When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler following a 2016 season which saw the team’s half-decade postseason streak snap, he was supposed to solidify an outfield that was hit or miss for most of the prior year. It didn’t result in the Cardinals making the playoffs. When the Cardinals acquired Marcell Ozuna, he was supposed to be the big, middle-of-the-order power hitter that the team lacked the year before. It didn’t result in a playoff appearance. The next off-season, the Cardinals traded for Paul Goldschmidt, with an eye on the 2019 postseason. And they got there.
There are thirty teams in Major League Baseball, and twenty-nine of them end their season with either a loss or a somewhat shallow victory in Game 162 of the regular season. It is impossible, barring a World Series championship, to finish the season feeling truly satisfied with the season’s conclusion. For four consecutive seasons, from 2012 through 2015, the Cardinals’ season ended with three consecutive losses in the postseason. And with the 2019 team’s four game sweep at the hands of the Washington Nationals, every playoff berth since the opening of Busch Stadium has resulted in one of two outcomes: a 3+ game losing streak or a World Series victory.
Ending on a loss was always the most likely conclusion. 60% of MLB teams will this season (and even that number is deflated by playoff-locked teams running out C-lineups against non-playoff teams on the last Sunday of the season). Most good teams end their seasons with a loss. The Cardinals are now among them.
No team enters the playoffs as a favorite. As dominant as the Houston Astros playoff roster looked entering the 2019 postseason, they didn’t have a 50% chance of hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy. They still don’t. Classifying the postseason as a random championship generator is a bit of an oversimplification, but particularly once the Wild Card Games are sorted out, there is a relatively moderate gap between the most and least likely championship winners.
The most significant contributing factor to a World Series victory is showing up to the playoffs in the first place. For all of the attention paid to the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros (and, to a lesser extent this year, the Atlanta Braves) for their tank and rebuild strategy, they were not tearing down a team that was going to make it to October. They simply made a bad team a little bit worse. Say what you will about this strategy ethically or aesthetically, but from an effectiveness standpoint, sacrificing a few wins off a 75 win team in exchange for adding wins to a 90+ win team is sound logic if your goal is to win the World Series. The defending pennant winners, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers never did the full tear-down; at most, the former would sell players mid-season once the season became too far underwater to salvage. The latter would probably do the same, but that would require them to have a bad season.
The obvious caveat is that the Red Sox and Dodgers have gargantuan payrolls compared to the Cardinals, but both teams are still mostly home-grown groups that develop star level players that weren’t top ten draft picks. The Red Sox developed the likes of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and the prospects whom the organization parlayed into Chris Sale. The Dodgers didn’t need exceptionally high draft picks to select Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Joc Pederson, or rookies Will Smith or Gavin Lux. The highest paid external free agent on the Dodgers, A.J. Pollock, makes less than an external free agent at the same position on the Cardinals, Dexter Fowler.
The problem with the previous three seasons for the Cardinals, of course, is the simple absence of postseason baseball. And postseason baseball happened. I hate the idea of getting high and mighty about fan expectations, but this is the whole thing. Only three teams outlasted the Cardinals. I think there’s a difference between two phrases that seem similar on the surface: “This wasn’t good enough”, and “This season was a failure.” I think the former is a defensible claim. Obviously, a team ought not strive for an LCS exit and the fourth best record in the National League when loftier heights are available. But if finishing twenty games above .500 and a hard-fought, dramatic NLDS victory in October is a “failure”, I say this with absolute, sincere concern: consider spending your free time on something other than sports. Sports are built upon failures far more calamitous and frequent than what the Cardinals just experienced.
But I won’t sugarcoat it: a sweep, particularly with the way the last two games transpired, is a downer of a way for the Cardinals’ season to end. But this is how the postseason works. You don’t end your season triumphantly unless you end it with a championship. The 2012 NLCS ended with a blown 3-1 series lead. The 2013 World Series turned on a critical baserunning gaffe from a rookie. The 2014 NLCS ended with a starting pitcher arbitrarily inserted into relief, followed by a walk-off home run. The 2015 NLDS ended with an array of back-breaking moments against the team’s ascending, major historical rival. This time, the postseason exit came four months to the day after an actual, real-life championship parade in St. Louis and capped the most successful St. Louis sports year since 2000. It’s not a perfect ending, but the Cardinals have produced worse.
Every fan base has horror stories of the season that got away. As fun as the three consecutive wins in the 2016 season’s final series was, I’d absolutely prefer a reality in which the season ends in (postseason) defeat. That’s why you play all season. That’s why you spend six months watching every day and fixating on the standings. At the midpoint of October, I still cared about the results of my favorite baseball team. This is what we asked for.