Cheap Seats

It’s time for the St. Louis Cardinals to reload, not rebuild

Regardless of how the 2017 season ends for the St. Louis Cardinals or how many prospects are ready to join the team in the big leagues next year, I don’t want to hear the word “rebuild” when it comes to this club.

In 90 percent of cases, when teams claim they’re rebuilding it’s just an excuse for dumping salaries and running up the white flag of surrender.

The Minnesota Twins have been rebuilding for 25 years. The Miami Marlins have alienated their fan base by twice putting together World Series clubs and then holding a fire sale, auctioning off all the fan favorites. The Kansas City Royals were rebuilding since 1985 before they managed to make it to two Fall Classics in a row. They couldn’t sustain the success. This offseason, they seem likely to be outbid for key players who have reached free agency.

The Chicago Cubs famously had a successful rebuilding program that ended with their first World Series win since 1908 last year. But was it really a rebuild when they spent almost $200 million on Jason Heyward as well as adding high-dollar pitcher Jon Lester and trading for several veteran pieces?

If the Cardinals are as good as they say they are at developing talent, there is no reason to strip the franchise to the bare walls and start from scratch. You can mix in the kids alongside some veteran talent and have a club capable of competing now — and of competing later when the complementary players grow to be keystone pieces.

The Cardinals don’t need to fill in around the edges. They need pillar pieces in the middle of the batting order. They have more major league-ready outfielders than they have room for on the 40-man roster. And while a lot of people in baseball will say that there is no such thing as too much pitching, St. Louis seems poised to test that theory with several Class AAA hurlers ready to graduate to the big leagues.

They also have about $50 million coming off the books after this season and another $19 million coming of the books after the 2018 season. So there is a need, there are pieces to trade for help and there is money in the budget to take on salary.

If the Redbirds were planning a rebuild, they’ve gone about it in an awfully peculiar way, handing long-term contracts with no-trade clauses to Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil.

If there is a “Cardinals Way,” it doesn’t include quitting on the fans.

St. Louis is able to punch above its weight, financially speaking, because it’s been the second-best draw in the big leagues the last several years. More fans spin the turnstiles in St. Louis than they do for either of the New York or Chicago teams, more than the fans in major markets like Boston, Houston, Dallas or San Francisco. That’s because there is an unwritten contract with fans. They put a competitive product on the field and we buy tickets in bunches.

If the Cardinals go cheap and lose their base of season ticket holders, it could change the financial picture of this club dramatically. That’s something the ownership needs to be thoughtful about when it maps out its future plans.

I don’t want to invest a lot of money to watch young kids go through growing pains, getting their butts kicked 90 times a year.

Another issue with a rebuild is it alienates players.

When teams have a reputation for being tightfisted — or for not trying with all their might to compete — the best players don’t want to waste their time there. A few years ago, the Birds landed slugger Carlos Beltran to a lesser contract than what was on the table from the Cleveland Indians because he wanted to come to St. Louis where he had a chance to win every year. When Fowler was a free agent, he thought twice about coming here because the Cardinals were a team with a somewhat cloudy future.

Things can get back on track with the addition of a slugger or two this offseason and some help for the bullpen. Or the club can go cheap and take another step toward irrelevance and mediocrity.