Commentary

Cards weren't ready to raise white flag

GM John Mozeliak struck a resigned tone in August, but his players never gave up

Updated: October 18, 2011, 8:24 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- He was the man who signed Lance Berkman, the man who traded his starting center fielder (and more) for three pitchers who hadn't previously been confused for Mariano Rivera or Felix Hernandez, the man who scooped Rafael Furcal and Arthur Rhodes off the clearance heap.

So as the St. Louis Cardinals prepare to embark on their great World Series adventure, you'd like to think that their general manager, John Mozeliak, saw all this coming. Always. From day one.

But if you attended the annual baseball dinner sponsored by the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear back on Aug. 24, you know better.

You know the general manager stepped to the podium that night to assess the state of his favorite baseball team. And he sure didn't predict THIS.

Just that afternoon, his team had lost its third straight game -- at home -- to the Dodgers, the last two by a combined score of 22-6. So as Mozeliak and manager Tony La Russa traipsed toward their speaking gig, "We were about as down as you can be," the GM said.

And why wouldn't they be? They'd lost 10 of their past 15 games. They hadn't won two games in a row in nearly two weeks. They were eight games under .500 since the first week of June. And they'd plummeted to 10½ games behind in the wild-card race. The World Series Express they weren't -- not back then.

"So I get up and speak," Mozeliak reminisced this week. "And it was sort of like a conciliatory speech about, you know, 'Sorry, guys, about the season.'"

He stared into the eyes of the 200 businessmen in his audience. He was "trying to have that hint of optimism," he said. But that hint of optimism was hard to muster.

So what came out of his mouth instead, he remembered, was this: "A lot of things that we tried to plan for didn't go right."

[+] EnlargeJohn Mozeliak
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonOnce August ended, things began looking up for Tony La Russa and John Mozeliak.

That was 54 days ago, friends. Has anything gone wrong for the 2011 Cardinals since?

They're 30-13 since that day. They made that 10½-game lead vanish. They sent the Braves home and the Phillies home and the Brewers home. And it's felt as if every piece the GM assembled -- from as far back as last December to as recently as mid-August -- has locked right into place, exactly the way he planned it.

It's been a beautiful thing to behold -- even if he saw pretty much none of it in his handy dandy crystal ball.

But after Mozeliak returned to his seat at the dinner that night, an amazing thing happened. La Russa got up to speak and promised, "We won't quit." Infielder Nick Punto rose and talked about the character of the men on this team.

And, finally, pitcher Adam Wainwright -- the man whose spring training elbow blowout had seemed to doom this season before it ever began -- headed for the mic …

And turned into Knute Rockne.

Wainwright laid out a vision for the miracle comeback that, it turned out, lurked just over the horizon, starting with the Cardinals' series in Milwaukee the next week.

"I said, 'If we sweep Milwaukee and then they come into our home [the following week] and we beat them three more times there, all of a sudden we've gained six games in the standings,'" Wainwright remembered Sunday, on the miraculous night his team was pronounced National League champion. "And I said, 'If we do that, then we just have to make up a couple more games on them down the stretch.'"

OK, so we know now that isn't quite how this comeback went. The Brewers never did come back to the pack. But the Braves did. So whatever. Details, schmetails. What Mozeliak recalls about that night is the emotion in Wainwright's voice when he told the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear, "We're still in this thing."

What Wainwright recalls about Mozeliak's speech, on the other hand, was the professional way the GM felt he had to let these folks know "it might not be our year." But all the while, Wainwright is convinced, nobody -- not even his general manager -- ever really "lost hope," no matter what the Cauliflower crowd might have heard.

"Mo has to say those things in front of a crowd," Wainwright said. "But when he gets us in a room, he's going to tell us, 'Hey, we've still got a chance.'"

And the fact is, as the general manager assembled this team, as far back as last winter, he thought this team had a spectacular chance in a winnable division.

The first big move, in the first week of December, was one of the great gambles made by any team last offseason. Convinced there weren't any significant, affordable pitching upgrades out there on the free-agent market, the Cardinals decided to build around offense. So $8 million later, they'd lured Berkman to St. Louis, a club he admits he once viewed as the "Darth Vader" of the NL Central.

