For much of this century, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the class of the National League Central. In fact, in the past fourteen years, the Cardinals have only missed the postseason on four occasions, finishing under .500 only once, in 2007. If there is any team in the Central that someone should be molding themselves after, it may as well be the Cardinals.
That success may help to explain the Pittsburgh Pirates strategy. According to Buster Olney, the Pirates are resembling the Cardinals more and more with each transaction (insider required). That versatility and depth, which the Cardinals have come to be known for, is rapidly making its way over to the Pirates.
This certainly cannot be a coincidence. Although the Pirates are on pace to have a payroll over $90 Million for the first time in franchise history, that is not a large payroll by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, as teams like the Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays have proven in the past, a flexible roster can make up for any payroll deficiencies.
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That flexibility can also help with any possible struggles or injuries during the season. Jordy Mercer starts struggling? Jeong-ho Kang can step in. Sean Rodriguez can play virtually anywhere. Mercer or Kang could well be super utility players like Rodriguez, while projected starting third baseman, Josh Harrison, held that role for much of last season.
The Pirates may also be starting to have that Cardinals magic when it comes to pitching. Look at players like Edinson Volquez, A.J. Burnett and Mark Melancon. These pitchers were, to varying degrees, considered to be damaged goods in one way or another. Suddenly, after coming to Pittsburgh, they turned into valued performers for the Pirates. Sounds like that same magic the Cardinals were able to work on their pitchers has traveled over.
Now, in the past couple of seasons, the results are beginning to show. The Pirates have made the playoffs each of the past two seasons, in part because of their reclamation projects on the pitching side. Now, armed with a deeper, more versatile bench, the Pirates may be on the cusp of becoming a perennial playoff contender, much like the Cardinals.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, imitating the St. Louis Cardinals may be the way they can continue to make the postseason despite their lower payroll.