Cardinals, Brewers face cloudy futures

The St. Louis Cardinals have been the most successful of the NL Central's small-market clubs in recent years, and they think they'll be able to stay in the hunt awhile.

The Chicago Cubs are coming.

Not this season, obviously. Probably not next season, either. But by 2014 or '15, the Cubs again should be a force in the National League Central.

What will the rest of the division do about it?

We know the Pittsburgh Pirates’ answer: They’re rebuilding around a series of high draft picks. We know the Cincinnati Reds’ answer: They’re trying to win before the Cubs get good, trading prospects for veterans, while investing in the future, signing core players long-term.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, who met in the National League Championship Series last year, are at more of a crossroads, possibly on the verge of transitions. Both must deal with a number of expiring contracts the next few years.

The Cardinals, winners of two of the past six World Series, likely will stay the course, retaining select veterans, filling gaps through trades and free agency and perhaps leaning even more on an increasingly productive farm system.

The Brewers are a bigger question, even though they are similar to the Cardinals in many ways.

The Cardinals and Brewers ranked sixth and seventh in major league attendance last season. Each drew more than 3 million despite playing in mid-sized Midwestern cities.

St. Louis is the 21st-largest TV market, according to Nielsen, Milwaukee the 34th. That's second-smallest in the majors, ahead of only Cincinnati, which is 35th.

Neither the Cardinals nor Brewers will ever realize the lucrative local TV riches that helped fuel recent spending sprees by teams such as the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, who signed the Cardinals’ best player, first baseman Albert Pujols, as a free agent. The Cardinals’ current deal with FOX Sports Midwest reportedly runs through 2017, while the Brewers’ with FOX Sports Wisconsin is through 2019.

But the Brewers, who lost their own free-agent first baseman, Prince Fielder, to the Detroit Tigers, face one obstacle that the Cardinals do not. Milwaukee depleted its farm system in recent seasons by trading for pitchers CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and only now is starting to restock.

Meanwhile, the price of success continues to come due.

Greinke and Marcum are eligible for free agency at the end of this season, as is reliever Francisco Rodriguez. The Brewers also must decide whether to exercise a $10 million option on left-hander Randy Wolf, and what to do with right fielder Corey Hart, who is eligible for free agency after 2013.

Is their glass half-empty or half-full?

The Brewers, like the Cardinals, soon will find out.

The Brewers offered Sabathia and Fielder $100 million contracts before losing both players as free agents. They will pay left fielder Ryan Braun $151.5 million between 2012 and ’20. And they discussed an extension in spring training with Greinke, who also could command a $100 deal.

Can they be perennial big spenders?

Their owner, Mark Attanasio, says no.

“We’re No. 10 in payroll this year,” Attanasio says. “We’ve got great fans, great support. But that is not sustainable. We can’t be 10, year in, year out. But we can be middle of the pack. We can be 15. We think how much you spend and how you spend determines success.”

The good news for the Brewers is that they have spent well. Attanasio says that general manager Doug Melvin has avoided bad contracts, enabling the franchise to avoid “self-inflicted wounds.”

The Brewers’ payroll this season is $97.7 million, according to USA Today. Their guarantees for 2013, Attanasio says, are about $59 million. Thus, the team can go either way, spending to plug holes for taking a step back.

A fall from contention this season — the Brewers are 9-12, with, by far, the highest ERA in the NL — could make the decision easy. Greinke, Marcum and Rodriguez would be attractive trade chips, as might Hart. Melvin could collect a bevy of prospects, combine them with three of the top 38 draft picks (two of which were compensation for losing Fielder) and retool quickly.

That, of course, is not the plan.

But Melvin, without mentioning Greinke specifically, sounds increasingly skittish about big contracts — and the potential for such expensive players to get injured.

“I’m very concerned about the game, where the industry is going with all of the injuries,” Melvin says. “People go out to see star players. There are starting to be too many good players, not playing, on the DL.

“It does come into play. You give a guy five or six years and he breaks down and doesn’t perform, those (contracts) are devastating even to large-market teams.

“The injuries in Boston are devastating. And those kinds of injuries for a mid-market team are worse.”

Attanasio, who made his fortune in investment management, is not unfamiliar with risk. He says the Brewers face a “special challenge” rewarding the loyalty of their fans while trying to manage their payroll efficiently. After crunching the numbers, he is mindful of what the franchise can absorb.

“Your top five guys can’t be more than 50-55 percent (of the total payroll),” Attanasio says. “There is one outlier this year — the Tigers. But when you look at who their players are — Prince, (Miguel) Cabrera, (Justin) Verlander, (Jose) Valverde, Victor Martinez, even though he’s hurt — hat model probably works.

