The Cardinals are the major-league baseball equivalent to the Blackberry. You remember the Blackberry, right? It was a nifty smartphone with an innovative keyboard that made for quick typing. At its peak the Blackberry had 85 million subscribers around the world. But competitors like Apple rushed into the marketplace to surpass the Blackberry with creative technological advancements.
The early success caused Blackberry leadership to turn complacent, which led to a failure to adapt. The competition turned into a rout, and by March 2016 the Blackberry was down to 23 million subscribers. The iPhone and other smart-phone lines took over, and Blackberry went the way of Blockbuster, Compaq, Toys R Us, Sears, MySpace, Polaroid and Tower Records.
Once upon a time the Cardinals were on the short list of the most innovative, forward-thinking baseball operations in the majors. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. hired Jeff Luhnow in 2003, recruiting him from the corporate world. Before joining the Cardinals, Luhnow (according to Wikipedia) had worked as an engineer, management consultant, and technology entrepreneur.
Luhnow transformed the way the Cardinals scouted and procured players through the draft, international signings, and free agency. Luhnow established a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. He developed a fully-staffed analytics department, turning the Cardinals into a more data-driven organization.
Luhnow departed the Cardinals after the 2011 season to successfully rebuild the Houston Astros. The Cardinals still won after Luhnow left, benefiting from the impact of his systemic overhaul. But eventually the Cardinals lost their edge in the advanced-metrics competition, and many MLB baseball ops departments passed them by.
The Cardinals have been alarmingly slow to adapt and recognize the state of play.
They’re failing to evolve.
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has been negligent in building a starting rotation that fits into the contemporary mode. The team’s pitch-to-contact philosophically is outdated; power pitching and strikeouts are the new paradigm.
Instead of modifying their approach to contour to the new way, the Cardinals continue to avoid the present reality and have drifted behind. Since the start of the 2019 season, St. Louis starting pitching ranks 24th in strikeout percentage and 20th in WAR.
The Cardinals have largely stayed away from the free-agent market – which is probably a wise thing considering the disappointing results from Mike Leake, Brett Cecil, Dexter Fowler, Steven Matz and – at least so far – Willson Contreras.
Speaking of spending …
This season the Cardinals rank fifth in the majors in most money invested in starting pitching. (That’s for the 26-man roster.) According to Spotrac, St. Louis has allocated a higher percentage (50.6%) of payroll on starting pitching than any team in the majors this season. (Insert your own curse words now.)
I ask you: are the Cardinals receiving good value on their investment? Heck no. Once again, evidence that the front office can’t get the spending thing right.
Meanwhile the same front office traded or otherwise moved on from a list of notable talents such as starting pitchers Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen and outfielders Randy Arozarena and Adolis Garcia. There were solid reasons for doing so at the time – but no one cares much about that now. The bottom line is ugly.
The front office has drafted some exciting prospects. But given STL’s tendency to overrate its own prospects, it makes sense to hold off on making a judgment until we see where it leads.
And while DeWitt and Mozeliak deserve substantial credit for trade thefts that delivered Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado to St. Louis, the magnitude of those sweet transactions will be reduced if Mozeliak can’t put a more talented, more complete team around them.
This is crazy, yes?
What’s the point of acquiring two MVP-caliber players for virtually nothing and then sit tight and not go all-out to compete for a World Series title while Goldy and Arenado remain in their prime? Nonsensical. Brutal.
Mozeliak has hired three managers since Tony La Russa retired after the 2011 World Series championship. Instead of going with a more established manager that had substantial credibility, Mozeliak went with three guys – Mike Matheny, Mike Shildt and Oli Marmol – that had never managed in the majors. Mozeliak already has fired two of the three, and Marmol looks shaky here in 2023. (This follows his preposterous Ryan Helsley/bullpen fiasco in Game 1 of last fall’s two-game sweep by the Phillies in the NL wild-card series.)
Mozeliak wants inexperienced managers so he can control them. But his preference for malleable managers has led to only one NL pennant – and considerable chaos – since the World Series triumph in 2011.
The DeWitt-Mozeliak operation has become complacent and stubborn – with arrogance mixed in. The baseball operation made an egregious miscalculation, beating up on a weak NL Central to make the playoffs and using the success to convince themselves they’re still great – and still the standard-setting model for MLB.
And that is high among the reasons that explain why the Cardinals have lost 15 of their last 22 postseason games – including nine of their last 10.
After a brief 11-3 gush of success in May, the Blackberry Cardinals have relapsed to a 4-8 record in the last 12 games. They’re 2-6 in the last eight after getting swept in Pittsburgh over the weekend.
The Birds on the Bat are free-falling again, having dropped into last place in the division with a failing mark of 25-35. They own the worst record in the National League, and their .417 winning percentage ranks 28th among the 30 teams.
That’s right: Only Kansas City (.305) and Oakland (.197) are worse than the Blackberry Cardinals. My goodness.
On Saturday May 27, the Redbirds were only four games out of first place but now trail the division-leading Brewers by 7 and ½ games. And they’re seven behind second-place Pittsburgh.
This is the worst start by the franchise in the first 60 games of the season since the 1995 Cardinals went 24-36 (.400.) That team finished 62-81, and GM Walt Jocketty shook it up by firing manager Joe Torre and trading walk-year corner infielder Todd Zeile to the Cubs for 35-year-old starting pitcher Mike Morgan and two nondescript minor leaguers.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Jocketty wanted to create a vacancy to get a jump on other teams by putting his team at the front of the line to hire Oakland manager Tony La Russa, who was planning to leave at the end of the season. This gave Jocketty an early start on working the backchannels to entice LaRussa.
The Zeile trade cleared payroll space for the additions of starting pitchers Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre; closer Dennis Eckersley; shortstop Royce Clayton; third baseman Gary Gaetti; and outfielder Ron Gant. All provided immediate impact for a 1996 Cardinals team that won the division title and advanced to Game 7 of the NLCS in LaRussa’s first season.
After a deplorable weekend at PNC Park, the lifeless Cardinals very much look like a team in desperate need of a shakeup. The “Hopefully everyone else in the division will choke” is not a smart or honorable strategy for winning the division. And it’s disrespectful to a massive and loyal fan base that supports the Cardinals with full hearts and full-house home attendance. This team’s performance is an embarrassment, and unless this changes soon, no one’s job should be safe.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. 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.
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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.