So far during an odd offseason that’s filled with uncertainty, the Cardinals are lowering public expectations for their payroll spending and roster upgrades for 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic has left all 30 MLB teams waiting and wondering about MLB’s state of play.
Will there be a full 162-game season? Will the vaccines be administered in time to open the ballparks? And if fans are welcome to return, will there be a limit on crowd size?
Even with the vaccine, don’t assume that everything will return to normal. A significant percentage of Americans are wary of vaccines. Fans of all sports may be hesitant to return right away. Family budgets will likely be tighter than usual for most. The virus has wiped out a staggering number of businesses and jobs, and many folks are hurting. We’ll need time to recover.
But a brightening outlook doesn’t mean fans will be packing Busch Stadium in 2021 when the gates reopen. Sports have lost importance during a time of crisis, and I don’t know how long it will take to regenerate the full level pre-pandemic enthusiasm.
I understand why the Cardinals — and most baseball teams — are being cautious in their approach. It’s all because of the fear of fallen, flat revenue in 2021.
In this uneasy environment the Cardinals are taking their time. They’ll eventually do something, but will it be enough? Will the inevitable roster additions pacify a restless and frustrated fan base?
There’s tension in the village.
John Mozeliak has an especially tough job this winter.
Let’s cover the three most pressing areas:
1. The Cardinals must to fix a major power shortage. (As if you didn’t know that already.) Over the last two seasons they’re tied for 26th in the bigs with a .404 slugging percentage. The weakening of muscle dropped the Cardinals to dead last in the majors in doubles and homers for 2020. Bill DeWitt Jr. has owned the franchise for 25 seasons, and last season’s .371 slugging percentage ranked 24th among the 25 DeWitt Era Cardinals.
2. For the love of Randy Arozarena, the Cardinals have to figure out a way to realign the outfield and install the right pieces. The ongoing failure to complete this puzzle is baffling and embarrassing. (That said, we love you Dylan Carlson.)
3. The Cardinals’ front office is staring at two living franchise monuments, pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina. Both are free agents who prefer playing ball in St. Louis. This should be relatively easy, right?
I thought so, but some doubt is seeping in. Mark Saxon, who covers the Cardinals for The Athletic, wrote this today: “A recent conversation between the Cardinals and the representative for Yadier Molina about a contract extension didn’t get far, according to a source, with Molina’s side balking at an offer they deemed ‘ridiculous.’ “ And Wainwright is still waiting to receive a contract offer from Cards management.
Look, there are limits to what the Cardinals can or should do with their pitcher-catcher icon set. Molina will be 39 in July, and Wainwright hits age 40 in the late stages of the ‘20 season. Any smart team would proceed with care when trying to re-sign two older stars.
In 2020, only two lineup regulars played at age 39 or older: Albert Pujols (40), and DH Nelson Cruz (39.) And since the beginning of the 2019 season, only one pitcher age 39 or older (Rich Hill) was used as a starter. He made 21 starts over that time.
Wainwright was reasonable in accepting one-year contracts in each of the last two seasons but has earned a raise. And Yadi? According to Saxon the catcher is “believed to be seeking at least a one-year $10 million deal with a 2020 option.”
That doesn’t sound crazy.
Sure there is risk.
It’s true that Molina has declined offensively. And he’s dealt with more injuries over the last three seasons — but remains more durable than most catchers. (Molina ranks sixth among MLB catchers in games played since the start of 2018.) He’s maintained an above-average throw-out rate in nabbing base stealers. He scouts hitters, selects pitches, and navigates pitchers through games. Molina is obviously a huge factor in the Cards’ consistently good pitching performance.
Over the past two seasons, Wainwright overcame elbow miseries, rebooted his career, and led Cardinals’ starters in most innings pitched, notched a team-high 19 wins, and made only one fewer start (41) than young Jack Flaherty (42), Wainwright’s two-season ERA (3.91) ranked 27th among big-league starters. Last season Wainwright crafted a 3.15 ERA that ranked 18th among MLB starters. He’s delighted fans with this late-career revival. We’re talking about a special starter that ranks third in franchise history in career wins, fourth in starts, and is second to none other than Bob Gibson in strikeouts.
Molina and Wainwright are on the short list of the most popular players in Cardinals history.
Managers, coaches, pitchers and other teammates gush about their leadership, willingness to help young players, and all of the intangibles coveted by baseball people.
For many years now, including 2020, everyone with the Cardinals have repeatedly praised Molina and Wainwright for being special. The 2019 and 2020 teams wouldn’t have made the playoffs without them.
When an organization spends so much time speaking of both players’ greatness, constantly emphasizes their value to the team, and stresses their impact in creating a winning culture — well, you can’t be a hypocrite about this by letting them walk away. It’s not as if Waino and Yadi will be eating up copious amounts of payroll space.
And you can’t let them walk away at a time when you face the upcoming challenge of enticing fans to back to Busch Stadium. When it’s safe to reopen the ballpark to customers, the Cardinals will want sellouts.
During this uneasy time, when nothing seems certain, the Cardinals need Wainwright and Molina as much as they ever have. If they are such strong figures for manager Mike Shildt and the other players to lean on, that must be factored into the decision.
By the way: This isn’t an either/or proposition. As we acknowledged earlier, the financial pressures are intensifying for management. But it’s still possible to work out contracts for Molina and Wainwright … and also buy some big lumber for a rickety lineup.
And if management declines to be aggressive about rewiring the lineup for enhanced power, just imagine the bitter reaction when fans see Molina and Wainwright performing in another team’s uniform come 2021.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie Miklasz hosts the afternoon-drive show at 590 The Fan, KFNS, each weekday from 3 to 6 p.m. You can stream it live or catch the post-show podcast at 590thefan.com
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.