Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak makes for an easy target. He's a bookish-looking guy with an understated demeanor, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a name that's difficult to pronounce (Mo-ZAY-lock). He succeeded Walt Jocketty, one of the most accomplished executives in the game, and works alongside a manager, Tony La Russa, who wields considerable clout and isn't afraid to express his opinions.
In his 13 years with the club, Mozeliak has learned that St. Louis fans, while overwhelmingly supportive, aren't going to just sit back and nod when they think ownership isn't doing enough to stay competitive. The proof? As Tina Fey observed in her recent Golden Globes speech, "If you ever start to feel too good about yourself, they have this little thing called the Internet.''
Every general manager in baseball not named Brian Cashman is spending this winter explaining why his team is cutting corners, but the discontent is palpable in St. Louis. Imagine how Gussie Busch would have felt if his payroll were $100 million and people were calling him cheap, a label that some critics have applied to current Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.
"The fan base seems angry,'' St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote earlier this month. "On the talk shows and in the blogosphere, where the rage bubbles into a rapid boil, there's chatter of a boycott, of customers giving up their season tickets. They question the commitment to winning. They are tired of excuses. They won't spend another dollar until things change.''
Which makes you wonder: Have Cards fans ever pondered what it must be like to follow baseball in that alternate universe known as Pittsburgh?
If Mozeliak wants more constructive criticism, he can find it on the Viva El Birdos blog, where readers are putting together a "Sign Ben Sheets'' petition.
Mozeliak embodies the plight of the modern-day, small-to-middle-market GM. Building from within is essential. But when you're waiting for the farm system to bear fruit and you pass on short-term, even marginal upgrades, it's a license to be flogged.
"I understand that the St. Louis Cardinals in a lot of ways are like a public trust,'' Mozeliak said. "People have so much passion for what we do here, their expectations are very high. And they should be. Without their support, we don't do the things we can do.
"But there's probably a louder minority that's more critical of what we do, and that can't be our compass for the direction we go. John Wooden said, 'If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.' We've outlined a plan and a strategy. We're not afraid to deviate if we think it makes sense, but we just can't make knee-jerk decisions that could create a paralysis in the future.''
While the Cardinals finished in fourth place last season for the first time since 1999, it wasn't all bad in St. Louis. The Cards improved from 78 to 86 victories, and they were contending for a wild card before a 2-10 stretch in September wrecked that possibility. The offense ranked fourth in the National League in runs and second in OPS, and Dave Duncan's staff was seventh in ERA despite getting a total of 17 innings from Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder.
Oh yeah: That Albert Pujols guy won his fourth Silver Slugger and second MVP awards.
The Cardinals broke in 11 rookies last season, second-highest total in the majors to San Diego's whopping 24. Outfielder Ryan Ludwick fulfilled his potential as a 37-home run, 113-RBI All-Star, and Rick Ankiel took a major step forward with 25 homers. Some of Mozeliak's moves also paid off big. Kyle Lohse won 15 games in exchange for his $4.25 million salary, and the Cardinals emerged as clear winners in the Troy Glaus-Scott Rolen third-base switch with Toronto.
The offseason began promisingly enough. The Cardinals made a preemptive strike by re-signing Lohse to a four-year, $41 million deal. Then they filled their shortstop void with a trade for Greene, whose 64 OPS+ last season in San Diego was beyond awful. Greene is still far too impatient at the plate, but his production should improve now that he's escaped Petco Park, where his long fly balls routinely found a place to die. Greene has a career .658 OPS in San Diego and an .802 mark everywhere else, so there's reason to hope.
Still, the major focus in St. Louis revolves around what the Cardinals haven't done this winter. They explored deals for Matt Holliday and Robinson Cano, only to fail to find a match. They lost out in a bid for Brian Fuentes even though they offered more than the $17.5 million in guaranteed money that Fuentes received from the Angels.
So now, pending La Russa's seal of approval, the Cards will go with young Chris Perez or Jason Motte at closer. And the success of the starting rotation hinges on Carpenter, who is trying to come back yet again from arm trouble. A rotation of Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Lohse, Joel Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer looks good enough on paper. The question is, what happens if Carpenter continues to tease the team with rehab setbacks?
While the fan base cries out for a Sheets or Jon Garland, the Cardinals are resistant to spend $10 million on a pitcher with health issues or a so-so track record. Instead, they'll give an opportunity to Mitchell Boggs, who went 9-3 and led the Pacific Coast League with a 3.45 ERA for Triple-A Memphis last year. And if Boggs isn't the answer, P.J. Walters, Clayton Mortensen and Jess Todd will be next in line.
Not surprisingly, Mozeliak's cautious approach is economically driven. Season-ticket sales have taken a hit because of the recession, and the Cardinals are braced for the possibility that they'll fall short of 3 million fans for only the second time in 12 seasons. In an interview with Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold last week, team president Bill DeWitt III conceded that the sentiment in town has been "somewhat negative'' this winter. That would be accurate.
If there's reason for optimism, the talent pipeline is stronger than ever. In 2005, Baseball America ranked St. Louis' farm system as the worst in the game. Thanks to some productive drafts under scouting and player development guru Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals now check in at No. 8. While the Cardinals used to cling to one bright, shining light -- a Daric Barton here or a Dan Haren there -- the farm system is now developing elite players and some depth.
Brett Wallace, a first-round pick out of Arizona State, looks like a .330 hitter waiting to happen. He'll most likely take over at third for Glaus in 2010. And center fielder Colby Rasmus has 1,533 minor league at-bats on his résumé and is on the verge of breaking through to the majors. Rasmus hit .251 in Triple-A last year, but he was only 22.
After passing on winter ball in the Dominican Republic to spend the offseason working out, Rasmus arrived at the team's winter warmup event looking bulked up and ready to go.
"He could be OK going to Triple-A for a couple of months, but I think he'll play in the big leagues this year,'' Luhnow said. "He certainly has the talent to do it. A lot of people are going to be reminded of Jim Edmonds in the way he sort of glides in the outfield. He just reads the ball off the bat and makes it look so easy. He'll have about as good a range as anybody we've seen here in a long time.''
For what it's worth, the rest of the National League Central hasn't exactly been a bastion of activity this winter. The Reds have added Willy Taveras and Arthur Rhodes. Milwaukee came up short for CC Sabathia and might lose Sheets as well. Houston is rehab central with Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz as candidates for the rotation. And Pittsburgh signed Ramon Vazquez while pulling off the big Jason Jaramillo-for-Ronnie Paulino trade.
The Cubs' offseason has been a mixed bag with the departure of Mark DeRosa, a three-year bet on Milton Bradley, the addition of Joey Gathright and former Cardinal Aaron Miles, and trades that cost the team prospects Felix Pie and Jose Ceda in exchange for pitching help.
It's no given that Mozeliak is done for 2009. Maybe he'll trade an outfielder -- say, Ankiel or Chris Duncan -- before Opening Day. And the Cardinals didn't sign Lohse until March 13 last year, so a spring training acquisition is a distinct possibility.
There's a sense of anticipation in St. Louis this year with the All-Star Game coming to town for the first time since 1966. Befitting tradition, much of Busch Stadium will be decked out in red.
Will the city and the ballpark play host to baseball in October? Right now, you can color the locals skeptical.