Here’s the truth: going “all in” is usually not a smart move.
Of course, we need to define the context where this phrase is being used. When you’re sitting around a poker table with pocket aces and a dwindling stack, all in may be your best bet. It’s a way of pushing hesitant and amateur players off the board because of the implied risk. If they call, the pay-out will likely be staggering, coupled with the potentially devastating blow to one (or more) of your opponents’ chip counts.
However – at the risk of showing just how much of a poker amateur I am – going all in also reveals your unspoken vulnerability. After all, big stacks don’t usually need to go all in. They usually have enough contingency plans to avoid the risk of significantly damaging their status in the game, and the risk far outweighs the reward.
It’s here where the “All In” metaphor, at least as it relates to the impending MLB trade deadline, breaks down. After all, the current season isn’t all there is. Once your team bows out – in all likelihood without a World Series trophy – you turn your thoughts toward April and how your team can put itself in the best position to win next year.
In poker, you’ve only got the present. In baseball, you’ve always got the future.
The St. Louis Cardinals have spent most of the calendar year parroting their capital A, capital I “All In” status, and their corresponding personnel moves had coherent dramatic flair. All In means trading for the best-hitting first baseman of the past half-decade. All In means signing a relief pitcher who fundamentally changed the way old-school baseball types view the usefulness of the bullpen.
However – and this has long been known by those who pay even the minimal amount of attention – this Cardinals front office does not operate in a way conducive to “All In” moves, at least not on purpose. Yes, there was risk in trading away some well-regarded young players for Paul Goldschmidt. But it’s common knowledge that the Cardinals made the move with a firm idea of what it would take to lock up Goldschmidt long-term, mitigating some of the risk that comes with sending away young, controllable talent. And while the Andrew Miller signing did represent a fair amount of risk, the Cardinals paired it with a lack of movement in the rotation, touting “organizational depth” AKA financial control over a position that usually comes with high dollar demands in free agency.
The notion that the Cardinals were going “All In” – or that they would ever do so – is not only a misleading marketing push, it’s a miscalculation of how well fans understand the Cardinals’ decision-making.
We know the Cardinals don’t like risk. The longest-term contract they’ve signed since the turn of the millennium was seven years. Their current highest paid player is tied for 35th on the Salary Rankings list, and Goldschmidt’s new contract kicks in, he will be (for a short time) at 13th. The Cardinals are paying their current leader in fWAR less than $5 million per year until at least 2023.
The fact that the Cardinals don’t need to go all in isn’t inherently bad. The team has maintained a nearly two-decade run of “success” based on this model. Betting on young, cost-controlled talent and doling out rare, big-money contracts has undoubtedly worked in the past, and may work again at some point in the future. The Cardinals have clearly committed to this financial culture for better or mediocre.
There’s even a persuasive argument that says the Cardinals don’t need to go all in. As currently constructed, they sit in the thick of both the National League Central and wild card races. Their postseason chances range from 47.3 percent at FanGraphs to 52 percent at Five Thirty-Eight. The Cardinals, warts and all, have the look of the playoff team on paper, even if the on-field product doesn’t cohere with that narrative. The front office knows that the playoffs are a crapshoot (to mix my gambling metaphors) and that getting to the playoffs every year is one way to optimize their chances of another championship. Why risk future playoff seasons with all-in-sized additions – and subtractions – if the team can get there as is?
Of course, that’s where “All In” stops feeling like a transparent attempt at branding and more like a backhanded insult. The model that optimizes playoff chances every year may yet work in the future… but has, for three consecutive seasons, resulted in agonizingly boring teams that, as luck would have it, did not reach their stated goal of making those crapshoot playoffs.
Maybe it’s a bad draw of luck for a team that will, in turn, make several consecutive postseasons with the same strategy. The odds have to balance out at some point, right? Or maybe it’s karmic payback for the 2006 and 2011 championship teams which, for all of their Cardinal Devil Magic, might not have been historically great contenders. Either way, the scales feel like they have to balance.
Still, there’s a difference in putting your cards on the table and playing them well. The 2019 Cardinals are undoubtedly a flawed team. But there are feasible ways to improve their standing the present and future. Sacrificing some young talent for a proven starting pitcher is one. Sacrificing a small amount of payroll flexibility is another. We often think of personnel improvements as a two-point line, one being, “C-prospect for second-tier reliever,” the other being, “blockbuster.” But the Cardinals refusal to acknowledge an option in between the two doesn’t mean it’s not there.
So to say that the Cardinals – as currently constructed in the front office – will ever truly go, “All In,” is a touch beyond the pale. No fan (with their head on straight) is asking the Cardinals to assume the type of risk it takes to truly push all their chips to the middle, knowing they may come away empty-handed. Such a move would be dramatic, but fool-hardy, one that goes against the very fiber of the “win now and later,” foundation the team has been built on for two decades.
The Cardinals’ brass know that, with their current hand, “All In,” isn’t necessary. The thing is: Cardinals’ fans know it too. And pretending like they’re prepared to assume that risk feels extra cheap when we all know they’re just as content to call and let the cards fall where they will… even when they could moderately raise the stakes and not sacrifice their chance for a championship payout in the long run.