Just a thought: Could all this media speculation about Jason Heyward be a strategic way for the Cubs to drive up the price for the St. Louis Cardinals?
Because Theo Epstein’s front office needs to pour those limited resources into the pitching staff and would have to jump through so many hoops to steal Heyward away from the Cardinals, who reportedly finished second to the Boston Red Sox in the $217 million David Price sweepstakes.
Either way, a rivalry that started in 1892 is beginning a new chapter after the Cubs beat the Cardinals in October, winning their first playoff matchup ever. The balance of power hasn’t completely shifted inside the National League Central, but it’s still a division that produced three playoff teams that won at least 97 games this year.
“I wouldn’t say urgency,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said during last month’s GM meetings in South Florida. “My point is things happen and we adjust. You’re not going to make irrational decisions just because you feel like your division is extraordinarily difficult. You have to stay disciplined to your process.”
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If those runner-up-for-Price reports are accurate – USA Today had the final offer at $180 million – the patient, sensible, homegrown Cardinals should have money to burn at next week’s winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch keeps hinting the 11-time World Series champions will have to get out of that comfort zone with headlines like: “Time for Cardinals to get silly?”
While the Cubs have faraway plans about their TV future – and picture a much bigger payday – the Cardinals have already locked up a reported 15-year deal with Fox Sports Midwest that begins with the 2018 season and guarantees the club more than $1 billion and an equity stake in the regional network.
The Cardinals have outfielder Matt Holliday entering the final season of a seven-year, $120 million deal – the largest contract in franchise history to this point – and right-hander Lance Lynn recovering from Tommy John surgery and top pitching prospect Alex Reyes serving a 50-game drug suspension.
Factor in the 3.5 million-plus in attendance at Busch Stadium this year, new revenues from the Wrigleyville-inspired Ballpark Village and the rising tide in what’s becoming a $10 billion industry, and maybe making a huge splash makes sense.
But the Cardinals aren’t going to overreact to winning 100 games and then losing to the Cubs in the divisional round, when Gold Glove/All-Star catcher Yadier Molina tried to play through a thumb injury and Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright could only pitch out of the bullpen after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon.
“I don’t think we went into September full strength,” Mozeliak said. “And we clearly didn’t go into October full strength. But no one’s having pity parties for us. That’s the business.
“It’s one of those things where ideally you hit October 1 (and) you’re at like full stride. We weren’t. But that’s not to take away from the six months we had. The timing wasn’t there.”
The Cubs know they can’t magically recreate the same chemistry they had during the season no one saw coming. Players will get older and more expensive and feel more entitled. Expectations will change on the North Side.
The Cardinals keep finding ways to maintain their competitive edge, making the playoffs 12 times since 2000.
“We’ve had a group of core players that experienced some of our success as early as ’04 with Yadi,” Mozeliak said. “(It’s) understanding what the winning culture’s about. We’ve had advocates and mentors to carry that along. And then we’ve had healthy churn as well, so I think sometimes adding new energy or a new face to it is helpful.
“It’s a balance. Fortunately, we’ve been able to strike that. But it’s a fragile environment. I’m not ready to tell you we’ve got it figured out for next year.”
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The Cardinals acquired Heyward from the Atlanta Braves last November with the idea that both sides would take a year to see if it would be a good long-term fit.
The Cardinals may or may not have their next core player in Heyward, who’s hard to put a price tag on because he’s only 26 years old and a Gold Glove outfielder who’s hit 20-plus homers only once in his career. Heyward is also a left-handed hitter with speed, on-base skills, clubhouse presence and an .869 career OPS against the Cubs.
The Cubs, Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates – who’ve made three playoff appearances within the last three seasons – all look like built-to-last contenders with young talent, star power and savvy front offices. At a time when the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers appear to be punting on 2016 and playing for the future.
However the Cardinals decide to respond, the Cubs always understood their road to the World Series would have to go through St. Louis.
“A lot of people have asked me this question (about) the Cubs’ emergence, Pittsburgh’s sustainability,” Mozeliak said. “Candidly, four or five years ago, it was Milwaukee.
“Ultimately, we try to worry about ourselves. But it’s hard not to acknowledge what’s happening in your division. And what’s going on right now with both Pittsburgh and Chicago is extremely impressive.”