Seven paragraphs into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s story about the Cardinals signing free-agent starter Adam Wainwright to a one-year deal, beat writer Derrick Goold wrote this sentence: “But in the Tightened Belt of the Midwest’s NL Central cities, the Cardinals’ $8 million guarantee to Wainwright is more spending committed to free agents than the four other division teams — combined.”
It’s Jan. 29. Teams were allowed to sign free agents starting Nov. 1. And here we are, nearly three months later, and this one signing by the Cardinals — a one-year deal given to a 39-year-old starting pitcher — represented a total expenditure larger than all the other guarantees handed out by the other four teams in the NL Central. It was also, as Goold noted, the very first addition the Cardinals had made to their roster the entire offseason.
I’m sorry, but that’s insane. Is anyone actually trying to win the Central?
The answer, at least to this point, is clearly no.
The Cardinals, Cubs, Reds and Brewers sure would like to win the division title, but the current strategy of “let’s hope the other teams keep losing talent” isn’t exactly a tried and true method of reaching the postseason.
“There’s still time to continue to explore things,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said on a Zoom press conference Friday. “I know that sounds weird as we’re two weeks away from heading down to Florida. But unusual times require unusual things, so here we are.”
Even before signing Wainwright, the Cardinals were having a better offseason than the other teams in the division — sorry, Cardinals fans were having a better offseason — because the club wasn’t actively jettisoning talented players to destinations across the league, though they did opt against activating the 2021 club option for Kolten Wong, who has won back-to-back Gold Gloves at shortstop and produced a .356 on-base percentage the past four years. And they still don’t know whether “legacy” catcher Yadier Molina will return.
— The Cubs traded ace Yu Darvish and backup catcher Victor Caratini to San Diego for four young prospects who are years away from potentially making an MLB impact. They cut loose slugger Kyle Schwarber, who hit 38 home runs in 2019. Jon Lester, Albert Almora and Jose Quintana are gone, too. They did sign Joc Pederson to a one-year deal on Friday morning.
— The Pirates have traded three “big” names with 2021 impact value this offseason — 2019 All-Star Josh Bell, rotation staple Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, who was coming off a season lost to injury. Trevor Williams, Chris Archer and Derek Holland are gone, too. Oh, and they haven’t signed a single major league player yet.
— The Reds dispatched the most established, reliable arms in their bullpen, trading closer Raisel Iglesias and non-tendering Archie Bradley. Free agent Trevor Bauer won’t be back, and neither will free agents Tyler Thornburg, Anthony DeSclafani, Curt Casali or Freddy Galvis.
— The Brewers haven’t necessarily lost players, but they haven’t exactly added to their club, either. Oh, but they might trade closer Josh Hader, so stay tuned there.
The Central had four teams reach October in 2020’s expanded playoff format — only the Pirates missed — but nobody’s taken a step forward. Not even the Cardinals, who just got closer to maintaining the status quo by bringing Wainwright — the club’s most reliable starter in 2020 — back into the fold.
For those five fan bases to watch teams like the Blue Jays charge toward October with a mildly aggressive offseason, the inaction has been frustrating.
“The pandemic has created multiple layers of challenges for every team,” Mozeliak said. “You look at this past offseason, to date, there have been four, five or six clubs that have been super aggressive on multiple fronts, whether it’s free agent or trade, but I think a lot of teams are still trying to understand what their identity is going to look like going into next year. And so that, to some level, has created a little bit of a slower pace to the offseason. But as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, teams are starting to sign players and come to agreements, so clearly that pace has felt more normal, from an offseason standpoint.
“There are still a lot of people with questions on what 2021 is going to look like. I think that’s just natural to be a bit more hesitant.”
To this point — things could change, of course, because there are lots of free agents still available and lots of potential trades to be made — the NL Central’s offseason slogan has been “A Bit More Hesitant.”
Here’s hoping, for the sake of the fans of those five teams, that’s not how the clubs play once the season starts.