Why Can’t the Cardinals Attract Top Talent?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Cardinals head into the offseason with a premier super-elite talent as their number-one target. They put on a good show in chasing that talent. For a while, it looks like it might happen.

Then it doesn’t. Some other team nobody counted on ends up taking the player instead.

Max Scherzer to the Nationals. David Price to the Red Sox. Jason Heyward to the Cubs.

And now, Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, apparently.

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Did Mike Matheny Cost Trevor Rosenthal $40 Million?

If you’re a Cardinals fan, there are very few reasons to like Mike Matheny. The team has gotten steadily worse on his watch, and despite him now being in his sixth season, he’s seemingly learned precious little about any of the managerial aspects of the game that fans have access to. He might well be the “Leader of Men” in the clubhouse (though given his handling of several players, that’s debatable as well), but in the dugout he’s a complete imbecile.

But we’re treading old ground here. Matheny makes a great punching bag with his constantly inventing new forms of tactical idiocy. Hell, back when I was freelancing, his ineptitude gave me fodder for a column or three every week. The man made me money.

And “making money” seems to be the one thing I admired about Matheny. No, not that he’s good at making money—he’s a schmuck at that, too—but rather that he wanted his players to get paid.

Matheny has said on more than one occasion that he’s aware that saves are the metric by which relievers are evaluated, fairly or unfairly. However meaningless it may be when it comes to constructing a winning team, it’s admirable that Matheny wants to help his players get paid in arbitration and free agency.

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The Cascade of Failures Involving #RallyCat Is the Most 2017 Cardinals Thing Possible

Wednesday night, something magical happened for the Cardinals. Down 5-4 late-ish to the Royals, the club was about to squander a golden scoring opportunity when Yadier Molina strode to the plate with the bases loaded.

Yadier Molina shouldn’t be batting fifth. Or Dexter Fowler fourth. But hey, as Mike Matheny errors go, at least Fowler and Molina should both be playing, so him screwing up the order in which they batted is a comparatively minuscule error.

But against Peter Moylan, who eats righties for breakfast (just ask Paul DeJong, who flailed helplessly and struck out on three pitches a couple minutes prior), a below-average hitter like Yadi wasn’t terribly likely to be a hero. He took a pitch, getting ahead 1-0.

And then the magic happened.

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On Continuing to Root for the Cardinals

Earlier this season, SBNation ran a contest asking baseball fans to write why they rooted for their team. I don’t know who actually won. I read some really good submissions from Cardinals fans on Viva El Birdos, though, so I’m hoping one of them got something neat out of the contest.

I didn’t submit anything. I couldn’t really come up with a compelling hook that made my Cardinals fandom special. Despite most evidence to the contrary, I really try to keep my mouth shut and my fingers off the keyboard if I think I don’t have something interesting to say, so I sat this one out.

That’s not to say I didn’t at least start writing something to see if it’d go somewhere. The closest I came to a compelling narrative was my love of the Cardinals community, meaning all the various people I’ve interacted with and in some cases befriended due to nothing more than a shared love of the birds on bat. It’s some six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon level of detail not worth getting into here, but I’m relatively certain I’m not where I am today career-wise if not for my engagement with a bunch of really awesome people in the St. Louis Cardinals baseball community.

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Things Are On Track to Get Even Worse

As the 2016 season got underway, the Cardinals were feeling disrespected. Yes, they’d suffered a portentous NLDS loss to the Cubs the previous October, and then stumbled through a disappointing offseason, but from the top of the organization on down, they were adamant that they wouldn’t be relinquishing their NL Central crown without a fight. “I like the moves that we’ve made,” said Mike Matheny. “There are some players here who have done some pretty special stuff.” Asked about the “aging core” narrative that had sprung up over the winter, Yadier Molina didn’t give an inch: “We’re just getting started. We’ve got more experience. We stay in shape. We know the game better. We’ve got the advantage.” The divisional race “[is] going to come down to the end,” predicted Matt Carpenter. “I don’t think our plan is to fade,” said Bill DeWitt. “That is not in our mindset.”

The Cardinals, of course, finished 2016 with 14 fewer wins than the year before, losing the Central to the Cubs by 17½ games and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Things have gotten even worse in 2017, with the club sitting at or below .500 for most of the season thanks to a sputtering offense, an unreliable bullpen, and an absurd, off-brand fundamentals crisis. Just a year and a half after vowing that the Cards hadn’t lost any ground to the Cubs, and a few months after assuring fans they’d improved in the offseason, John Mozeliak is now publicly fretting about the team’s “attitude and culture” and conceding it may be time for a bit of a rebuild. “Watching a game like yesterday,” he told Jenifer Langosch last week, “it’s tough to justify going out and solely playing for this year.”

