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St. Louis Cardinals can’t afford to finish second again this winter

We’re apparently going to get a chance to find out really early this offseason if the St. Louis Cardinals are ready and willing to be contenders. But will they have the guts to go outside their comfort zone and make things happen?

The Redbirds made the bold and surprising move as soon as the disappointing 2017 season ended to fire pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley. Most of us expected a typical promote-from-within move, bringing up Class AAA coach Bryan Eversgerd to fill the vacated spot.

But the contract of one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game, Jim Hickey, most recently of the Tampa Bay Rays, expired. The Cardinals moved fast to schedule an interview but haven’t closed the deal. Suddenly, the Chicago Cubs have fired their pitching coach, Chris Bosio, and planned to interview Hickey on Monday.

I suppose that a week from now when the Cardinals introduce Eversgerd as the guy they wanted all along, while the Cubs ink Hickey to a contract,we can all pretend that we understand. After all, Hickey used to be Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s pitching coach before Maddon defected to Chicago.

But I know I’m going to feel deep down inside that this is yet another case of the Birds staring opportunity in the eye — and passing. Sort of like when we were told that the then completely inexperienced Mike Matheny was a better choice to lead a team loaded with veteran talent than battle-hardened veteran Terry Francona.

I realize the fix was likely in. The Cubs didn’t just fire their pitching coach, a guy credited with turning Jake Arrieta from an enigma to a superstar. They probably knew they could get Hickey before they did so. But St. Louis had a chance to swoop in and make a move before Chicago got its chance, improving its team and dealing its rival a blow.

Somewhere along the way, the Cardinals seem to have ceaseded being a destination for the game’s best and brightest talent. They could muscle other teams out of the way to sign guys like Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran for less money than they might have commanded elsewhere. Guys like Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Chris Carpenter couldn’t imagine leaving at any price. But after whiffs on several impact free agents the past three years, the team seems less determined to be a perennial contender, the top priority of free agents after big money.

Hiring a pitching coach is nothing for the Cardinals to fool around with. This is the person who is going to be responsible for guiding the career of young hurlers Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, the former recovering from Tommy John surgery. It’s the person who is going to be responsible for developing Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Sandy Alcantara and the other young pitchers in the system.

While the Cubs have spent big money picking up veteran hurlers like Jon Lester, John Lackey and Wade Davis while building their pool of position players from within, St. Louis has gone the opposite way, building the pitching staff from within while choosing to use its free-agent dollars to bolster its offense. The Chicago pitchers are more likely to be able to take care of themselves. The choice the Birds make for this job could make or break the next five years of the franchise.

This situation is likely to be resolved sooner than later. So while in years past free agency decisions have lingered on past Christmas, we’re probably going to get a good idea this year before Veteran’s Day how serious the Cardinals are about competing in 2018.

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