This offseason marked five years since Albert Pujols, quite possibly the greatest Cardinal ever, turned down an incomprehensibly lucrative offer to remain a Cardinal for life in favor of a slightly more incomprehensibly lucrative offer to go elsewhere. The occasion passed without much notice, but if you’ve listened closely enough, you may have heard some doubt start to seep in at the edges of the prevailing narrative of Pujols’ departure—i.e., the largely positive one, in which the Cards made off with bucketfuls of prospects and payroll space while cutting bait on an aging star at exactly the right time. Maybe, it’s whispered, it would’ve been worth it to be able to watch an all-time great continue to rack up accolades and milestones and contribute to contending Cardinals teams, even if things would’ve gotten a bit ugly on the back end of the deal.
That’s once again a relevant question for the Cardinals, who are in the middle of having to make a series of decisions regarding three players who have formed the core of the franchise for almost a decade. The first of these, of course, resulted in the club’s borderline nonsensical refusal to engage Matt Holliday in any kind of extension talks at all, and his subsequent signing with the Yankees for chump change. That stings for some of us, and it will sting a lot more if he bounces back in the Bronx and the Cards’ outfield proves as thin as it looks, but as a player who didn’t join the Cards until age 29 and will debut for his new team at age 37, Holliday was probably always going to be the easiest of the three to let go.
Next up, though, is Yadier Molina, who could be a free agent as early as the end of this year, if either he or the club chooses not to exercise a mutual option for 2018. Drafted by the Cardinals in 2000, Molina is already the franchise’s all-time leader in games caught, a mainstay behind the plate all the way from the MV3 days through two World Series titles and the departures of Pujols and Tony La Russa and into whatever is coming next. Though his streak of eight consecutive Gold Gloves and seven consecutive All-Star nods came to an end last season, a second-half surge helped him post his best offensive numbers since 2013 while catching a career-high (and frankly insane) 1,218⅓ innings.
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On Saturday, in response to a question from ESPN’s Mark Saxon, Dexter Fowler voiced his opposition to the Trump administration’s failed attempt to ban entry to the U.S. by nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, where his wife Darya was born and many of his extended family still live. The story got picked up on social media, and Fowler quickly became the target of waves of criticism and abuse.
The volume and intensity of the backlash was shocking. Here’s just a small sample of some of the comments made in response to the story: “We pay your salary. I don’t give a shit about your political views!” “Maybe he should have brought them over sooner then he wouldn’t have a wet diaper.” “Fuck fowler who cares what he thinks.” “Why is it that the only athletes that are displeased with the President are black? Who’s the one’s being racist?” “Why the hell do these over paid actors and sports figures think WE GIVE A FUCK WHAT THEY HAVE TO SAY. Just do what you are paid to do and that is to entertain normal Americans.” “I have no patience anymore for dumbass stupid ass people who keep assisting that illegal aliens are simply immigrants.” “Many Presidents have done this, even Obummer. Fowler is just butthurt.” “He can share all his contract money with the immigrants.” “I don’t want to hear that b******* we pay him to play ball and that’s it.” “Fowler deserves a fastball right between his racist eyes.” “Shut up and go enjoy your $80 million how stupid.” “You’re paid to play, not to spew your political bullshit.” “Uneducated about what the Pres is trying to do for Blacks. Too bad.” “Move to Iran Dexter.” “I guess Dextor was thrilled with all the killings in Chicago last year, as he didn’t post anything about that.” “Wow another overpaid minority has an issue with a Republican?? Shut your ass up.”
No one gave a shit about any of these comments, though, because all of them were posted on a Facebook page called “Chicago Cubs True Fans” (I have no idea, either). Here are some more: “Glad he left.” “Traitor.” “That’s why he went to St. Louis.” “Well he obviously dont like winning hating trump and going to the cards.” “Guess it’s time to burn my Cubs Fowler jersey!” “Go to your St Loooey hellhole and stay there… an oh yeah, STFU.” “Thank Goodness we got rid of him, another crybaby…” “Go Cubs! Go Trump!” “Dexter just became the enemy even more now for me.” “Shut the fuck up traitor!! Who cares what you have to say!” “And I care what you think, why??? You overpaid incredibly lucky, person. Glad your no longer in Chicago!!!” “He isn’t worthy of the phrase former cub.” “Glad your gone BLM MAN FOWLER, and in the mean time , just maybe you can get your head out of clintons corrupt ass ? FUCK YOU SNOWFLAKE MFER.”
