Cubs dynasty? There might be a spoiler in St. Louis

Thanks to their new long-term deals, Stephen Piscotty and Yadier Molina will be two key cogs for the Cardinals for years to come. Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

St. LOUIS -- St. Louis Cardinals fans seemed pleased at the time when the team finally made a couple of waves in the free-agent market by agreeing to spend more than $110 million to snare center fielder Dexter Fowler and reliever Brett Cecil.

What they didn’t know was that it was just the beginning of a four-month-long spending spree.

Between the Fowler deal in December and the first few days of this season, the Cardinals have committed an additional $144.5 million to lock up three of their homegrown guys -- Carlos Martinez, Stephen Piscotty and Yadier Molina. The Martinez and Piscotty deals, like those given to Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong in the preceding years, spoke to the Cardinals’ desire for cost certainty and their confidence in an emerging young core.

The Molina deal spoke to how close they think that core is to championship caliber. Molina’s new $60 million deal won’t even kick in until he is 35½ years old. The Cardinals were concerned enough about losing him next fall that they adhered to the deadline he imposed and extended him by Opening Day. Despite some signs of his decline, they believe Molina is still one of the top four catchers in the game with “off-the-charts baseball IQ,” in the words of a team official. Yet, because of his age, he sets the clock ticking for this next, younger generation of Cardinals -- that first group.

“You don’t make this investment in Yadi if you’re not planning to win now,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were dominated by the reheated rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Both teams spent so lavishly and became so dominant that other American League teams were forced to try to keep up or fall by the wayside. Now there are signs that the Cardinals have been urgently ramping up to catch the Chicago Cubs after the Cubs' first World Series title in 108 years. So far, 2017 hasn’t gone as the Cardinals hoped it would, but they still believe they are taking the steps to bridge the gap on Chicago in the very near term.

That would help explain the $250 million they already have shelled out for players, not to mention their big outlays on the international front, with more spending likely to come next winter. The Cardinals' $1.1 billion deal with Fox Sports Midwest starts in 2018.

“Clearly, understanding what you have coming in is helpful in any decision-making or planning process, but this all fits into the road map we were already following,” Mozeliak said. “As we understand what we want the club to look like, when you look at it in one-year, three-year or five-year sets of lenses, we feel like keeping these players intact was what we wanted to do.”

The Cubs’ young core of Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and others already forged an identity last fall: champions. The Cardinals are waiting for their next wave to resuscitate a rivalry that has never had the leaguewide ramifications of Yankees-Red Sox. If the Cubs and Cardinals both finish with winning records this season, it would mark the first time since 1967-69 they’ve done it in three straight years.

“It’s going to be a rivalry for a long time,” said Fowler, a Cub in 2015 and 2016. “There is talent in both clubhouses, and it’s going to be a battle. The guys over here are at different points of their careers, and they’ve been around a little longer than the Cubs’ guys. They get a little more hype over there, but they’re all good ballplayers.”

When Jason Heyward left St. Louis to join the Cubs after the 2015 season, he angered some Cardinals fans by saying he felt Chicago’s emerging core would give them an edge against what he implied was an aging Cardinals roster. That looks less true today than it did then, so there’s that for Cardinals fans to cling to, at the very least. Fifteen of the Cardinals’ 25 active players have yet to celebrate their 30th birthday. They rank in the bottom half of major league rosters by average age. The “average” Cardinal is 28.8 years old.

Fowler said he felt comfortable the Cardinals would return to their winning ways based on the tradition of the team. He said he never inquired about Mozeliak's road map when he was discussing signing with the team.

“My job is to come here and play every day,” Fowler said. “Mo knows what he’s doing. You trust the process up there. I wouldn’t come to an organization that I didn’t trust.”

Piscotty sifted through the Cardinals’ offer and, after determining he would have to significantly outperform last season to earn more through the arbitration process, he signed a six-year, $33.5 million extension. Part of his motivation for sacrificing prime earning years in free agency was the opportunity to grow with the rest of this team’s young core, he said.

“There were a lot of motivations for doing it, but that’s absolutely one of them,” he said. “This team, I think, is really beginning to form its own identity, and it’s a good one.”

After Piscotty's agent approached him about the extension, Mozeliak felt compelled to explore it, and not only because it could save the team future dollars. The Cardinals have long viewed Piscotty as a potential leader of the young core they have shifted their focus to.

“I don’t even think we’ve begun to see the best of Stephen Piscotty,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “I think you’re always making bets on people. This is a guy who is about competing, and he wants to be here and let his talent shine and help this team win. Those are the right things to say, but this guy believes that.”

If things go as the Cardinals envision, Martinez will anchor a pitching staff that will be fortified by the addition of Alex Reyes, who is missing this season because of Tommy John surgery, and the pitchers currently working at Double-A Springfield, including flamethrower Sandy Alcantara. The group of position players led by Piscotty will include catcher Carson Kelly, outfielder Harrison Bader and, eventually, slick-fielding shortstop Delvin Perez.

In other words, the notion is to hold the line until they can catch the Cubs and, if Molina can work his magic, maybe make a little noise in the interim.