Cheap Seats

Cardinals’ disappointing offseason has them destined for third place

It certainly seems, after one big splash on the trade market and a couple of ripples in free agency, that the St. Louis Cardinals have settled into Low Hanging Fruit Mode.

It’s been weeks since the breathy rumors of the Winter Meetings, when the Redbirds were supposedly in the mix for Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson in trade. Now, speculation of any sort that the Cardinals are close to making significant additions to this team are nowhere to be found.

Naturally.

St. Louis has the motive and the means to make big moves to change the complexion of a club that has trended for three years in the wrong direction. No thanks. We’ll pass.

I was initially excited about the move to trade with the Miami Marlins for Marcell Ozuna, even as I try to process the fact that the real prize of the South Florida fire sale was Giancarlo Stanton — who refused a trade to the most successful franchise in the history of the National League because he didn’t feel like St. Louis was in a position to be able to win over the next two or three years.

It’s not that the Cardinals didn’t get the top prize of the offseason that was most disappointing. It was that he wouldn’t even consider playing here. But the way the Cardinals front office is handling things this winter, it’s getting harder and harder to blame the superstar slugger who eventually ended up on the roster of the New York Yankees.

The Ozuna deal seemed to be a sign that the Cardinals were finally serious about getting back on track. But now it seems like a token gesture to appease the fans. It’s insulting to fans to tell us that the pitching — both in the rotation and bullpen — is up to par. It’s also ridiculous to think that a team that had neither a legitimate third-place hitter nor a cleanup man is suddenly up to snuff with the addition of one player.

Typically, St. Louis fans complain at this time of year about the team being “cheap.” But I’m starting to get the idea that this is less about being willing to spend money than it is about the front office being paralyzed with fear of losing its reputation as the Team That Does Everything Right. It reminds me of the days when Cardinals speedster Vince Coleman was trying to set the all-time record of consecutive stolen bases without being thrown out.

“Vincent Van Go” started to get conservative because he couldn’t afford to make a mistake. It affected his game in a negative way because the Birds needed him to steal bags to get into scoring position. But he wouldn’t take off for second — or third — unless he was 100 percent sure he was going to make it.

The Redbirds front office won’t pass out a market value contract because they’re afraid of getting burned financially. They won’t pull the trigger on a substantial trade because they’re afraid of giving up on their precious prospects — who don’t seem to pan out over the long haul.

The one deal the Birds did make for Ozuna was a no-brainer because he’s only a two-year financial commitment. How could they go wrong with that? So, sure ... By all means. But you can’t build a championship team out of spare parts. While Lance Berkman certainly helped in 2011, this team wouldn’t have gone all the way without Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina serving as pillars of the organization.

St. Louis President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak, according to reports out of Tampa Bay, had a trade lined up to swap for Rays closer Alex Colome and third baseman Evan Longoria. But the word out of Tampa is that the Redbirds walked away from the deal “to pursue other options.” I don’t have to tell you that none of those options ever came through. In fact, talks for the primary objective, Machado, reportedly never got to the point where St. Louis tendered a formal offer. Longoria ended up getting traded to the San Francisco Giants for a package the Cardinals could have easily bested. Why?

Some folks opined that it was because the Cardinals didn’t want to get saddled with the $81 million Inline image guaranteed to Longoria through his age 37 season. (There is a $5 million option on that deal. But the Rays apparently kicked in some cash to cover that and then some.) Yeah, that’s a lot of money by Average Joe Standards. But is that a crippling deal by major league standards? Not if you consider that Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas is 29 and will probably require a five or six-year deal to sign a free agent contract. It would be surprising if he doesn’t crack the $100 million mark.

So the Cardinals will sit back waiting for the perfect deal that will never come. And because of it, they’ll head into another season with a flawed team that will be fortunate to finish in third place, while they sit on a stack of young outfielders and pitching prospects, many of which will never pan out.

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