The State of Cardinal Nation 2021

My fellow Cardinals fans,

It’s been a number of years since I’ve come before you to talk about the state of the Nation.  The last time we spoke in this manner, the Cardinal banner was flying high.  Legends walked among us.  It was a time when no one save those folks on the north side of Chicago would argue that it was good to be a Cardinal.

Today I come before you with a different message.  Today, as much as I would like to, as much as I usually try to be on the sunny side of things, I can not term the state of the nation as strong.

My friends, the state of Cardinal Nation is aggravated and frustrated.

Now, there is no doubt there are still many good things about being a fan of the birds on the bat.  After all, this is a team that has made the playoffs two straight years now after a three-year gap.  It is a team that has a top-notch talent in Paul Goldschmidt.  It is a team that has not lost any of the history and legend of its past.  It is still one of the crown jewels in baseball.

Instead of that jewel sparkling, however, it has become dull.  It is still pretty and valuable, but it doesn’t have the luster it should have.

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has created difficult situations for everyone.  You, I, and Stan Musial saw the same number of games in person at Busch Stadium last season.  We know that the Cardinals base their budget around 3.2 to 3.5 million fans coming through the turnstiles, buying tickets, concessions, merchandise, and the like.  When the 2020 budget was set in 2019, the club had no way of knowing that the revenues were going to dry up like water in the Sahara in a couple of months.

That’s not to say they didn’t have some money coming in–they wound up with at least a prorated amount of their contract with FOX Sports Midwest when the agreement for a 60-game season was reached and they got their share of national TV and internet contracts, even if they were reduced–but the money that went out was a lot less reduced.  The player salaries were prorated, of course, but they still paid the minor leaguers, their staff, and contributed to a fund for stadium workers who were not even on their payroll.  The stadium had to be kept up even when there were no games (though obviously less meticulously) and debt service payments weren’t forgiven.  It was not a good year financially and I believe everyone can agree with that.

However, there’s much less consensus on whether that should mean a complete freeze on transactions.  The only transactions to the Cardinals 40-man roster this winter have been players added to avoid being taken in the 40-man roster and free agents that came off as they entered the market, whether that was because their contract was up (Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina), their option was declined (Kolten Wong), or they were not offered arbitration (John Brebbia).

Besides signing players in the international pool, players that won’t see the majors for 6-7 years, if ever, the Cardinals have had two transactions, both minor leaguers.  If catcher Tyler Heineman and infielder Max Moroff wind up getting significant playing time in 2021, the state of the Nation will have taken a significant turn for the worst.

We as Cardinals fans understand the financial dynamics.  While we can dream of a Nolan Arenado or even a Trevor Story, we realize those kind of deals aren’t going to happen, especially when the financial situation for 2021 has not cleared up in any way.  That doesn’t mean that we are completely on board with absolutely nothing, however.

If the Cardinals would have picked up the option on Wong, that would have been something.  It was something that everyone expected and would have happened in a normal year.  If the Cardinals could have come to terms with Wainwright or Molina by now, that would have been something.  There’s an argument on how much to do for these guys but there’s also an understanding that they would help the team win right now.

Any or all of those moves would likely solidify the Cardinals as the team to beat in the NL Central.  That’s less to do with those moves, of course, than what the other teams are doing.  For all our complaints about ownership, at least they are not stripping things down.  Fans in Chicago, in Cincinnati, in Pittsburgh (oh, those poor Pirate fans) would wish for their 2020 roster to come back versus what they’ve seen from their teams this winter.

The weakness of other teams should not embolden the home squad to feel confident enough to disarm in this way.  For one, if a team like the Cubs trades away talent and still winds up beating the Cardinals, that’s absolutely terrifying and embarrassing, but that’s also baseball.  It could easily happen.  Two, winning the NL Central is nice, but if the team goes three and out in the playoffs, what good is it?  Right now, there’s little chance the Redbirds could legitimately compete against the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Braves, or Nationals, at the least.

The Cardinals should be a team with at least one Hall of Famer on their roster.  Unless you are optimistic about Goldschmidt’s chances later on (which is fair), if Molina doesn’t return the 2021 team will be without that clear marker.  The Cardinals should be a team that you debate how many All-Stars they would have, not a team that winds up scrambling for the one required player as they did in 2019 with Paul DeJong.

Right now, this roster is not imposing at all.  We are a long way from the MV3 of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen, with Edgar Renteria and Reggie Sanders providing support.  The front office, while acknowledging the offense needs to improve, would say that is in part because of a shift to pitching and defense.  Yet in those days you had the best third baseman of our era and other Gold Glovers scattered throughout the field.  The pitching was solid enough to take them to two World Series and almost to a third.  To paraphrase Max Lord, pitching and defense is good, but it can be better.

