Does it make sense for the St. Louis Cardinals to tank in 2020?
By Brett Ramsey
With several key players coming off the books in upcoming seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals, does it make sense for the Cardinals to tank in 2020?
The St. Louis Cardinals are nearing a bit of a crossroads. Many of their core players are nearing the end of their contracts after 2020 or 2021. Franchise icons Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are in that group, and one of both of these players retiring or testing free agency would represent a huge tectonic shift for the organization.
With a large part of the roster, notably many of the team’s highest-paid players, set to potentially depart in the relatively short term, it’s interesting to think about how the team might look like in a few years.
The way I see it, there are two real options for building a championship-caliber team. The first option is the Yankees/Dodgers option which is to spend, spend, spend. Investing in high dollar free-agent deals and making trades for star players. We see the “big market” teams use this strategy to perfection.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How many championships have those teams won lately?
Fair point. As we’ve seen in the past, the playoffs are largely dictated by circumstance and randomized events. There is no guarantee that the highest payroll will win. However, looking at the success of the Yankees and Dodgers in recent seasons, it seems they may be onto something. It’s also likely that both of those teams could make a rightful claim to a World Series trophy that eluded them by the Houston Astros and their now infamous cheating scandal.
Still, a World Series or championship series appearance is a great accomplishment, and having the best players stacks the deck in your favor. Now comes option number two…
There, I said it. It’s kind of controversial to even suggest it beyond a hushed tone. It’s a gamble and likely an even bigger one than throwing around gobs of money in free agency. The idea of essentially “punting” on numerous seasons to secure high draft picks is not one many teams want to do or put their fanbase through. However, there have been some success stories.
The Astros and Chicago Cubs are two teams that pulled this off. The Cubs were able to break through and win the 2016 World Series and end their 100+ year championship drought. The Astros were one of the laughing stocks of the sport for years but turned that failure into unquestioned success.
The Cubs were able to select players like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber due to their high draft selections from tanking. They went 61-101 in 2012, which represents their worst record during their rebuilding phase. They only had a few bad seasons before they were in the position to turn it around. They made a smart deal to acquire Anthony Rizzo via trade. Once their playoff window opened, they jumped into the spending spree, as well. They supplemented their young core with star players and veteran players. The strategy was implemented very well.
The Astros were in much the same boat, although their tanking was a bit more dramatic and the results were poor for a few seasons. From 2011-2013, they only won around 50 games in three consecutive seasons (56, 55, and 51). However, they were able to draft talents like Carlos Correa and George Springer. They added to their core with some impactful outside additions. Tanking doesn’t always work, but there are examples proving it can.
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The question becomes, which path should the Cardinals take? Does it make sense for them to tank?
I don’t think it’s likely, but I am not opposed to the idea. My first preference would be to see the team jump into the free agent pool with some splashes but that has not happened under this front office group and it’s worth taking a “believe it when you see it” approach to the Cardinals as players in free agency. That leaves open the option of tanking.
But what if, rather than going full Astros, the team just decided to punt on 2020?
The Cardinals haven’t picked in the top 10 in the draft since 1998 when they selected outfielder J.D. Drew. In just a 60-game season, tanking becomes much more palatable. Rather than losing 100 games (a .383 winning percentage), they would just have to lose 37 games. How does that sound?
Going 23-37 would easily give the team a top 10 pick in a 2021 draft class that is extremely deep.
That would require them hitting on their draft pick and, as I’ve wrote before, the draft is a crapshoot. Still, picking in the top 5 or 10 overall, even for one season, will give a team a much better roll of the dice on a sure thing prospect.
Ask yourself, did you like the Cardinals trade for Matthew Liberatore this past offseason? That move is a preview of what it might be like to tank. The Cardinals traded assets off their major league roster in exchange for a blue-chip pitching prospect. That is the kind of move that you might see rebuilding teams make. It made sense for the Cards to remove some outfield depth from their roster and add a legit pitching prospect in the process.
The Cardinals could continue down the path of good but not great, doing just enough in free agency and picking in the back end of the first round. The results will likely be more of the same, an upper 80s win team with realistic playoff goals but not necessarily a championship favorite. Is that enough?
The team has top prospects in Liberatore, Dylan Carlson, and Nolan Gorman just a few years away, and if they took one step back in 2020 to get a top 10 pick, they could take two steps forward in the next few years. Personally, I’d be accepting of a short losing season if it gave my favorite team better odds at stacking up for a World Series contending team down the line.
The Cardinals could choose to stay on their current path, but as players retire or move to other teams and as big-money deals fall off the books, they’ll have a chance to dramatically shake up their roster. Why not go bold? Tanking does not promise success but unless the Cardinals take off their floaties and wade into the deep end of the free agent pool, tanking might just be their best chance at building a World Series team again.