Cubs-Cards now 'a rivalry in more than name alone'

January 18th, 2016

Shortly after the Cubs were swept by the Mets in the National League Championship Series, Tom Ricketts met with Theo Epstein to go over the team's offseason wish list.

At the end, Epstein added the obligatory word of caution, warning the team's owner that it was unlikely the market would behave the way they hoped it would. Then he ran the table, landing Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey while re-signing Trevor Cahill, who had revived his career in 2015.

When Ricketts sat down with Heyward for the first time, he asked the former Cardinal why he had picked the Cubs over his other opportunities.

"I wanted to be part of a winning culture," Heyward said.

Ricketts beamed.

"Gee," Ricketts said. "Nobody has ever said that before."

To the north of the New Madrid Fault Line, baseball's tectonic plates have shifted wildly. This should be to the delight of fans, especially if those who like fierce competition and pitched rivalries.

While Cubs-Cardinals has always meant a lot to the fans in Chicago and St. Louis, it often paled in comparison to baseball's richest rivalries, Dodgers-Giants and Yankees-Red Sox. The teams were almost never strong at the same time, with the Cubs only sporadically fulfilling their end of the bargain.

But with Joe Maddon arriving at Wrigley Field along with an enviable wave of young talent, that changed last season. When the teams played an intense weekend series in September, Joe Strauss, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist who recently passed away from leukemia, declared that Cubs-Cards was finally "a rivalry in more than name alone."

Strauss hit the nail on the head.

And that was before two turns of events that have given the Cardinals a pronounced mission in 2016 -- turn back the Cubs and demonstrate to a demanding fan base that the sky is not falling.

Turning the rivalry on its head:

• When the teams met in the postseason for the first time, the Wild Card-winning Cubs pounded nine home runs on back-to-back nights at Wrigley Field, including a monstrous shot onto the right-field video board by rookie Kyle Schwarber, to win the NL Division Series, 3-1.

• Then Epstein poached Heyward and Lackey from the Cards in free agency. They were the WAR leaders on baseball's winningest team last year, helping a St. Louis team playing without ace Adam Wainwright win 100 games.

Between them, Heyward and Lackey were worth 12.2 wins. They're joining a Cubs team that got 19.0 WAR from NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the team leader who (like Heyward) will play at age-26 this season.

You can see why the Cubs are the favorites of statistical analysts as well as sentimentalists this season.

Fangraphs has the Cubs pegged for a Major League-best 95 victories this season in its Steamer projections. It has the Cardinals down for decline of 16 wins, to 84. If that's correct, they could miss the postseason for the first time since 2010, ending the longest run of postseason appearance in franchise history.

But only the cold calculus of a logarithm or a dope could dismiss the competitiveness of St. Louis players like Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday. And no one who knows anything about Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and the franchise he oversees would expect it to cede control of the NL Central to its rivals.

No team has played its best baseball in October more often than the Cards. Consider the most recent NLDS an exception to the rule.

Also, don't forget that the Cardinals were missing young right-hander Carlos Martinez and pitching Wainwright and an ailing Lance Lynn (Tommy John surgery in November) out of the bullpen when the Cubs rode Arrieta and their young bashers to the series victory that Chicagoans believe shifted the balance of power in their favor.

While the Cubs have been baseball's biggest spenders in the offseason, the Cardinals have maneuvered conservatively. They were outbid in efforts to land David Price and to retain Heyward, but general manager John Mozeliak didn't just push that money over to the next best free agent -- a strategy that often blows up on teams.

The Cards' big investment was a five-year, $80 million deal to Mike Leake, who replaces Lackey in the rotation. He's counting heavily on his young hitters, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, to improve a lineup that was 11th in scoring in the NL last season. They're probably not going to outslug many teams, but they have mastered the art of winning efficiently.

Mike Matheny will have his team prepared when April comes around. Ditto Maddon.

Luckily we won't have to wait long to see them on the field together, as they meet at Busch Stadium April 18-20. Every game between the rivals has a chance to turn into an epic.

Recent developments favor the Cubs, but history is with the Cardinals. The one thing we know is that ballparks will be jumping every time they meet in a rivalry that appears headed into its most intriguing chapter.