The Cardinals Have Gotten Cheaper

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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Dexter Fowler Is an Answer

The Cardinals were neither long nor shy in signaling one of their top priorities heading into the offseason. Days after finishing the season 17½ games back of the Cubs and one game short of a wild-card spot, John Mozeliak acknowledged—as straightforwardly as the circumlocutory bow-tie enthusiast has ever acknowledged anything—that the club would seek an upgrade in center field, with Randal Grichuk sliding over to left to take the place of the departing Matt Holliday.

The names floated as potential targets have ranged from the underwhelming to the implausible. Yoenis Cespedes is a non-starter—not because of his defense, as the usual suspects have rushed to assure you, but because of the Cardinals’ allergy to spending what it takes to sign top free agents. His time with the Rangers notwithstanding, Carlos Gómez’s last two seasons have raised too many red flags. Trying to to predict trades is a fool’s errand, but moves for A.J. Pollock or Adam Eaton seem fantastical. Charlie Blackmon is a person who exists.

Dexter Fowler, who last Friday joined a shallow 2017 free-agent class by declining his half of a mutual option with the Cubs, is not light-years beyond any of the above alternatives. He’s not a transformative player; he won’t close that 17½-game gap on his own. But he’s the surest bet of any outfielder on the market, meets several of the Cardinals’ needs, and would preserve the club’s flexibility to either hold on to key prospects or trade them for an upgrade elsewhere. He’s not the answer to all the Cards’ problems, but he’s as good an answer as there is.

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Mike Matheny Is Unpopular Because He’s Not a Good Manager

It’s hard to be all that disappointed by news you knew was coming. I never doubted for a second that the Cardinals were committed to moving forward with Mike Matheny as manager, so I barely reacted to Thursday’s announcement that he’d agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in the dugout through the 2020 season. I suppose I could muster up some indignation that the club wasn’t even willing to apply a bit of pressure to improve by sticking to a shorter-term deal, but it doesn’t seem worth it.

Still, after a frustrating and at times downright miserable season, many fans who had perhaps held out hope that a change might be made reacted to the news with dismay. In spite of a five-year tenure that has included four straight postseason appearances, three straight NL Central titles, and a trip to the 2013 World Series, a sizable portion of the Cardinal faithful are convinced that Matheny is the wrong guy for the job. Why is that, I wonder?

The Post-Dispatch crew has a theory. “It seems,” wrote Ben Frederickson on Friday, “that Matheny has at times hurt his public perception by resisting/avoiding/dismissing opportunities to explain his decision-making and strategy.” If he were simply willing to be more open about his tactics to “a fan base that follows games closely,” Frederickson suggests, his reputation would improve.

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Picking Up Jaime García’s Option Was Automatic

ARMAGEDDON — Within an eleven-hour period, approximately eight of which you slept through, the bad guys won the World Series and the Cardinals responded by handing their bumbling cultist manager a three-year extension. A half hour later, amid a storm of (justified) pessimism, Jaime García’s $12 million option for 2017 was exercised. Whatever else the club does this offseason, it’s good that they at least got this right.

Yes, García had a horrible season, finishing in the bottom ten in ERA+. The Cardinals may not need him anymore, but retaining him was a no-brainer, if only for what other teams would give to have him.

There are 150 starting pitcher jobs in MLB. Twenty-five of those are occupied by guys who are going to be good; the other 125 are guesswork. And Jaime García is as good a guess as any. As bad as 2016 went, only Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, and Zack Greinke had more innings and a better ERA+ than García in 2015. The potential is there, and that’s more than can be said for dozens of starters currently employed by borderline contenders.

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The Rick Horton Witch-Hunt Did Not Actually Happen

If you logged on to Twitter after the Cubs’ World Series Game 6 victory over the Indians last night, you might have seen what looked like the aftermath of a classic Twitter witch-hunt—one of those ritualistic crusades in which the outraged digital mob shames the villain-of-the-hour for the most heinous and unforgivable crime any person can commit: Bad Tweets. “Losing followers because I posted picture of my wife wearing jersey Cleveland Indians gave me for Halloween,” tweeted longtime Cardinals broadcaster Rick Horton. “If you believe in being arrogance, [sic] judgmental, critical.take a hike [sic],” he continued.

Here’s something that you may be interested to know, though: the Great Rick Horton Twitter Witch-Hunt of 2016 did not actually happen. Nothing remotely like it happened. Here’s what did.

