Youth has been served at Busch Stadium in recent years. Players like Colby Rasmus, Jaime Garcia and Kyle McClellan have provided the club rock-steady performance at rock-bottom pricing (sounds a bit like a late-night used-car ad, doesn't it?) and offered vindication to the club's direction in farm-system development. Sure, on-field management has been a bit slow to come around at times, with feuds and sniping and sneak attacks through the media coming more often than one would like to see from an ostensibly professional organization, but what transition is ever without its bumps?
You might think, given how successful the club has been in developing in-house youngsters to fill out the roster, that the trend would continue unabated as the club prepares to move into the last season of what is commonly known as the P.D.E. (Pujols Dominance Era). After all, the main reason the Cardinals overhauled their player-development system in the middle of the past decade was to deal with the economic realities of living life as a Dogtown team with Frontenac tastes. (Like the local spin on the metaphor? That's the kind of quality you pay for with RFT, baby.) So you would think that, faced with life after Albert or life with Albert being paid the annual GDP of most Third World nations, that the Cards would push even harder for young (read: cheap) players to fill out the roster.
You might think that, but you would be wrong.
For better or for worse, when the story of the 2011 Cardinals is written, it will be the story of the old men brought in for one last stumbling, shambling, hip-replacement, limping run at a title. The future is uncertain, so the Cards have decided to live in the past.Baseball by Dickens
Imagine waking up one morning and heading to the kitchen for some breakfast and the morning paper. First off, the fact you're going for the morning paper rather than pulling up said morning paper's poorly designed and money-losing website should tell you something is a bit off. But never mind all that for now. So anyway, you pick up the morning paper, turn to the sports section and see the Cardinals have acquired Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman and Miguel Batista in preparation for the upcoming baseball season.
Now imagine your reaction to this news. In all likelihood, you would immediately jump up from the table, run to the window, throw it open and shout out to a passing newsie, "You there! Boy! What year is it?"
To which he would reply, "Year, sir? Why, it's 2011, sir!" All in a ridiculous Cockney accent, of course, which is a little weird, since you live on Loughborough, which isn't even in the Cockney section of St. Louis.
Upon hearing this, you slump back into your kitchen, clutching at your nightshirt, trying to make sense of what you've just heard. Conflicting emotions arise. Relief first, because if the passing newsie's information is correct, it means you haven't somehow fallen into a time warp and been mysteriously transported back to 2004 just when you finally got your Facebook page the way you wanted it, with that photo of you where you kind of look like Justin Bieber front and center. But then confusion follows relief, because if you haven't been magically spirited away to 2004, then signing Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman and Miguel Batista makes way less sense than it did a moment ago. Then annoyance, because someone apparently broke in during the night and replaced your iPad with a newspaper. Oh, and you really need to go give that kid some money to buy a goose. Newsie work isn't all that profitable anymore, you know.
So why would the Cardinals' front office go to such lengths to assemble an all-2000s team when it is no longer the 2000s? Because the times, they are a-changin', and they may not be a-changin' for the better in Cardinaltown. The 2011 season represents the end of an era one way or another, and the plans made were deliberately of the short-term variety. When you think that sound you hear might be Nero tuning up his fiddle, you tend to quit worrying about your 401(k) and focus on more immediate concerns.The End of Several Eras?
We all know Albert Pujols will be a free agent after the season. It's kind of been sort of a big story. Kind of. But Chris Carpenter could be departing as well. He has an option for the 2012 season, but there's a big price tag on that option season, Carp hasn't exactly been an iron man during his career, and he's entering his late thirties. That may not be a gamble the Cards want to take.
Adam Wainwright, owing to his elbow deciding it'd had enough, will likely not be under contract beyond 2011. Wainwright has a pair of option years for 2012 and 2013 that would have vested, but only if he didn't end the 2011 season on the disabled list. Barring a miraculous visit from the ulnar collateral ligament fairy, it looks like Adam will, in fact, be on the shelf when 2011 comes to a close. The Cardinals could still assume those options, but there's no guarantee they will. If Wainwright is to be a Redbird beyond 2011, it will probably require new contract negotiations.
Ryan Franklin, closer ordinaire, is in his late thirties and likely nearing retirement. While Franklin certainly isn't vital to the team the way Carpenter or Wainwright have been, he has offered stability at the back of a bullpen that saw much confusion as Jason Isringhausen came to the end of his own road.
