October baseball is upon us once again, and for the third consecutive season, the St. Louis Cardinals are not involved.
This is only the second time since the late 90s that the Cardinals have gone three straight years without a postseason berth, so it’s understandable why some fans are getting a little impatient. And for many of those fans, their ire is being directed at Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak.
After all, since the team has made a fair share of personnel changes over the past year, including the manager, why not go a step further and get rid of the guy who assembles the team? Skim through Twitter, and you’ll find plenty of fans calling for Mozeliak to be fired. “It’s not the manager, it’s the roster!” was a popular chorus that was sung in the days after Mike Matheny was dismissed. It was even a chorus that was echoed by prominent local media figures.
There’s no denying that the John Mozeliak era (2008-present) has been an overall success; the Cardinals have four division titles, a couple of pennants and a World Series trophy to back that up. The frustrating part comes from the fact that, for three years now, the Cardinals have met their high-80s win projections in each year and don’t have a playoff berth to show for it. But how much of that really rests at Mozeliak’s feet?
A common knock on Mozeliak is his supposed inability to lure superstars to St. Louis. He did sign Matt Holliday to the richest deal in team history in 2010, a deal that turned out to be great for both parties. Outside of that, however, it’s true that St. Louis hasn’t been a destination for big-name stars like New York or Chicago has. But it isn’t for a lack of trying on Mozeliak’s part.
In 2011, Albert Pujols famously signed a mega-contract worth $254 million over 10 years with the Los Angeles Angels. It’s fun to think about the frenzy and joy that would’ve surrounded his chase for 600 home runs and 2,000 RBIs if it happened in St. Louis, but it’s also no secret that Pujols hasn’t been the same player he once was since he left the Cardinals.
The Cardinals infamously finished second in the bidding war for David Price in 2015, who signed a $217 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. His two seasons in Boston have seen his fWAR decline by nearly two points and his FIP go up to 4.02 in 2018. While it hasn’t exactly hurt the Red Sox, Price’s contract is looking like an expensive mistake.
That same offseason, Jason Heyward turned down a lucrative contract offer from the Cardinals to sign with the Chicago Cubs. Despite the Cubs’ success since then, Heyward’s performance relative to his contract has been a big disappointment (unless there are incentives for cheesy clubhouse speeches that I don’t know about).
Last offseason, the Cardinals reached an agreement to acquire superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton and his $325 million contract from the Miami Marlins, but Stanton declined the trade because he simply didn’t want to play in St. Louis. If Staton’s reasons are truly geographic-based, that’s not something Mozeliak can control.
All of these are instances in which the Cardinals missed out on a deal for a potential superstar that they were willing to spend big for, and each time (with Stanton’s exception), it turned out to be for the better. Mozeliak has balanced this out by making a number of savvy moves for good players to compliment the young talent already in the organization.
Jhonny Peralta provided two good years at shortstop and earned all of his contract before his performance declined. John Lackey came over at the 2014 trade deadline and would stabilize the rotation for the next year and a half. Miles Mikolas was signed out of Japan last winter and became the team’s most consistent starting pitcher and an All-Star. And even though it’s easy for fans to grit their teeth and say, “Should’ve been Christian Yelich,” Marcell Ozuna put up respectable numbers in 2018 and should (theoretically) be even better next season once he’s fully healthy.
And these are just some of the transactions I can think of off the top of my head. If you look at all of the moves Mozeliak has made since taking over player personnel decisions, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any truly “bad” signings (I’ve often said that Mozeliak’s worst player move was actually his failure to sign Max Scherzer in 2015). Still, he hasn’t been perfect, and there are some moves he absolutely deserves criticism for.
Greg Holland, Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson combined for nearly $30 million down the drain this past season. Dexter Fowler faces an uncertain future in St. Louis after a disappointing and tumultuous 2018. The team traded Tommy Pham to the Rays for a suboptimal return package.
None of these moves have been so egregious that they’ve handcuffed the team, a la the contract the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to in 2010, but they’re still a red flag – not because they’ve backfired, but because they’ve all happened recently. It suggests that the Cardinals are falling behind in player evaluation.
Basically, Mozeliak and company have done enough to keep the Cardinals competitive without making the move or the trade to put them firmly into World Series contention. Now is the time to change that line of thinking, for their own sake.
The Cardinals have already made big changes to their coaching staff, and the front office could very well be next. Last week, Rick Hummel wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Mozeliak and Mike Girsch “have to produce a playoff team next year, or there will be a front office restructure.” Those are some pretty eye-catching words, but they also don’t sound like something that a reporter like Hummel would just print lightly.
The Milwaukee Brewers took an aggressive approach last offseason by going after Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and it’s paid big dividends. With a free agent class featuring the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the Cardinals need to do the same if they want to compete with the Cubs and Brewers in the near future.
The Cardinals are one of baseball’s wealthiest and most profitable teams; they’re a mid-market team in name only. With little money committed beyond 2021, they can afford to take on a superstar like Harper or Machado. Both fit exactly what the Cardinals need: a big, power bat to put in the 3-hole as well as a big defensive upgrade. Josh Donaldson will also be available if both of those options fall through. They could also try to swing a trade for someone like Nolan Arenado or take a flyer on Andrew McCutchen.
On the pitching front, Patrick Corbin will be the top arm on the market. Dallas Keuchel will be right behind him. The Cardinals could sign one of them to help stabilize the rotation and take some of the pressure off of Carlos Martinez. There will also be a plethora of relief options available, and lord knows the Cardinals could use help in that department.
Spending just for the sake of spending doesn’t always end well (the San Diego Padres can attest to that), but being overly-cautious can leave you behind the pack in an ever-evolving industry. This offseason is a critical one for John Mozeliak and the rest of the front office. With his team at a crossroads and a historic free agent class in front of him, Mozeliak needs to nail this offseason, even if it means stepping outside of his comfort zone.