On Monday—i.e., Halloween—Horton tweeted a photo of his wife wearing an Indians cap and jersey, both of which featured Chief Wahoo, the appallingly racist Native American caricature that the team itself finally began to “minimize” this season by removing it from its primary cap. A single Twitter user, Daniel Miller, replied to Horton’s tweet describing the logo as “so racist” and using the hashtag #NotYourMascot, a popular slogan among those who campaign against offensive Native American imagery in sports logos and team names.

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The Cardinals Celebrated Ten Years of Busch Stadium III With a Whopper of a Propaganda Video

Earlier this year the Cardinals debuted their in-house TV show, Cardinals Insider, which aired all season long on Fox Sports Midwest and every Sunday on Channel 5 in St. Louis. It’s billed as “a weekly news magazine television show…that provides fans with unfiltered, behind-the-scenes, insider access to the Cardinals from team journalists,” and is “[j]am-packed with exclusive interviews, news features, profiles, unrivaled player stories and more.”

Cardinals Insider is not really any of those things. It’s an infomercial; the average episode mixes a few short, mildly engaging segments like “Ask A Cardinal” with straightforward promotional spots for various ticket packages, merchandise, giveaways, stadium amenities, and the like. It’s a slickly produced brand-management exercise whose express purpose is to cast the organization in the best possible light. Some of the last words that anyone could reasonably use to describe it are behind-the-scenes or insider.

And that’s fine—the Cardinals are certainly well within their rights to market their business (and it is a business) however they see fit. But there’s a line between boosterism and propaganda, and last month, in a Cardinals Insider segment marking the tenth anniversary of Busch Stadium III, the Cardinals crossed it.

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“Worrying What the Flash Means”: How We Talk About Race in Baseball

Shortly after the seventh episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball introduces the legendary Willie Mays, the author George Will—who, in case you don’t know him from his day job, is a far cry from a bleeding-heart left-winger—says this:

You remember when he came up, people would say: what an instinctive player he is, what a natural ballplayer he is, what childlike enthusiasm. … We can hear, with our better trained ears, the racism in that. He was wonderfully gifted, yes… But no one got to the major leagues…on natural gifts, without an awful lot of refining work. Sure, he was a great instinctive ballplayer, but he was also a tremendously smart baseball player. … Hardest-working ballplayer you ever saw.

For a long time now, people—George Will!—have understood that racial bias doesn’t only do its work through the crude words and actions of John Rocker or Al Campanis (or Cap Anson or Luke Scott or Enos Slaughter or Colin Cowherd or Lenny Dykstra or Marge Schott or Ben Chapman or Larry Krueger or Calvin Griffith or Tony Bruno or…) but through language and assumptions that may be prejudiced in ways that aren’t always explicit, and often aren’t malicious or even conscious.

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Stop Falling for Joe Maddon’s Bullshit

Want to know a secret? I don’t actually hate the Cubs. Sure, I hate “the Cubs” in the abstract. Sure, the Cardinals’ bouts with their longtime rivals mean more to me than the average game. Sure, their fanbase, like every other large group of people in the world, has its obnoxious (and worse) elements. But the Cubs—like, the human beings who play baseball in uniforms that say CUBS on them? They’re objectively pretty fun. Jake Arrieta is a great story. My heart still pines for Jason Heyward. Kris Bryant, he seems nice. With the glaring exception of the newly-acquired Aroldis Chapman, there isn’t a true villain among them.

Not on the field, anyway. Because holy shit do the Cubs have a villain in the dugout, in the hunched, bespectacled form of Joe Maddon, a multi-level marketing executive who wandered into a clubhouse looking for a shoeshine one day and never left. For those of us who have trouble mustering real, visceral contempt for the blue team from Chicago simply out of tribal loyalty to the red team from St. Louis, Joe Maddon is a godsend. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without him.

Maddon’s trademark is a knack for manipulating the press that’s downright virtuosic, at least when compared to the dull disinterest with which most MLB managers approach their media obligations. Years of Cool Dad quotability, tryhard sloganeering and photo-op image management have endeared him to local and national journalists alike, and they’ve rewarded him by gradually mythologizing an unremarkable tactician into some kind of iconoclastic genius and a cringeworthy schlub into some kind of heroic itinerant warrior-monk.

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