Less than two weeks ago, the Cardinals were expelled from the postseason after competing in only two days of baseball. The loss to the Philadelphia Phillies was sudden and stunning. For the Cardinals and their fans the disappointment lingers on, lasting much longer than the knockout itself.
We had so much fun for six months, merrily riding along on a long trip through time highlighted by the triumphant return of Albert Pujols for his final big-league season. The official farewell of Pujols and Yadier Molina came too soon. The fantasy of a World Series championship was just that … a daydream.
I’ve been rethinking the Cardinals’ expiration. I’d like to believe I’ve shaped a more reasonable perspective over the last 10 days or so … and upon further review we shouldn’t be shocked.
How good were the Cardinals, anyway? They flourished by playing a relatively easy schedule, with only 40 percent of their regular-season games coming against teams that finished with a winning record. The Cardinals went 30-35 in those games against winning competitors.
The soft NL Central provided a soft cushion all season. The division’s weak composition gave the Cardinals the benefit of screwing up early and often without any real harm done to their probability of making it to the postseason.
The division also gave the Cardinals ample time to address their most damaging flaw by improving their rotation. Simply stated, St. Louis wasn’t going to get left behind in the NL Central. But this little statistic tells us a lot: in games played outside the NL Central the Cardinals had a lackluster record of 45-41.
There were warning signs: Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt were outstanding for five months but combined for only four home runs in 214 plate appearances in Sept-Oct. It was an ominous indicator that didn’t change during the two days of postseason ball. The Cardinals were shut out 16 times during the regular season, most by a NL team and the third-most overall. In 16 other games the Cards scored one run.
A stressed postseason lineup was left shorthanded by the absence of Tyler O’Neill, the ineffective hitting of Dylan Carlson, the lack of impact at the catcher spot, and a bench weakened by the presence of good-field, no-hit defensive substitutions Paul DeJong and Ben DeLuzio.
Carrying two defense-only players on the postseason roster was borderline wacko – a team that was so offensively-challenged late in the season can’t afford such a luxury. But the roster choices also spoke to an important truth: this team didn’t have enough bats that could be counted on to produce in the postseason. And sure enough the Cardinals scored three runs in two games … and did not score at all in Game 2. The Cards batted .185 against Philadelphia and had one extra-base hit (the Juan Yepez homer) in 65 at-bats.
Do the Cardinals have an ace? A true ace? Is there a starting pitcher that can be reasonably counted on to dominate the opposition in the most critical games of the season? The answer is no. And I say that with all due respect to Jose Quintana, who was so terrific in Game 1. If Quintana was a true ace, would the Cardinals even consider letting him walk away as a free agent? Of course not. And if Quintana walks, his departure would confirm what we suspect: the Cardinals don’t see him as a true ace.
Jack Flaherty hasn’t pitched like a No. 1 starter since the second half of the 2019 season. And that was his only stretch of sustained brilliance. To use a Springsteen song, Jack has been riding on a downbound train … but yes, there’s a chance he’ll be better in 2023. But let’s be careful about throwing around the “ace” label.
The Cards have a gaggle of mid-rotation starters. That’s it. This depth serves a team well over 162 games – especially if the team plays in a mediocre division. Overall starting pitching depth was among the reasons why the Cardinals won the NL Central from Milwaukee – even though the Brewers had two No. 1 starters in Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. When the injuries hit the rest of the Milwaukee rotation — and the Cardinals added Quintana and Jordan Montgomery at the trade deadline – STL had the strength of rotation numbers that the Crew couldn’t match.
With so many games, that works for a team like St. Louis during the regular season. That doesn’t apply to the postseason. But in the short-track, fast-track postseason, it helps to have a horse. Or two. Not that this guarantees success, because aces can have a bad day. (See: Max Scherzer against the Padres in Game 1 of their wild–card series.)
But the Phillies feel really swell knowing they have Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola lined up, in order, to go after postseason opponents. The Padres had confidence in the matchup against the Dodgers because of a rotation that could throw starters Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove in winning three straight games to clinch the division-round series. And the Dodgers were at a postseason disadvantage because of a rotation lessened by injuries. The Braves were upset by the Phillies for the same reason; three of the four starters used by Atlanta in the division round were weakened by sickness, or hurting, or just coming off the IL. That was bad and untimely luck for the Braves – and that’s also part of postseason ball.
