MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Counting out Cardinals wouldn't be wise

Counting out Cardinals wouldn't be wise

OK, you are a Cardinals fan. As if it wasn't bad enough that the rival Cubs knocked off the Redbirds in the National League Division Series, but this offseason, the Cubs seem intent on draining what talent they can off the Cards' roster.

First was last week's signing of right-hander John Lackey, and then, on Friday, came word that Jason Heyward, only 26 but still a free agent, was leaving St. Louis after just one year to sign a free-agent deal with the Cubs, of all teams.

• Heyward to join Cubs

Want some advice?

Take a deep breath. Sit back and relax. It's only December. Championships aren't won in the offseason. Any San Diego Padres fan can attest to that.

Keep the faith. This isn't really anything new for the Cardinals.

Think back four offseasons ago. Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired, and former catcher Mike Matheny was hired to replace La Russa, even though he'd never managed or even coached a professional game in his career.

• Cardinals Hot Stove Tracker

Oh, yeah, that's the same season that the Cards began life without Albert Pujols, who was such a key factor in St. Louis' claiming a World Series championship in 2011, La Russa's final season, and then followed the free-agent trail to Anaheim to play for the Angels. The Redbirds also began life without former rotation ace Chris Carpenter, who opened the season on the disabled list and made three late-season cameo appearances.

You know what's happened in the four years sans La Russa, Pujols and Carpenter? The Cardinals are the only team in baseball to have advanced to the postseason in all four of those seasons.

They won the NL Central this past season, even though three big middle-of-the-lineup bats (Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Matt Adams) battled injuries, each had fewer than 280 plate appearances, and combined to hit only 10 home runs and drive in 59 runs. And rotation ace Adam Wainwright went on the disabled list after four April starts, and didn't return until the final week of the regular season, making three relief appearances, working an inning each time.

Get the picture? It might be a little blurry right now, but general manager John Mozeliak has time to fine-tune things. And based off how he's responded the past four years, he's earned the faith of the Cards' faithful.

With reports that the Cardinals were ready to pony up $200 million or so to lock up Heyward, it's safe to assume Mozeliak does have financial wiggle room. And truth be told, he might be able to accomplish more -- in the short term -- without Heyward than with him.

There is, after all, depth among free-agent outfielders, including Alex Gordon, who turns 32 in February and may be six years older than Heyward, but profiles as Heyward-and-then-some.

Even in a bona-fide pitcher's park in a season in which he was limited to 104 games because of a groin strain, Gordon hit 13 home runs -- matching the total of Heyward in his one season with the Cards. Gordon was the foundation of a Royals team that made its first postseason appearance in 29 years in 2014 and won its first World Series championship in 30 years in '15.

And there is an internal candidate in Stephen Piscotty, the 36th player selected in the 2012 Draft who made his big league debut on July 21 last season and wound up hitting .305 with seven home runs and 39 RBIs in slightly more than two months in the big leagues.

It's not out of the question that the Cardinals could afford an outfielder along the lines of Gordon and have enough money left in the budget to also bring in a starting pitcher to add depth to a rotation that could even have Wainwright back in 2016.

Zack Greinke and David Price might be off the market now, but there's still Yovani Gallardo, Ian Kennedy and Mike Leake, who could fit nicely in the back side of the rotation. And, yes, Mark Buehrle is supposedly going to retire, but the lure of pitching for a Cards team that was his childhood favorite might bring him back for one more season.

It's not a perfect situation. The Cardinals' preference was to re-sign Heyward, or they wouldn't have been talking in the $200 million universe. He, however, found a more interesting offer in Chicago.

Now the challenge is for the Cards to find a way to patch the hole and keep on winning.

They have done it the past four years. There's no reason to think they can't do it again.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.