Cheap Seats

Cardinals must land Stanton to reverse perception that Busch Stadium is no longer baseball heaven for players

Whose fault will it be if Giancarlo Stanton actually does invoke his no-trade protection to stop a potential deal to the St. Louis Cardinals?

While a lot of people seem to think that the fact he was born on the West Coast will be the motivating factor behind such a move, there have been an awful lot of California players over the years who have either accepted a trade to St. Louis or signed a free agent contract to come here. When Mark McGwire was traded to the Redbirds in 1997, he could have blocked the deal as a player with 10 years of major league experience, five of them with the same team. A short time later, Jim Edmonds was traded to St. Louis in the last year of his contract. Instead of waiting to reach the open market and fleeing back to California, Edmonds chose to ink a six-year deal to remain with the Cardinals.

Sure, that was 20 years ago. But over the 2010-11 winter the Redbirds didn’t have any trouble convincing Lone Star State native Lance Berkman to choose to sign with St. Louis instead of taking an offer to defect from the Houston Astros to the Texas Rangers. Over the 2011-12 off-season the Birds landed a prime free agent slugger in Carlos Beltran who said later that he had more lucrative offers on the table.

St. Louis has been a magnet for ballplayers seeking a chance to be in the playoffs almost every year and a shot at an elusive World Series ring. Why would a player who has never even been able to participate in a single post-season game suddenly turn up his nose at playing for the Cardinals? Don’t give me the California excuse because it seems to me that there isn’t a lot of time for hanging out at the beach when you’re trying to play a 162-game schedule. I have even heard people say that Stanton prefers to play in warm weather? Seriously? Baseball is played during the summer. With the possible exception of the first couple of weeks of the season, it’s going to be warm anywhere he plays. And, even if he lands with a West Coast team, that doesn’t exclude Stanton from the possibility of a season-beginning road trip to Toronto, Chicago, Minnesota, Colorado or Boston where it can be frosty in April.

I think it’s something else that has dimmed players’ enthusiasm about St. Louis. And I don’t believe it’s directly related to the fact that the Cardinals have missed the post-season two years in a row.

First, I think the front office’s overly-conservative ways have started to turn players off. The Cardinals have developed a reputation of refusing to bid market value for premium players, instead insisting guys like David Price or even Albert Pujols have to accept less money or fewer years on their contract for the privilege of playing in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. Each of the past three years, baseball experts have predicted that the Birds would be major players on the free agent market because of the obvious connection between their need for assistance and their available payroll space. Yet St. Louis made a couple of mid-level moves, signing the likes of Brett Cecil, Dexter Fowler and the disastrous contract for Mike Leake, passing on bolder, high-impact moves.

Second, while the debate rages on between the folks who think manager Mike Matheny is the Esteemed Leader of Men and the ones who think he’s the worst skipper in the history of skipperdom, it sure seems that some players have a problem with the idea of playing for him. Fowler, for one, reportedly agonized over the idea of accepting way more money from St. Louis than he could have commanded elsewhere because he didn’t want to play for Matheny. Apparently Matheny’s reputation is that he runs a tense clubhouse rife with favoritism and double standards.

Third, the Cardinals seem to be cold and TOO businesslike in their dealings with players. They may be spoiled millionaires, but players are people, too, and they like to be made to feel that they are special. Other teams woo players. They fly them in and show them the facilities, have them meet with players to talk about how wonderful it is there and how that one guy is the key to getting the team over the hump. Crusty old-school manager and GM Whitey Herzog made such a recruiting effort when he landed Ozzie Smith before the 1982 season, personally calling The Wizard to tell him how important the emerging shortstop was to the Cardinals plans.

If they have a shot at landing Stanton, the Cardinals need to address item number three first, appealing to him personally before a decision is made. President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak needs to convince Stanton he is the centerpiece of several moves that Birds plan to make to instantly not only make it back to the playoffs -- but to make a serious run at the National League Central Division title. If they could convince Stanton to come here — and succeed with him — it may overshadow reasons one and two to once again make St. Louis a top destination of players.

But one thing is certain, the Cardinals have to do something to reverse their reputation if they’re going to be able to land the sort of players they need to be competitive in the future. It shouldn’t even be a question, when the Birds are considering a player, that he wouldn’t want to play here.