In this postseason the remaining four teams each have two – or even three – starters that can be classified as No. 1 types. We’ve already discussed the NL teams. But as for the contestants in the ALCS, Houston and New York … there are stables of thoroughbreds. The Astros’ postseason rotation features Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers Jr. The Yankees counter with Gerrit Cole. Nestor Cortez, and Luis Severino.
The Cardinals can’t match any of the final four teams in starting-pitching firepower. Period. And if that continues in the near-future postseasons, the Redbirds will be at a disadvantage in most potential matchups.
The Cardinals weren’t alone in their postseason misery. I think it’s helpful to step out of our isolation chambers and look around. The Dodgers, Mets and Braves all 101+ games are gone. And their demise happened for largely the same reasons that made the Cardinals vanish: cold lineups, big bats going silent, late-season rotation issues that carried into the postseason — and bullpen implosions and questionable manager moves by St. Louis and Los Angeles.
This is also true: the four remaining teams spent a lot more money on roster talent than the Cardinals did in 2022.
What should the Cardinals do about this?
1. It’s time to increase the payroll, and not by a small amount. The 2022 Farewell Tour generated a substantial increase in revenue, so finances aren’t an issue. The pandemic can no longer be used as reason to hold the line on spending.
2. To take their best shot at postseason success the Cardinals need to make significant upgrades: at catcher, at shortstop, and by strengthening their outfield foundation by bringing in or acquiring a consistently good hitter that won’t shrink under pressure. I’m not against Tommy Edman staying at shortstop, but he can also be used all over the yard, and play quality defense at multiple spots … and the team can take advantage of that by acquiring a high-level shortstop. The outfielder to be named later should be able to handle center field (or a corner) and also DH. The catching situation is a joke and requires serious attention.
3. This isn’t easy, but try to get an ace. The Cardinals can continue to deny the obvious and pretend that their cast of starting pitchers can trade punches with more imposing rotations in the postseason – and that would make them delusional.
4. You may think I’m nuts with my insistence that the Cardinals ownership-management must do more than make a couple of roster tweaks – and that they should be much more aggressive in improving several areas in ways that can make a real difference. OK, but c’mon now … the home attendance is strong … the revenue stream is rich … the organization is absolutely loaded with prime prospects … you already have your share of good players that need more talent around them. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is 81 years old. If the Cardinals want to go for it – I mean really go for it – this is the right time. But I’m skeptical that the Cardinals will ramp up with ambitious offseason moves.
They’re still signing the same old song. The last thing I want to read is yet another story on Paul DeJong and what he needs to do to improve as a hitter. No offense to the writer, my friend Rick Hummel the legend. My beef is all about DeJong’s utter uselessness offensively — with the front office still spinning away, trying to sell the idea of poor lost Pauly making a successful comeback. All because they’re too cheap to eat his salary for 2023. My goodness … do you folks down at Busch Stadium really want to stop getting embarrassed in the postseason?
5. The Cardinals deserve credit for making the postseason as often as they do. And unlike others, I don’t dismiss that as some trivial accomplishment. I truly believe DeWitt has been a great owner, and caretaker, of the Cardinals franchise. But here’s the point: he can do more; he can do better.
The franchise has won only two division titles in the last eight seasons. The Cardinals have been beating up on the small prey in the NL Central to make it to the last four postseasons but are 1-9 in their last postseason games … and have lost 17 of their last 22 postseason games. Lesson: being the ruler of the NL Central makes you a postseason fraud when the easy part is over.
Building a better, stronger team with fewer holes doesn’t ensure a dramatic postseason turnaround. Nothing is ever certain … especially postseason is ball. Again, in this postseason we’ve seen very good teams fall apart. But a lot of that had to do with a gradual weakening of key parts of the team due to injuries or untimely slumps. But ownership-management has the financial resources and an impressive prospect supply to give their team a more favorable chance to go deeper into October. I don’t think any MLB team is in better position to make sweeping upgrades in the coming postseason than the St. Louis Cardinals.
Or, we can all keep riding the same vulnerable carousel that leads to nowhere.
It’s up to DeWitt and president of baseball operations to make that call.
Surprise us, gents.
The fans are doing their part with their support. Now it’s up to ownership–management to step up and do its art to make this team more formidable going into the postseason. And if they do, it will be up to the players to do their part by performing like champs in pursuit of the NL pennant and a World Series trophy. And if the players choke, then they deserve the blame. But for once I’d like to see the Cardinals enter the postseason with a more complete and dangerous group of talent. Making the playoffs – only to collapse every time – is no longer acceptable.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 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. 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.