Playing Pepper 2020: St. Louis Cardinals

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed.  Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns.

St. Louis Cardinals
91-71, first in NL Central, lost in NLCS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

This is usually where I give a little pithy introduction to the team we are looking at but hey, it’s the Cardinals.  You know everything I could say here.  Let’s just get right to it.

Writer Site Twitter
Will Leitch williamfleitch
Tara Wellman Birds on the Black tarawellman
Larry Borowsky Viva El Birdos founder

C70: The Cardinals seem to be fully committing to the idea that the offense will get better now that they’ve had more time with Jeff Albert. Are you comfortable with that position?

Will: Fully committed to say the LEAST. The Cardinals are not only committing themselves to Albert: They’re committing themselves to the entire concept that a hitting coach can make all that much of a difference. I can’t think of any other team in baseball that would see the offense they had last year, particularly in October, and say, “rather than upgrade the talent, let’s let this magic man and his magic beans turn us entirely around.” I found Derrick Goold’s story about this rather alarming, all told. I think Albert is a smart guy who can surely help a little bit on the margins. But they’re putting the whole thing on him. If it fails, and Albert ends up the fall guy, let’s remember that the blame shouldn’t fall entirely on Albert. This is what they’ve committed to, for better or (probably) worse.

Tara: As a theory, I’m very comfortable with it. Any significant change in how someone thinks or operates in baseball is going to take time, so conceptually, that would be true of an upgraded (or at least altered) hitting approach. That said, everything sounds good in light of what is supposed to happen, but reality isn’t always quite so rosey. Based on very unpredictable early spring results, it did seem like a few guys looked a little more comfortable in their approach, so I would take that as as good a sign as anything… but still proceed with only cautious optimism. 

Larry: My judgment is suspended on Albert — I’m neither bullish nor bearish on him. The commitment I’m happy about is the one to their young talent. They’ve spent the last 5 years trying to fix their offense with outside acquisitions, and all it’s done is drive their production steadily downward and their age inexorably upward. I’m glad to see that pattern broken. I doubt the offense will be much better this year than last, but at least we might see some upside once Dylan Carlson debuts.

C70: Bill DeWitt has indicated the Cards have really maxed out their payroll in the $170 million range. Is that fair or should they be willing to go higher?

Will: I don’t think it’s fair to say the Cardinals are “cheap.” And many of the contracts we’ve been irritated by them not signing have generally not turned out well for the teams that did sign them. There’s a smart, relatively prudent strategy here. But the idea that the Cardinals’ payroll could “max out” at $170 million is absurd. This is about the luxury tax, pure and simple. The idea that any baseball team with the fanbase and dedication (not to mention all the outside money flowing around the sport) would lose money at a $170 million payroll is owner spin at its best; the Cardinals would make a ton of money at $200 million, easy, and that’s not even accounting for the resale value of all these teams, which is a golden parachute waiting for all of them. The Cardinals have spent the last few years telling us that money is coming, from the new TV deal, from Ballpark Village. But I think Ballpark Village is the tell. Once that started going (and sucking the life out of local businesses, by the way), all of a sudden you started hearing from DeWitt, “oh, we won’t see money from Ballpark Village for years.” The can always gets kicked downhill. I think Cardinals fans are fortunate to have DeWitt over so many of the other jokers owning teams. (It honestly must be hard to remain a Cubs fan right now.) But honestly: Gimme a break.

Tara: *Clears throat* Well, they should consider increasing the pay of their minor leaguers, first.

Okay, okay. To the actual question. I have a hard time answering this in a satisfying way, because the dollar amount that they spend isn’t what will directly — and without fail — bring a championship to St. Louis. We all know this. But, there’s obviously a correlation between being willing to push the payroll and being focused on winning. That seems to be the crux of this issue. Is contending enough? Or is winning a trophy the goal? Because if it’s the latter, then “keeping up with the Joneses” becomes important in the sense of ensuring the talent matches up with the toughest competition. But, that takes money that the DeWitts have to release. 

Larry: It’s not about the number for me. It’s about the quality of their spending. Given the amount of dead-end money tied up in Fowler, Cecil, and Carpenter, the team would probably be better if the current payroll were $130 million instead of $170 million.

