Tate | Cubs have played the right hand, while Cardinals stagger

 

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Jason Heyward's parents graduated from Dartmouth, so it is logical that he is blessed with smarts.

And when, as a free agent, he weighed incredible long-term offers in early December 2015, he made a decision that was not only in his best interest but foretold the future of the Midwest's premier baseball rivalry. He chose $184 million over eight years from the Cubs ... for a reason beyond dollars.

As he correctly analyzed as a member of Cardinals in 2015, the St. Louis core was aging ... Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, Adam Wainwright. Then, too, Carlos Martinez projected as a magnificent enigma.

If Heyward had a hole in his swing — was anyone worse in 2016? — he would surround himself with plenty of run producers. And they were young. And vibrant. Some months later, the explosive sextet of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras combined for seven hits in an 8-7 win over Cleveland that marked the Cubs' first World Series title in 108 years.

Decade of success

To be sure, the Cubbies are wild swingers and strike out too much (who doesn't these days). But they pack power, and have demonstrated with consecutive 97-, 103-, 92-, and 95-win seasons that puts them 34 wins better than the Cardinals in four-plus campaigns.

The healthy core continues to produce, and is supported by incredible financial growth that allows the Ricketts family to acquire pitching: $23.5 million for Jon Lester this year, and $20 million apiece for Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, not to mention $43 million over three years in the hope Craig Kimbrel can resolve an ongoing bullpen issue.

Purchased in 2009 for $700 million, the franchise is now valued at more than $3 billion by Forbes. Cubs revenue has more than tripled since 2001 from $131 million to $450 million ahead of their new cable network that will be unveiled in 2020.

Who would have imagined, after a century-plus of faulty management and erratic play, that the Cubs would turn a last place 73-89 team in 2014 into an operation that is halfway toward what carries the look of a decade-long run of serious contention?

Hanging around

And where are the Cardinals while all this was going on?

Well, they tend to hang on. They've under-performed much of this season and have dropped 15 of 23 road games since May 1. And yet, with the Cubs and Brewers backing up, their 40-36 record leaves them just one game back.

Oh, they had grander plans, and the joy surrounding the return of 39-year-old Albert Pujols in town (for the first time in seven-plus years) reminds that the Cardinals now benefit from avoiding the $59 million he'll receive from the Angels over the final two years of his declining career.

As for those plans:

— Careful not to trade away their "treasure trove" of young fireballers, they miscalculated and find themselves short of starters, and seemingly confused as how to proceed with Michael Wacha, Martinez and once-promising Alex Reyes ... or how long Wainwright, who'll be 38 in August, can last.

— No National League staff is worse against the league's lineup of left-handed hitters, a shortcoming related to inadequate southpaws, and they're barely able to trust Andrew Miller, whose two-year, $25 million salary is a seeming bust.

— Rival shifts have dramatically reduced Matt Carpenter's effectiveness (he's hovering under .220). And a rejected first baseman, Luke Voit, entered the weekend displaying more power for the Yankees (17 home runs, 46 RBI) than the more expensive Paul Goldschmidt (14 and 31) ... Goldschmidt slid from 120 RBI in 2017 to 83 last year, and 30 major leaguers have more homers this season.

— And then there's the outfield ... a unsigned run producer (20 home runs) with an ailing arm in left field, a fleet center fielder whose whiffs remind of Randal Grichuk, a right fielder retained only because his contract is so lucrative, and an alternate who received a two-year contract simply because the Cardinals expect the NL to approve the designated hitter in 2020.

For all this, and even as they find new and unique ways to lose (picked off second, huh?), the Cardinals hang around in this world of home run or no count. But if their win total languishes in the 80s for the fourth straight year, the results aren't likely to be pleasant.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.