Who besides Goldschmidt and most likely Jack Flaherty do you have confidence in on this squad for 2021?  If Andrew Knizner is the catcher he may well develop into something special, but that’s not likely to happen in his first full season, especially given how playing behind Molina has kept him from any significant major league time.  Tommy Edman will likely do what he does, but that’s a nice complementary piece and not the focus of the offense.   Perhaps we’ll see Dylan Carlson become the player that he’s supposed to be as he started to make some adjustments at the end of last season, which would be nice.  But can you count on that?

Questions.  Questions.  Questions.

The pitching rotation has its own issues.  Miles Mikolas says he’s ready to go for 150-200 innings, but we’ll see if that holds up or is the general offseason bravado of a pitcher coming off of surgery.  Carlos Martinez should be something great but that should has been doing a lot of work over the last couple of years.  Dakota Hudson is out for the season with Tommy John surgery.  You’d like to think Kwang Hyun Kim could follow up on last season but we’ve also seen pitchers with success in Asian leagues take a step back after their first year in MLB.  If Wainwright doesn’t return, you have an open spot that perhaps Austin Gomber or Daniel Ponce de Leon can fill well, but there’s questions.

Questions.  Questions.  Questions.

I can’t stand here before you and tell you anything you don’t know about the outfield.  This will be Dexter Fowler‘s last year in St. Louis, a time that has been probably underrated and definitely overexamined.  If he struggles, will Mike Shildt feel there is enough sunk cost to platoon him or bench him?  Tyler O’Neill got the run many of us though he needed in 2020 and didn’t grab life by the horns.  How much rope does he get in 2021?  For that matter, how does Shildt get the most out of Harrison Bader and Lane Thomas?

Questions.  Questions.  Questions.

The bullpen would seem to be a safe haven.  Jordan Hicks should be healthy and ready to go on Opening Day, assuming there are no COVID concerns for him.  Andrew Miller‘s option vested and he was better last year than I typically thought, but he’s still not going to inspire folks with a ton of confidence, especially one year older.  With Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, John Gant, and the like power arms shouldn’t be a problem for the Cardinals.  However, as you know, bullpens are fickle things, great one year and less great the next.

Questions.  Questions.  Questions.

Where there are questions, when answers don’t seem to forthcoming frustration will arise.  I designed this frustration index a number of years ago but I’m not even sure what level this situation would fit into.  There’s a lot of irritation, much of which could be alleviated with a move or two, just to try to make this team better than the 2020 version that barely cracked .500, even as they were the fifth best team in the National League.

At the very least, the Cardinals need to bring back Wainwright and Molina.  If there is nothing else you can sell the fans on, sell them on nostalgia and one more opportunity to see these legends.  As the team is constructed right now, you probably won’t get another shot at this until, at best, 2032 or so if Jack Flaherty stays a Cardinal.  There aren’t many in the fan base that expect the Cardinals to pay Flaherty what he is going to want when he reaches free agency, so it might be even further down the road, if Dylan Carlson stays in St. Louis.  We’ve been spoiled a bit in the recent times as players have had long careers under the Arch.  That’s not always the case and, right now, there are only a couple you really WANT to have an extended run in the home whites.

The Cardinals are going to have to be more active–which, I acknowledge, is a low bar–to strengthen this Nation.  Over the coming months, we are going to hear a lot about the amount of money coming off the books at the end of 2021.  I would encourage ownership and the front office to keep that in mind when the trading season picks up and as, hopefully, the financial tensions ease.  If you have the option to bring in a talent that has a longer contract, make the move in 2021 instead of the offseason when the budget is better.  Take a short-term hit if necessary to make this team better in the long run and bring the star power that we as fans are used to.  Paul Goldschmidt can’t do this alone, as we’ve been saying since he was acquired in 2018.  Make smart investments into personnel and fire up the excitement around this team again.

Unfortunately, this isn’t going to happen overnight.  It’s not going to happen before the season begins.  We can hope for something the last week of July, but we don’t hold our breath.  When we get together next year at this time, I hope that our outlook is sunnier.  That it is again Morning in St. Louis.

Until then, we can appreciate that the game will return to us soon.  Perhaps not on schedule, as I still am hesitant to believe that there won’t be some delays due to the virus, but we will be seeing green grass and red uniforms again.  While we want the best for the Cardinals, while we want them to be a dominant force, it’s baseball.  Even bad baseball is better than no baseball.  Even frustrating baseball is better than no baseball.  It’s not what we want but we can find pearls in the slop, gems in the mess.  Baseball marks the time and baseball is the greatest game on earth.

Thank you and let’s play ball!

 

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9567.586 -
Cardinals9072.5565.0
Reds8379.51212.0
Cubs7191.43824.0
Pirates61101.37734.0

Last updated: 10/04/2021

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