The NL Central Road No Longer Goes Through St. Louis

As fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, we tend to mark the current “Golden Age” from 1996.  That was the year new ownership was fully in place and Walt Jocketty recruited his former Oakland employee Tony La Russa to take over the reins of the Cardinals following a fairly unimpressive showing (and a June 1995 firing) by Joe Torre as manager.  The Cardinals, with a lot of Oakland imports like Todd Stottlemyre, Dennis Eckersley, and Mike Gallego, did go on to the NLCS that year (and were one win away from unseating the Braves after four games….unfortunately, it never came), but I am not sure that’s really the best place to start.  After all, they then spent three years in mediocrity with only the big bat of Mark McGwire being memorable some 20 years later.

No, the more accurate start of the Golden Age might be the turn of the century.  From 2000 to 2014, the Cardinals went 1,364-1,065 (.562).  They went to the playoffs 11 times.  They went to the National League Championship Series nine times.  They went to the World Series four times.  They won the World Series twice.

More than all of that, though, there was a feeling of….I hate to say superiority, because I don’t think that’s really what I mean.  Perhaps more of confidence, of knowing that the organization was strong enough to weather whatever uprising was going to come its way.  As the era started, Houston was the big rival for the postseason berth.  At times Milwaukee got strong, then the Reds.  Even the Cubs occasionally would be a threat and, at the end of our time frame, the Pirates were in the mix.  Through all of that, you just knew that the Cardinal organization had enough talent, enough prospects, enough money that they weren’t going anywhere.

The Cardinals could have a down year–they struggled in 2007, the only time in this span that they were under .500, but that was mainly due to the loss of Chris Carpenter on Opening Day.  Fans, and perhaps more importantly people around baseball, knew this was a temporary thing.  They may not be the contenders they usually were, but the road to the postseason still went through St. Louis.  The Cardinals still owned the NL Central, even if they occasionally leased out the top space for a year or two.

You know that Wells Fargo commercial that’s running now? The one where they say they had our trust and then they lost it? That feels like the Cardinals now. They had our trust, our confidence, our absolute certainty that the NL Central was their division. Then, somehow, they lost it.

It’s too easy to draw the line to end the Golden Age at one point or another.  I’ve used 2014 above but you could use 2015, which saw a 100-win Cardinal team take their most recent divisional title but then lose to the Cubs in the Divisional Series.  You could use 2016, including a team that wound up just one win shy of making it to the playoffs for the sixth straight year.  Some curmudgeons would mark it at 2011, the end of the La Russa tenure and the last time the Cardinals won the Series.

That’s a little extreme given the success of the next couple of years, but there’s no obvious point where the mindset of the league and the fanbase went from “well, of course, St. Louis will be there” to “well, St. Louis isn’t the class of the division”.  It’s been a gradual decline, this erosion of the Cardinal brand, the defining down of what is expected.  You can argue when it happened–perhaps when Albert Pujols left, robbing them of that generational talent that they had ridden for so long, perhaps when Matt Holliday started succumbing to injuries, leaving little in the superstar category on the team (at least offensively), perhaps when Jeff Luhnow left for Houston, taking some front office talent that had been responsible for finding hidden gems.  Perhaps, if you want to go metaphorical, you draw it when Chris Correa was caught hacking the Houston database, an act that would have been unimaginable for those following at least the spirit of The Cardinal Way, which preached hard work, preparation, and no short cuts.

None of this is news to anyone that is reading this, I realize, but it was something I wanted to work through for myself.  I think that’s at least some of the angst that the fan base is feeling.  It’s not completely that the Cardinals haven’t made the playoffs in two years and likely will make it three.  That’s bad, for sure, but when you look at baseball and other teams, it’s not exactly a huge crisis.  If there was a sense that this was a momentary lull, if there were injuries or other fixable issues that were keeping the Cardinals down, there would still be a lot of folks worked up, but I think there’d be an underlying calmness for a lot of folks.

The problem is, that’s not really believable.  The Cardinals have had injuries this year, there’s no doubt about that, but you aren’t going to find many folks that think they’ve had 7.5 games of injuries more than the Brewers have.  It’s hard to really fathom that this team, fully healthy, would be light years better than what we’ve seen on the field.  In part because it’s the same stuff we’ve seen on the field since the beginning of the 2016 season.  Honestly, you could probably go back to September of 2015.  That squad won 100 games, true, but they needed almost every one of them and went 15-13 in the last month of the season, almost wasting what they had put together.  We all remember what happened that October.

Which is the other problem.  It’d be one thing if the Cardinals had ceded the “team of the division” title to the Reds or the Pirates or even the Brewers.  None of those teams, Milwaukee’s current success notwithstanding, seem to be the team that is the team of the division.  The team that, even if they don’t win the NL Central, you know you have to watch out for because they’ll be in the hunt and likely take the crown back in a year.  No, that team, as much as it pains me to say it, is the Chicago Cubs.

Look, I don’t expect the Cubs to put up 15 years of greatness, but there’s no doubt that the divisional series in 2015 appears less like an embarrassing playoff loss and more of a changing of the guard in retrospect.  We continue to point to their tapped minor league system and their potentially shaky pitching, but the worry I’ve always had with the Cubs was that sometime they’d partner their money with brains and be a tough long-term competitor for the Cardinals.  So far, it seems like that has happened.

It is probably unrealistic to expect a Golden Age like the Cardinals have had to continue forever.  Entropy is another one of those forces that has a strong winning record.  To be able to continue to innovate and stay head of motivated competition is a tough thing to do, especially when you can’t produce Pujols-level talent at the drop of a hat.  Usually, it takes a jolt like what we are seeing with the club now to get people thinking in new ways and realizing that the same old same old isn’t cutting it anymore.  One of the most amazing things about this run is that they were able to shift their paradigm from getting established veterans, usually via trade, and having them sign-long term to a more farm system focus without having to drop out of hyperspace to do it.  That’s a Han Solo-like flying maneuver right there and the Cardinals pulled it off with only Jocketty being a casualty.

There’s a lot to like about the Cardinals and the players that they have.  They have Carlos Martinez just approaching his prime.  They have fun personalities and legendary figures like Yadier Molina.  They have resources to do various things.  They just don’t have claim to being the team in the NL Central.

Someday they’ll work their way back up to the top of the heap.  The Cardinal history and the requirements of the fanbase will insist that they again dominate their opponents, at least for a time.  Maybe they begin the process next year, maybe the year after.  Maybe it takes a managerial change, maybe more of a philosophical one.  Maybe some of the young talent coming up blossoms beyond expectations and we see another Holliday type.  (Matt Carpenter, as good as he is, isn’t quite that I don’t think.)

It will happen.  We just have to come to terms with the fact that the sun has set on the Cardinal empire.

Hopefully the dawn of a new Golden Age is not far away.

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