It speaks to how successful the John Mozeliak/Michael Girsch era of St. Louis Cardinals baseball has been that the median casual baseball fan who comes across this headline will dismiss this post as the whining of a spoiled baseball brat. I get it. Since the tenure began in earnest following Walt Jocketty’s dismissal as general manager of the Cardinals in October 2007, the Cardinals have yet to complete a season with a losing record, an impressive accomplishment equaled only by the New York Yankees and made all the more impressive by St. Louis’s status as a middling market. John Mozeliak inherited an aging team that, objectively, fluked into a title in 2006, and he managed to simultaneously refurbish the Major League team while stocking the team’s minor leagues with an impressive core of young talent. When the 2011 team won the World Series, they did so with arguably the strongest minor league system in baseball, and for the next four seasons, the team continued its strongest half-decade stretch since World War II.
John Mozeliak will deserve his plaque in the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame, just as Jim Edmonds and Ozzie Smith deserve theirs. But just as Jim Edmonds’s Cardinals playing career ended with an anticlimactic Spring Training invite and just as Ozzie Smith’s career ended with him splitting time with Royce Clayton, not every front office executive’s tenure is going to end bathed in glory. The most successful on-field manager of my lifetime, Joe Torre, was squeezed out of three managerial posts during that time alone. Sometimes, front offices become complacent. Sometimes, on a different timetable but in a similar fashion, front offices lose their way. John Mozeliak, 52, isn’t exactly ancient, so it seems asinine to argue that the game passed him by, and that’s probably overstating it a bit, but it’s also fair to look at the recent track record of the St. Louis Cardinals organization and question its direction.
Following the 2015 season, the Cardinals needed to reload in order to compete with the ascending Chicago Cubs–the Cardinals, not old but not exactly young, had just won 100 games despite advanced metrics suggesting something closer to a high-80s win team, but the 97-win Cubs, who had just defeated the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, were led by youngsters who were seemingly not yet in their prime. They responded by replacing John Lackey, their Game 1 starter who departed for the Cubs, with Mike Leake, an almost exactly average MLB pitcher who they later gave to the Seattle Mariners for peanuts, and offering Jason Heyward a contract that, had he accepted, would have been an albatross given the financial limitations imposed by ownership (who cannot, despite the wishes of fans, be fired).
Since 2015, nearly all Cardinals transactions have ranged somewhere between “perfectly okay, neutral-feeling move” and “unreservedly terrible”, with the possible exception of a Nolan Arenado trade so on-its-face lopsided that outside of St. Louis, nearly all attention paid to it was centered around scorn towards the Colorado Rockies. The team’s biggest free agent signings have been mid-range players at positions where the Cardinals have historically had no problem developing mid-range players, such as Dexter Fowler and Andrew Miller, and giving market-value extensions to the likes of Matt Carpenter and Miles Mikolas after their peak seasons, defensible enough moves for players who are either on the right side of thirty or have already reached free agency, neither of which applies in these cases. In a perfect world, the front office would have a larger budget, though blaming middle management for that is misguided, but in the real world, the Cardinals have the payroll to chase safer, upper-tier free agents. No, they couldn’t sign as many players to semi-large contracts, but say that instead of trading prospects, including Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen, for Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals had aimed for a more expensive player in J.D. Martinez. Even setting aside what we now know about Marcell Ozuna off the field, this scenario would allow the Cardinals to acquire a better hitter and retain young pitchers who would easily be in the Cardinals’ present-day rotation, but on the downside, they wouldn’t have been able to then give up a draft pick to sign Greg Holland.
Badgering the Cardinals too much for the loss of Zac Gallen, who wasn’t regarded as a major prospect, seems unfair–I can’t say I was too upset about the loss when it happened. But the trend of middling Cardinals prospects thriving outside of St. Louis is getting difficult to ignore. Last season’s MLB leader in home runs, Luke Voit, was an also-ran prospect, while Carson Kelly, sent to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of the Paul Goldschmidt trade (one which would not have been necessary had Voit blossomed in St. Louis), has been a plus-hitting catcher and, by Wins Above Replacement of both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs variety, superior to Yadier Molina at the position. I would be lying if I said that I had thought of Adolis García since he left the Cardinals before his unlikely ascent to top-ten home run hitter in Major League Baseball in 2021, but he is adding further fuel to the fire regarding the team’s player development skills. Maybe this isn’t an indictment of the team’s player evaluation skills, but if it’s an indictment of the organization’s inability to develop young players, this is still an area overseen by the Cardinals’ front office, and while I will still defend the Randy Arozarena trade (he has settled into a perfectly believable lane as a merely Pretty Good outfielder rather than the latter-day Hank Aaron he was in 2020), Adolis García was essentially a giveaway, and even when he inevitably regresses into something less than he has been in 2021, it’ll still be better than nothing.
