Over the two full decades from 1996 through 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals dominated the National League Central Division.
The Cards captured the division crown in half of those seasons. They experienced just three losing seasons in that stretch, none since 2007.
That domination was even more profound in recent years. St. Louis won the division in three straight seasons from 2013-15.
It hasn’t only been regular season success for the Cardinals. They reached the NLCS 10 times over those 20 years, and the World Series four times.
Their victories in the 2011 and 2013 Fall Classics raised the organization total to a National League-record 11 World Series championships.
RISE OF THE CUBS
But the Cardinals power brokers had to be keeping at least one eye in the rear view mirror over those recent seasons as their longtime arch-rivals, the Chicago Cubs, were building one of baseball’s most enviable groups of prospects.
This past season, it all came together for the young Cubbies. They blew past the Cards, winning the division in a cakewalk. St. Louis finished in second place, but a distant 17.5 games back.
The Cubs went on to capture their first World Series crown in more than a century. With a young, talented roster, they now appear poised to reign atop the NL Central for years to come.
STILL HOPE FOR THE CARDINALS
However, fans of the Cardinals don’t need to feel discouraged at the apparent talent gap that has developed. You see, the Cards could very well add to their own World Series total without ever beating out the Cubs for the division crown.
This past season, St. Louis missed out on the playoffs. But the Cardinals were in the race right to the final weekend. They would fall just one game short of both the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants in the NL Wild Card race.
What the Cardinals need to do is keep one eye on the Cubs, still trying the best they can to compete with their division rivals. But there are also two more paths to the postseason to be had via those two Wild Card berths.
In surveying the National League landscape, the Cardinals would certainly appear at this stage of the winter to have the talent to once again compete for one of those playoff berths.
If St. Louis is in the race come July, the team is also in a financial position to add to its roster with a big trade for any piece that comes available.
Get into the playoffs, and anything can happen in a five- or seven-game series. Of course, not winning the division means that you have to play a winner-take-all Wild Card Game.
That life or death game is the price to be paid for allowing Chicago to become a better team. While the Cardinals may have a tougher road than in most recent years, they remain a legitimate NL contender.