Will the St. Louis Cardinals make a comeback from a hideous 2023 and return to the postseason in 2024? The question is at the top of my list as I start thinking about baseball’s new year.
I don’t know if it will be a Happy New Year for the Redbirds, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
OK, onto the questions that apply to the Cardinals in the early-bid days of 2024. This inventory will be updated, if necessary, pending on additional roster moves (or not) made by the Cardinals before the start of the 2024 regular season.
1. Have the Cardinals done enough to be a playoff team in 2024?
Answer: Maybe. But much depends on what other teams do in the National League. As I relayed to you in a recent column, the six NL wild-card qualifiers averaged 89 wins over the last two seasons under the expanded playoff format. And other than the 2022 Mets, who had 101 victories, the other five NL wild carders averaged 86.8 wins. And none of the five won more than 90 regular season games. Last season Arizona and Miami made it to the tournament after winning only 84 reg-season games. The last two NL pennant winners, Philadelphia and Arizona, averaged only 85.5 wins during the regular season. So in that context, STL’s improved starting-pitching rotation might be enough to get this team back into the playoffs. As for the NL Central, in the last four full seasons, the division champ averaged 92.75 wins.
2. Hold on a minute. What the heck is this talk about 85.5 wins? Isn’t the goal to win the NL pennant and the World Series?
Answer: Yes, of course. But first, I don’t run the Cardinals. I don’t set or control the payroll. And the second obvious point: You can’t compete for pennants and championships and plan parades unless you check the first item on the must-do list and qualify for the gosh-durned make playoffs. The postseason is filled with random adventures. All teams – big spenders or otherwise – have to get hot at the right time. And that can be done. The 2006 Cardinals. The 2011 Cardinals. And in 2023, Texas (90 wins) and Arizona (84) went on postseason runs that ended in a World Series matchup between them. But it makes sense to strengthen your roster’s capabilities to give your team a more favorable chance for postseason success. This can also be done at the annual MLB trading deadline. Among other moves, the 2023 Rangers received a significant boost by acquiring starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery from the Cardinals.
3. Bernie, you’re kinda sounding like a homer. What’s up with that?
Answer: Not guilty. I’ve been ripping the Cardinals for the Cardinals since they began playing lousy baseball in April of 2023. I spent much of the season blasting their decline in defense, baserunning and other fundamentals – critical flaws that were largely ignored elsewhere in the St. Louis media. But I’m giving the pragmatic answer here; based on the current and recent landscape the Cardinals can grind their way into the postseason.
I know it’s common in our village to blast ownership and the front office for everything and anything, but I try to maintain some perspective. I really liked the signings of free-agent starting pitchers Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn … but I also recognize their potential vulnerabilities. That’s baseball. There’s a lot of thick gray area in the offseason before teams actually start playing real baseball. But to get more on point: I’m just providing the recent NL track record of what’s required to make the postseason. It doesn’t mean that I’m confident in the Cardinals to make it. Not now, anyway. That could change later.
How about an outside view? My friend Dan Szymborski wrote this in assessing the current state of the 2024 Cardinals when discussing the team’s ZiPS forecast:
“ZiPS sees the Cardinals as having patched up enough of their immediate problems to return to winning 85-90 games, depending on what, if anything, the rest of the NL Central does this winter. Like most teams that have a suddenly horrific season, the Cardinals have become underrated in the public eye, and the hastily reassembled rotation, coupled with a solid bullpen and an above-average offensive core, could very well take one of baseball’s weakest divisions.”
4. OK, here in early January, what is the Cardinals’ primary need?
Answer: The bullpen must be the priority but it isn’t the only area of need. I like young lefty Zack Thompson, who figures to be the next starter in line should the structured five-man rotation get hit by injuries, disappointing performances or a combination of the two. This is an opinion shared by legions in Cardinal Nation, but I’d like to see president of baseball operations John Mozeliak add another starter with an established body of work at the big-league level. But at some point, Thompson will get the chance to prove himself as a major-league starter, and I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest he could help the Cardinals in 2024. The problem with that – what I just said – is this: we just don’t know. And I’d like to have more certainty about the starting-pitching depth. But if you’re still pining for a huge expenditure for a starting pitcher … no need to torment yourself. Ain’t gonna happen. So keep your blood pressure down.
5. What about the bullpen?
Answer: Important issue. My concern is a familiar one – the Cardinals’ habit of overestimating what they already have. But I also believe they’ll address the bullpen. They need to add high-leverage impact. I don’t want to see another marginal, iffy “maybe he can do it” type of move or two. The Cardinals have to be aggressive here.
The reliever market has been slow to play out. As of Wednesday morning, a gaggle of good relievers were available on the free-agent market: right-handers Jordan Hicks, Robert Stephenson, Hector Neris and Phil Maton plus lefties Josh Hader, Aroldis Chapman and Matt Moore.
An expanded list of free-agent bullpen options would include long-ish relievers Alex Wood (LH), Brent Suter (LH), Jakob Junis and Alex Manea – plus matchup-type or late-inning relievers such as right-handers Kenyan Middleton, Ryan Brasier, Adam Ottavino and David Robertson plus lefties Joely Rodriguez (LH), Brad Hand (LH) and Wandy Peralta (LH).
