Cheap Seats

St. Louis Cardinals have a lot of work to do to catch the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros

One thing is for sure about the 2017 World Series: Neither of its participants, the Houston Astros nor the Los Angeles Dodgers, look much like the most-recent edition of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Astros and Dodgers have imposing batting orders, strong bullpens and top-of-the-rotation starters who are at their best in the most important games. The Redbirds had a mix-and-match lineup with no established, prototypical third or cleanup hitters on the roster. They had a mediocre, at best, bullpen before it was torn up by injuries, and ace Carlos Martinez seems like he has a long way to go from talented young arm to big-game pitcher.

There is a lot of work to be done by the St. Louis front office if the Cardinals are to return to the top of the professional baseball pecking order. The Birds didn’t have the depth to make it through a long regular season intact. And they didn’t seem to have the high-end players who could carry the team on their shoulders for short stretches when others are slumping or in short playoff series.

While Los Angeles and Houston largely have followed the same blueprint as St. Louis, building the core of their clubs from within, those teams have been willing to better position themselves for postseason battles by adding veterans through free agency or by parting with prospects to add them in trade.

The Cardinals have added a few supporting pieces here and there by free-agent signing — Dexter Fowler, and trade — Jedd Gyorko. But they’ve passed on signing the big-dollar players or in giving up prospects for big catches at the trade deadline.

Would the Astros be where they are right now had they not landed stud pitcher, with World Series experience, Justin Verlander? Would the Dodgers have made it to the fall classic without a swap for Yu Darvish?

A lot of people get keyed up when small-market, low-budget teams like the Oakland Athletics or the Minnesota Twins make it to the playoffs. But let’s face it, those teams are often outgunned when they get into sudden-death situations.

And when they do make it to the postseason, it’s usually a one-and-done situation because they don’t have the financial muscle to hold their roster together for the next season. The Kansas City Royals managed to make it to the World Series two seasons in a row. But over the past two years, their roster has come apart and they could be dealt a devastating blow this winter with Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer both hitting the free-agent market.

The Cardinals, if they want to add the pieces they need to get better fast, are likely going to have to do it by taking on a huge salary. They’re going to have to sign a big name or accept Giancarlo Staton’s big paycheck to limit the amount of talent they’d have to send away for such an impact player.

I hear folks say all the time it isn’t the Cardinals’ way to sign free agents, which I don’t necessarily believe. After all, the team signed Matt Holliday as a free agent, holding his rights for a short time after a trade before inking him the following offseason when he hit the market. It was the same deal with Mark McGwire. Carlos Beltran was a free agent from another team that the Birds signed.

Still, if the Redbirds want to build from within, doesn’t it make sense to buy players for cash as opposed to trading three or four top prospects to land a veteran impact player?

It’s become a lot tougher to make trades, especially deadline trades, in the era of having two wild cards. Even if teams aren’t loaded enough to win their division, they still have a shot at a wild-card berth. And in an era of extreme parity in baseball, most teams seem afraid to subtract from their roster when they are technically still in competition for a spot in the playoffs.