It was late when I conjured up this post, but to put things into context, this is the episode of Star Trek where Kirk and friends get sucked into a mirror universe and evil Spock has a goatee. The picture is particularly funny because George Takei, who is really funny and whom I love because of his internet presence, is so incredibly gay that his flirting with Uhura makes no sense whatsoever. That’s not to say that the St. Louis Cardinals are gay or some other euphemism; their continued awesomeness and stature as the model of the National League (and possibly all of baseball) makes little sense until you look at their philosophy closely.
I actually looked this up–as of end of games on 5/11, the Cardinals, at 23-12, have the best record in the majors. They just had back-to-back dominations of the surprising Colorado Rockies, the first by 2009 first-round pick Shelby Miller (who is scary good so far) and the second by annoyingly-awesome Adam Wainwright. Wainwright wasn’t even technically “home-grown” by the Cardinals; they acquired him in an offseason trade with Atlanta along with ex-Cub Jason Marquis and reliever Ray King in exchange for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero. Drew eventually helped win a World Series for Theo Epstein in Boston in 2007, but it’s interesting how the Cards were able to parlay a former first round pick still in his prime into a rotation mainstay and not lose a step in 2004-2006, when they won two pennants in three trips to the NLCS and won it all in 2006 as the team with the worst regular season record ever for a World Series champion. Black magic, I tells ya.
The Cardinals have been good FOREVER. Since their inception in 1892, the Cardinals have been to the playoffs umpteen times while winning 11 championships and 18 pennants. Their best-ever player by WAR, Stan Musial, is one of the all-time greats, bar none. The best “Cub” by contrast is Rogers Hornsby, who was a Cardinal first and was only a Cub for four seasons. Then you have Pete Alexander (aka “Grover Cleveland” or was it the other way around), who never got to the World Series as a Cub but won upon his trade to the Cardinals in 1926. Go figure. You have to go quite a while down the list to find Greg Maddux (not a career Cub) and then even further to find Cap Anson (who’s been dead since Prohibition). Albert Pujols isn’t far behind Cap, and Pujols is still active albeit a shell of what he once was in Cardinals red (more on Albert later). The Cardinals are just really really damned good and/or lucky at finding and developing stars and Hall of Famers. It’s almost unfair.
While teams who spend out the nose like the Angels and the Dodgers flounder (so far, that is: recall that we’ve only played a fifth of the season), the Cardinals, with a slightly larger payroll than the Cubs, have a three-game lead over Cincinnati and a 9.5-game lead over Chicago. Now, Chicago still has to rebuild and get some bad contracts off the books, but the fact remains that the Cardinals are much more efficient with their business and product than the Cubs. Perhaps it has something to do with their player development, which is something that the Cubs should emulate. Regardless, one should be envious of the Cards’ success.
Take, for example, Albert Pujols. I think Pujols is one of the greatest players of all time. It was incredible that the Cardinals would let him go, but it made sense because St. Louis isn’t the biggest market despite having a great fan base, and ultimately because…well, the Cardinals didn’t need him after all. They especially didn’t need him at the price Pujols eventually signed for with the Angels, and also because they had guys in the pipeline like Allen Craig and David Freese to help out. As the article says, the Cards used the money saved to sign Carlos Beltran (who’s still good and relatively cheap) and extend Yadier Molina (who is like the best defensive catcher ever). And what did the Cardinals get for losing their prize first baseman? Another trip to the NLCS (ridiculous), a couple of draft picks, and yet another pair for losing Octavio Dotel and current Cub Edwin Jackson to free agency. Astonishing.
What about this year? Well, the Cardinals decided not to keep Kyle Lohse. Lohse is now with the Brewers, and as such the Cards get yet another compensatory pick in this June’s draft. And they’re not losing a step because of their rotation depth. Cardinals pitchers are like termites coming out of the woodwork, there seems to be an endless supply of capable arms that keep eating innings efficiently for the Redbirds. Then they leave and the Cardinals say “whatever” while some other team gets sloppy seconds (see: Jeff Suppan). Same with the bullpen. You can’t help but admire the Cardinals’ ability to always have a contingency plan.
Perhaps this isn’t bizarro world after all, as there is a method to the Cardinals’ madness and it does make sense. Spend wisely, develop well from within, make you own Ozzie Smith (via trade) and Albert Pujols (via draft), reload and repeat. It’s something that the Reds have been doing for a while and something the Cubs should be doing too. The problem is that the Cardinals have had about a century head start and now the North Siders have to catch up. But when the Cubs do catch up (and with enough hard work and just the right amount of luck, they will), they’ll have more money than the Cardinals to play with…and the hope is that we’ll enter a new bizarro world where the Cubs are good and the Cardinals are cursing our favorite team, and not the other way around.