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For a moment there, right after the Fowler signing, the Cardinals actually managed to convince some of us that they weren’t going to call it an offseason. The club, wrote Derrick Goold, “could become more aggressive than previously believed, turning toward free-agent sluggers Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnación as possible pursuits.” Maybe such a change in strategy was actually on the table; maybe this was a bit of empty chest-puffing from an organization that finally sensed some fan discontent over its tight-fisted approach to the free-agent market.
In any case, nothing came of it. Encarnación signed with Cleveland for a lot less than expected; Justin Turner returned to the Dodgers and José Bautista appears to be headed back to Toronto. The Cardinals are reportedly looking to bring a left-handed outfielder and possibly another bullpen arm to spring training on minor-league deals, but what plenty of us knew in our hearts to be true back in December is now beyond doubt: they’re done. Having dumped nearly $40 million in salary via the departures of Matt Holliday, Jaime García, and Brandon Moss, the club enters 2017 on track for not just another sharp drop in revenue-adjusted payroll but a slight nominal decrease in payroll from last year.
It wouldn’t be fair, though, to blame another middling offseason entirely on Bill DeWitt’s spending allergy. That much became clear a couple weeks ago, when the Royals agreed to trade Jarrod Dyson to the Mariners in exchange for right-handed nonentity Nate Karns. The Cards had previously signaled interest in Dyson as a platoon candidate, and as a left-handed hitter and elite defender, he’d fit well into an outfield still lacking for both of those things.
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The Cardinals are a successful and beloved baseball club, and in reading and writing about them we are always eager for new narratives and feel-good turns of phrase: the Cardinal Way, Baseball Heaven, the Best Fans in Baseball. Occasionally, these flights of lyrical enthusiasm will flirt—even if only unconsciously—with the idea that the team and its fanbase are not just closely bonded but one and the same, two components of an indivisible whole. The Cardinals, you might hear someone say, are an integral part of St. Louis. A great asset for the city. A civic trust.
This is always meant metaphorically. That should change. It’s time to municipalize the Cardinals.
In a recent post, I surveyed the history of Bill DeWitt’s ownership of the club, which—while having delivered no small measure of on-field success—has also seen DeWitt and his investment group reap an enormous financial windfall at the public’s expense. The Cardinals, acquired for peanuts and now worth nearly two billion dollars, have consistently ranked among the most profitable clubs in Major League Baseball even as they’ve received hundreds of millions in subsidies and tax breaks, cut workers’ pay and benefits, and under-delivered on development promises.
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One year ago next week, St. Louis sports fans had their hearts ripped out of them by a grotesque Thomas Nast cartoon of a team owner. Stan Kroenke, a wigged weirdo who’d lucked into his fortune as a tapeworm in the intestines of the Walton family, persuaded a roomful of equally talentless and vicious old men—silver-spooned dilettantes, gout-ridden oligarchs, adjudged fraudsters, Dan Snyder—to let him do it. They did it out of greed, they did it because they could, and they did it with a sociopathic disregard for the people they’d lied to, extorted, and spat on in the process.
Not long afterwards, the Blues played the Hurricanes, and before the game Bill DeWitt III, president of the Cardinals and son of majority owner Bill DeWitt Jr., joined Blues chairman Tom Stillman for a ceremonial puck drop. Fans cheered, but mostly they chanted: “Kroenke sucks, Kroenke sucks, Kroenke sucks.” It was a cool moment.
It was also the beginning of a deeply bizarre consequence of the civic trauma that Kroenke and his fellow NFL owners had put St. Louis through: a renewed, unconditional reverence for the men who owned the city’s two remaining franchises. Stillman and the DeWitts were suddenly “the Anti-Kroenkes.” Local media hailed their “show of solidarity,” their “St. Louis pride,” their “support for St. Louis and its fans.” On Twitter, the praise went on and on: “classy owners,” “class acts,” “pure class,” “world class,” “the definition of CLASS,” “more class in their toenail clippings than Stan Kroenke & Jerry Jones ever dreamed of having.”
