Usually the Winter Warm Up is a time of celebration, a time to look forward to the upcoming season, to get a little baseball injected into the middle of a winter weekend. This past weekend, while there was still some of that and it was good to see the players talk to the media (and the bloggers!), comments by both John Mozeliak and owner Bill DeWitt Jr. threw cold water on some talk and conjecture by the fans and when the temps outside are less than freezing, cold water is the last thing anyone needs.
On Saturday, Mozeliak stated that the bullpen was good enough and that Luke Gregerson would be the closer as of today. On Monday, DeWitt reiterated that he didn’t see the Cardinals making any other big moves between now and spring training. Neither of these things sat well with a fan base that is less than convinced that the 2018 squad is better than the 2017 version. You know, that version that spent much of the year under .500 and was only still in contention in the last week due to a second wild card and a weak field?
While this would be frustrating at any time, I think there is much more of an outcry because the Cardinals, whether intentionally or not, have been building up expectations over the last few years and continually dashing them. They talk about trades at the deadline, only to see nothing happen. They were going to be active and aggressive this offseason, but save for chasing Giancarlo Stanton (and not landing him really wasn’t their fault) and acquiring Marcell Ozuna (which, let’s be fair, was a big move), there’s nothing to show for them being “in on everything”. Michael Girsch, back in November, said something to the effect that 60% of the roster might turn over this winter. Instead, eight of the nine starters from 2017’s first game will be out there for the first game of 2018, it appears.
Tara and I got into this Sunday night on Gateway To Baseball Heaven (before the conversation about John Gant’s luxurious mane) and it’s a topic that I’ve talked about in various forms over the last few months. You’ve heard the analogy before, but I’m not creative enough to come up with another one. The five years of playoff baseball (coupled with basically 20 years of good fortune, solid moves, and investing in the team) built up a large reservoir of good will. Sure, some was sloshed out with Albert Pujols leaving or not winning a title, but the last few years have drained it dry for most folks. Consider:
–Losing in the first round of the 2015 playoffs to the Cubs.
–Coming in second on both Jason Heyward and David Price.
–Missing the playoffs in 2016 by one game after only acquiring Zach Duke at the deadline.
–Extending Mike Matheny for three years 1) before his contract was even up and 2) the day after the Cubs won the World Series.
–Spending much of 2017 under .500 and missing the playoffs again.
–Making no moves at the July trading deadline.
Any of those things, in a vacuum, are understandable and explainable. Put them all together, though, and the frustration continues to grow. Meaning that something as small as not getting another reliever or someone that is more associated with the ninth inning can be a huge deal.
I completely understand the idea of not investing a lot of money in a closer. The Cardinals have gone through late-inning guys like water over the past few years and they aren’t the only team in that situation. When there was talk about St. Louis being major players for Greg Holland and Wade Davis, I was pretty leery because odds were those guys were going to get more money for more years than they would deliver value. So that makes a lot of sense not to play in that market.
However, you can’t say at the beginning of the offseason that you are looking for that lock-down ninth inning guy and at the end of it say that you don’t want to spend for said guy and Gregerson is really what you had in mind the whole time. There is a reason that article after article has been written about the Cardinal bullpen. There’s a reason rumor after rumor had the Cards talking with closer types. The expectations, set out by the front office this past fall, were that they wanted a middle of the order bat and to upgrade the bullpen. While you could argue that they did both (the first is pretty clearly true), you shouldn’t have to ARGUE they did both, not with St. Louis’s resources in both money and talent. You should KNOW that they did both.
Instead of going out and getting the depth that this bullpen needs, John Mozeliak brings up names like Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks and Ryan Helsley as possible pieces this season. While I don’t believe that Mozeliak was saying that they’d be serious options for the Opening Day roster, to even suggest Hicks and Helsley could be contributing this season to the big leagues seems to border on malfeasance for the development of those players, as Colin Garner and Kyle Reis get into (with more knowledge and facts) in their recent Prospect To Be Named Later podcast.
John Rabe pointed this out on Twitter yesterday:
The #STLCards‘ total adjusted payroll, via @spotrac:
2018: $139.6 MM
2017: $149.5 MM
2016: $164.5 MM
They cut payroll every year while bloviating about “payroll muscle” and conning you into believing they’re improving.
— John Rabe (@johnrabe) January 15, 2018
And while I’m pretty sure the 2018 number isn’t finalized yet (there’s a tweet from Brian Walton that points out some issues in comparison) nor do I believe payroll is the be-all and end-all for talking about whether a team is competing or not (Ozuna’s $9 million is probably going to be much more productive than Heyward’s $21.5, for instance), it is not a good look for the Cardinals to worry about signing Addison Reed to a deal while seeing that FSMW TV deal finally start kicking in this year. I get that, as Derrick Goold pointed out in his chat yesterday, that there could be some issues with Reed. After all, remember the Phillies almost signed him to a three-year deal earlier in the winter, then backed off and nobody pounced. There may be some more there than we think.
Even so, they could pay Reed and have him do nothing at all and see no real impact to their bottom line. You take the chance and try to improve the bullpen. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Even if a deal doesn’t pan out and it causes a bit of a budget crunch later on–and, let me be clear, you are talking about deals next offseason for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado even being in the realm of causing budget crunches with the financial resources available–fans are going to be more understanding of that than continuing to hold “dry powder” and never see it actually used.
Maybe there is a long-term plan to be huge spenders in the upcoming free agent market after the season. Maybe they realize they’d have to go way over the top to get a Harper or a Machado and they are planning to do it. It’s tough to actually believe that with the reservoir of good will at the levels that they are at. It’s tough to hear national commentators go on and on about the financial and prospect strength of the Cardinals, only to see them be, on paper, maybe wild card favorites. (Which has more to do with some of the weaker teams in the league than their relative strength, I believe.) With all this muscle, shouldn’t they be seen as at least serious contenders not only for the division but for a deep playoff run? As of right now, who really sees that happening?
I do think the Cardinals are probably better than they were for most of 2017 now. The bullpen won’t have Seung-hwan Oh or Jonathan Broxton out there. Alex Reyes should be back for much of the year, though what he’ll bring is still debatable. I think Gregerson will be better than he was over the last few years. Ozuna’s going to help the offense and even if they fall back some, I don’t think Tommy Pham or Paul DeJong craters. I’m not saying that there’s no hope or that you can’t make a case for a successful 2018. All I am saying is that the front office could have, from the outside looking in, made that case much, much easier to make. That they didn’t makes for a lot of frustration going into the season. And the season usually brings enough frustration with it as it is, I don’t need to start out with some in the tank!
John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt and Michael Girsch (who is still around, though I don’t believe he talked to the press over the weekend) have placed a bet that this team is good enough to be a playoff team. It’s a large bet. If they don’t make it this season, after this mixed winter, all the seats get that much hotter and a much bigger move will have to be made to keep fans happy. Hopefully they are as smart as we think they are and that bet pays off.