. It was an injury he could play through, but one which would hamper his performance somewhat (though probably not enough that he wouldn’t still clearly be the best available player for the team) and one which might expose him to a potentially worse injury.

At this point, I had to make a decision–am I chasing the Cubs, or am I trying to hold on? I decided that I was trying to hold on. Bryce Harper went to the Disabled List. This wasn’t a roster move–rosters had expanded, and for obvious reasons given the team’s win-now philosophy, everybody was called up and unoccupied spots were filled with pitching depth. This was a Matheny-proofing move (as you may recall from previous parts, even in my wildest fantasies, I couldn’t fathom the Cardinals firing Mike Matheny). Don’t touch Bryce Harprer. If we want to win in October, we need Bryce Harper on our team.

Another injury hit four days later, with Jeremy Hellickson to miss six weeks. This meant that the fifth rotation spot would be filled by A. Reyes. Not Alex Reyes, mind you, as he was already traded, but Artie Reyes. The all-in team’s lack of depth was once again being exposed.

On September 19, I received a trade proposal, a thing which I can’t say I anticipated. I know that they’re legal, as I remember the Juan Nicasio trade last September which would have kept Nicasio out of the playoff roster, but I was still caught off-guard. I noticed a player who could (marginally) help the team. I noticed the cost was players who would not hurt my team’s chances to lose them.

  • St. Louis Cardinals acquire George Kontos from the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jesus Orecchia and Dylan Carlson: Carlson was a first-round pick in 2016. He’s hardly a can’t-miss prospect, but I would be livid if the real-life Cardinals traded any prospect of any level of pedigree for a couple weeks of a so-so reliever. But again, 2018 is all that matters.

Because this was a waiver trade, it would take three days before Kontos could pitch for the Cardinals. Everybody cleared waivers successfully. That night, the Cardinals clinched a Wild Card spot and went up 4 1/2 games on the current WC2, the Phillies. Kontos didn’t pitch. This was the most egregious example of me not caring about the future yet.

The final record of this Cardinals team was 90-72. It’s a good record, but it’s certainly not what I expected given the enormous acquisitions of the 2018 season. As appeared inevitable for a few weeks, the Cardinals’ opponent turned out to be the Philadelphia Phillies. Without question, the Cardinals had advantages in the lineup at every single position, but the Phillies did have the pitching edge, with Aaron Nola able to make the start at Busch Stadium.

The best Cardinals starter left was Drew Pomeranz. This wasn’t really a matter of discussion, though I suppose win fetishists might argue for Miles Mikolas, who went 15-4 despite a pedestrian 4.30 ERA. Pomeranz started 30 games for the Cardinals, with a 3.54 ERA. On pure talent, he was the guy. But he started the Saturday before the Wild Card game. Why? I don’t know. Mike Matheny apparently didn’t, despite having clinched the first Wild Card days before, think to set his playoff rotation accordingly.

So it would come down to Adam Wainwright.

This game was tailor-made for Aaron Nola to establish himself as a big-game pitcher; it was the twenty-five year-old’s first playoff game and the best hitter on the opposing team, Bryce Harper, was still hobbling a bit. But it was Adam Wainwright who took control of the game, throwing seven shutout innings. Luke Gregerson and Matt Bowman held serve. The Cardinals won 5-0 to set up a meeting against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After 2013 and 2014, confidence in ability to beat the Dodgers is always higher than it probably should be among Cardinals fans, but with a dream lineup set, this time it might have been rightfully so. The lack of rotation depth theoretically matters less with a smaller playoff rotation, and things looked great for the Cardinals after they won Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, with Drew Pomeranz outdueling Clayton Kershaw, going seven strong innings (in a shockingly similar outing to what Wainwright mustered in the Wild Card game) before Luke Gregerson and Greg Holland shut the door.

