So… Is that it?
From a team that underachieved to the tune of a third-place finish in the NL Central last season, fans wanted to see improvements to the roster that could justify hope in a better result the next time around. With March around the corner and the team seemingly content with where it stands, it’s fair to ask if that’s what they saw.
The Cardinals’ strategy for improving the offense has long been evident—get a big bat. In Marcell Ozuna, they believe they have accomplished that goal. Whether the former Marlins slugger pans out in St. Louis, the team's belief that he's the guy to boost the offense is reasonable, backed up by the monster season he compiled last year.
The pitching is a different story.
Though the team has been busy in reshaping its pitching staff this winter, it’s questionable whether it's done so for the better.
St. Louis started off in early December signing Miles Mikolas out of Japan on an affordable contract, essentially replacing Lance Lynn in the rotation. The Cardinals then nabbed Luke Gregerson for another reasonable price, with hopes he remasters his slider and again rises to the occasion as a late-inning reliever after a poor 2017. They acquired Dominic Leone for Randal Grichuk, a superfluous piece in the St. Louis outfield, to add another name to the high leverage mix. The Bud Norris signing was pretty bland, but like the others, his cost wasn’t outrageous for someone the team believes can replicate his early-2017 success. And most recently, the Cards took a flier on old friend Jason Motte on a minor league deal—what’s not to love about the return of the beard on a riskless contract?
Individually, there are arguments to be made for each of these moves. As a whole, it’s curious the Cardinals didn’t find it necessary to headline this group of ‘maybes’ with a more proven commodity.
Previous headlines proclaimed the Cardinals’ desire to acquire a proven closer, and no matter how many times you tout Bud Norris’ 19 saves last season, he doesn’t count—especially as the team considers him a starter for the time being. So the Cardinals haven’t established the go-to guy in the ninth. Even with that as their stated preference, this quote from GM Mike Girsch in a November story by Jen Langosch turned out to almost perfectly foreshadow the team’s bullpen additions.
"Some of them might not be glamorous," Girsch said of potential moves. "Our goal is to add depth to our bullpen every way we possibly can. Some of them might not be relievers people even notice when we sign them, but hopefully we're adding depth. You can have impact signings that end up being impact signings that aren't perceived as such."
In that context, it’s hard to be too surprised by the Cardinals approach to the winter. But that doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with it. For one, Girsch’s contention that “some of them might not be glamorous” sugarcoated the eventual reality: none of their pitching acquisitions were glamorous. If any of them turn out to be this year’s Brandon Morrow, that’s great. But how good must their evaluations of these players be to have such willingness to enter the season without a proven one in the bunch?
An increasingly common perception of the Cardinals front office is that it would rather look genius for pulling a diamond out of the rough than finding success through a more predictable move, by filling an opening in a more conventional way. Though finding value where others don’t see it is an effective way to gain an edge, it becomes difficult for fans to continue trusting the team’s approach when it hasn’t translated to a playoff berth the last two years.
Take the Cubs and their winter for comparison. It should be noted Chicago also spent resources on a reclamation project. As one of their earliest moves of the winter, they signed Tyler Chatwood, whose 15 losses were most in the National League last season. But the Cubs didn't put all their eggs in the bargain bin basket. Recognizing uncertainty in their starting rotation, the Cubs went out and solidified the group with Yu Darvish.
So they dabbled in the unorthodox with Chatwood, but they also diversified. Their evaluations certainly give them reason to believe Chatwood will be worth their commitment to him, just as the Cardinals feel Mikolas will be a value for their club. It's efficient, and sure, fun, to identify value plays.
But value doesn’t always have to be stealthy. Yu Darvish has a track record of success; he makes the Cubs better. That's valuable. The Cardinals don't want to pay for past results, but future ones, which is a sensible stance. Yet, not every signing must resemble coal being pressed into diamonds. That's a risky strategy with so much on the line, with the Cubs further asserting their position as kings of the division over which the Cardinals once reigned.
Call the Cardinals’ offseason shrewd or discerning, and it’d be hard to disagree—especially if some of these pitchers turn out to be impact moves, as Girsch outlined. But shrewd and discerning won't evoke confidence from a fan base whose team has spent the past two postseasons as spectators. Even after two straight division titles, Chicago showed urgency to win in signing Darvish.
The urgency in how the Cardinals constructed their pitching staff this offseason? It wasn't just hard to find: it simply wasn’t there.