A decade ago, baseball fans around the country were sick and tired of hearing about the Cardinal Way. Those words came to symbolize a franchise that seemingly was always in contention to win a World Series, while doing it with player development, big acquisitions, and solid fundamentals. There was this belief that the Cardinals would somehow find a player to always fill any weakness they might have on their roster. It could be a guy that most people around baseball had never heard of, or a prospect that most Cardinal fans didn’t have on their radar. They would rise to the major league roster, and suddenly they were helping guide the franchise to a deep playoff run. High level free agents wanted to come and play for the Cardinals because of this mystical culture.
Flashforward to the day before Thanksgiving 2021, and The Cardinal Way has an entirely different meaning for most diehard Cardinal fans. In 2021, The Cardinal Way reflects on the front office’s desire to build a roster of players without much personality that can hopefully win 85-88 games, sneak into the playoffs, win a playoff round, and sell the fans that upper management really cares about winning championships.
Most Cardinal fans were like me, they woke up the day before Thanksgiving to news that the Cardinals had signed Steve Matz to a 4 year deal, with average salary numbers looking to range in the $11-12 million/year range. As a Cardinal fan, we should be thankful to root for an organization that remains competitive every year. An organization that is able to compete year in and year out because they never seem to have massive contracts that limit payroll flexibility for years. Thankful that the organization recognized the need to add a quality left-handed starting pitcher, but us true Cardinal fans can’t help but get that familiar bad taste in our mouths and let recent actions by the front office create self-doubt that this could be THE move of the offseason.
Traveling back to my parents house for Thanksgiving is an opportunity to be pampered by my mom and her endless desire to keep everyone happy. I’m not a big breakfast person, but every day my mom insists on making breakfast for me or anyone that is sitting around. While I rarely eat the breakfast, it is comforting to know that any morning at my parents over break could start off with fresh bacon, biscuits, and/or eggs made the way I request, with donuts and sausage occasionally mixed in. However, I liken the signing of Steven Matz to my mom calling me to breakfast, only to see a box of Cheerios sitting on the table. As a true Cardinal fan that looks at the needs of this team, nothing about this move excites me or brings me back to the table.
I am not writing this as any disrespect to Steve Matz. He has been an above average major league pitcher coming off a solid season in the offensive friendly American League East, but signing Matz does nothing for me as a Cardinal fan to think this move has made them the clear leaders in the Central Division, let alone a contender for the National League pennant. What concerns me even more is that the recent Cardinal Way would suggest that the front office might be done addressing the starting pitching needs of this team.
Entering 2022 with the current roster as it stands, Cardinal fans will be subjected to the typical front office messaging of “we like the arms we have and the amount of competition these guys have for their jobs.” If we analyze the competition, it is difficult to see where Matz stands, or stands out. There are so many variables with this possible rotation, that the only thing the Cardinals clearly needed was a clear number 1 or 2 starter, and Matz is not that guy.
Right now the Cardinals ace is Jack Flaherty, or is he? Coming off a 2021 season where he was special early, but then fell victim to injuries, the Cardinals should not bank on him returning to the dominant form he has shown because of his late season shoulder issue. Shoulder issues can spell doom for any pitcher, so the Cardinals need to have a plan if Flaherty has lingering issues.
Adam Wainwright was the best thing about the 2021 season for the Cardinals, but is it fair to expect him to replicate that season again at this point in his career? Even if there is some expected regression, I think most people would view Wainwright as the better pitcher than Matz.
One of the things you hear about Matz is his groundball rate and sinker that should play up at Busch Stadium and with the Cardinals great defense. When you dig into his numbers, Matz has a decent groundball rate, but it isn’t any special. Special groundball rates are guys like Dakota Hudson that have a 1.5 groundball to flyball rate. Hudson looks like the better pitcher than Matz at this point in their careers, but how much will the Cardinals let Hudson pitch in 2022? Will they try to limit his innings? If they do, you need someone else in the rotation that can eat those innings. Matz only had 9 quality starts last year, so he’s not that guy.
In a perfect word, let’s assume that Flaherty comes back and is the number one starter we all hope he can be. Wainwright and Hudson have similar seasons to their last two full seasons in the majors, so now we can slot Matz into the back end of the rotation. Which again brings me to my point. The Cardinals have solidified the back end of their rotation. This is what teams that compete for championships do, but are the Cardinals that kind of franchise in the early 2020’s? True, skeptical fans would seem to think that this will be it for the Cardinals.
Signing Max Scherzer or Marcus Stroman would push Matz to the number 5 spot in the rotation, but how likely are we to see that from this front office? Instead, we will be fed lines about how the Cardinals plan to have the injury riddled Miles Mikolas and Jordan Hicks in the mix for that spot, and Matz doesn’t have the cleanest injury history either. Alex Reyes will also be given a shot to compete for the spot. While Reyes seems to have the most tantalizing talent, the way he faded down the stretch in 2021 should make any Cardinal fan concerned about how he would handle a full year of starting in the major leagues. There will be other internal options to save money like Liberatore and Thompson, but the more typical Cardinal move would be to sign an established veteran like Jon Lester or J.A. Happ to a one year deal to compete for the last spot in the rotation.
Some Cardinal fans would argue that those are good options and a solid rotation. I am not one to argue with that point, but is that a championship rotation? Is that a rotation that can win you 95 games and put you in a good position entering the postseason? Diehard Cardinal fans that remember the Cardinal Way of the early 2000’s and past decade expect more from their front office. We expect the signing of Matz to be used to convince a guy like Scherzer that he could be the missing piece to a championship. We expect that this conservative signing would indicate the Cardinals might dive head first into a deep shortstop market to bolster their weakest offensive position. We expect that this signing would free up some money to bolster a bench that was embarrassingly bad last year. Yet, those diehard fans have come to expect this version of the Cardinal front office to sit back and add secondary parts or do nothing at all.
Too often the narrative with this front office in recent years has been that they “weren’t comfortable” adding an extra year or two that a player wanted or getting into a bidding war with other teams for top flight free agent talent. Recently, the Cardinals front office has a poor trend missing out on top flight free agents and misjudging their “big” offseason signings because they get locked in on “their guy” and are willing to give those guys an extra year or more money than other teams. Brett Cecil, Dexter Fowler, and Mike Leake are a few names that quickly come to mind. Nothing about the market for those players indicated they were going to get those years or dollars from any other teams, and their performance indicated that. However, the front office could always say that while their performance was not what they expected, those contracts did not hinder what the front office could do to make additional minor moves to keep the team competitive.
So here we are again in the 2021-22 offseason, and Cardinal fans woke up to a box of Cheerios this morning. We have been tantalized with names like Scherzer and Stroman. Names that would move the needle towards competing for a World Series. Nothing about this Matz signing should change that, for elite organizations. Signing Matz has provided depth to a rotation that needed it, but it hasn’t done anything to move the Cardinals beyond a Wild Card contender. Matz would seem to slot into the number 4 spot in the rotation, which is on par with recent Cardinal free agent signings. The Cardinals will bank on him staying healthy, even though his past suggests that is likely foolish. The front office will expect this signing to excite fans and bring them back to the ballpark to watch a franchise that feels very stale and objectionable to any conflicting input to the way they have been doing things.
It will be interesting to see where talks with Scherzer and Stroman go after today. Signing one of those two guys in addition to Matz would be a chance to really restore the Cardinal Way, but true Cardinal fans of the past few years will likely just eat their bowl of Cheerios hoping that something better comes along afterwards, knowing that it probably won’t.