In the 18-month period over which the party line shifted from “We’re competing for the division” to “We may punt on this season,” it’s been difficult to detect any corresponding shift in how the organization actually goes about its business. Opening-day payroll dropped to 14th-highest in the league, its lowest rank since 1999, and a high-profile pursuit of Luis Robert ended with the club getting outbid by the White Sox. Jaime García, Matt Adams, and Marco Gonzales have been shipped off in a series of minor trades. A couple players got DFA’d and a coach was “reassigned,” but that came after a three-year extension for Mike Matheny and just before two big promotions for Mozeliak and Mike Girsch. For a team whose own self-assessments have fallen so far so quickly, and who have spent the season talking about “accountability” and bruiting “shakeups,” the Cardinals have sure seemed intent on sticking to business as usual.

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Shut Up About Carlos Martínez’s Temperament

Six weeks ago, Carlos Martínez took the mound at Yankee Stadium and just didn’t have it. In the first inning, thanks in large part to a sinker that was going all over the place, he threw 36 pitches, walking four and allowing a run on a wild pitch. Then he dug in and battled, overcoming his lack of command to put up four scoreless innings while walking a total of eight batters and striking out eleven. He worked around a costly Jose Martínez error at first base in the third and escaped a bases-loaded jam to end the fifth. The offense gave him no run support at all, managing just two hits through the first six innings, and then Mike Matheny inexplicably sent him back out for the bottom of the sixth on 106 pitches; gassed, he recorded only one out and allowed two more runs before Matheny finally gave him the hook.

It was an exasperating, heroic, absurd solo performance from one of the team’s best players, who seemed to put a struggling ballclub on his back and carry it as far as he possibly could. Broadcasters have a whole set of trusty clichés to describe an outing like this. You’re not always going to have your best stuff, they’ll say. It’s about grinding it out, and knowing how to adapt, and doing your best to give the team a chance to win. That’s what separates good pitchers from great ones.

But those aren’t the clichés that the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast team reached for that day. “Sometimes you watch Martínez,” said longtime play-by-play announcer Dan McLaughlin, “and he’s very animated on the mound. You’re not seeing that at all here today.”

“It’s an interesting point,” said his partner, Tim McCarver. “When he’s animated, he’s more effective. He’s happier. That’s his…feeling.”

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What Are the Cardinals For?

Heavy rains caused devastating floods across parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Arkansas last week, including in and around St. Louis, where the Meramec River crested at record levels and inundated homes and businesses in communities like Pacific, Eureka, and Fenton. Many smaller rural towns, lacking levees, manpower, and other resources, were hit even harder. At least 13 people were killed, and nearly 10 million people remained under a flood warning heading into the weekend. In many areas the effects are reported to be as bad or worse than the floods that hit the region in late December 2015, which damaged or destroyed over 7,000 structures in Missouri alone and totaled hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and cleanup costs.

Among the organizations helping with disaster relief efforts were local sports teams. The River City Rascals partnered with the St. Louis Area Foodbank and are offering free tickets to opening weekend in exchange for donations of bottled water. The Blues, who were in the middle of a heated playoff series against the Nashville Predators, teamed up with the Red Cross and turned Friday night’s Game 5 at Scottrade Center into an ad-hoc benefit of sorts. They even coordinated with the Predators to raise additional funds from fans in Nashville.

“We realize,” said Blues CEO Chris Zimmerman in a press conference on Friday, “that sports franchises in our cities play a really critical role: one, to bring attention to suffering, in this case, and the needs of our community; and on the other side, seeing how we can step up, both financially and in other ways to support the efforts.”

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Matt Holliday Got Screwed

There will come a time this year when Matt Holliday won’t look quite like the player he does now. He won’t have posted a 174 wRC+ in his last 39 plate appearances. He won’t be getting rave reviews from the famously fickle New York City media. He may pick up an injury or two.

There will also be a point—probably, maybe, dear God I hope so—when the Cardinals’ lineup doesn’t look quite like the bizarre, helpless mess that it often has in the first couple weeks of the season. There’s still time for Jhonny Peralta to turn it around. There’s still time for one or both of Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong to finally assert themselves as key everyday players. There’s still time for Mike Matheny to abandon the Matt Adams experiment, or for John Mozeliak to further coax and contort the roster into something Matheny can’t find a way to misuse.

If and when all of this happens, though, what many Cardinals fans are going to feel on a visceral level this weekend will still be true: kicking Holliday to the curb late last year was an incredibly poor piece of judgment, unfair both to the player and to fans, and an obvious product of two of the organization’s most damaging and artificial limitations.

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