6. Will manager Oli Marmol improve on the job in 2024?
Answer: Yes. Three reasons: (A) The front office has reinforced the starting rotation. It may not be as flashy or costly as many fans wanted, but the rotation has been solidified – and in 2023, it was a hopeless, wrecked, lost-cause disaster from the beginning of the season. And (B) Marmol realizes he has to sharpen this team’s fundamentals. And I believe that he will. And (C) for those who get fired up about clubhouse intrigue, I’m confident in Marmol’s ability to foster an enhanced team culture in ‘24. And we sure as hell won’t see Marmol and the front office try to scapegoat catcher Willson Contreras again. I sincerely believe Oli learned a lot from last season’s whupping.
7. Bernie, why do you continue to praise the rotation upgrades as much as you do?
Answer: Here’s a refresher …
– Last season St. Louis starters ranked 25th in the majors in innings and were 22nd with 48 quality starts. That was only one more quality start than the trio of Gray, Gibson and Lynn had (combined) for their teams last season.
– Cardinal starters went a minimum of six innings in only 60 games last season. The trio of Gibson, Gray and Lynn combined for 55 starts of 6+ innings.
These things really matter.
Over the past five seasons the Cardinals have a .715 winning percentage when benefiting from a receiving a quality start. Last season the Cardinals were 33-15 (.687) with a quality start and 38-76 without a quality start.
Over the past three seasons the Cardinals were 122-62 for a .663 winning percentage when a starter went at least six innings. But when a starter lasted fewer than six innings the St. Louis record was 132-170 (.437.)
We all know that Lynn must pitch better than he did in 2023. Gibson has to repeat his underrated 2023 season. Gray won’t repeat his elite 2023 season, but the Cardinals need him to be in the vicinity. But make no mistake; innings and quality starts are substantial determining factors in a team’s record.
8. What are some other areas of concern?
Answer: The offense should be solid-to-good, but I don’t know if we’ll see a 2021-style liftoff that launched the Cardinals over the final two-plus months of the season. But if Jordan Walker, Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Willson Contreras, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado come through with consistent impact offensively, the Cardinals should score plenty of runs. There will be challenges. Nootbaar has to avoid injuries. Gorman and Arenado have been bothered by back pain, and that can’t become a major ordeal. Goldschmidt is going into his age 36 season, and his numbers dropped last season – but his revealing Statcast hitting metrics were as impressive as ever. And wouldn’t it be nice if Dylan Carlson – and his bat – showed some life?
9. Will there be a surprising, largely unexpected performance from a St. Louis hitter in 2024?
Answer: I nominate corner outfielder Alec Burleson. I think the big fella can break out in ‘24. But will he receive enough at-bats to make it happen? Burleson can back up Goldschmidt at first base, and he can be used as a DH. So we’ll see. But after the All-Star break last season, Burleson improved his batting average by 51 points, his onbase percentage by 44 points, his slugging percentage by 48 points, and his OPS by 92 points. After having such terrible batted-ball luck in the first half – with a .227 average on balls in play – Burly’s luck improved in the second half with a more normal .307 average on balls in play.
10. After last season’s acclimation phase will rookie shortstop Masyn Winn do better offensively?
Answer: He’ll get better. I can’t quantify this by making a rosy prediction. But I think he’ll improve for a simple reason: based on the meaningful data available at Statcast, Wynn made positive progress late in the regular season.
First of all, I want to give a tip of my Urban Chestnut cap to baseball analyst Dayn Perry – and if you care about the Cardinals you definitelyy need to subscribe to the excellent “Birdy Work,” his Substack blog on the team.
Dayn enlightened us on Winn’s hopeful change in his hitting indicators. I won’t run through all of the numbers but our pal Perry broke it down to make us aware of Winn’s improvement from his first month in the big leagues to the second month.
After struggling across the board in August, Winn did much better in September-October. His hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and average exit velocity went up. His chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone went from 35.8 percent in August to 21.4% during the final month. And that led to a much lower strikeout rate (16.7%) and a substantially higher walk rate (10.4%) in Sept-Oct.
By season’s end Winn’s traditional stats were poor, but that didn’t surprise me given his youth (age 21) and development pattern of improving and cranking out healthy numbers once he got through a learning-curve stage after moving up a level in the minors. In Sept-Oct there were clear signs of Winn making smart adjustments. That trend will likely continue in 2024. But is it unreasonable for me to suggest having some patience? The public overreaction to Winn’s early-majors struggles was absurd. The Cardinals will stick with Winn at shortstop because they’re committed to having Tommy Edman be the starter in center field.
11. Will chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. increase the payroll in a meaningful way?
Answer: First of all, much of that will be determined by what the Cardinals do for the remainder of the offseason. But if we’re using the 40-man competitive payroll tax payroll as the reference point, the Cardinals are at a projected $204 million according to Cots Contracts. That currently ranks 10th among the 30 MLB teams. They were around $200 million last season until offloading salaries at the trade deadline. At the end of the season STL’s 40-man payroll was $186.5 million according to Cots. That ranked 16th in the majors. I’d be surprised if the current $204 million projection stays the same; I expect that we’ll see an increase. How much? I don’t know. But if the Cardinals are serious about upgrading their bullpen, the evidence will be displayed in their 40-man payroll investment.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.