Cardinals promote Mozeliak, name new GM
What would rattle fans even more is the accompanying and reasonable sense that a better ball club was well within the Redbirds' reach. The Cardinals cashed in on that big new television contract, is stacked with enough depth of minor league talent to swing a meaningful trade, and the market of available players was richest where the team had the most need.
The stars were aligned in their favor.
Instead, John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch have presented Cardinal Nation with yet another roster built on arbitrage and rooted in potential. The payroll for 2018 is actually $5 million less than last season's.
In fairness, this strategy has been the Cardinals' calling card and has worked such wonders that they were widely viewed as an organizational model for all sports as recently as 2015, when they won 100 games. And in 22 seasons under the DeWitt ownership group, the Cardinals have been to the postseason 13 times. Only three major league teams have won more games; just one has won more in the playoffs.
That kind of consistent success, in the past, has bought the organization some benefit of the doubt. This year feels very different, though, especially since the Cubs and Brewers have continued to invest in new personnel.
What happens on the field in 2018 will be a referendum on the Cardinals' front office.
This roster is already so close. The gap between contention for the second wild card spot and the top of the Central Division isn't that wide. The missing pieces were there to be had. Why go conservative now?
Yadier Molina isn't getting any younger. Neither are Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, or Adam Wainwright. Tommy Pham, for that matter, will turn 30 before the regular season begins, so his prime years as a starter are limited. Marcel Ozuna was a fantastic acquisition, but currently has just a two years on his contract.
The projectable window is narrow.
Carlos Martinez can be the ace, but Wainwright and Michael Wacha will have to make a miraculous comebacks to make the rotation what it was as recently as three years ago.
Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb, meanwhile, remain available, as does the Cardinals' own free agent, Lance Lynn, who could have been extended before last season even ended. And Yu Darvish, the best free agent pitcher on the market, signed on with the rival Cubs.
The Cardinals, in turn, brought in Texas Rangers cast-off Miles Mikolas with a discount deal, counting on him to replicate three years of magic in the Nippon Professional League of Japan.
And someone from their stockpile of young guns — Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes, Dakota Hudson, John Gant — also will be counted on to make the major league leap to round out the rotation.
Greg Holland is still out there, as was Wade Davis before he signed on with the Colorado Rockies. St. Louis got four saves and a 1.64 ERA out of Juan Nicasio last season after the trade deadline, but let him sign with Seattle for two seasons at $8.5 million each.
Instead, Mozeliak and Girsch assembled a stockpile of free agent bullpen arms hoping one or more can fill that ninth-inning need. Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone, Jason Motte and, yes, even Bud Norris will make the bullpen better. But can a reliable closer be found in that group?
If Wainwright realizes his renaissance, if Weaver can win 15, if Norris' can do as a closer what he did in the first half of last season, then Mo and Co. will be geniuses once again and justify the good will of their fans.
Likewise, a failure of this roster will fall on their shoulders, not the players.
Every three-inning start, every blown save and every game the Cardinals finish shy of a playoff spot will be pinned to those who wouldn't strike while the iron was hot.
Todd Eschman is sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. You can reach him at 618-239-2540 or follow him on Twitter: @tceschman