Eight years after his free agent departure for Anaheim, Albert Pujols made his much-anticipated return to Busch Stadium this past month, and the homecoming was everything all of us could’ve hoped for.
Every time Pujols stepped into the batter’s box, he was greeted with a long and loud standing ovation. When he dug in with his signature wide stance and scowl, a kind of hush fell over the crowd, with occasional “Al-bert, Al-bert” chants breaking out in certain pockets of the stadium.
He tipped his helmet, embraced old teammate Yadier Molina at home plate, and even got a curtain call as he walked off the field one last time on Sunday night, one of the rarest honors for an opposing player in St. Louis.
But the highlight of the weekend came on Saturday, when Pujols hit a towering home run into the visitors’ bullpen off of Dakota Hudson, as he had done to so many other pitchers during his 11-year career with the Cardinals. The Cardinal fans at Busch roared as a player hit a home run against their favorite team.
It was the loudest Busch Stadium got all weekend, and maybe all year.
That’s because Albert Pujols represents an era of Cardinals baseball that no longer exists. He was the face of a decorated franchise in one of its most successful runs ever, winning multiple National League MVP honors and helping the Redbirds win three National League pennants and two World Series titles.
Beyond those accomplishments, Pujols personified that era of Cardinals baseball. He wasn’t just an exciting player and a generational talent; he intimidated opponents, playing with an intensity and relentless drive to win that was reflected in both his teammates and his manager. Even when they weren’t champions, the Cardinals were always must-see TV, and they were never out of things until that final out was recorded or that fourth game was lost.
Those days are long gone, but for one weekend, and for presumably the last time ever, fans got to see one of the greatest Cardinals of all-time play in the house that he built, taking fans back to better times with better baseball.
I’m bringing this up, of course, because Mike Shildt went on a lengthy defense of the current Cardinals team right before they sleepwalked to a 2-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics last week, all while playing in front of a crowd that seemed more excited by the presence of St. Louis Blues players with the Stanley Cup than by the ballgame at hand.
Shildt told reporters that he didn’t feel like the Cardinals were getting enough credit for winning their recent series against the Mets and Marlins, or for their 20-10 record in the month of April. He also pushed back on the notion of the Cardinals being a “boring” team, pointing out that they’re playing a cleaner style of baseball than they have in recent years, and were only 2.5 games out of first place at the time of his spiel.
In fairness to Shildt, it’s not unusual or even unexpected for any manager to stick up for his players when things aren’t going well. He’s also correct that the Cardinals are either near the top or above league average in baserunning and defensive metrics, a welcome change from the last couple of seasons. Shildt and his staff deserve credit for that.
But from an overarching standpoint, Shildt’s comments reflect a changing attitude within the Cardinals clubhouse and the organization as a whole.
For one, the Cardinals certainly haven’t done much to get fans excited this season, so Shildt will have to forgive people outside of the clubhouse if they find the team boring. In the month of June, only one Cardinal (Marcell Ozuna) has a wRC+ that’s over 100. Including Dexter Fowler and Jose Martinez, the team’s regular starters are batting .225 for the month with an average wRC+ of 70. A team with Paul Goldschmidt and the rest of this offense shouldn’t put me to sleep every night, but it does.
Secondly, being 2.5 games out of first place isn’t something that this team should be proud of, because it doesn’t tell the full story. The Cardinals have the National League’s worst record since May 2, and would be out of the playoffs if the regular season ended today. The fact that the Cardinals are still “in” the NL Central race is a reflection on the rest of the division as a whole, and on the Cardinals’ inability to take advantage of the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers continuing to underperform. Teams set their own standards, and right now, the Cardinals are well below where they should be at this point in the season.
Both of these are just two examples of a larger disconnect between how the St. Louis Cardinals view themselves and reality, and this disconnect has been going on for a few years now.
The Cardinals have long been billed in the media and throughout the baseball world as a smart, forward-thinking organization that’s always one step ahead of their competition. For a certain period of time, this was true. They drafted and developed players better than almost anyone, they were one of the first teams to embrace sabermetrics in the age of Moneyball, and they moved on from former GM Walt Jocketty and his old-school methods at just the right time, in favor of the more analytical approach of Jeff Luhnow and John Mozeliak.
But since Luhnow left the organization to join the front office in Houston, the rest of baseball has caught up with the Cardinals, and they’ve shown no urgency to change that trend.
Many fans (myself included) find it easy to criticize the Cardinals for being “cheap” (or at least cheaper than they should be) by not spending money on premier free agents like Max Scherzer or Bryce Harper. Those in the front office will be quick to tell you that many of their free agent shortcomings (such as the Pujols contract or the pursuits of David Price and Jason Heyward) were actually blessings in disguise, thus allowing that money to be better spent elsewhere.
But even when the Cardinals do spend their “dry powder” or try to flex their “payroll muscle” that they love to brag about, they haven’t been getting a good return on their investments.
In just the past four seasons, they’ve paid over $240 million in contracts to players like Luke Gregerson, Greg Holland, Mike Leake, Brett Cecil, Andrew Miller and Dexter Fowler. Those players have produced a combined 6.5 WAR as Cardinals.
Even going beyond free agents, last season’s infamous trade of Tommy Pham also perfectly illustrates problems with the Cardinals’ culture and their inability to build a winning team. Pham, who was consistently one of the Cardinals’ most reliable hitters during his time in St. Louis, was also one of the only people in the organization from 2016-2018 who was open and brutally honest about the state of the team, including in the pages of Sports Illustrated.
Just months after that SI interview, the Cardinals traded Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays for a trio of average pitching prospects, none of whom do much to move the needle on the Cardinals’ win projections.
Was Pham traded for non-baseball reasons? We may never know for sure, but the fact that Pham is still hitting the cover off the ball in Tampa suggests that either the Cardinals just wanted to get rid of Pham, or that their scouts failed in evaluating what they could get in return for a player of his caliber. Neither is a flattering look for the organization, nor is is proclaiming yourself to be “all-in” immediately after dealing away one of your best hitters for spare parts.
To recap: the Cardinals have lost their ability to build a championship roster, they aren’t spending their money wisely, they aren’t getting good value in return on many of their trades, and there seems to be no sense of urgency to change any of this.
None of this happened overnight, either. Somewhere along the line after the Cardinals continued to win without Pujols, they seemed to became complacent with where they were at as an organization. They become so assured that their way of doing business was “the right way,” they just assumed that it would continue to work into the future.
The result is a slow but gradual decline from a powerhouse to a nondescript club with a win total that’s consistently in the mid-80s, because that’s what they’re designed to do. The people running the team are the only ones who don’t realize that.
I don’t know what firing John Mozeliak or others in the personnel department would change for this organization, and I don’t know how much of this is a reflection on Bill DeWitt and the ownership restricting how much the front office can spend. I also don’t know how effective a full rebuild would be. But I do know that until there is a massive change in the current culture of the St. Louis Cardinals, they will remain a dull, mediocre club.
A good start would be understanding that winning comes first, and that the playoffs are a step, not the end goal. Albert Pujols would know something about that.