Nationals fans have heard a lot about the window of opportunity lately, how it is only open for a limited amount of time and how they need to take advantage of the opportunity while they have it. The main focus of this window is on the core of the team, and who that core is or how many players it consists of could be up for some debate, but there is evidence that the window of opportunity is a lie. That evidence exists in the form of tonight’s opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals’ last losing season was in 2007, and that is their only losing season of the 2000s. Before that, they hadn’t had a losing season since 1999, and their last back-to-back losing seasons were in 1994 and 1995, two strike-shortened seasons. In the 2000s, the Cardinals have failed to make the playoffs only four times and played in four World Series, winning two. They have also finished with the best record in baseball on multiple occasions, including two 100-win teams. When it comes right down to it, the Cardinals are the model franchise of the National League.
Dating to Branch Rickey, the Cardinals have always been about building from within and their farm system has produced some of the best players in baseball history. But when focusing on modern history and how to turn a window of opportunity into a gaping hole in the wall, it is important to focus on a couple of departures.
The beginning of the Cardinals’ winning run in 2000 was due in large part to the trade for Jim Edmonds combined with breakout seasons for outfielder J.D. Drew and rookie pitcher Rick Ankiel. Adding these parts to the last gasp of the Mark McGwire era turned the Cardinals into a winning team, and in 2001 they got the biggest addition they could hope for when Albert Pujols seemingly came out of nowhere to win the Rookie of the Year and become the best baseball player of the next decade.
It is easy to understand why the Pujols-led Cardinals won so much. It isn’t hard to add enough pieces to win when the best player in the game is part of your club, but after the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals were supposed to take a huge step back without Pujols. The Cardinals knew they couldn’t replace Pujols, so they didn’t. They instead upgraded the outfield with Carlos Beltran and left Allen Craig at first to cover the rest of the gap. The Cardinals didn’t miss a beat and made the playoffs once again in 2012.
During the 2013 season, the Cardinals lost another piece when they learned that Chris Carpenter would not be returning, so they first turned to Shelby Miller, who was excellent for them for most of the season, and by the end of the season Michael Wacha was ready to step up as the Cardinals’ new No. 2 behind Adam Wainwright. After the 2013 season, the Cardinals let Beltran walk in free agency. For his two seasons in St. Louis, he was one of their best offensive weapons and replacing him wouldn’t be easy.
Once again, the Cardinals didn’t replace Beltran directly. They shifted Matt Adams full-time to first base, Craig to right field, and upgraded shortstop and second with Jhonny Peralta and Kolton Wong. It is a lot of moving parts, but the total picture is still the same. A team more than capable of winning 90-plus games, competing for the division and having a chance to play in the World Series.
The Cardinals do not have a window. They have the means and the ability to draft and develop solid major league producers and to fill in with free agents when needed. Beltran replaced Pujols as an upgrade to right field and Peralta replaced Beltran as an upgrade at shortstop. If Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann leave the Nationals when their contracts are up it doesn’t mean the Nationals’ window has closed.
A power-hitting shortstop like Desmond is a rare commodity, and a direct replacement will be close to impossible to find. The key isn’t in replacing the player directly but in strengthening other weaknesses so that the gap the replacement needs to fill is much smaller. Just look at the Cardinals tonight and realize that the only player who was on the 2000 club that is still with the team is manager Mike Matheny.
The Nationals have had two winning seasons in a row and, in a couple more seasons, will start to lose key players. But that doesn’t mean the window is closing, and to understand that all they have to do is look at the team in the other dugout.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.