Before I start discussing two members of the 2022 St. Louis Cardinals, I will begin in the time and place where you surely assumed this would begin–the college football realignment landscape of a decade ago.
Technically, this was the realignment landscape of major college athletic conferences in general, but the reality was the purpose of it was always to fuel football, the cash cow of the unpaid labor cartel known then and now as the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The truth is that conference realignment had always been a factor and that, like evaluating When Saturday Night Live Was Good, one’s opinions of the platonic ideal of conference structures was largely contingent on when one came of age. But while 1990s realignment was largely driven by the rise of conferences as a whole (hence notable independent football programs moving to conferences at all, such as Florida State moving to the ACC and the Big East sponsoring football for several notable former independents) and the dissolution of the once-major Southwest Conference, starting in the 2000s, it became very transparently about power consolidation. And in 2012, this impacted my team of choice in the sport.
I was once an extremely avid college football fan, and I supported the University of Missouri for the bland and obvious reason of “um, that’s the state I lived in”. That I did not attend the university probably inherently diminished my passion (though attending a Division II school also meant that there was no real conflict of interest in continuing to root for them), but they were still undoubtedly my first choice team. But in 2012, Mizzou athletics, led by Mizzou football, took a step that forever dampered whatever passion I had in the first place for the team when they left the Big 12 Conference, itself an amalgamation that probably seemed more than a bit phony to those slightly older than I am who remember its 1996 formation, in favor of the Southeastern Conference.
For what Mizzou meant to me, the move to the SEC was a disaster, though “to me” is admittedly doing some very heavy lifting here. As a fan without a vested financial interest in the school, it means the abandonment of the regional rivalries which are considerably more intense in collegiate than in professional sports–annual tilts with the University of Kansas were replaced with the plastic soul that is the Missouri vs. Arkansas “Battle Line Rivalry”. Even secondary rivals such as Iowa State or Kansas State at least conjured memories of Seneca Wallace or Ell Roberson–I couldn’t even pretend to care about Vanderbilt athletics. And yet I can’t say that the move was the “wrong” move because the Big 12 Conference, as it stood, was a house of cards–Nebraska and Colorado had already departed and there was a real threat that other schools, particularly the big-ticket Oklahoma and Texas programs, might leave and thus render the conference a shell of its former self. The University of Missouri essentially found itself in the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma of game theory, where they acted in their own best self-interest and were right to do so, but the actual optimal scenario would have required several other colleges to care about something other than printing money, which would never have been realistic.
The last week of college athletic realignment news, which has found two Los Angeles-based schools–UCLA and USC–in a Big Ten conference historically associated with the Midwest but which now sees itself expanded all the way to New Jersey, speaks to the continued desire for efficiency, but in the coldest and least aesthetically pleasing way imaginable. Forget the ethics of having, like, a tennis team traveling from Pasadena, CA to New Brunswick, NJ in the middle of the week in a sporting venture that loves to claim it is focused primarily on the academic pursuits of its competitors–why should any of their fans care about it? More nationalized rivalries are possible in sports being played at the highest level, but college football or basketball have very, very obvious, objectively superior versions at the professional level–the regional flavor is what keeps it fun. College sports striving for efficiency is like practicing free throws on a seven-foot basketball hoop–why would you have a seven-foot basketball hoop if not for just trying to throw down dunks on it?
When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Albert Pujols in March, it was a move driven by sentiment, and the numbers have backed that up–while his strong Sunday afternoon, with three hits including a home run, bolstered his OPS+ to a level not seen for him since the Obama administration, Pujols remains a below-average hitter with minimal defensive value and a sub-Replacement Level overall profile. The truest of Baseball Heaven Devil Magic believers aside, this was about as productive of an outcome as the Cardinals could have reasonably expected from the 42 year-old Pujols. But he also isn’t being asked to do much–it has now been twenty-seven days since the last game that Albert Pujols started and completed. He is transparently a role player. Is he good at this role? Not really, but he also doesn’t cause a ton of harm in it, and fans get excited to see him. The Cardinals organization, who has a financial interest in his productivity, was able to justify it; as a person who would much rather watch Mizzou football play Kansas than play Tennessee, a stronger program about which I simply do not care at all, I can relate to the feeling.
Corey Dickerson has been a materially worse player in 2022 than Albert Pujols, though if the question is asked as a binary, “Is this guy better than the AAA player who would come up and replace him?”, the answer for either player is almost certainly “no”–Alec Burleson, after all, currently stands tied for fourth in all of AAA-level baseball with a 147 wRC+, with every batter ahead of him older than Burleson’s relatively promising twenty-three years of age. The Steamer projection system tabs Burleson for a projected Major League wRC+ of 115, well ahead of either Pujols or Dickerson. But asking Alec Burleson to replace Albert Pujols would be nearly impossible from an aesthetic perspective, because while Albert Pujols hasn’t been good, he also hasn’t been so bad as to counterbalance the good vibes of him being there (and perhaps more importantly, he also hasn’t been so relied upon that he comes up in such high leverage spots so as to invite groans from local fans). There are some cases where the efficiency gap is so large that it is impossible to ignore, but it’s not as though the replacement for Albert Pujols would be Mike Trout. But we aren’t there.
But Corey Dickerson has been the equivalent of a Mizzou vs. Vanderbilt football slog with 15,000 fans in attendance (where the game is being played doesn’t really make a difference in this case). Bringing him in was an attempt at efficiency–very few if any Cardinals fans had a personal stake in Corey Dickerson entering 2022, a fact which unfortunately for him remains true as we near the All-Star Break. I was admittedly okay with the Dickerson signing when it happened because the Cardinals were a team starving for left-handed hitting, but the problem is that the team remains starving for it because a 50 OPS+ with two home runs (both of which were on the same day, one of which was against a position player) in 114 plate appearances is absolutely not good enough for a designated hitter. The signing of Dickerson is not an indictment of striving for efficiency–after all, what was the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt if not that?–but if a transaction is neither efficient nor fun, what is the point of it?
There is little to no evidence that Corey Dickerson is going to materially improve–no, his .205 batting average on balls in play is probably an indicator of some bad luck, but also probably not enough bad luck to suddenly turn around his season. And if Dickerson suddenly turned things around for another team, it’s not as though the Cardinals would be given a pass even if the consensus among most Cardinals fans was that he was given too much of an opportunity (see: Carpenter, Matt; García, Adolis). But these factors shouldn’t be what drives the front office to action. Maybe releasing Corey Dickerson would not drive winning, but it seems like it likely would, and at no cost of sentiment. As bland as it sounds, that should be all that matters.