So that's the offensive cornerstone, the co-aces of the starting staff and the closer, all questionable as to their future in St. Louis beyond 2011. You can't assume any or all of them absolutely won't be back, of course, but you also can't assume any of them absolutely will. Against that backdrop, is it any wonder John Mozeliak and his posse went searching for one-year bandages? That's not even taking into consideration the fact that the manager and the pitching coach — hell, all members of the coaching staff, really — are essentially on a year-to-year basis. Tony La Russa's current contract has a mutual option for 2012, but "mutual option" is really just contractspeak for "just in case we all still want to keep the current situation intact but don't feel like negotiating again." No binding power whatsoever.
To be fair, the Jim Edmonds signing was as much about a possible victory lap as it was hoping for old-man magic. Edmonds was looking to hold on for one more season, maybe reach a milestone number or two, and there was no better scenario for that than doing it while wearing the Birds on the Bat, the uniform that saw his glory days. Sadly, Jimmy Baseball just didn't have another lap in him and retired shortly after being signed. At least he went out a Cardinal.
The other acquisitions, though, were all about limiting the time the team was committed to the players in question. Lance Berkman is looking to recapture the magic in his bat for maybe one last bite of the free-agent apple before he rides off into the sunset. Miguel Batista, published author, former closer for the Toronto Blue Jays and former starter for damned near everyone, has reached the age where he's most suitable for swingman-slash-injury-insurance duty or a sitcom with Scott Bakula. He has seen and done it all before on the baseball field, and you could do a whole lot worse as a single-season bulwark against disaster.A House Divided — Or Maybe Just Confused
On the other hand, bringing in Nick Punto, the 33-year-old utility specialist, makes much less sense. Punto ostensibly represents a commitment to defense as a winning trait, but if that's the philosophy, then why was Brendan Ryan traded? Ryan Theriot, the man expected to take Ryan's place at shortstop, is a middling fielder, a far cry from Brendan's artistry. Berkman was not a good defensive outfielder when he last played there regularly, and that was six seasons ago. Skip Schumaker continues to be a liability at second base, yet any suggestion of moving him is met with a stony glare or outright disdain from the manager.
It's this Janus impression from on-field management that has so confounded many observers in recent years. Dave Duncan, the team's long-time pitching coach, puts his emphasis on ground-ball outs, but the team thinks nothing of downgrading the infield defense. Brendan Ryan is shipped out to improve the team, then Nick Punto — who offers essentially the same skill set, only older — is brought in to improve the team. The organization is focused on developing talent from within, going so far as to spend heavily on high-risk, high-reward players in recent drafts, but when push comes to shove the manager always falls back on grit and veteran-ness as the ultimate desirable qualities, and the team's possible last shot at a title for a while occasions the signing of players who have probably started receiving junk mail from the AARP.
Maybe there's still a disconnect in the organization. Or maybe it's all just the signs of a franchise trying to decide how to deal with a potentially historic string of defections. After all, if you take the core out of the team, it's kind of tough to see how it's going to hold together.A Retro-Rock Revival, or the Broken-Down Blues?
This, then, is the portrait we have of the 2011 Cardinals. Lance Berkman is expected to play right field and rake in the middle of the order, but within the first week of trying to play the outfield in spring training, his elbow was presenting a problem, relegating him to DH duty. (Perhaps a cautionary tale on why it might be a bad idea for the Cards to offer their own aging slugger a monster contract covering the next decade? Only time will tell.) The Cards' aging, oft-injured ace might be playing his last days in St. Louis, and their in-his-prime, generally durable ace is on the shelf for the season. Nick Punto had surgery to repair a sports hernia and isn't expected to play until sometime in May.
Perhaps youth will be served once again in 2011. After all, someone has to fill in when the geriatric brigade needs time off due to doctor appointments or hard candy-related shopping trips. McClellan, an internal candidate and farm-system success story, is expected to take the rotation spot vacated by Wainwright, leaving Batista in the bullpen. Matt Carpenter has been the star of spring training and just might be first in line when David Freese's ankles go all Pontiac Fiero sometime in June.
Regardless of how this season works out, there's a good chance the 2012 team will look almost completely different. So just think of 2011 as a blast from the past, a VH1 weekend marathon, before the Cardinals (and all of the St. Louisans they hold hostage each year from April to October) head off into an unknown and frightening future.