ST. LOUIS – The conservative St. Louis Cardinals stretched beyond their comfort zone and still couldn’t sign Jason Heyward or David Price, failing to land the counterpunch during a long winter where the Cubs dominated the headlines.
The Cardinals heard all about the big-ticket additions for Wrigley Field and the wacky antics at Camp Maddon during spring training. But a franchise with 11 World Series banners flying at Busch Stadium, three straight division titles and only one losing season since Y2K won’t be conceding anything.
The Cardinals prevented the sweep with Wednesday’s 5-3 rain-soaked win, ambushing No. 5 starter Kyle Hendricks by scoring four runs in the first two innings. Carlos Martinez – an All-Star last season who won’t celebrate his 25th birthday until late September and should be an X-factor in the St. Louis rotation – allowed only one run on three hits across seven innings before the storm rolled through and caused a delay that lasted three hours and 21 minutes.
Heyward offended The Best Fans in Baseball when he explained his decision to jump to Chicago, pointing out the aging core in St. Louis and the uncertainty surrounding Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina, Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright and All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday.
Molina will turn 34 this summer and is signed through 2017 (with a mutual option for the following season). Wainwright is 34, a Tommy John survivor and locked up through 2018. Holliday is 36 and will become a free agent if a team/vesting option doesn’t kick in for 2017.
“One of the hallmarks of the Cardinals is their steadiness,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “In the past, they haven’t really gone out and made big free-agent splashes and it’s been really effective for them. They always re-signed their own guys – think about the guys they’ve traded for like (Mark) McGwire and (Jim) Edmonds and Holliday.
“They know they have a really good team. They won 100 games last year (and) were probably on pace for 110 wins most of the season. I don’t think they felt like they had to do that much (during the offseason).”
Holliday flexed his muscles in the first inning when he lifted a Hendricks pitch and drove it 362 feet into the first row of the left-field seats for a two-run homer that awoke the crowd of 43,093.
Whether or not Holliday fades away, the Cardinals have their own 25-and-under group of position players in Kolten Wong, Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, who stole a two-run homer away from Anthony Rizzo with a leaping catch at the left-center field wall in the first inning.
There might not be anyone you’d rather have in a Game 7 than Jake Arrieta. But the Cubs still haven’t been able to consistently draft and develop pitchers like All-Star starter Michael Wacha and All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal, who all benefit from Molina’s reassuring presence behind the plate.
Baseball America still ranks the St. Louis farm system within the game’s top half and the Cardinals will benefit from a reported $1 billion TV deal that begins with the 2018 season and includes an ownership stake in Fox Sports Midwest.
“They’ve done a pretty good job so far of making the market-size thing irrelevant,” Hoyer said. “When you pack this place with 45,000 people every night, the size of the city doesn’t matter that much. They bring in a lot of revenue because they have great fans and they have great teams.”
The Cubs (11-4) still won this three-game series, plus the only playoff matchup in the rivalry’s 124-year history and six of the nine games before that in 2015. That led to fun with small sample sizes. Even when there’s more than 90 percent of the 2016 schedule remaining and the Cardinals should probably have a better record than 8-7 given their plus-31 run differential.
“I don’t think it suggests anything other than this group as a whole has more experience under their belt together,” said Heyward, who put up a 6.5 WAR for the Cardinals last season and won his third Gold Glove in right field before signing an eight-year, $184 million megadeal. “That’s what it’s about, man, being with some of the same guys and jelling and using their experience to go forward.
“It’s knowledge, there’s some comfort and it’s peace of mind.”
The last word from Heyward, who took less guaranteed money to come to Wrigley Field and hinted the Cardinals could never match what the Cubs offered in terms of the chance to make history: “I don’t think anybody that’s a baseball person will ever see St. Louis as the team that’s going to try to rebuild.”