Why does it seem like the Cardinals never sell off core players, never strip down the roster to rebuild?
Maybe because they don’t?
“We never have since I’ve been here,” said Cardinals team president John Mozeliak, who joined the team in the scouting department after the 1995 season.
Maybe because they can’t.
“Our fans don’t want to win,” Mozeliak said. “They demand to win.”
Whether fans in St. Louis actually demand more than fans in these parts, Cardinals management for decades has at least paid more than lip service to the so-called culture they claim — the kind of culture Cubs bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer vowed to create when they took over in Chicago 11 years ago.
You know, “foundation for sustained success,” continuity, “player development -machine” and all that stuff.
For all the promise and goodwill that seemed to be delivered with the Cubs’ core that won in 2016, the differences between the way the rival franchises operate — if not perform — haven’t looked this significant since long before Epstein and Hoyer arrived.
If anything, the difference was underscored when the last All-Star from the Cubs’ championship core, Willson Contreras, signed an $87.5 million deal to replace Yadier Molina, the championship-core All-Star for the Cardinals, who remained in the St. Louis lineup until last year’s retirement.
“I came here because I know the history of the team,” said Contreras, who has started three of the last four All-Star Games.
With Contreras’ departure, only Kyle Hendricks remains from the 2016 championship. And he might not be ready to pitch until May as he tries to come back from a shoulder injury in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
In fact, only four players who were on the roster all year for the Cubs’ last playoff appearance — the abbreviated 2020 season — are still around. And one of them, David Bote, was last seen getting optioned to the minors last summer.
The Cubs have more than $300 million worth of new faces they’ll send out to renew one of the oldest rivalries in the game this year. And while finally spending again on the product is certainly worthy of local applause, it’s also a reminder — if not an indictment — of the payroll purging the past few years that created such a dire talent deficit in the first place.
Meanwhile, reminders of the Cardinals’ history that Contreras talked about persist year after year around that place — whether it was arguably overpaying Molina long past his prime to provide leadership and cultural continuity during a career that included 13 playoff appearances and two rings, or the $17.5 million the Cards paid this winter for one more year of 41-year-old starter Adam Wainwright’s curveball and guile.
“I don’t have anything to compare it to because I’ve only been here, but I know we take it very seriously that what was passed down to us is going to be passed down to the next group,” said Wainwright, who didn’t want to specifically make any comparisons to the Cubs when asked.
“The winning traditions that we’ve had here, they’ve worked. Just plain and simple. Over the years, we’ve done things pretty much the same way since I got here, and it was done pretty much the same way before I got here, and hopefully when I leave it’ll be done pretty much the same way after I leave. That’s just about buy-in.”
Culture is one of the most overused, largely meaningless words in a sports lexicon full of such things.
The Cardinals like to think they’ve delivered on it almost continuously since the first of their National League-record 11 World -Series championships in 1926.
The Cubs like to talk about it and at least briefly believed they delivered on it during that 2015-17 run of NL Championship Series.
Whatever good “culture” means, continuity might be the more tangible quality that speaks to what Mozeliak, Wainwright and even Contreras are talking about.
“I always think about it as understanding our past, or having a great appreciation for our past, because the Cardinals have a rich history,” Mozeliak said. “So embrace that.
“You look at Adam Wainwright or Yadier Molina, they’ve [had impact] for 20 years in this organization, and they’re still good players. But then that’s why we go out and we trade for people like Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, so we have another generation of that coming.”
After missing the playoffs with second- and third-place finishes from 2016 through 2018, the Cardinals traded three young players to Arizona for Paul Goldschmidt, the All-Star first baseman, then overtook the Cubs and Brewers for the NL Central title in 2019.
A year later, they signed Goldschmidt to a five-year, $130 million extension, and a year after that sent another batch of young players to Colorado for Arenado, the top third baseman in the league over his career.
Goldschmidt and Arenado finished 1-3 in MVP voting in the NL last year.
The Cardinals haven’t missed the playoffs since the Goldschmidt trade and are strong favorites to win the division again in 2023.
“The fact is that’s kind of our model,” Mozeliak said. “None of this is possible if we don’t draft and develop well, though. -Because then we don’t have trade chips and we don’t have the players to augment what we have out here.”
That goes back to trading for Mark
McGwire in 1997, Jim Edmonds in 2000 and Matt Holliday in 2009. All stuck around on contract extensions after the trades.
“So the success of all of this is trying to keep a generation of players that our fans identify with, over and over and over,” Mozeliak said.
What are the Cubs missing? -Besides, of course, the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Yu Darvish — who have combined for three All-Star selections and five playoff appearances since the Cubs sent them packing during the roster purge after the 2020 division title.
Culture? Maybe. Continuity? Obviously.
“As far as winning goes, we’ve been taught well,” Wainwright said. “We had veterans that were speaking into our lives and schooling us left and right. And so when we became the veterans, we were trying to do the same thing to the younger guys: Lead by example and talk when you need to, and we have a bunch of guys that respond well to that.”
For Wainwright, that started as a rookie reliever for the 2006 championship team. But it seems like the Cardinals have been doing this generation-to-generation continuity thing since the Gashouse Gang in the 1930s.
Wainwright, Goldschmidt and Mozeliak, perhaps not surprisingly, all said that continuity has a direct correlation to winning.
Just having players in the clubhouse with deep-October experience obviously matters, as the Cubs know first-hand with the likes of Jon Lester, John Lackey and David Ross setting the tone for a young core during the historic championship run.
But specifically retaining core players who have done it in the same uniform as an organization integrates the next generation?
“There’s something to that,” said Wainwright, who paired with Molina to make more starts than any other battery in history.
Consider that the Cardinals have had one losing season since the 1990s.
Since that losing season in 2007, the bigger-revenue Cubs not only have almost as many losing seasons (seven) as winning seasons (eight), but they’ve actually tanked. Twice.
Cubs president Jed Hoyer, who ascended from general manager to replace Epstein after the 2020 season, has mused about the impressive continuity of the Cardinals’ success since he got to Chicago.
“I thought one of the best things we had in Boston was the Yankees. You knew that standard you had to reach to win and be good was really high,” said Hoyer, the former assistant general manager with the Red Sox under Epstein.
“I felt that way when we got here,” Hoyer said. “[The Cardinals] won the World Series in ’11, lost the World Series in ’13. As we were building, we knew that in order to be a really good team and win this division, to compete at the highest level, we weren’t going to back into the playoffs. We had to compete with that. I feel that way now.”
Maybe he’ll catch them again after ramping up again, maybe even this year.
But they look a lot further away from building that kind of team — certainly that sustainability model — than they did when he and Epstein started more than a decade ago.
The comparison didn’t look any better when Mozeliak landed Contreras with a five-year offer. Contreras called it an “honor” to follow Molina.
“It’s a big responsibility,” he said.
That’s the power of a history Contreras has revered from afar for years.
It’s a history powerful enough to guide a Cardinals management team every bit as modern and tech-savvy as the next to overlook an age-regression value model and consider a bigger picture for a key player.
“What I can say is that here in St. Louis, they have taken very good care of us, and we’ve tried to take very good care of them,” Wainwright said. “This is like home.”