Picking Up the Pieces

Here’s a needlessly elaborate version of a hypothetical first proposed to me by sometimes Double Birds contributor Adam Felder: On Sunday evening, just before the Cardinals open the regular season against the Cubs at Busch Stadium, an Omnipotent Time-Traveling Baseball Genie appears before you in a blinding seraphic vision. He offers you a deal: he will guarantee that the Cardinals win 100 games and the World Series this season, but they will do so at the cost of having traded away or released every single player in the organization over this past offseason. Tell the genie to snap his fingers, and the Cards will open play on Sunday night with an equivalently talented roster full of random major-leaguers—some you like, some you don’t, some you’ve never really thought about or even heard of—and will go on to be World Series champions. If you want, the genie will wipe your memory to maximize your enjoyment of their title run, and there will be no adverse effects on the organization’s long-term outlook.

If there were ever a time that Cardinals fans should want to take this deal, it’s now-ish. The Big Three who formed the competitive heart and cultural soul of the team for almost a decade are nearing the end of the line; one of them is already gone, and the other two will be before long, one way or the other. There’s some above-average young talent on the roster and plenty of promise in the farm system, but nothing that quite yet resembles a new core. The Cubs look to be in a dominant position in the NL Central for years to come, and few things would be sweeter than immediately answering their first world championship in 108 years with the Cardinals’ twelfth.

Still, there’s no way I take the deal. For me, the experience of watching the Cardinals and the thrill of seeing them win—whether it’s a World Series or a division title or a getaway-day game against the Brewers in mid-June—has too much to do with the connective tissue between the present and the past. I’d ultimately rather watch Alex Reyes and Carlos Martínez and Matt Carpenter and, yes, a mobility-scooter-riding Yadier Molina try to battle their way into contention in the next few years than watch a guaranteed world champion full of players I’ve got no history with. My love of the Cardinals depends on the sense—even if it’s really more of an illusion—that there’s a naturalistic order to who they are and how they came to be, that they’re not just an arbitrary collection of interchangeable run-production and -prevention machines.

This is not everyone’s perspective. It’s probably not most people’s perspective, these days. Free agency forever changed the way fans conceived of their relationship to the local nine, and much in the last few decades has reaffirmed that shift. The internet turned fantasy sports into a phenomenon and put everyone in charge of their own dream team. The sabermetrics revolution made heroes out of general managers and stats geeks and punctured many of the game’s old player-driven pieties. Games like The Show and Out of the Park allow us to simulate running our favorite clubs to astounding degrees of depth and realism. The democratization and fragmentation of media have brought fans into the conversation like never before; to follow a baseball team in the age of blogs and Twitter and text lines is to swim in a sea of nonstop amateur analysis and debate about how the team is run.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, of course. The reserve clause thoroughly deserves its place on the ash heap of history. Advanced stats have helped us better understand the game than ever before, and the digital counterculture that grew symbiotically with them, from Baseball Prospectus to FanGraphs to the SB Nation network and beyond, is home to some of the best baseball writing you’ll find anywhere. No small part of the fun of modern baseball fandom comes from thinking like a GM would: agonizing over lineups, wishcasting trades, debating extensions and call-ups and position changes and defensive shifts and future free agents. There’s a reason why I’ve spent an unhealthy percentage of my spare time in the last ten days on OOTP 18 saves and fantasy drafts.

But if you’re looking for signs that baseball fandom’s new analytics-driven, GM-centered normal is starting to bump up against its own limitations, and maybe twist into something more sinister, you can find them. Outflanked by smarter, nimbler outlets on the analysis front, traditional media have retreated into roles as access brokers, peddling scoops and laundering spin for front offices and skewing the conversation back towards the interests of management and ownership. Sabermetrics evangelists created a movement just popular and sacrosanct enough for Major League Baseball to co-opt, and the communal DIY ethos of its mid-aughts heyday has given way to the era of MLB Advanced Media’s opaque, proprietary Statcast™, doled out on MLB Network or by approved media outlets in doses just frequent enough that you don’t forget they’re Powered by Amazon Web Services™.

You could see the results in something like last month’s World Baseball Classic, which managed to achieve a degree of success despite the steady stream of cold water being poured on it by team executives fretting about injury risk and spring-training disruption and the pundits and columnists dutifully echoing their concerns. For many in and around the game, the obvious excitement and emotional stakes for players and fans of every country not named the United States—not to mention some great baseball—weren’t enough to make the tournament anything more than a novelty, if not a nuisance. One thing it was, of course, was an opportunity to roll out the newest Statcast™ metric, Catch Probability™, which will grade outfield catches on a scale from One Star Plays™ to Five Star Plays™. If you don’t think we’re headed for a world where Randal Grichuk can make a Papa John’s™ Four Topping Catch™ Measured by MasterCard™ Presents Statcast™ Powered by Amazon Web Services™, I’ve got a Papa Slam to sell you.

