The series between the Cardinals and Cubs starting Monday night at Busch Stadium will qualify as meaningful September baseball, but probably not quite in the way John Mozeliak intended when the 2017 season began.
There can exist no better reminder of that fact than the probable scene set to play out on the field at Busch following one of the rivalry games this week. Unless the Cardinals find a way to sweep the Cubs out of downtown St. Louis across four games, Cardinal Nation will be rendered the begrudging audience of a Cubs champagne bath.
As the Baby Bears have seen their magic number reduced to two after their weekend triumph over the second-place Brewers, it would require some remarkable circumstances for the Cardinals to stave off the celebration for the North Siders. Though renewed expectations were bestowed upon the Cardinals in the wake of their disappointing 2016 campaign, the proceedings this week should solidify that the money spent on Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil was not sufficient in returning the Cardinals to the status of division champion.
Barring a minor miracle, the Cardinals won’t be a wild card team, either.
Regardless of the way the next week goes—even should the Cardinals mount a charge to sneak into the postseason—there is nothing that can take place during those seven games that should spur the decisions makers within the franchise to stray from the obvious conclusion regarding this team: it wasn’t good enough.
Blame the construction of the roster. Blame injuries or a portion of the healthy players under-performing. Blame the manager or his coaches. Everyone has their favorite explanation for why the Cardinals remain outclassed by the Cubs, and the actual explanation is probably a combination of all of them.
But it’s not as though every element of this roster has been a failure. The Cardinals have reaped the benefits of Tommy Pham, Paul DeJong and Luke Weaver bursting onto the scene this summer. They’ve seen a power surge from Dexter Fowler and Yadier Molina. The bullpen looks vastly different from how it looked in April, and the likes of John Brebbia and Tyler Lyons have provided far more stability than anyone could’ve anticipated. There’s been plenty of good among the bad.
All these things considered, the Cardinals are still going to fall short of their goals. And more than likely, they’re going to be forced to watch the hard evidence of those shortcomings unfold before their eyes this week in their own ballpark.
The length of the reign is yet to be determined, but there’s no way around it at this point: the NL Central now belongs to the Cubs. The question that frames what should be the most fascinating Cardinals offseason since the winter that saw Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols depart following the 2011 World Series: what are they going to do about it?
The rest of the season has to play out before the team can publicly shift focus toward the challenge that awaits it this winter. Behind the scenes, however, these conversations are sure to be taking place. While some attractive options exist on the free agent market this offseason, the upcoming class pales in comparison to what the post-2018 group—featuring Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and others—might offer.
The need is now for the Cardinals; they can't afford to attempt a minor makeover this winter in anticipation for a more inviting free agent class the next time around. Mozeliak and Mike Girsch will have to be shrewd with their finances, prospects and current major league assets to effectively restructure the roster for success going forward.
If they don’t, it could reinforce the dawning of a new era in the NL Central, where the once-lovable losers rule the roost.