St. Louis still a force despite missing on free-agent targets
By Mike Bauman
OK, the St. Louis Cardinals were losers in the bidding for two major free agents. But "losers" is merely a technical term.
If recent baseball history has taught us anything, it is that the Cardinals are winners. And after the free-agent frenzy has worn off, a good, long look at St. Louis' roster indicates that the Cards will not be going away quietly. In fact, they will not be going away at all.
They will move on without David Price, the leading starting pitcher on the market. And closer to home, they will also move on without one of their own in 2015, the leading outfield free agent, Jason Heyward.
Price went to the Red Sox. But Heyward went to the Cubs, which turned what might have been considered a lateral move into a defection.
Plus, once Heyward reached Chicago, he opined that the Cubs had the brighter long-term future, since they were built around young players, whereas some of the Cardinals' mainstays -- specifically Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday -- were much closer to the end of their careers.
First of all, all three of those gentlemen are still drawing breath as professional baseball players and will be until they decide otherwise. Secondly, over the past, oh, 70 years, any reasonable comparison between the Cardinals and the Cubs would have placed the Chicagoans in a truly distant second place. If the Cubs have now grabbed a perceived edge in the universe of what will be, this would truly be the exception, not the rule.
Now, you look at the Cards' likely 2016 outfield in the absence of Heywood. There is Holliday and two remarkable young talents, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. Tommy Pham would provide quality depth.
Grichuk has dynamic ability. He was becoming Mr. Exit Velocity last season. Piscotty is one of those Cardinals products who shows up in the Major Leagues and performs with the kind of poise and polish that makes it appear as as though he has been in the big leagues for a decade.
What about the Cards' rotation without Price? There is Wainwright, a proven talent and a genuine leader, returning from an Achilles' injury; two major young talents in Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, and a left-hander of proven ability in Jaime Garcia, who needs to remain healthy.
Still, with the loss of Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery, you could see the Cardinals going outside the organization for an established starter. There are still viable options on the market in that category and the Cards clearly have the resources to make a move in that direction.
But this is a team that has won three straight titles in the National League Central, the division that contained baseball's three best records in 2015. This is a team that, after the death of its leading prospect in an auto accident, after a series of injuries to key performers in the rotation, in the bullpen, in the everyday lineup, still managed a 100-victory season, the best record in the Majors.
This all happened because the Redbirds have built a winner on the basis of superb organizational depth, the kind of depth that creates self-sustaining success. In fact, had St. Louis landed Price or Heyward at record-breaking cost, that would have been entirely out of character for its organization.
The Cardinals have made incremental improvements since the season ended. Jedd Gyorko gives them much improved offense as an infielder off the bench. Brayan Pena is an offensive upgrade as a backup catcher. The Cards still have to hope that Molina's second surgery on his injured left thumb works, and that he will, in fact, be ready to start the 2016 season.
So the Cardinals didn't land the most expensive, most sought-after free agents? They have a built-in fallback position -- their original way of doing business. As Cards general manager Jon Mozeliak said, responding to the setbacks in the free-agent market:
"How you adjust and how you handle that is something [where] you have to go back to your principles and what you stand for and what this organization has always been about. For us, our success has really come from our pipeline, and I think we're really going to lean on that.
"I would like to believe -- and maybe this is just me being an eternal optimist -- but we do have talent coming. We do have some young players that we want to build around. Hopefully in the end, this organization can stand up to that. Time will tell. We're not going away."
Yes, the competition from Chicago has picked up its game. But no, the St. Louis Cardinals are most assuredly not going away.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.