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Are the Cardinals getting better or worse this offseason?

There is still a lot of time to go this off-season. But, so far at least, it's been a disappointing time for the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans.

Much of the trouble stems from the tragic and heartbreaking death of top Redbirds prospect Oscar Taveras just as he emerged at the major league level. 

The Cardinals made a bold move to fill the hole Tavaras left in right field with the acquisition of Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. But it cost them dearly, with another one-time top prospect, Shelby Miller, going to Atlanta trade.

While the Birds claim they have plenty of depth to absorb the loss of Miller, there is little argument that the pitching staff is worse right now than it was at the end of the 2014 postseason.

Marco Gonzales and Carlos Martinez, up to this point, have been fringe pieces. But now they'll be counted on to fill a pair of vital roles, likely with one of them as a starter and the other as a relief pitcher. If someone gets hurt, and someone always gets hurt, the Birds don't have the fallback plan in place that they've enjoyed the last three years.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals seem destined to part with former Closer Jason Motte, who never has been the same after he required Tommy John surgery, and setup man Pat Neshek who in many ways saved the 2014 season. In their stead, the Cardinals have acquired Jordan Walden in the Heyward trade, an interesting pickup who could be the setup man or take over as closer and a much less exciting signing, former Rockies reliever Matt Belisle.

Belisle consistently gives up more hits than innings pitched. While his numbers were certainly affected by pitching at Coors Field, his road numbers the last few years haven't been that great. And a lot of those games were played in the pitcher-friendly parks of the National League West. So Belisle's upside isn't very inspiring.

While I have held out hope that the Cardinals would improve the quality of the pitching staff with a front end starter who'd help the team battle with other elite clubs both in the regular season and the playoffs, at the very least the Birds need to improve the leaky bullpen that plagued them in 2014. Instead, the club has chosen to change the names but keep the formula the same.

Walden will be asked to fill the role of Neshek while the team will fill the hole in the bullpen left by Motte's injury struggles with a yawn inducing move to sign Belisle. That's not really much of an improvement.

A weakness for the Cardinals the last several seasons has been a weak bench. And, so far, nothing has been to improve that, either. The Redbirds on Tuesday decided to part ways with utility infielder Daniel Descalso who has given the manager a lot of flexibility and experience off the bench. In Descalso's place, the Birds apparently will give a pair of recently picked up career minor leaguers a chance to battle for a job that was already capably filled.

Why? Descalso is only 28. He has a lot left to offer. While he might not be a flashy player who puts fans in the seats, it's tough to find a guy who can play all four infield positions as capably. The answer is money. Descalso was probably going to make about $2.5 million in arbitration. And, while they could easily afford such a sum, the front office refuses to pay it out of principle.

The Cardinals have several productive players on the roster including Martinez, Gonzales, Trevor Rosenthal, Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong will make at or below the major league minimum. So they've been able to actually cut their modest $115 million payroll of a couple of years ago to $111 last year and seem to be aiming at a similar amount in 2015.

It seems the Redbirds are steadfastly determined to make sure they don't go over their internal budget, no matter what the cost. But they have no problem going below it, despite the investment in the club by 3.5 million ticket buyers.

Like I said, it's still early and more moves could happen. But the Cardinals sure don't seem to be very aggressive about fixing the holes that caused the team to struggle in 2014. The politicians always ask voters to judge them on if they're better off than they were before the last election. Minus Taveras, Miller, Descalso and Neshek plus Allen Craig and Joe Kelly who were traded late last year and the fact that everyone else a year older, there is little doubt that the Redbirds are less imposing now than they were is a year ago.

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