“I’ve been analyzing this for years. Frankly, you need more than 25 guys with call-ups. You need 30 or more for your team. If there’s too much concentration of player payroll (on a small number of players), you’re not going to win.”

The Brewers are not about to retrench completely. They control third baseman Aramis Ramirez through 2014, ace right-hander Yovani Gallardo and second baseman Rickie Weeks through ’15, closer John Axford through ’16, catcher Jonathan Lucroy through ’17 and Braun through ’21.

But here’s the question:

If Greinke departs, how will the franchise explain the loss of another star player when it’s drawing 3 million per season?

“We have a sophisticated fan base. They get it,” Attanasio says. “Most fans understood it was a long shot for us to keep Prince. Frankly, I would say that many of them probably were surprised that we kept him right to the end.”

Right through last year’s NLCS.

Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt takes pride noting that his team had won 16 straight series, going back to last season and including the playoffs, before finally losing two of three games to the Cubs this week.

St. Louis is on a roll, in every conceivable way.

The Cardinals, even after losing Pujols, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, hold an early four-game lead in the Central.

And their farm system ranked 10th in Baseball America’s most recent organization talent rankings, best in the NL Central. The Pirates ranked 11th, the Cubs 14th, the Reds 16th and the Brewers 26th. (The Astros will move to the American League West next season.)

“We’ve done a pretty good job of mixing in young players with veterans the last few years and having a competitive club. That would be the goal as we go forward,” DeWitt says.

“Certain players age and either retire or become not as productive. You want to mix young players in. And we’ve got a fairly good crop coming up.”

Credit for that, in part, goes to former vice president Jeff Luhnow, who is now the Astros' GM. But the Cardinals, as an organization, have become hellbent on player development.

“That’s the idea — to sustain this with internal options,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says.

“We’re not going to be able to do that across the board (at every position). But when you talk about the emphasis we put on the draft and international (signings) — I know a lot of teams talk about it, but we’ve really done it over the last few years.

“It’s not just spending money. It’s who we’ve signed and how. We’ve kept it pretty diverse, not just sinking it into one area.”

Still, assessing young talent is tricky, and some rival executives say the Cardinals’ system is not nearly as strong as their Baseball America ranking indicates. The criticism of the Cardinals is that they mostly develop complementary parts rather than stars.

Regardless, the team is going to need additional talent — and soon.

Two starting pitchers — right-handers Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook — are eligible for free agency at the end of the season, as is first baseman Lance Berkman.

Two other starting pitchers — right-handers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter — could be free agents after ‘13, along with right fielder Carlos Beltran and shortstop Rafael Furcal.

Three Cardinals are under contract beyond ’13 — left fielder Matt Holliday, catcher Yadier Molina and left-hander Jaime Garcia, all of whom are under club control through ’17.

The Cardinals surely will retain some of their potential free agents. But Carpenter is 37, Berkman 36, Beltran, 35, Furcal 34. A changing of the guard is inevitable.

The Cardinals think they’re prepared.

Right-hander Lance Lynn, who turns 25 on May 12, is 4-0 with a 1.33 ERA. Right-handers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are among the game’s top pitching prospects. And two other righties, Trevor Rosenthal and Tyrell Jenkins, are ascending rapidly.

The Cardinals also boast a number of intriguing position prospects: outfielder Oscar Taveras, first baseman Matt Adams, second baseman Kolten Wong and third baseman Zack Cox. And the team holds five of the top 59 draft picks this year, thanks to the free-agent defections of Pujols, right-hander Edwin Jackson and reliever Octavio Dotel.

No one with the Cardinals will say it, but the day Pujols signed with the Angels was Independence Day for the franchise, enabling the team to retain long-term payroll flexibility.

The Cardinals’ $110.3 million payroll ranks ninth in the majors, and DeWitt expects that the club will continue spending judiciously while balancing its budget with younger players.

“I don’t see our club in the foreseeable future all of a sudden just going young. That’s not the plan,” DeWitt says.

“Our goal is to be competitive every year. To be competitive, you have to have enough veterans to lead and carry the club. You can have young, talented players. But if you go all young, it’s pretty hard to win.”

The Cardinals know how to win. They’re the only team from the NL Central to win the World Series in the past 21 seasons, and they’ve done it twice.

The Cubs are coming. The other teams in the Central are plotting. But the Cardinals remain the division’s exemplary child, the most likely to succeed.

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