They won't look back fondly upon the 2016 season, these Cardinals. The got lapped and then some by the rival Cubs in the NL Central race, and they wound up missing the postseason for the first time since 2010. Those are goals unmet.
On another level, though, the Cardinals achieved a secondary objective, in that they remained relevant -- in fact, they were in contention up until the final day of the regular season. In an era of tear-downs and deep rebuilds, that the Cardinals have been such a fixture, such a "chronic contender," is itself praiseworthy. On that point, the Cardinals haven't endured a losing season since 2007. That doesn't compare to the Yankees current run of 24 straight winning seasons (1993-2016), but, suffice it to say, the Yankees have some substantial structural advantages relative to the Cardinals.
There's more, though. In 2008, the Cardinals finished 78-84 but were above .500 as late as Sept. 6, when they were also just one game out of first place. They'd squander that proximity in a big way, as after Sept. 6 the Cardinals 12 of 13 to fall out of the race for good. Still, that's late-season relevance. Prior to 2007, they ripped off seven straight winning seasons, so in all that's 16 winning seasons in 17 years. They haven't finished in last place since 1990.
In any event, here's the St. Louis lineup on Sept. 21, 2007, when the Cardinals would lost their 82nd game of the season -- a 6-3 defeat at home to the Astros -- and ensure their only losing campaign since 1999:
One, that's a bad lineup (Albert Pujols would appear as a pinch-hitter, for those who are curious). Two, it's one that bears no resemblance, outside of Molina, to anything you've seen in quite a while in St. Louis. This end-point of sort speaks to the sprawl of the Cardinals' streak. It's spanned much roster turnover, as you would expect, and it's spanned managers and even entire front offices. Over this span, the Cardinals have never ranked higher than ninth in Opening Day payroll.
It's something of a remarkable feat, this run of winning without ever bottoming out. MLB currently has a number of structural incentives that encourages teams to "tank" in order to stockpile high draft picks, add young talent via the trading away of veteran, near-term assets, and improve cash flow via low payrolls. The Astros have benefited from this approach, as have the Cubs, who for five straight seasons (2010-14) finished no better than fifth. The Phillies, Brewers, and Braves are also embracing this approach to varying extents.
This isn't to dismiss the eventual success that flows from such an approach. Bottoming out in the service of a brighter future is a perfectly rational response to those structural incentives noted above. If the Cubs, for instance, wind up hoisting the trophy this postseason, then said trophy will glimmer and glisten the same as any other. However, that a team is able to remain of consequence despite never undergoing a contemporary-style teardown, is praiseworthy. The 2016 Cardinals, even though they missed the playoffs, kept that run of competitive pertinence going. That's hard to do, to say the least.
So can they sustain it for another year? The NL Central figures to be highly competitive in 2017. The Cubs will be fixtures for years to come, the Pirates will be poised for a bounceback, and the Brewers and Reds figure to improve.
For the Cardinals, there's a solid core of position players returning, and they have some internal options to improve a rotation that was fairly mediocre in 2016. Ace Carlos Martinez returns. Mike Leake endured some bad luck at the batted-ball level that make correct itself next season. Phenom Alex Reyes will likely spend a full years in the rotation, and Lance Lynn will return from Tommy John surgery. Perhaps Trevor Rosenthal, who's long pined to be given a shot as a starter at the highest level, will get a look. Adam Wainwright and Luke Weaver return, and the Cardinals figure to pick up their option on Jaime Garcia. There are enough functioning arms, for sure.
You can't plausibly call the Cardinals early favorites in the NL Central for 2017, not with the Chicago juggernaut still likely to be at full strength, but mattering again is prominent within the range of possibilities. It's what the Cardinals do -- matter in the standings -- and they've been doing it for so long it's become one of our assumptions about the game.