And so the journey begins today for the Cardinals. It’s the busiest schedule they’ve ever encountered, with 162 games in 186 days against the 29 other MLB teams. They’ll play ball in 14 states plus the District of Columbia. They’ll even play ball in London, England.
Add it all up, and the Cardinals will travel an expected 35,524 air miles in 2023, a franchise record and the second-highest total among the 30 teams.
Thankfully, the Redbirds can look forward to the peaceful refuge of 82 games at Busch Stadium. Travel time from their homes? Depending on where a player lives, it’s probably 30 minutes, tops.
The predictions are all over the place. You can find projections that have St. Louis winning anywhere between 85 and 91 games.
To avoid redundancy I’ll go to the FanGraphs forecast:
– 87 wins
– 50.6% probability of winning the NL Central.
– 20.7% chance of clinching a bye in the opening postseason round.
– STL’s probability of winning the World Series: 4.7 percent, the ninth-highest among MLB teams behind the Braves (14%), Padres (11.1%) Yankees (10.5%), Astros (9%), Mets (8%), Blue Jays (6.9%), Dodgers (6.3%), and Rays (4.9%).
The national consensus view of the Cardinals is no surprise. It’s the same as the local consensus take on the Cardinals: lots of dynamite in their offense, and ordinary starting pitching that lacks punch.
As the excellent baseball analyst Joe Sheehan wrote in his daily newsletter: “The Cardinals are the best team in the division, and likely only have to fend off the Brewers to once again reach the playoffs. Unusually, for the Cards, they will be playing to win a lot of 5-4 games, as their lineup is both better and deeper than their pitching staff. That pitching staff will be facing headwinds as well, with (catcher) Yadier Molina gone and aggressive defensive alignments banned. The Cards didn’t shift a lot last year, but for a rotation that isn’t going to strike people out, every extra single will count.”
As I see it, here are the Cardinals’ most important keys for success in 2023.
1. Have a strong start. 16 of their first 29 games will be on the road. Six of their nine series in April will be played against teams that were .500 or better last season. Six of the nine series will feature an opponent that finished above league average offensively last season. In the first month the Cardinals will take on five teams that made the 2022 postseason.
St. Louis pitchers will encounter five teams that ranked among the top 11 in average runs per game last season. St. Louis hitters will be challenged during the first month by seven opponents that finished no worse than No. 14 in ERA last year.
And while two of their first-month opponents had losing records in 2022 – Arizona and Colorado – I don’t put much into that. The Diamondbacks are improved, and the Cardinals have to play three against the Rockies at Coors Field. The St. Louis pitching will be tested early.
An impressive opening month could be important step forward. Although the Cardinals appear to have a more difficult schedule this season – largely because they won’t play as many games against the Pirates, Reds and Cubs – the projected overall strength of schedule surprised me.
According to the current FanGraphs forecast, the projected collective winning percentage of STL’s opponents this year is .492. And if that projection is accurate, the Cardinals would play the easiest schedule in the majors in 2023. I’m skeptical about that, but we’ll see.
2. Starting pitching. Same as it ever was. No need to go deep here. The Cardinals’ starting pitching has slipped. From 2011 through 2015, St. Louis had MLB’s fifth-highest WAR in starting pitching over the five-year time frame. But from 2019 through 2022, their WAR ranking fell to 20th overall over the four-season stretch.
I expect to see quality work from Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery and Steven Matz. A strong career revival from Jack Flaherty in 2023 would be huge. But how likely is a Jack-back season?
2a. Needless to say, the St. Louis bullpen can’t be shaky. That’s imperative. The rotation won’t pile up a load of innings, so the relievers will be busy. I’m curious to see how much a much a healthier Drew VerHagen has improved from last season. He could surprise us. In a good way.
3. Will the STL offense launch fireworks, or have too many duds along the way? The Cardinals are capable of having a top-three offense in the majors. But their latest postseason flop – three runs, nine hits and a .158 average runs while getting swept by the Phillies – made the fan base suspicious of hype. That’s understandable. But we also should understand that the success of a postseason offense comes down to a team getting hot at the right time, and the Cardinals haven’t done that.
That challenge is in place again. But here’s the deal: it applies to all teams, and the Cardinals have company. Last postseason seven of the 12 teams averaged fewer than 3.3 runs per game: Braves, Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, Guardians, Cardinals and Rays. The Cards averaged 1.5 runs in their two failures against the Phillies — but the Rays were even worse than that. Being good with the bats during the regular season doesn’t mean squat in the postseason. Again: gotta heat up in October and go. It’s as simple as that.
In 2022 the Cards regular-season offense ranked first in the NL and second overall in OPS+. Moreover, they were ranked in the top 10 in the majors in batting average, onbase percentage, slugging, OPS, doubles, homers, wRC+ and wOBA. Albert Pujols was amazing, and he’s happily retired, but the addition of catcher Willson Contreras should go a long way to offset AP’s absence. The 2022 Cardinals put together their impressive offensive profile despite having league-average performances from the injury-cursed Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson.
Fortunately for the Redbirds, the two MVP-caliber performances by Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado produced a massive amount of offense. And inexperienced big-leaguers Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar, Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez made immediate contributions.
Look at this presumptive preferred lineup against right-handed pitching:
Seven of the nine hitters listed there have the power to hit 20+ home runs. And don’t overlook Carlson. When opponents start lefties, Carlson should be an automatic for the lineup. When hitting against LHP over the past two seasons, Carlson batted .323 with a .381 OBP and .502 slug and was 46 percent above league average offensively.
This is a stacked lineup that should torment pitchers with a menacing attack – unless, of course, injuries slow the parade route to a high-five scene in the dugout. A season after finishing first in the majors against lefty pitching and fifth in MLB vs. right-handed pitching (per wRC+) the lineup should have even more balance in 2023. And manager Oli Marmol will have plenty of options to choose from.
Lastly: Nootbaar is a rising star. Unlike last year, he’ll have a full season in St. Louis instead of a half-season. The ZiPS forecast has Gorman leading the Cardinals with 29 home runs. And many baseball pundits have picked Jordan Walker as the favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year.
4. The defense must continue to perform at a high standard. The Cardinals were second in the majors in defensive runs saved in 2021, and ranked fourth in DRS last season. The Cardinals defense didn’t rely on the shift as much as most teams did in 2022, ranking 26th in shift percentage. So the elimination of the shift won’t be as painful for the Cardinals. That said, the 2023 defense must be sharp and sure and dazzling again. Because of the Cards’ low-strikeout capability, only six MLB pitching staffs allowed more batted balls in play last season. Expect to see more of that in 2023. And expect Marmol to sacrifice some defense to maximize his offense along the way.
5. If trouble finds the Cardinals rotation again, here’s a question for the front office: will John Mozeliak and proxies be willing to trade a high-level prospect or two for an ace-caliber starter if one is available? Don’t get me wrong; over the past two seasons the starter acquisitions of Jon Lester, J.A. Happ, Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery did very well. And Monty is still here. But the Cardinals don’t have THAT GUY to lead the rotation and give the team more juice to make a deeper postseason run.
Play ball, y’all.
Enjoy the season.
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.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
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 this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant 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.