After my St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS last season, the worst part about it was not the loss itself. The worst part about it, as I wrote at the time, was that the Cubs were so obviously the better team. "The Cubs beat the Cardinals, fair and square, because they're a superior baseball team constructed in a more intelligent, comprehensive manner," I wrote, still a little shell-shocked from all the Cubs' towering homers. I wondered what the Cards' counterstrike to the looming tower that was the Cubs would be. I wondered how they would fight back.
Turns out, the obviously superior team took the best position player and the best pitcher from the inferior team it just walloped for the whole world to see … and it put those guys on its team.
First it was John Lackey, who notched the only Cardinals victory that NLDS, signing an under-market-value deal with the Cubs. But the real dagger came Friday, when Jason Heyward -- a player the Cardinals just traded for last offseason and prioritized signing above all others -- reportedly took less money to sign with the Cubs. That's right: Heyward supposedly had better offers on the table from both the Nationals and the Cardinals, but he agreed to sign with Chicago.
Cubs are believed to have gotten heyward for less than $200M. Apparently taking less to be at addison and clark. @GDubCub 1st- Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) December 11, 2015
Think about that for a moment. The whole premise of the Cardinals trading for Heyward with one year left on his contract was that they could pull that St. Louis veteran voodoo that they do, the way they did with Matt Holliday and Mark McGwire. But even allotting for that, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made what early reports indicated was the highest dollar offer for Heyward -- a player who appeared to love his time in St. Louis -- just to make sure he got his guy. St. Louis did all that, and not only did it still lose Heyward to their division rival, it lost him for less money. Because Heyward thought it would be his best chance at a ring.
In retrospect, this turn of events should have been obvious.
Cubs are close enough to World Series contention now that it seems crazy that any free agent they pursue seriously would pick anywhere else- Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) December 11, 2015
Winning the World Series with the Cubs is just about the coolest thing you could do in a team sport right now. Why wouldn't Heyward want to be a part of that? And this isn't just a team that could do it, it's one that, with Heyward, has to be considered the overwhelming favorite to do so. Look at this team right now:
Theo Epstein. pic.twitter.com/c28C6JIehG- Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) December 11, 2015
Only two of the men in that lineup are older than 26, by the way.
Chicago is also apparently in on trade talks with Carlos Carrasco, because when you're trying to win a World Series, and you have a ton of young talent already, why not go all the way? Why think the Cubs are done now? Whether you think Heyward is overpaid or not, whether you think his WAR value is overstated (and if it's not, remember, he's one of the 10 best players in baseball), he's a massive upgrade at the Cubs' only real weak position. It is a dominant move. It is checkmate. The Cubs have officially reached the If They Don't Win A World Series In The Next Five Years, Something Horrible Has Happened point of their existence. Considering they haven't even been to the World Series in 70 years … well, Theo Epstein may already have his Hall of Fame bust ready, and he's still a month younger than Ichiro.
Meanwhile: The Cardinals. This team came into this offseason crowing about how much money it had to spend -- "flexing some payroll muscle," St. Louis Post-Dispatch Derrick Goold called it -- but for what appears to be the third time, it has come in second place on a free agent. (The Cardinals' offers for both David Price and Jeff Samardzija were also reportedly the second-best, behind the Red Sox and Giants, respectively.) This money is now apparently still in the Cards' pocket. Ken Rosenthal had reported just two weeks ago that St. Louis was theoretically "in a flexible enough position to add a pitcher such as Price and a hitter such as free-agent right fielder Jason Heyward or first baseman Chris Davis."
Well, the Cardinals didn't end up with either. Davis is still on the market, and the Cards could go after him, considering how much money is apparently burning a hole in their pocket, or they could potentially trade for Carlos Gonzalez. Or they could just not spend it all: This St. Louis fan confesses to have grown a bit tired of hearing about how the Cards -- who just signed a television deal that could eventually bring in as much as $55 million in extra revenue a year -- claim they're about to spend money, only to not do so.
The Cardinals aren't doomed. They still have a solid lineup, a solid rotation and a solid bullpen, and you'd have to think they'll add somebody. But for years, some fans have claimed, wrongly, that Cardinals-Cubs isn't a real rivalry because the Cards have always been so much better than the Cubs. This, not coincidentally, is the same thing Yankees fans used to say about the Red Sox, before Epstein took over there as well. Now, some have said, in the wake of the Cubs' signing of Heyward, that this ratchets up the rivalry.
But if anything, I believe it dampens it. Even before Friday, the Cubs were a better team than the Cardinals in just about every way. Now that the Cubs took the Cardinals' best player, the gap between these teams have widened. If anyone needs to prove this is a rivalry, it's the fading Cardinals. Because here is what has happened in the last two months:
• The Cubs have bashed the Cardinals out of the playoffs.
• They have taken the Cardinals' best postseason pitcher.
• They have taken the Cardinals' best position player.
• Those two players -- both of whom the Cardinals wanted back -- took below-market deals so that they could play for the Cubs.
That doesn't look like a rivalry to me. That looks like an uprising. That looks like the unleashing of furious vengeance and righteous anger.
That looks the end of one era, and the beginning of something new entirely. The Cubs have completely owned the Cardinals. They're about to do so to the rest of baseball. The world has you know it -- as this Cards fan has always understood it -- has changed, forever. The Cubs, they are the captain now.