The St. Louis Cardinals have a long history of finding creative (ahem, cheap) solutions to their problems.
In the past they’ve managed not only to survive -- but to thrive -- when they turned up their nose at re-signing the club’s biggest star in the last 50 years, Albert Pujols, and instead inked an aging Carlos Beltran at a fraction of the cost. The Redbirds refused to take a flier on a long-term contract on a complimentary slugger for Pujols before the 2011 season, raising more than a few eyebrows when the team pulled Lance Berkman off the scrap heap and announced he was going to return to the outfield after the better part of a decade at first base.
They stole John Lackey’s services for a season at the major league minimum, made an incredible find in Chris Carpenter when the Toronto Blue Jays walked away from the big righty following a shoulder injury. The list goes on and on.
But last off-season was different.
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The Cardinals knew that the Chicago Cubs were ready to challenge them as top dog in the National League Central. In addition to several of their prospects emerging at the major league level, the Wee Bears and their billionaire owner went on a huge free agent shopping spree -- and their two prize targets were then Redbirds Jason Heyward and Lackey.
The Birds were fortified by a new local television contract that greatly enhanced their cash flow and the need for help with the offense was obvious. In the face of the Chicago challenge, prognosticators local and national predicted THIS would be the off-season during which St. Louis finally opened the checkbook and invested in a cleanup hitter to boost the offense and hold its reservation in the playoffs.
Um... Not so much.
The most recent off-season resembled the ones before it: St. Louis was reportedly in on the top free agents as a serious bidder. But in the end, John Mozeliak and company were content to finish second in the bidding and walk away empty-handed.
Supposedly top free agent pitcher David Price went to bed thinking he was going to be a Cardinal and woke up to find the Redbirds wouldn’t match the Boston Red Sox when the latter came in with a last minute offer.
Surely the Birds would take that saved $190 million and invest it into one of the several big time sluggers on the market. Chris Davis? Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton?
Now the Cardinals are languishing in third place as the offense sputters and pitchers break under the pressure to surrender crooked numbers.
St. Louis fell back upon Brandon Moss at first base.
Cespedes, the best of the available free agents who could have played right field for the Cardinals with Stephen Piscotty or Matt Holliday playing first base, is batting .299 with 11 homers and 30 RBIs for the New York Mets.
Moss has managed seven homers. But it’s all or nothing with him. He’s batting .221 with 32 strikeouts in 86 at bats. He strikes out way too much with runners in scoring position and seems entirely unwilling to take advantage of heavy shifts against him, hitting into the teeth of the defense.
It’s alright if the Cardinals can’t match up with the power of some teams and the speed of others. But they have to at least be able to execute when they have opportunities. St. Louis has put itself into position where it can’t afford to fail to move runners up and in with balls batted to the right side or sacrifice flies instead of strikeouts.
If the players on the roster don’t start to play like the front office believed them capable, it’s going to be tough to replace them because the 2016-17 free agent crop isn’t near as enticing as the one before it.
Maybe this is the off-season where, instead of out-smarting other teams with their outside the box thinking, the Cardinals outsmarted themselves.