In Game 2, facing Danny Salazar, the Cardinals jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the second inning thanks to a Justin Smoak solo home run, and they added four more runs to their lead in the top of the fourth. At the seventh inning stretch, the Cardinals led 7-4. Ryan Sherriff took the mound for the Cardinals, a somewhat inexplicable move given that, well, he’s Ryan Sherriff. The Dodgers exploited this–Matt Kemp hit a solo home run and after Chris Taylor reached on a single, Cody Bellinger (who, as a lefty, was the most logical opponent Sherriff would face) tied the game with his own home run.

In the bottom of the eighth, with the game tied, the Cardinals surrendered a two-run home run which would ultimately lead to the series being tied heading back to St. Louis. Take a moment to consider the Los Angeles Dodgers, basically as they were to start 2018. They’re a famous team–you probably know a fair share of their players. Consider who it is. Take a guess what player hit the two-run winning home run.

It was Travis Denker.

Travis Denker is 32 years old and will turn 33 on August 5, 2018. Denker made 42 plate appearances in 2008, and that is the entire extent of his real-life Major League experience. Even in the OOTP 19 All-In Cardinals universe, Denker was terrible–he made 52 plate appearances for the Dodgers and had a OPS+ of three. Three. His batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage ran .106/.192/.191. As of the time I wrote this, he had 75 Twitter followers. I have over twenty times as many, and I spend most of my time doing impossibly stupid things like writing 6,000 or so words about a fictional baseball league I invented on a video game.

This was the man who thwarted the Cardinals’ all-in efforts.

Game 3 was played at Busch Stadium on a Sunday. The Cardinals lost 5-1. Adam Wainwright pitched a shutout into the sixth inning, where he surrendered two runs, losing the lead and eventually losing the decision. The next day, with Mike Mayers getting the start for the Cardinals, the Dodgers scored two in the first, three in the fifth, and while a Yadier Molina solo home run in the bottom of the sixth was somewhat helpful, it wasn’t enough. Once again, the Cardinals lost 5-1. In a repeat performance of his disastrous MLB debut, Mike Mayers was tagged with a loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Busch Stadium on national TV. The all-in dream was over.

Here are the final regular season offensive statistics for the All-In Cardinals.

All in Cardinals hitters

It’s a bit less glorious, but here are the pitchers.

All in Cardinals pitchers

It’s hard to understand what watching this team would feel like. But I know how it felt to micromanage its moves.

I hated it.

This was a completely unpleasant experience. I didn’t watch the regular season games but I did monitor the postseason ones, and even beating the Phillies at Busch Stadium was miserable. When a normal baseball team loses in the postseason, it feels crushing because it means the season is over. If this baseball team loses, it feels like your decade is over. There is no chance that this Cardinals team will be even competent next season.

The problem with going all-in isn’t so much mortgaging your future (though that part is also unpleasant)–it’s the lack of certainty about your present. This team was set up for tremendous success, but unavoidable injuries to Carlos Martinez and Dallas Keuchel doomed the run. Trading depth for stars makes sense in small doses, but abandoning all depth means that if the stars are injured, the team is significantly impacted.

Should the Cardinals be more aggressive in off-seasons? Maybe. I don’t think trading for Josh Donaldson or trading for Manny Machado would have destroyed the franchise’s future. But there are limits. A good enough team makes fandom feel like a chore. That is how I felt about this team. Even more than the lack of sentimentality, the fact that this bizarre mishmash of rentals were built solely for this one run that came up short made for an unpleasant experience.

Even winning a title, meant to be the ultimate, triumphant experience as a fan, would have felt hollow. At best, it would have felt like the universe balanced out. And no championship can be assured. Consider the 2004 Houston Astros, already a great team who added Carlos Beltran to the fold and fell short in the postseason. Consider the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, who had three of the four best pitchers in the National League and couldn’t get past the Cardinals in the NLDS. The disappointment was crushing and abrupt.

Flags fly forever, but perpetual relevance may be an even greater attribute. It means that every summer and, at least into early autumn, you have something to do. It means that there is something to discuss and analyze and it means that a generation of St. Louis baseball fans don’t come of age at a point where the Cardinals are something that the franchise has not been for many decades–irrelevant.

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