What do the Cardinals do now?

by Dan Curry

Now that John Mozeliak, Bill DeWitt and the Cardinals have been pantsed in broad daylight by Theo Epstein and the Cubs, what is the countermove?

The beauty of this signing if you are a Cubs fan is that in addition to thoroughly changing the dynamics the next few years in the NL Central, it invites the Cardinals to further wreck their future with one of the expected responses.

Signing Alex Gordon, for example, provides short-term relief and makes the Cards a bit more competitive next year and 2017 but it accelerates the aging of St. Louis’ core. Another big free agent, Chris Davis, would provide pop but would give the team a lineup full of whiffers in addition to the huge risk of erratic Davis turning into an expensive bust.

No, the Cardinals’ front office needs to think creatively now. We are not confident that is within the DNA at 700 Clark Street, but the Heyward fiasco demands it.

What made the Heyward (or Price) signing imperative this off-season from a strategic standpoint is that it would have given the Cardinals an infusion of youth to offset the past-prime core of Holliday, Molina, Peralta and Wainwright. It would have acted as a bridge to the future, which, in just a year or two, includes a new fleet of young mid- to top-rotation pitching (Reyes, Flaherty, Weaver) to supplement Wacha, Martinez, Cooney, Gonzalez, etc. Young pitching is the one advantage the Cardinals have over the ascendant Cubs.

Instead, almost beyond comprehension, the Cardinals allowed the Cubs to sign Heyward from their grasps, seemingly because they structured the contract more favorably by offering opt-outs. Because Heyward is so young, the Cardinals should have been willing to do anything it takes to sign him. If he walked after three years and $75 million, who cares? They would have just received three prime years from him and moved seamlessly to the next wave of pitching talent.

Instead the Cardinals fell further behind the Cubs in talent. According to FanGraphs projections for next year, the North Siders are 12 games better than the Cards as of this moment. That gap is trending the wrong way for STL as its core ages and the Cubs’ lineup moves into prime years.

Yes, games are played on the field and projections are often wildly off. But lots of variables have to go right for the Cards to be competitive with the Cubs next year. Translated, it means Pham, Grichuk, Adams, Wong and Piscotty need to outperform their projections while Cubs’ players regress and/or are beset by lots of injuries. Unlikely.

With that in mind, the Cardinals need to try to do enough to stay in playoff contention without damaging their future. Even with the most aggressive short-term strategy possible, the Cardinals can’t match the Cubs next year on paper. Don’t try. Here is what they shouldn’t do:

  • Trade from their core of top young pitching. Everybody will want Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty. Do not move them. Retain the team’s only advantage over the Cubs.

  • Fiddle away draft picks. The one small upside to the Cubs’ signing of John Lackey and Heyward is that STL receives two extra high draft picks. Certain free agents, including Gordon, come at a cost of a pick. Gravitate to free agents without picks attached.

  • Get saddled with a long-term contract for an aging, declining bat. Say no to Gordon, Cespedes, Upton or Davis.

Instead, they need to be creative. Among the possible moves:

  • Try to trade for young core players if possible. This is difficult and expensive and nearly impossible to do without trading young pitching. Freddie Freeman is a possibility. Adams, Grichuk/Pham and a young pitcher not named Reyes, Flaherty, Weaver, Martinez or Wacha might do it. Freeman is owed $20 million a year for six years and Atlanta would welcome the salary dump. Mo needs to exhaust all MLB for targets that fit this profile.

  • Think about moving Trevor Rosenthal into the rotation for a year. That would allow you to fill the fifth spot without signing an expensive free-agent. Make Sam Tuivailala, Jordan Walden, Kevin Siegrist or Jonathan Broxton your closer. Not ideal, certainly, but worth a try.

  • Look for a couple additional good bullpen arms. Build a top-notch pen. Plenty of non-attached free agents are available and several high-end relievers are on the trade market.

  • Look for value upside free agents. Gerardo Parra is one example. He could platoon or fill-in at all outfield spots and has a bit of offensive upside. He probably could be had for something like 3 years/$27 million.

Follow this general blueprint and STL projects to be a 90 or 91 win team next year. Not nearly good enough to compete with the Cubs and their 100-win dynamo on paper, but it would give the Cardinals a fighting chance to reload on the fly as their young pitching advances to the majors and some promising position players move right behind them.

This “plan” is not pleasing or ideal but it is the new reality that Mozeliak and DeWitt created by failing to understand the battleground they were standing on. They need to step back and not make a second major blunder that could sink the franchise into the NL Central abyss.