ST. LOUIS -- Those who would present World Series trophies in January have already made their pronouncements. The Chicago Cubs, who injected Jason Heyward and John Lackey into an exciting young core that won 97 games, are the winter champs of the region.
Meanwhile, St. Louis Cardinals fans, who lost Heyward and Lackey to their rivals and saw their team miss on its top free-agent target, David Price, have been left behind, and not only by their football team.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, though, has seen these kinds of threats in the middle of the country before, from Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the last half-dozen years. Thanks to a patient ownership group and a loyal, captive fan base, Mozeliak has generally stuck to a disciplined approach rather than react to what division rivals stir up.
Over the past few months, though, even the famously trusting Cardinal fan base has gotten a little uncomfortable watching the Cubs gobble up some of their talent.
Mozeliak would like to point out that the Cubs did finish three games back in the regular season. He didn’t mention it, but it’s also probably worth pointing out that St. Louis has won 11 actual World Series titles since the Cubs’ last.
“We’ve had a successful run, too,” Mozeliak said.
Once Price, the only pitcher Mozeliak’s group had identified as “special” enough to line up a nine-figure offer for, signed with the Boston Red Sox, the Cardinals went back to their proven formula, relying on their farm system and making strategic strikes on the hot-stove circuit. They added Jedd Gyorko to the infield mix, banking that a reprieve from cavernous Petco Park will spark his bat, and added reliable innings eater Mike Leake on a five-year, $80 million deal to lengthen their rotation.
The Cubs, with a celebrity manager, exciting young players and the new additions, got most of the attention this winter. The Cardinals are hoping their day comes in October or November.
“Pittsburgh’s been one of the strongest teams in baseball the last three or four years, yet everyone talks about Chicago,” Mozeliak said. “I think that’s because they went from finishing last to winning 97 games and I get it, but my point is we’ve never had four teams just lie down in our division, it’s always been competitive. It’s just the power source has changed to Chicago. It’s out of Milwaukee and Cincinnati. I still think Pittsburgh’s not going to go away and I’m hopeful St. Louis doesn’t.”
The Cardinals’ flameout against Chicago in the playoffs only obscured a remarkable run that came despite as many punishing injuries as any team in baseball withstood. Now, the Cardinals are hopeful that rejuvenated health from the likes of Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Randal Grichuk and Brandon Moss could be the boost they need heading into 2016.
Carlos Martinez, who made his first All-Star team but missed the end of the season with a strained right shoulder, is in the early stages of his throwing program and expected to have a normal spring training. Molina will miss most of spring training after having a second round of surgery on his left thumb, but the Cardinals hope he’ll be ready some time in April.
The reasons to worry about the lineup haven’t gone away, but you can see signs of optimism if you look closely. The Cardinals were 11th in the league in home runs and ninth in slugging, but they think having Grichuk, Adams and Holliday healthy -- perhaps a big if -- could fix that. They view Grichuk as a toolsy player with 30-home run potential. He’s an above-average center fielder who could help mitigate the loss of Heyward’s excellent glove in right.
They’re hopeful that an uptick in Matt Carpenter's power wasn’t a fluke, but a reflection of the kind of hitter he’s becoming. Gyorko gives them balance considering Kolten Wong's OPS was more than 200 points lower against lefties than righties.
“I certainly understand the critics who are concerned about our offense, but I don’t think they’re giving us credit for the potential bounce you may see,” Mozeliak said. “Now, if that bounce doesn’t happen, then they’re right, we’re going to be short, it’s going to be tough scoring runs, but I have a lot of confidence in our club.”
The winter for Mozeliak has largely been about having the confidence to stay quiet no matter how much noise is coming from up north.