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“It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago.” — Bob Seger, Against The Wind
Was the Cardinals’ 2016 season—an 86-win campaign that saw them miss the playoffs—random variance in a continuing string of sustained success or an omen for darker times ahead, the seeming end of Cardinals Devil Magic as we know it? To answer this question, we need to think about another question: Can you run out of Devil Magic? Or, is that what makes it Devil Magic, that it would make us believe it could possibly run out?
To answer these questions, we need to ask more questions.
What is Cardinals Devil Magic?
Answer 1: It’s a major-league baseball player dropping a routine fly ball at a critical moment. It’s peak Kyle Lohse ever being a thing. It’s Matt Carpenter hitting as many home runs in 2015 as he did in his three-plus years in the minor leagues. It’s luck in every shape and form; that which is supposed to work does not, that which is not supposed to work does. Sure, “that’s baseball” as they say, but for the Cardinals, who have been to the playoffs in 12 of the past 17 years while playing in the 20th-largest metropolitan area in the country, “that’s baseball” always seemed to work out in their favor.
This is what Cardinals Devils Magic has come to mean for those who have come to detest the Cardinals and their success (or those who already did)—it’s just luck and, more specifically and aggravatingly, undeserved luck. With that said, there is definitely more to it than that.
Answer 2: It’s strategy and it’s player development. It’s letting a future Hall of Famer and face of the franchise leave after reaping the benefits of his most productive years. It’s trading for Matt Holliday comin off a down year in Oakland.
It’s checking to see if the password is Eckstein123. It’s drafting or signing and then developing all the players they did, most of whom out-produced their prospect pedigree.
It confounds because it's formulaic and efficient and thus often dehumanizing of the labor it's applied to, while it also makes sure to be efficient in considering the human side of development, growth, and team dynamics. The results, though, from a wins and losses perspective, are far from confounding, they are simply tremendous. Of course, as great as the results have been, they do feel as if they have been less bountiful of late. And therefore, we ask why that is so.
Is it still Devil Magic if a lot of other teams have it too?
Legend has it that Cortés rode in on a white horse and the Aztecs all believed he was a god. If, upon hearing of the conquistador’s success, 15 other conquistadors showed up at the next potential colony at the same time, all riding white horses, all proclaiming themselves gods, we can hypothesize that they would have less success than Cortés. Even if they were still able to convince the indigenous people that they were gods, they would still have to split their findings 15 ways or fight the others to secure the findings for themselves (or in a very bold, trailblazing move, they could have choose not to exploit the indigenous people).
Anyway, the Cardinals may have been the first or most effective at utilizing Devil Magic or “The Cardinal Way” 5-10 years ago, but parts of the league have caught up. Teams are now much more sophisticated in player projection and decision-making processes, and are also devoting more resources than ever to player development and even, at least with some teams, organizational culture and work environment. While the Cardinals continue to find tremendous production off the scrap heap (with both Aledymys Diaz and Jedd Gyorko just last season), other teams are doing so too, particularly their divisional foes, the Cubs and the Pirates.
The Cardinals, while perhaps not first to roll out any one specific innovation of management or strategy, were seemingly the first to be the best at modern front office strategy and player development. And the rewards were great. The competition, though, as it always does, has seemingly caught up, which would lead us to believe that the Cardinals will have a hard time replicating the success they have found in the first 16 years of this century over the next 16 years. However, many people wiser than me have believed this to be the case at many different times throughout the Cardinals’ prolific run. And this brings us back to the original question.
Is 2017 when we realize that the Devil Magic was already running out for the Cardinals or is it just another season in which we underestimate it?
Call it a rat race, call it the Red Queen Effect, call it the cult of innovation, but to keep winning in any sport for a long period of time, you need to be able to adapt to your competition’s attempts at adapting to your winning strategies. Sure, you can have more resources than everyone else (the Yankees of mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s, for instance), but eventually failing to improve or even failing to improve as quickly as your competition will catch up to you.
The 2017 Cardinals are a solid team. They filled their largest weakness, both offensively and defensively, by signing center fielder Dexter Fowler in free agency. While they lack elite hitting or fielding talent, they have plenty of good hitting and fielding talent (less so on the fielding than the hitting); making them a team, position player-wise, with some of the fewest holes in baseball. Additionally, they have solid bench depth with Gyorko and Matt Adams.
The bullpen has had some turnover and is a bit thin, but is anchored by the exceptional Seung-Hwan Oh. As for the starting pitching, most everything outside of Carlos Martinez went wrong in 2016. Outside of losing Alex Reyes for the year to Tommy John surgery, things seem to be pointing in the right direction for 2017—Lance Lynn is back, Michael Wacha and Mike Leake have had strong springs, and Adam Wainwright is another year removed from his Achilles' tendon injury.
All of this considered, though, the Cardinals do not seem like a team with a good chance of competing with the Cubs and Dodgers for a pennant. PECOTA likes them even less, projecting a 77-85 record, fourth in the NL Central behind even the Brewers. Either the Cardinals Devil Magic ain’t what it used to be or, in today’s game, Devil Magic does not get you as far as it used to. If the Cardinals do find a way to make 2016 a statistical outlier in 2017, they will likely be doing so with a new or improved strategy or process, with a new or improved Devil Magic—and whether they do so or not is how this team will likely be remembered.
“Well I’m older now and still running against the wind.” — Bob Seger, Against The Wind
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