I recently sat down with my good friend Ron Nuttall on his podcast Ruffled Feathers for Two Birds on a Bat. We talked a lot about the Cardinals, the NL Central, and a bevy of other topics. Part of the discussion landed on the future of the Cardinals organization. It got me thinking about a bunch of “what if” scenarios. The result of that crazy journey in my brain is what you are reading now. It’s a formula for success that I think could ultimately lead to some of the best years of Cardinals baseball we have ever seen.
John Mozeliak Should Stay
Let’s start with the front office. John Mozeliak is one of the longest-tenured executives in Major League Baseball. He joined the Cardinals as Walt Jocketty‘s assistant in 1995 and became the team‘s GM in 2007, before ascending to President of Baseball Operations in 2017.
Mo, as he’s affectionately known, rubbed fans the wrong way a few years back. When asked about fan unrest following an absence from the playoffs, Mo cited the team’s overall body of work and channeled his inner gladiator. “Are you not entertained,” he questioned back. It was an informal interview with Dan McLaughlin during Spring Training and was said somewhat tongue in cheek. That’s not how it was received by fans, though.
Mozeliak can come across as an arrogant, dry, self-righteous know-it-all. He is none of those things. I’ve had the chance on multiple occasions to question him and be in the room during interviews. Not only is he personable and quite funny, but he does also understand the fans and is not as tone-deaf as most people believe.
What Mo is, though, is confident, and rightfully so. I’ve been critical of him in the past, but the man has won Executive of the Year three times, overseen six playoff teams, two pennants, and one World Series Championship. Oh, and by the way, the Cardinals have never suffered a losing season during his tenure. In short, John Mozeliak is a damn good executive, one of the best in the majors.
As with anything else, there’s always room for improvement. What Mo needs is an accountability partner. He needs to find someone he trusts, sit them down, and say, “Don’t tell me I’m right. Tell me why I am wrong.” That person’s sole job should be giving Mozeliak a dissenting voice so he can have a fresh perspective on every decision he makes. I don’t believe he’s had that since Tony LaRussa left the team.
This won’t keep Mo from making bad decisions, but it should mitigate them. And while he’s made his fair share of bad choices, people forget the good ones he’s made as well. Matt Holliday? Lance Berkman? Carlos Beltran? Paul Goldschmidt? David Freese Game 6? 2011 WS win? Yeah, we have Mo to thank for all of that.
Learn How to Spend Money
The problem with the Cardinals is not that they don’t spend money. They just haven’t spent it that wisely in recent years. Bad contracts given to the likes of Mike Leake and Brett Cecil handicapped the team. Their contracts still made up 9.34% of the total player salaries in 2020. That’s to say nothing of the deals given to Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter, two players in decline.
The Cardinals have consistently had one of the top ten payrolls in the league. That doesn’t mean much, though, when you’re paying players not to play for your team. According to spotrac.com, the Cardinals are going from a Competitive Balance Tax Payroll of roughly $181,653,932 in 2020 down to $143,470,833 in 2021. That number drops even more significantly to $38,333,333 for 2022, not including arbitration salary increases and team options. In other words, financial relief is on the way.
This is where this stuff gets fun. The current Competitive Balance Tax Threshold salary is just north of $201,000,000. The Cardinals are never going to spend the max, nor should they. A mid-market team like St. Louis isn’t going to be able to outspend the big boys. That’s why they have to be creative to win. After 2021, however, there is a ton of financial wiggle room.
The good news is, 2022 gives the team a chance to hit the reset button on salary expenditures. People that I have talked to have told me that the team looks forward to added revenue streams on the horizon. They already have a $1 billion television deal and are now looking to add income from Ballpark Village, the lofts, and other developments around the ballpark. This type of income is essential for a mid-market team to compete financially, especially one that is so dependent on turnstile income. With that in place, they need to find the right players.
Develop the Young Core...Completely
The Cardinals already have some very exciting players at the major league level. Guys like Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, and Dylan Carlson are guys you can build around. The best may still be yet to come. Lefty starters Matthew Liberatore and Genesis Cabrera could both be anchors in the rotation. Young catcher Ivan Herrera has the hitting tools to be successful as well. Then there is the power-hitting third basemen, Nolan Gorman and Elehuris Montero. It will be interesting to see if they both stick at third or if one can play corner outfield.
The problem has never been finding the right talent. The Cardinals minor league system has been producing solid players that star in the minors. The problem has been their offensive struggles once they make it to St. Louis. There appears to be something missing in development that is keeping those players from excelling in the majors.
The front office tried to address this issue when they hired Jeff Albert to bring a new, analytics-based approach to hitting. That was a curious move in my eyes. Yes, the hitters struggled under former hitting coach John Mabry. However, the offense did very well in 2018 after Mark Budaska took over the rest of the year. The Cardinals went from 19th in the majors in OPS to 11th under Budaska’s tutelage. They need that kind of a hitting coach again.
The game has become nearly all about analytics. To a degree, that’s good, but Cardinals hitters have thrived under traditional hitting coaches like Budaska and even Mark McGwire before him. Mabry was more conventional, but he just wasn’t good at his job. They need to strike a balance. Budaska had the respect of the players because he helped develop them in the minors. Many players struggled to follow Jeff Albert’s more modern approach. The offense was getting better, and the front office screwed it up. More to the point, Mike Shildt screwed it up when he chose to fire Budaska instead of Albert when the two weren’t clicking.
If the Cardinals are going to be successful and win the World Series, then they have to get out of their own way. While analytics are great and have their place in the game, too many executives and coaches focus solely on analytics instead of developing the players in spite of what analytics say. Budaska got that. He helped each hitter find what wasn‘t working and fix it. In other words, he helped them beat the analytics and become better hitters. Sometimes it pays not to be the smartest guy in the room. Instincts and the eye test still work too.
Take Risks and Augment the Core
With an executive like Mozeliak at the helm, a strong core of young and cost-controlled players, and finally, the substantial financial breathing room on the horizon, the Cardinals should ultimately be in a position to make a big splash in the free-agent or trade market. There will be some big names in the free-agent class for the 2022 season. Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Starling Marte, and Max Scherzer, to name a few.
If that list doesn’t pique their interest, the Cardinals can always pivot to the trade market. That can prove costly in terms of prospects. One of the knocks on the front office has been unwilling to give up unknown value in prospects for a known quantity in a star player. That’s not precisely accurate. One needs only to point to the recent trades for Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt. However, they may need to take a more significant risk for a greater reward.
The Dodgers took a risk in trading for Mookie Betts. The Mets traded for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. The Nationals traded for Josh Bell. The Padres traded for Blake Snell, Victor Caratini and Yu Darvish. Sometimes you have to take those risks to win it all. The Cardinals will have positioned themselves to be more risky after the 2021 season if they do things right. A young core that can allow them to trade away some high-level prospects or the extra cash to sign a big free agent would enable them to solidify the roster for a World Series win.
The 2021 season might not be what we would all like it to be, but the future does look very bright. If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, then the Cardinals are already headed in this direction. It’s a path that should have them as solid contenders, not just for 2022 but for the next several years. The best part is, they won’t even have to tank to do it. Hang in there, Cardinal fans. The future isn’t so bleak after all.