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If modern baseball has become a cult of the front office, then Cardinals fandom is one of its most radical sects. That was evident even before this spring, when a substantial minority of Cards fans began talking themselves into being okay with needlessly showing Yadier Molina the door, but it’s certainly unmistakable now. Few fanbases in sports are more reliably willing than we are to trust the process, to accept that Mo Knows, to prove that we are the savvy dispassionate experts to every other team’s fickle emotional mob. There are different strains of this frame of mind out there—dull Cardinal Way moralism for some, I Fucking Love Sabermetrics triumphalism for others—but they’re united by an abiding faith in the system, in upper management, in the virtues of technocracy.

It wasn’t always this way, not even in the Moneyball-chic days of the mid-aughts. Walt Jocketty built some of the best Cardinals teams of any of our lifetimes by trading aggressively for the elite veteran talent other teams couldn’t afford; whether in spite of or because of the star power he assembled, he never had much of a profile of his own. Even after he’d become a casualty of the new era represented by Jeff Luhnow and the MV3 had shrunken to an MV1, the formidable twin presences of Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa remained most central to the Cardinals’ identity.

That all changed over the course of a single offseason, though, and both the Cardinals and their fans leaned hard into their new self-image as the team that actually definitely didn’t want Pujols back, anyway, thanks. It helped immensely, of course, that the club was finally starting to reap what had been sown by Luhnow—who, ironically enough, had left at the end of 2011 with the other two—and results were very good. They hired a room-temperature bowl of oatmeal as field manager and it didn’t seem to matter much. The legend of the 2009 Draft Class grew. Michael Wacha, compensatory draft pick for the loss of Pujols, embodiment of the Cardinals’ drafting and development wizardry, pitched us to the World Series and we all said, See?

As recently as a year ago, many of us still wanted to believe that that particular golden age hadn’t ended yet, that the Cardinals were still the team of the Wacha who’d outdueled Clayton Kershaw twice and not the Wacha who’d been trotted out by the bowl of oatmeal to give the season away a year later. The Cubs looked to have surged ahead over the course of an offseason or two in part by doing what the Cardinals wouldn’t, hiring a competent (if profoundly obnoxious) manager and spending aggressively on top-tier free agents to augment their cost-controlled young talent. But plenty in St. Louis still managed to convince themselves to trust the system. “TIME TO SHINE,” proclaimed the Post-Dispatch on Opening Day 2016, after one of the most disappointing offseasons in living memory. “Grichuk and Piscotty are the centerpiece of the Cards’ plan to ramp up offense and stay on top with homegrown talent.”

It’s one of the great fallacies of our time, in baseball and elsewhere, that a well-intentioned managerial class can serve a set of interests distinct from those of ownership and capital. The Cardinals have been enormously successful in persuading fans that their emphasis on “homegrown talent” and “internal options” and aversion to spending big on the free-agent market had everything to do with sound front-office strategy and nothing to do with the club’s league-high profit margins. It’s not at all dissimilar to corporate elites’ success in convincing an entire generation of young people that temp jobs without benefits and plummeting homeownership rates are just part of The Flexibility That Millennials Want. So maybe it’s not a surprise, then, not entirely coincidence, that in the space of a week, 2016 taught us two indelible lessons about the terrible shit that can happen when we place too much faith in technocratic managerialism. The system won’t save you, because that’s not what the system was designed to do.

And now we move forward; it’s Todd Ricketts’ world, we’re just living in it. Dexter Fowler arrived to remind us of all the ways in which a player can be valuable that don’t show up on FanGraphs or a front-office spreadsheet—and to spell it out quite explicitly in case anyone missed it—but the truth is that not much could have changed in the Cardinals’ offseason, and not much did. We may or may not have to wait until 2018 for a test of whether Bill DeWitt is willing to adapt to the new reality, but Fowler wasn’t it, and Edwin Encarnación probably wasn’t, either.

If the Cardinals somehow manage to put together a run in 2017, it will be an especially gratifying season, because it will mean that some combination of the many things we want to be true actually are: that Aledmys Díaz is for real; that Carlos Martínez is a true ace; that Fowler can produce like he did last year; that Lance Lynn is Lance Lynn again; that Stephen Piscotty can be not just good but great; that Waino is not finished; that Yadi is going to live forever. If it all breaks right, though, for once the credit shouldn’t go to the system, or the process, or the Way. The fun won’t be because this was all part of the plan, but precisely because it wasn’t.