The St. Louis Cardinals have had only one losing season this century, and they've missed the playoffs only five times in that span. They have reached four World Series in that time, winning two of them; one of those World Series championships came in a season where they won only 83 games, and the other happened in perhaps the most thrilling, unlikely fashion possible. The Cardinals are a postseason staple: The three players who have played in the most playoff games this century -- Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday -- all did so primarily as members of the Cardinals (and the fourth name on the list, Johnny Peralta, appeared in 13 games with the Cards in the postseason). Every October, you have to reckon with them one way or another.
As a Cardinals fan, let me tell you, this has been a delight to experience. The Cards are expected to make the playoffs -- which automatically makes you a title contender, as 2006 burned into our brains forever -- every season, and nearly every season, they've obliged. The Cardinals matter, and have mattered essentially every season for more than 20 years. (Even their longest stretch without postseason play, 1997-99, featured the Mark McGwire home run chase. The Cards consistently provide entertainment for the dollar.) During these two decades, though -- and maybe this is because I'm also a Knicks fan and an Illini fan, both of which constantly keep failure at the forefront of one's brain -- I've always tried to remind myself and other fans: "Appreciate this. This won't last forever. These are the good times." Because it can't last forever. To quote the Talmudic text that is Cocktail, "Everything ends badly. Otherwise it wouldn't end."
Those two decades of glory -- perhaps the greatest mostly uninterrupted stretch of success in the history of one of baseball's most storied franchises -- appears to be coming to an end. Thursday, the Cardinals lost their seventh game in a row, a 5-2 defeat to the Cincinnati Reds, dropping St. Louis six games under .500. All seven losses were on the road to division rivals, starting out with the Cubs, who began that series on a six-game losing streak. Since May 14, when they beat the Cubs to take two out of three in their series and grab a one-game lead in the NL Central, the Cards are 5-17. If St. Louis loses Friday night to Philadelphia, it will be seven games under .500 for the first time since Sept. 29, 2007. The Cardinals are only one game out of last place in the NL Central and 8 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card, as if there's any reason to even think about the standings when a team is playing like this.
The Cardinals have lost in particularly painful fashion recently. They led every game in the Cubs series but still dropped them all. They led in two of the first three games against the Reds -- the one they didn't was the Scooter Gennett game -- but, again, couldn't win. They've scored the fewest runs in baseball in the past three weeks. And here are the Cards' run differentials from innings 1-3 and from innings 4-end.
Innings 1-3: +42
Innings 4-end: -59
Until the last week, Cardinals fans' frustrations had been with the bullpen and the consistently boneheaded baserunning and defensive miscues that have plagued the team for the past two seasons. But now the bats have collapsed and the starting pitching -- which was the one advantage the Cardinals were supposed to have -- is fraying. The Cards didn't have a single quality start on the road trip, and Michael Wacha, in particular, is falling apart, having given up three-run leads in his past three starts. Adam Wainwright got hammered on Tuesday after he seemingly straightened himself out; Mike Leake is no longer superhuman; Carlos Martinez can be dominant, but has struggled with the One Big Inning. Meanwhile, Matt Carpenter is hitting .216; Yadier Molina has an OBP under .300; in a league where homers are flying all over the place, only three Cardinals have more than six. Last season, the Cards were second in the Majors in homers. This year, they are 27th.
Now, in baseball, when things start going bad like this, we immediately assign you a spot in the Cycle of Contention. You're either tearing it all down (Phillies, Reds, A's) or you're building up to win a title (Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, so on). You concentrate on organizational assets that are valuable to you in the long term and ship off everything else not nailed down for parts. This is what baseball teams do today to survive. The Cubs and Astros (and, soon, the Brewers) have shown that it works.
But the Cardinals may not have such options. General manager John Mozeliak has spoken of "perpetual contention," and considering the team's market and their reliance on attendance, that has been a job requirement. The Cards don't have the advantage that the Cubs (who could still sell out Wrigley with a last-place team) or the Astros (whose ownership was OK with essentially shutting the franchise down for a couple of years) did to restart and rebuilt. The Cardinals have never been sellers at the Trade Deadline. It's not in the franchise's DNA.
What would St. Louis sell anyway? The primary assets would seem to be in the bullpen, particularly Seung Hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal, who could be an Aroldis Chapman-esque difference maker if the Cardinals were to go that way. But otherwise, St. Louis doesn't have the type of top-shelf talent that fetches a huge prospect haul.
This has been the Cardinals' design since the days of Albert Pujols. You find affordable talent, and you hope that raises the floor to the point that you can compete without shelling out massive Bryce Harper-esque contracts. And that works when you have a Pujols. But St. Louis doesn't have an elite player to build around that allows it to be slightly above-average everywhere else and still be a great team. Mozeliak would be an excellent GM if he had Mike Trout: He could construct a fantastic complementary roster to a superstar. But without the superstar, suddenly, the Cards have a dilemma.
(I've gone this whole piece without mentioning the Cardinals manager, who I think is a major problem, even though his track record in the regular season has usually been good; I leave it to you whether to credit him for that or not. But I, and others, have written way too much about that already and besides, he just got a contract extension the day after the Cubs won the World Series, so it's a moot point. A frustrating one for me, but a moot point nonetheless.)
The team has gone through slumps before. In a division where no one has really distinguished itself so far, there's always the chance that St. Louis can get back on track and stay in the division race (4 1/2 games is hardly insurmountable). It's only June 9. The team begins a six-game homestand on Friday night against the aforementioned Phillies, which could be the boost the Cardinals need.
But as for what they can do as we enter Trade Deadline season, the Cardinals still seem stuck. They can't really rebuild and start over, for financial and roster reasons, and they don't have the assets to fetch the next generation of stars in a trade. This is the team that they are. Fans have been screaming for the Cardinals to do something, but the team may have no choice, really, but to do nothing. The best course of action, the only course of action, is to just hope that this roster fixes itself. It has done so in the past. Let's see if it can happen again.
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