But the real indictment of the Cardinals is that the current team has atrophied. Only three players drafted by or signed as an amateur by the Cardinals post-2015 have made a meaningful contribution to the 2021 Cardinals–Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman, both of whom were drafted in 2016, and Johan Oviedo, a 2016 signing who isn’t exactly a feather in the cap of the front office at the moment. In the 2020-21 off-season, the Cardinals saw a roster that played at an 84-win pace and declared the acquisition of Nolan Arenado, a marginal improvement to the infield if considered with the departure of Kolten Wong, good enough. And throughout the season, Arenado has been about what he could have reasonably been expected to be, but all of the issues not addressed have come to the forefront. The Cardinals had a thin rotation, and as they tend to do, pitchers got hurt. The Cardinals entered the season with three viable outfielders, one of whom was already on the IL, and they have scrambled to fill in the gaps throughout the season. In a season in which acquiring sufficient depth from the minor leagues was going to inevitably be a struggle across the sport, given the lack of minor league season in 2020 which stymied player development, the Cardinals entered the season hoping to live and die with their best case scenario roster. And as the team deals with injuries, they are dying by it.
The St. Louis Cardinals are not, in the larger sense, a “bad” team. They are on a 77 win pace, sub-optimal to be sure, but there are ten teams with fewer wins than their current mark of 37. But the real problem is that they don’t seem to have a cohesive plan for the future. The Cardinals aren’t rebuilding, but they also don’t have a good enough team to be reasonably considered all-in. The Cardinals do not have zero prospects, but three top-100 prospects in a sport with thirty Major League teams is standard, not a burgeoning superteam. The same exciting parts for the future that the Cardinals have now–a potential Tyler O’Neill-Harrison Bader-Dylan Carlson outfield and the promise of Jack Flaherty–were the same draws in 2018. The acquisitions of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, defensible as they were, were still moves designed to kick the can down the road–both were acquired for their post-prime seasons as icing on the cake. Arenado can still be a key contributor for a good team, but he cannot carry a team by himself. He will almost certainly remain a Cardinal for the same reason he re-signed with the Rockies–because making as much money as possible is a good idea for players–but unless the Cardinals change their organizational philosophy, Arenado may remain icing in search for a cake.
Over the weekend, the Cardinals dropped three out of four games at home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the third-worst team in Major League Baseball but a team that, unlike the Cardinals, has a plan for the future. That plan may not work, but they are in rebuild mode, and their fans know that. The Cardinals are stuck in neutral–they are not a major deadline acquisition away from contention and yet they don’t seem to have the framework of their next great team in place. I watched a grand total of one inning of the weekend series, and following the Cardinals is, like, my thing. I’m perfectly content with this–the NBA and NHL playoffs have been fun, and even when those are over, it’s not like I need the Cardinals to be good to find fulfillment in my life. But my guess is that the Cardinals would probably prefer their fans not feel compelled to such apathy, and that if they do, it’s at least a temporary measure in the midst of a rebuild and not in the immediate aftermath of a supposedly all-in team.
With due respect to what Mike Bauer wrote on this website last week, I don’t mind John Mozeliak’s wishy-washy media tone. I don’t expect him to give an honest reflection about where the Cardinals stand, because it is not his job to publicly criticize himself. But it is also reasonable for those without a financial stake in the Cardinals to call a spade a spade and note that the reason he seems so insincere is because his recent track record is growing increasingly impossible to defend. Something isn’t working in the front office, whether it’s President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak, General Manager Michael Girsch, Farm Director Gary LaRocque, or Scouting Director Randy Flores. Maybe it’s all four or maybe it’s one of them, but I am increasingly certain that sticking with a formula because it built a championship team that is now further removed from the present than the championship was from the Moneyball Oakland Athletics is a mistake. It appears more and more like baseball passed this organization by.
There is a part of me that is unable to bring myself to declare that a person should lose their job, barring gross misconduct, and that is despite knowing full well that any of the four men listed above would easily find another quality job in the industry, and knowing full well that this is a cut-throat industry in which recent results are essential. So I guess this is where I chicken out and don’t use the f-word (well, an f-word). But in an industry where the rules are rewritten every half-decade, it’s fair to question giving a lifetime gig based on accomplishments more than a half-decade in the rear view mirror, no matter how illustrious they were.