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Moving on from John Lackey was part of Cardinals' bigger plan

After a solid season in 2015 with the Cardinals, John Lackey hasn't slipped too far at age 37 in his first season with the first-place Cubs. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- When Chicago Cubs starter John Lackey takes the mound on Sunday Night Baseball (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) to face his former teammates for the fourth time this season, he will continue to try to build an argument, indirectly, that the St. Louis Cardinals should have made a better effort to re-sign him.

Insert Lackey’s numbers into the Cardinals’ rotation and he would lead the staff in innings (151⅔), WHIP (1.055) and strikeouts (151). He would be second in wins (nine) and ERA (3.56). What’s more, he could have been had for a two-year deal like the one he signed with the Cubs, so he wouldn’t have blocked a pipeline of young pitching talent the Cardinals think they’re building.

So, instead of offering Lackey $32 million, as the Cubs eventually did, the Cardinals wound up signing Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million deal. Leake, who also pitches Sunday and is 8-9 with a 4.79 ERA.

“I certainly think John Lackey could have helped the St. Louis Cardinals this year,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “I think it’d be kind of dumb to say not.”

Yet to question Mozeliak’s decision-making is to fundamentally misunderstand this moment in the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry. One team is trying to extend its dynasty. The other team might have just arrived at the doorstep of one.

The Cardinals, coming off six straight playoff appearances, are trying to execute the difficult process of rebuilding while contending. The Cubs, who lost 101 games in 2013 and had a losing record for five straight seasons going into last year, were willing to part with a draft pick in order to sign Lackey, who could have been their one missing piece for a World Series title.

With the No. 33 pick the Cardinals got for losing Lackey, they acquired Sacramento-area high school outfielder Dylan Carlson.

In weighing the costs and benefits of taking a run at Lackey, Mozeliak said he viewed foregoing that extra draft pick as a “tax.”

“The big thing for us is, with where we’ve picked over the last five or six years, it’s really hard to be aggressive on our pipeline,” Mozeliak said. “Any chance we could get to pick up a draft pick has been something we value. Perhaps you could argue we overvalue it, but that’s been the strategy of late.”

The Cubs are one of those teams that has valued high draft picks, taking players such as Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just in the past few years.

“The Cubs were collecting talent long enough that they felt good [signing Lackey], whereas we’ve been on the back end of that for a while,” Mozeliak said.

As the Cardinals have foundered around .500 all season, they have turned their focus increasingly to testing their young talent. They recalled pitching prospects Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver earlier than originally planned and brought up Randal Grichuk to give him another chance to establish himself as an everyday player.

The hope, for now, is they can catch lightning in a bottle and ride the youth movement to a wild-card berth. If not, they’ll have a better idea how to approach the next offseason. The Cardinals even discussed the possibility of being sellers before the Aug. 31 deadline, according to a source. Any trades made this month would require players to pass through revocable waivers.

Lackey, 37, also has probably surpassed any projections the Cardinals had for his 2016 season. The uniformed Cardinals might be less surprised by that than the team’s analytics department. Lackey’s production, while moving from an extreme pitcher’s park to an extreme hitter’s park, has declined only incrementally. The Cardinals also believe Lackey was a good influence on their younger pitchers, especially Lance Lynn, in the season-and-a-half he was around. Mozeliak signed Leake after he learned that Lynn would require reconstructive elbow surgery and be lost for the season.

“The only way you hang around the game as long as he has is to be disciplined and regimented,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Lackey. “I think he did a terrific job of investing into our younger guys. Everything he did I thought was impressive.”

There perhaps have been moments this season, while watching his rotation struggle more than he ever expected, that Matheny wondered how Lackey would have looked in a Cardinals uniform. But he has been around long enough to realize teams often have to plan in increments longer than six months.