Cheap Seats

Room for improvement, Pt. 2

Whew. Who knew my suggestion that the Cardinals had some room for improvement and that they could well afford to make additional moves would create so much social media venom.

I've been a journalist for 20 years and, while I have written about murderers, thieves and political wheeling and dealing, I have never had a quarter of the flak I've received from a blog post in which I suggested the local baseball club ought to open up the purse strings a little bit and keep the Chicago Cubs in their place.

I'm weary of trying to answer the criticisms in 140-character (or less) bites. So let me clear up a few things that shouldn't need clearing up as I have been accused of being a Cardinals turncoat, a Dodgersesque free spender and someone who doesn't understand or appreciate the reputation of the current ownership and front office.

Yes, I appreciate the fact that the Redbirds have made it to the National League Championship Series four years in a row. If you've read more than my most recent post, this was something I frequently mentioned in past conversations with the Fire the Manager crowd. I also appreciate that many of the players who contributed to that run no longer call Busch Stadium home and many of the principals who remain are four years older than when the streak started.

I am not down on the Cardinals or bashing them in any way. The headline that said the team was wasting a golden opportunity reflects the fact that I think this is a very solid core that is potential one player away from being a World Series contender. They fell one series short of the World Series last year. Yes, I admit it. I am greedy and I want to see them go all the way next year.

I think it's an entirely fair point that the Cardinals have the means to add talent to the roster through free agency. They have seen a dramatic increase in their revenue because of MLB's new national TV package.  Meanwhile, my season tickets have gone up two years in a row. Yet the Payroll dropped from $117 million two years ago to $111 million last year to a projected $108 million for 2015. The combination of flat expenses and increased revenue add up to an ability to spend more for better players.

In fact, Bill DeWitt Jr. mentions in a Sports Illustrated article published last year that the Cardinals know they can't remain competitive at their current payroll and that their outlay is going to have to increase significantly.

No, I am not trying to spend the Cardinals into insolvency. It's true that spending doesn't necessarily equal success. I would venture to say that I am with the front office on 90 percent or more of its personnel moves. If they're the ones making the decisions on how to spend additional resources, I'm pretty sure they'll get results. Think of the addition of Carlos Beltran when Pujols left. Sure, I appreciate the need for homegrown talent. Yet the Cardinals never have had a roster that was completely developed from within. At least not since the 1950s. 

The idea in St. Louis has traditionally been to build a core from your minor league system and then fill in the holes through free agency and trades. Recent core players including Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and, technically, Adam Wainwright were all brought in from outside the Cardinals farm. So let's not pretend this is an off the wall idea.

Not only during the John Mozeliak and Walt Jocketty era but also in the Whitey Herzog and Bing Devine eras, the Cardinals relied on a formula of using all avenues of player acquisition to build the roster: Homegrown talent and acquisition of veteran talent from other clubs.

It's time to face the fact that things have changed dramatically for this team since we last saw it on the field. Two cornerstones of the future are gone, replaced with a guy under control for one year. The club lost an ace quality pitcher in 2013 when Chris Carpenter retired and stars Yadier Molina and Holliday have reached a point in their careers where it should reasonably be expected that they'll decline quickly.

Teams like the Padres, Royals, White Sox and Marlins have used the TV bounty to build their clubs. The Pirates are nipping on the Cardinals' heals when it comes to payroll and the Reds spent more than St. Louis did last year on personnel. Why allow them to catch up?

It is also a fact that the Cardinals will soon enjoy greatly enhanced revenue from a local TV contract, that they sold the second-highest amount of tickets in North American professional sports last year and that they have raised prices the last two times I have received an invoice for my season tickets... Yet the payroll, according to current projections, would be $108 next year if the Cardinals make no more moves. That is down about $9 million from the peak two years ago.

It is also true that the Cardinals have less homegrown talent now than they did a year ago. Their best hitting prospect since Albert Pujols, Oscar Taveras, tragically died a few days after the end of the 2014 season. And the team had to trade it's most highly-touted pitching prospect of the last decade, Shelby Miller, to land Taveras' replacement, Jason Heyward.

The bottom line is my suggestion is not a shocking change of direction as some would suggest, but a slight tweak to the current configuration. DeWitt has said in the past not only would the team be willing to spend on the free agent market for premium players but also that there is much to be said for saving your most precious resource, talent, when you can just spend some cash.

In the context of those two facts, I said the Redbirds have a need for additional talent from outside the organization AND they have the means to acquire it. I gave the example of them being able to afford the most expensive player on the market if they so desired. $25 million a year plus $108 million equals $133 million. The $117 million payroll plus $25 million in new TV cash = $142 million. It's definitely within a reasonable budget for a team with the revenue stream that the Cardinals enjoy. Especially when you consider that Jaime Garcia comes off the books next year and Holliday will be at the end of his contract after two more seasons. Again, the concept that the Cardinals could afford a premium free agent isn't exactly breaking news. It's something other columnists in St. Louis publications have mentioned recently.