C70: Adam Wainwright is coming back for another year–I hate to say “one more” because it could possibly turn into more than that. What are your thoughts about another go-around with Uncle Charlie?

Will: I wish the team wasn’t counting on him so much. I want to enjoy Wainwright’s final (?) year, because he’s one of my favorite Cardinals of all time, both on and off the field. But the team is relying so much on him that we’re all being put in the situation of potentially getting angry and impatient with an all-time Cardinal because so much rests on him plodding through another year. This is not entirely the Cardinals’ fault, of course. This is where Wainwright wants to be. But it makes me antsy. I don’t want to ever have to say, “Please, no more Wainwright.” I want one more special, odds-and-age-defying year, and then I want to say goodbye. That’s more than we’ve been reasonably able to respect, but now it feels urgent and vital.

Tara: I will love every year we get with Adam Wainwright, because he’s the kind of player and the kind of human we should all want at the core of things like baseball. That said, it’s always going to feel like a bit of a risk, simply because of the unpredictability of athletes on the back end of their careers. Look, Waino proved in 2019 that there’s still a lot to like about what he has to offer, and he got better, not worse, as the season went on. So until he shows us otherwise, I sure won’t count him out.

Larry: I’m an old guy. I like watching other old guys do well. Wainwright remains highly effective at Busch Stadium, and he’s on a very reasonable contract. What’s not to like?

C70: Do you expect Carlos Martinez to be an effective starter in 2020, even though it has been a while since he’s been in a rotation?

Will: I do. I am beyond thrilled to get to see him back as Carlos again. All signs are pointing to positive. Now, Spring Training is always time for happy talk. But not usually with Carlos. When Mo isn’t passively aggressively negging Carlos, and in fact praising him and his work ethic, it does make me believe something exciting might be happening. I’m all in on Carlos this year.

Tara: I really do. And perhaps that’s the most naive thing I could say, but it’s true. I think that Carlos Martínez is one of the most exciting pitchers in the game, with the kind of talent that can change the whole dynamic of a rotation that’s already being lead by Jack Flaherty. I know all of that depends on his consistency, but as long as there’s more good than bad with Carlos as he finds his way back into that every-five-days kind of role, then it’s more than worth it, to me.

Larry: It doesn’t pay to expect much from C Mart any more. Would “effective” mean he throws enough innings to qualify for the ERA title? Does it mean he’s worth 1 WAR over the truncated season that lies ahead? I’d call either of those scenarios a win. Anything beyond that I’d call a bonus.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Will: My expectation is that this team better win the division, particularly considering how much everyone else (Cardinals included, Reds excepted) is abdicating putting their foot on the floor. My prediction right now is second place, behind (ugh) the Cubs.

Tara: I’m always hesitant to make predictions, but this year more than others, I genuinely don’t know. There are still too many TBDs on the roster and in the starting lineup, and too many pitchers who may or may not be healthy at some point, and others who are healthy now and probably should be given a spot. Just so many unknowns for the Cardinals. But, the same could be said in some ways for the Cubs. We don’t know how they’ll bounce back. The Brewers could have a significant fall off from the last few years. The Reds are the wildcard that no one really knows how to predict, and the Pirates are also there. Barely. So the Cardinals could land anywhere from first to fourth and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least!

Larry: Before the interruption, I had them at 85 wins and a 2nd-place finish, out of the playoffs. Under present circumstances, I have no expectations at all.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Will: Embarrassingly, I have never been to England in my life. Having my first trip be for a Cardinals-Cubs series feels so perfectly Midwestern that I can’t believe my luck to get to make it happen. Here’s to some 22-19 Cardinals victories.

Tara: Well… at the present, I’m looking forward to it starting. But, beyond that, I think it’s going to be a really interesting year with the young guys. Do they get the chances we’ve been hearing about? If they don’t live up to the hopes, will the Cardinals be active at the trade deadline, assuming they’re still in the division hunt? And will Matt Carpenter really rebound and be the valuable asset we all know he’s capable of being? It’s all going to be fascinating to watch. Eventually. Hopefully. 

Larry: A semblance of normalcy.

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