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Just over four years ago, Oscar Taveras’ life, as well as a potentially great baseball career, was snuffed out by an auto accident on a rain-slicked road in the Dominican Republic. In my judgment, the St. Louis Cardinals’ present downward arc can be traced back to that moment.

The compensatory moves they felt compelled to make in order to replace the guy many felt would be their next great star have left them where they are today: In need of the bat they thought he would be, and in hope that this crop of young pitchers can fulfill the promise of the previous group that has mostly failed to pan out.

That’s why this offseason is so critical for the franchise. In some ways, it has reached a point of no return. The current nucleus probably isn’t good enough to beat the Brewers or Cubs, but the wrong moves will send it further down the path of irrelevancy.

So how does this tie into Taveras? A quick refresher course would help.

Although his rookie season was rocky, you could see the quick bat. You could see that pressure didn’t affect him; witness his homer in the seventh inning of Game 2 in the 2014 National League Championship Series that helped St. Louis notch a win over San Francisco.

You could see that if he got into shape and was able to become even an average fielder, he would anchor the middle of this lineup for a while. But because real life interfered, the Cardinals had to fill a 15-year hole in right field.

They opted to trade for Jason Heyward from Atlanta, a move which cost them righty starter Shelby Miller. Heyward filled the bill quite nicely in 2015, supplying quality defense and a good on-base percentage for a 100-win team, if not the power management and fans craved.

But Heyward lasted one year, leaving for free agent riches and a World Series in 2016 with the Chicago Cubs. St. Louis pivoted to homegrown talent for its Plan C, betting that Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk could mature into everyday players.

Piscotty enjoyed a solid 2016, but Grichuk vacillated between an out and a clout, and Pham was a strikeout machine. Brandon Moss made up for that most of the year, until he went about 3-for-September. The Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the season.

Determined not to lose a bet on young players again, St. Louis threw lots of money at Dexter Fowler in the offseason. It seemed like a great idea at the time. Signing Fowler not only plugged the hole in center, but weakened the Cubs as well.

Then Piscotty suddenly spent 2017 either getting injured or making outs. Fowler was OK but not great. Pham came from out of nowhere to be the team’s best player. Grichuk continued to alternate tape-measure homers with dizzying streaks of strikeouts. The team was eliminated from playoff contention before the season’s last weekend.

Plan E was to acquire a middle of the order hammer last winter. The Cardinals landed Marcell Ozuna from Miami, and he played through a shoulder injury most of the year that limited his power. Fowler fell out of favor to the point where a reconciliation may not be possible.

Despite the emergence of Harrison Bader, who played so well that Pham became expendable and was shipped to Tampa Bay, St. Louis was offed from the postseason on the next-to-last day of the season.

Which brings us back to Taveras. His untimely death forced John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch into a series of moves. Not enough of them panned out, and a franchise which was once an October fixture has now sat out three straight postseasons.

The next move could shape the franchise for years. It could decide whether fans can look forward to future Octobers, or continue the what-if game involving Taveras.

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Bucky Dent covers high sports for The Southern. He can be reached at bucky.dent@thesouthern.com or 618-351-5086.

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