Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Human Cost of Victory..

On Twitter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Joe Strauss has aired suspicions that the Cardinals heavy use of Fernando Salas in their drive to the World Series (and to a lesser extent jerking Kyle McClellan from the starting rotation to the bullpen) has contributed to their problems this year.

I'll say what the Cardinals management can'ts ay:  If we assume this is true, it was worth it.

From the Cardinals perspective, only one out of the thirty teams each year wins the World Series, and a handful have a legitimate shot of doing so.  The Cardinals last year:

  • Overcame an 8 1/2 game deficit in the final month of the season to claim the NL's final playoff spot on the last day of the season by a single game.
  • Won the divisional series over the Phillies in 5 games (the maximum), with the fifth game being a 1-0 victory.
  • Won the LCS over the Brewers in a relatively comfortable six games.
  • Won the World Series over the Rangers in seven games, including an improbable come from behind win in 11 innings in Game 6.

Obviously, the Cardinals had little margin for error, or conserving their use of some players to ensure their future success.  It's possible that if Salas pitched even one fewer inning in 2011, there'd be one fewer banner hanging at Busch Stadium.

But so what?  I'm not one who believes that championships are everything.  What if the Cardinals ruined Salas's career?  Just for one measly championship?

Well, it seems that the pitcher who enjoys a long, injury-free career is a freak among freaks.  It seems that every pitcher, no matter how carefully he is used, or how strong he is, eventually succumbs to an arm injury.  Throwing a baseball with the speed and movement major league baseball pitchers do seems to be something most humans can only do so many times.  Most pitchers will ultimately break down, and nobody's figured out how to prevent it yet, or what to do to stop it.

Plus, this isn't Stephen Strasburg we're talking about.  Salas bounced between various roles in the Cardinals' bullpen last year, eventually landing in a middle relief /setup man role, and that's probably where his future lies.  Try to name five pitchers who have sustained success in that role over several years.  If pitchers are volatile and tend to break down, relief pitchers are even more volatile.   Teams spend millions to construct a bullpen, only to see them break down.  Others construct their bullpens from cast-offs and career minor leaguers, and see great success.  

So from the Cardinals perspective, it certainly seems worthwhile to risk the possible future career of a middle reliever to make a successful run at a World Championship.

But what about Salas's perspective?

Well, reading things like Bob Ojeda's reflections on his career, and reflecting on my own experience, my suspicion is he would say it's worth it as well.

There's only so many chances a player may have to win a World Championship. Would Salas be happier if the Cardinals finished a game or two out of the Wild Card last year, and he was enjoying similar individual success this year?  Maybe, but I suspect not.  

I think the same is true for all of us.  We will have a finite number of opportunities to be part of something truly extraordinary, and it will require some sacrifice for us.  We can pass, in order to preserve the opportunity to continue to produce mediocrity, or we can "go all in" and commit ourselves to making this extraordinary thing happen, and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

The Cardinals and Fernando Salas chose to pursue a championship in 2011, even at a possible cost to his future production.  I think they made the right call, and it challenges me to do the same.
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