Based on what they were hearing about Berkman's offseason conditioning regimen, the Cardinals were "bullish that he was going to be able to have a bounce-back year," Mozeliak said. But they didn't know he'd have THIS kind of year, a 31-homer, .959 OPS, comeback-player-of-the-year kind of year.

"Part of the rationale," Mozeliak said, "was the type of person he was." The Cardinals decided last winter to make a conscious effort to change the mix in their clubhouse. And Berkman has been exactly what they were hoping for -- a relentlessly upbeat presence whose glass has always been more than half full.

Punto and Ryan Theriot also were brought in last winter for those same reasons, to add as much in grit, intangibles and professionalism as in actual playing skills.

But that offseason formula also was based on an assumption that the rotation would be a strength -- because it still would be anchored by Chris Carpenter and Wainwright, two men who have always been Cy Young Awards waiting to happen. Then, when Wainwright went down just days into spring training, everything changed.

Amazingly, this group kept the faith, after allowing itself what Mozeliak described as a "24-hour pity party." But in reality, said Punto, it took this team a while to get over the "devastation" of losing one of the best pitchers in baseball.

For all the hopeful talk, Wainwright's injury had a ripple effect that reverberated around this team for months. For one thing, it meant taking Kyle McClellan out of the bullpen, moving him into the rotation, finding a replacement for him in the bullpen, then conceding in midseason that starting McClellan wasn't going to be the answer.

So in July, the Cardinals' powers-that-be huddled to plot their trading-deadline strategy -- and made a stunning decision:

[+] EnlargeCardinals
Jeff Curry/Getty ImagesCardinals in the World Series? This was unimaginable only a few weeks ago.

They began shopping their talented but troubled 24-year-old center fielder, Colby Rasmus, for pitching -- and as much of it as they could reel in.

As they assessed their team, as realistically as possible, they came to a potentially painful conclusion: Their window to win might be right now. And given what they knew at the time, they probably were right.

Albert Pujols wasn't signed beyond this year. At the time, Carpenter wasn't signed beyond this year. Neither was Berkman. In the next couple of months, both Carpenter and Berkman would sign extensions. But they didn't know that then.

"So we just had so many questions about what 2012 would look like," Mozeliak said, "we felt like now was the time to go for it."

They talked to the Rays about James Shields and Wade Davis. They talked to the Padres about Heath Bell and Mike Adams. And they talked with the White Sox about Edwin Jackson. But they couldn't find just the right deal -- a trade that upgraded both their rotation and bullpen -- until the Blue Jays entered the picture.

Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos had relievers to deal and major interest in Rasmus -- plus the motivation to keep him from going to Tampa Bay. So Anthopoulos helped stitch together companion trades that, in the end, airlifted Jackson, Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski into St. Louis.

The good news was, the Cardinals came away with three pitchers who upgraded them immediately. The bad news was, two of them -- Jackson and Dotel -- were rentals headed for free agency, and this team had just given up its one-time center fielder of the future to get them.

So as perfect as those fits might have looked this October, just think how we'd be reviewing that trade if this team hadn't made the playoffs.

But the GM who made that deal refuses to think that way -- because it just isn't healthy to play those what-if games.

"The buyer's remorse thing is behind me," Mozeliak said. "I felt like it was aggressive, to try to do it. I know it wasn't the most popular move. And I'm sure, if we don't qualify for the postseason or we're not playing here in mid-October, then yeah, you're open to criticism. But I also know, if we don't take risks, we're probably not here, anyway."

Mozeliak wasn't done, either. He took Furcal off the Dodgers' hands for a low-level prospect. He signed Rhodes in August after the Rangers released him. Then he sat back to behold his new roster -- and watched his team go into a massive tailspin.

It wasn't a real uplifting time. So four weeks to the day after the Jackson/Dotel/Rzepczynski deal, the GM headed off to address the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear -- and all but conceded.

Now here he is, not even eight weeks later, setting his World Series roster.

It's all you need to know about how fine the line is, in the GM business, between looking like a genius and looking like a knucklehead. More importantly, it's all you need to know about just how unlikely the back-from-the-crypt World Series journey of the 2011 Cardinals has been.

If the man who put this team together didn't see this coming, how the heck could anyone else?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com