St. Louis Cardinals

Could the Cardinals’ best deal be the one they don’t make?

John Mozeliak, St. Louis Cardinals general manager.
John Mozeliak, St. Louis Cardinals general manager. BND file

Four days of dealing have come to pass, and the St. Louis Cardinals departed Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings no better than they were while they were watching the Chicago Cubs pop those championship corks from the comfort of home.

Has Cardinal Nation and its player-friendly sea of red somehow lost its allure?

Is the “market discipline” that has made the Cardinals a model sports franchise really just thinly-veiled organizational cheapness?

Has Mozeliak lost his swag in the negotiating room?

The answer to all these questions: maybe. It’s more likely, though, is that the Cardinals just don’t have to give what this year’s player market demands.

Considering what the Washington Nationals had to give up to land center fielder Adam Eaton — the Nos. 2- and 15-ranked pitchers on Baseball America’s Top 100 — a trade probably isn’t in the cards. The Cardinals aren’t deep enough to swing a meaningful trade without mortgaging their future.

The free agent route? Well, when a career .267 hitter like Ian Desmond gets a five-year, $70 million deal with the Colorado Rockies, a new market baseline has been established that may not be able to deliver on the Cardinals’ needs, again, without some long-term pain.

Dexter Fowler is still a possibility and, probably, the best fit available for the Cardinals’ need both in center field and at the top of the lineup. But the Desmond deal will certainly buoy his demand for $18 million annually with a fifth year to boot.

Would any of these guys really help close the 17-game gap that exists between the Cardinals and the top of the N.L. Central Division?

And would extending them deals beyond their value be a betrayal of all which has made the Cardinals as consistently successful as they have been?

To the chagrin of those who want to see the Cardinals break the piggy bank, I wonder if the Cardinals’ best move is to reboot — develop existing talent, invest in the farm system and put off that big free-agent purchase until it pays off with a truly transformative player.

The go-big-or-go-home crowd is tired of hearing about how this front office has produced 12 playoff births, four National League pennants and two World Series championships over the last 16 years. Nor do they care that last year at this time, the team was coming off a 100-win season.

So I’ll make the case from the other side:

The February 2007 edition of Sports Illustrated featured a cover article heralding the Cubs’ hiring of manager Lou Pinella and the rich, long-term contract they gave Alfonso Soriano.

Four years later, with baseball’s third-highest payroll and after consecutive fifth-place finishes, the Cubs had to call on Theo Epstein to bail them out.

His plan-of-attack was simple and effective, albeit painful: He purged the payroll of bad contracts, developed a roster from within, and begged the fan base for patience.

By 2014, Epstein and the Cubs had baseball’s No. 23 overall payroll. By 2016 — spending $5 million less than the Cardinals — they were popping corks.

In short, they stole a page from the Cardinals’ playbook.

Want another, more obvious example of what folly it is to try and buy a winner? Try the 2015 Los Angeles Angels, who lost 88 games under the weight of Albert Pujols’ contract and their $150 million payroll.

A generation of Cardinals fans has never been asked to endure a rebuild because this ownership has managed to sustain a consistent contender. Patience is not what Cardinal Nation is made of.

But they may have to learn some.

Because while the deal Mozeliak doesn’t make this offseason may keep the Cardinals out of the playoffs in 2017, it also may be the one that gets them back to the postseason many more times in the years to come.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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