The National League Central fully embraces the bare minimum, Cardinals included

Teams across MLB are evolving with the game to find new ways to win. But the NL Central is contemptuous of their old ways of doing business.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals / Dilip Vishwanat/GettyImages
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And then there's the Cardinals

Ending with the St. Louis Cardinals, they have played the same strings every off-season and fans commit to the idea every time. The team lacked a foundation from 2016 to 2020. 2021 was a great step forward with a new outfield coming together in Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson, and the breakout of Tyler O’Neill. Tommy Edman became the best homegrown star in years and the minor league depth was stacked with very promising talent. The future was teasing the arrivals of Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, Jordan Walker, and Masyn Winn.

But 2021 and 2022 showed the broken shell that never fixes itself. Management decided to roll the dice on potential versus addressing blatant holes in the roster. In 2021 we saw Jon Lester and JA Happ patch the starting rotation which was a bandaid on an open wound. 2022 exposed the lack of starting pitching even more with a myriad of pitchers throughout the organization making spot starts or being overused in relief outings. Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright both logged high inning totals but no other pitcher logged more than 150 innings on the season. Dakota Hudson was diminished, Jack Flaherty barely pitched, Steven Matz was limited in use, Matthew Liberatore was stuck between being an AAA pitcher and an MLB pitcher, and the list can go on.

Mozeliak patched holes again by trading for Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery. The resurgence of Albert Pujols distracted fans from the glaring issues that never fixed themselves and the nostalgia train continues to roll. The 2022 ended in absolute shock as the Cardinals completely imploded in the Wild Card series vs the Phillies. With the high AAV for Yadier Molina coming off the books, the Cardinals needed to address replacing the heart of the organization and they did it in NL Central fashion.

The organization promised to increase payroll which misguided fans into believing that they were finally going to act like a big market club and make a push to build a powerhouse roster. Instead, the team signed Willson Conteras to a long-term contract that paid a slightly cheaper AAV than the diminished Yadier Molina and did not add any pitchers to the already exposed staff. This was a gamble to see if prior investments would ever return to their expected values or if management truly failed at evaluating pitching. The latter was the case.

The Cardinals had an extremely disappointing season in 2023 which led to a fire sale at the trade deadline. The best option to keep to build a new rotation was traded to Jordan Montgomery. Adam Wainwright and his $17.5 million AAV contract is finally off the books after the worst season of his career and the worst season for any pitcher in MLB last season. The payroll is freed up, and Mozeliak has many resources available to him to finally address the glaring issue that has been around for almost a decade. 

Mo has acted fast by signing Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, and Kyle Gibson. All are short-term deals and all are considered discounted in today’s current market, Gray is a great signing, but it barely scratches the surface for fixing the rotation issues. Lynn and Gibson are aged veterans with many innings on their arms which is a huge risk considering how they pitched in 2023. Their cross-state rivals barely spent more for Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo who are much more reliable at this point in time. The innings issue was met which is the face value selling point management wants to sell to fans. Once fans buy into this belief, they have won again. 

Many moves are left to be made for John Mozeliak before spring training. But knowing how last off-season went with only one signing not changing anything, this could be it for the Cardinals this off-season. If the Cardinals are satisfied with the current roster to compete for 2024, it will not be for a World Series. They will be competing to do the bare minimum to win the division and roll the dice on playoff odds. With the most passionate fan base in baseball filling Busch Stadium in October, the organization will be winning regardless. The NL Central is not changing its business model with the league changing as a whole. They will continue to make their profits at as little cost as possible. It is okay though, we are all in “small markets”. 

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