Do I think signing Scherzer to a deal that paid him $150 million over six years is a good idea. At that price, yes. Actually I do. Especially if the Cardinals make it to the playoffs to face the likes of the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants who have exceptionally strong rotations. But some folks have speculated that I was out of my mind and trying to spend the Cardinals into insolvency by giving Scherzer the $200 million and eight years he wants. I never said I thought the Birds should go anywhere near that high in the bidding. Paying a pitcher until he's 36 is one thing. Until he's 38 gets into Arte Moreno territory.

Still, I never demanded the Cardinals sign Scherzer. I used him as an example. If he wants to take a hometown discount to play here, I think they should listen. But if they could get a solid starter via another route and he's cheaper, that's fine by me. I just believe, after losing Miller, that the team is too thin in the rotation. The Cardinals have two pitchers coming off injury, Wainwright and Micahel Wacha while John Lackey isn't getting any younger. Somebody is going to get hurt. It is inevitable.

I don't get the concept that the Cardinals can plug in unproven minor league players and get all-star level results. I'm a big fan of Carlos Martinez. And a fifth starter I can see giving him a chance. But if one of the top three starters goes down, I don't exactly see him starting the first or second game of a playoff series at this stage of his career. While he has been brilliant in short stints in the bullpen,  Martinez has 37 innings under his belt over the last two years as a starting pitcher in the majors. In his eight starts he has averaged less than five innings pitched. 

But why should we worry? Should Martinez falter -- or if anyone else gets hurt -- there's always Marco Gonzales and his five career starts to fall back upon.

I don't get the concept where some people think kids who are barely old enough to drink can fall off the turnip truck and turn into a superstar. Things like that take times to develop. Yet Matt Holliday, Yadi Molina and Wainwright aren't getting any younger. For crying out loud, it took Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson a few years to polish their craft.

Another subject that cropped up was my description of Heyward as an "enigmatic" player. The phrase was cherry picked from a sentence where I described his as "talented yet enigmatic" and used to imply that I thought he wasn't very good. In context, my remark was that Heyward represented, more or less, a lateral move in replacing another talented yet enigmatic player, Taveras.

I don't think any explanation of why the late Taveras was enigmatic is needed. But one doesn't have to look for long at Heyward's stats to realize that he hasn't realized his potential as an offensive force for unexplained reasons. He had one season in Atlanta in which he hit 27 homers. But he was advertised as an MVP candidate yet he's become a .262 hitter who was mysteriously re-cast in the middle of the stream as a lead-off hitter. That's not to in any way discount his defensive abilities, hit positive attitude or his qualities as a person. All I'm saying is that the sum total of Heyward isn't greater than the Cardinals expectations were for Taveras.

It's pretty strong circumstantial evidence that the title of enigma fits Heyward in the fact that the Braves (from the player's statements) never made a serious effort to try to re-sign a guy who was one of their most popular players and a local product. If Heyward lived up to the Hype, he would have been a priority for an extension like Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons. Atlanta, for whatever reason, lost faith in the guy that was supposed to be their best player for years to come. Apparently they didn't think that was the case anymore.

Still, that's not saying that I believe Heyward doesn't still have tons of potential or that he isn't a good addition. Cardinals history is littered with guys who underachieved elsewhere only to come to St. Louis to bloom in the positive and competitive environment.

Completely ignored was the fact that I said he could easily have a career season in St. Louis. I never said Heyward isn't a very good player.  But the point was that the Cardinals off-season could more accurately be described as trying to get back to where they were before Taveras' untimely passing -- not to mention the totally unexpected collapse of Allen Craig, than trying to improve a team that was hit hard by injuries to the starting rotation and that suffered all year from a poor offense. Adding a .262 hitter with 14 homers in an average season isn't necessarily the cure to the offensive woes. And I still can't figure out where Heyward will bat. He's compromised his power stroke trying to get on base as a leadoff man. Yet he doesn't seem to fit as a clean-up hitter because he's not developed his power stroke. 

Of course, I defer to my chief critic for opinions about Heyward as he lives in Atlanta while I'm busy all summer at Busch Stadium.

If Taveras had lived, the Cardinals still had Miller and then added Heyward to play centerfield, I'd be over the moon. But you can't consider what they've gained for 2015 without factoring in what they've lost.

Ask yourself one question: If you could turn back the clock to the day after the 2014 playoffs ended for the Cardinals, would you trade him and Shelby Miller for one year of Jason Heyward? If not, you understand my statement that the Cardinals are less talented than last year at this point and, thus, they need to continue to try to improve. 

It's not that I disagree with or am critical of what the Cardinals have done in the last decade. I have enjoyed the ride as much as anyone. But the team was forced last year to trade two valuable pitchers, a slugger with an impressive reputation outside of his 2014 season and a highly though of outfield prospect at the trade deadline to plug holes. With the loss of talent because of the death of Taveras and the trade of Miller, the ability to fix problems through trades is diminished. I'd rather see the club spend cash on talent, which it can afford, than trade talent, which it can't afford.

This team last year seemed as if it was one impact player away from putting it all together. And if it tweaked the core in place it could go from am 88-90 win team to a 94-96 win team AND be better set up for the playoffs.

If you don't share my opinion, I can respect that. But that's the way I see it from my seat.

  Comments