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The Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler, a pretty good center fielder, to a five-year deal at the end of the Winter Meetings, for the like half dozen of you who’re reading a Cardinals-centric site but somehow missed this crucial detail.
It’s a good deal, as free agency goes. The Cardinals had a clear hole (largely of their own making thanks to the odd handling of Matt Holliday) in the outfield. Now they don’t. Randal Grichuk can go do his Pedro Cerrano impression in left field while Fowler puts up a superlative on-base percentage in center and Stephen Piscotty shouts random obscenities in the direction of on-field mics in right. All in all, a pretty ok outfield.
It won’t help the Cardinals catch the Cubs, of course. The Cubs are so much better than the Cardinals that really nothing was going to make that happen in 2017. The Cardinals entered the offseason as strong contenders for a wildcard and extreme long-shots for the division title. They’ll exit the offseason as stronger contenders for a wildcard and extreme long-shots for the division title. On an absolute basis, they’re better. Relative to the Cubs…this move doesn’t matter so much.
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With the Winter Meetings well underway, all indications are that the Cardinals’ pursuit of Dexter Fowler—the best outfielder on the free-agent market and a solid, straightforward answer to some of the club’s biggest needs—is a real thing. Ken Rosenthal reported late Monday night that the Cardinals had met with Fowler’s representatives and “made him an initial offer,” while Mark Saxon added that the offer is believed to be in the four-year, $60 million range.
As early as last week, though, whispers of a roadblock to a potential deal began cropping up in local media. “There are rumors,” said Frank Cusumano on his radio show, “that Dexter Fowler does not want to play for Mike Matheny.” Bernie Miklasz expressed a similar thought. Derrick Goold and Ben Hochman spent a good chunk of the latest Best Podcast in Baseball seeming to acknowledge the “grumblings” and things “in the wind” with regard to Fowler and alluding to unspecified “aspects” of the Cardinals “culture” that might not be a fit for certain players. Cusumano implied again this morning that Fowler is reluctant to sign with the Cardinals, albeit this time without mentioning Matheny.
Yes, these are just rumors, but I’m inclined to think there’s some truth to them. Goold, Miklasz, and Cusumano are pros, and while they’re naturally being careful about what they say, clearly they’ve heard something. Frankly, the mere fact that St. Louis’ habitually cozy and compliant sports media is relaying a rumor that’s unflattering to the Cardinals suggests that that something is pretty serious—as does the fact that Fowler has every incentive not to signal an aversion to a team that is actively bidding for him on the open market. That’s an awful lot of smoke—in an environment in which there should be no smoke at all—for there not to be a fire.
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The local paper touts the team’s payroll “flexibility,” floating the possibility of a “sizable addition” in the near future. The owner concedes that the club has “not had great results pursuing the highest-profile free agents, even though we’ve been close on several occasions”; the problem, he says, is that “there’s always a team or two or three who go beyond what we think is a value or the prudent thing to do.” Some fans grumble about the team’s “static” payroll, while others maintain that its track record of success means ownership should be given the benefit of the doubt.
That all of this describes the Cardinals won’t surprise you; what might is the fact that it describes the Cardinals of ten years ago. Following their surprise 2006 World Series title, the Cardinals spent the offseason ostensibly in the hunt for a “premium free-agent pitcher” but came up short, ultimately filling out their rotation by signing Kip Wells to a one-year, $4 million deal and getting 162⅔ innings of 5.70 ERA ball in return.
The next few years were a tumultuous period for the Cardinals, who struggled on the field and underwent a messy organizational shakeup off of it. As no shortage of stories and profiles and books have chronicled, the new regime led by John Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow emphasized a forward-thinking, data-driven approach to scouting and player development—and that approach eventually produced an abundance of young, home-grown talent, including many of the players who helped the club win the 2011 World Series and three NL Central titles in the years since.
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