Here’s my latest preview of the 2024 Cardinals during the countdown to their season-opening game on Thursday at Dodger Stadium. So far I’ve assessed the starting pitching, offense and bullpen.

Today: The Defense.

Unless the Cardinals display a dramatic improvement defensively in 2024, their pitchers will be vulnerable for the second consecutive year. And a substandard defense could sabotage another season.

I’ve been through most of this before, so here’s a quick review. But it’s important to know these stats because they reveal just how much the pitchers were undercut by a terrible defense. I’m not suggesting that the Cardinals had good or even solid pitching last year. Of course not. But if a team has inadequate pitching, a negligent defense will make it worse. And the bottom-line run prevention will suffer. It isn’t just the pitching. Defense and pitching go together.

The 2023 Cardinals had their most ineffective defense in a season since 1930. This harsh reality has been overlooked locally, which is why I’ve cited this stat several times and will reinforce the point again. Last season the Cardinals converted only 67 percent of balls in play into outs. That was their lowest defensive efficiency percentage in 94 seasons.

Cause and effect: because of the extreme lapse in defensive efficiency, the 2023 batting average against the Cardinals on balls in play (.320) was the highest in the majors. Even more alarming: the .320 mark on balls in play was the highest against a Cardinal pitching staff during the Modern Era, which began in 1900. I think that’s kinda bad.

The 2023 Cardinals allowed 1,549 hits and a .359 batting average on fair balls. That was the largest amount of damage inflicted on their pitchers in both categories since hit-location data was first tracked in 1988. Too many ground balls getting through. Too many fly balls eluding inept St. Louis outfielders.

Because of shaky pitching and undependable defense, the Cardinals faced more hitters with runners in scoring position last season (1,789) than any team except Oakland. And that didn’t work out so well. When working with runners in scoring position, only Oakland and Colorado allowed more runs than St. Louis. Moreover, the Cardinals were charged with 60 unearned runs in RISP situations, the fourth worst total in the majors.

The Cardinals allowed a .284 batting average with men on base, and yielded the second-highest number of hits (719) in those situations.

Considering the heaping pile of facts, it wasn’t a shock to see the Cardinals allowed 5.22 runs per nine innings last season. The pitching/defense malfunction was the No. 1 reason for the embarrassing 71-91 campaign.

The 2023 Cardinals had a 4.83 standard ERA, and a 4.43 fielding independent ERA (aka FIP.) The significance of that? Well, it was the largest gap between ERA and FIP by any pitching staff in the majors. And yet another example of how the defense let the pitchers down.

Last season’s STL pitching staff was sadly impotent at making hitters swing and miss and getting them to strike out. The ‘23 STL pitchers ranked 29th in swing-miss rate (9.5%), strikeout rate (19.4%) and contact rate against (79.4%).

The frequent contact puts bushels of baseballs in play to test a faulty defense. And in 2023, that defense could not hold. The fault lines were too dangerous, and the destructive consequence were inevitable.

From 2019 through 2022, the Cardinals led the majors in defensive runs saved, had the highest defensive rating in the FanGraphs metric, and led National League teams in defensive outs above average. Over the four seasons they had the sixth best winning percentage (.559) in the majors. Among NL teams, only the Dodgers and Braves won more regular-season games than the Cardinals over the four seasons. The qualified for the postseason in four straight years.

Now let’s contrast that. From 2016 through 2018, the Cardinals were below average defensively, ranking 24th in the FanGraphs defensive metric. They failed to make the playoffs in all three years, their longest such streak since 1997-1999.

Given the impact that fielding has on a team’s success – good or bad – we would  assume the Cardinals’ front office and field staff understands the value of team defense. But in 2023, they did not. The collapse was proof of that.

Did the Cardinals learn anything from the crash of 2023? Will they make a dedicated effort to tighten the team defense – and maintain it – as the season winds on? I would hope so. I would like to think so. But I take nothing for granted.

Just look at what’s gone down so far:

* Starting center fielder Tommy Edman inexplicably held off on wrist surgery until after the 2023 season – even though the wrist had bothered him for two years. The Cardinals were wallowing in the standings and were doomed for 2023. This would have been an ideal time for Edman to withdraw from playing and go have the surgery earlier so he could be completely healed and ready by the start of 2024 spring training. But Edman kept playing in meaningless games. And the team allowed it to happen. It really fries the mind to grasp the stupidity of this. And the repercussions are significant. Edman still isn’t ready to play, will open the season on the IL, and there’s no telling how long he will be out.

* Left fielder Lars Nootbaar ran into a wall during an exhibition game and suffered two displaced rib fractures. He’s back on the IL again after missing 49 days with injuries during the 2023 season. Can Lars please ease up on the Evel Knievel routine?

* The Cardinals should have put their best center fielder, Victor Scott II on the 26-man roster after his exciting and impressive camp. But they opted to put Scott at Triple A Memphis. They bypassed the chance to install a center fielder who is faster than any dude they have, can cover more range than anyone they have, and can make more plays than any centerfielder in their organization. He can alter games with speed and defense and manufacturing hits.

* Scott is back with the big club. That didn’t take long. Edman and Nootbaar are out. And center fielder Dylan Carlson has joined them on the IL with a sprained left shoulder caused when right fielder Jordan Walker rammed into Carlson in a futile pursuit of a drive to the gap. Though it appears that Walker was to blame, the lack of communication was a big part of the problem. How can this be? Seriously. With so much at stake, how could two major-league players have a wrecking-ball mishap in a meaningless practice game? Please plug in the brainpower.

* Scott should have been the center fielder before Monday’s outfield wreck. But it’s a shame the opening was created by an injury on another senseless outfield play. Carlson’s upbeat training camp ended with a painful thud, and that’s a shame.

* Walker was horrendous in right field last season. The No. 1 reason for that was the organization’s failure to give Walker sufficient development time in the minors after moving him from third base to right field. He played in RF for the final month of the season at Double A Springfield – hardly enough to prepare him for the majors. This was (and remains) incomprehensible.

* I thought Walker was improving – and wrote and said as much – because of his steady work with coach Willie McGee and instructor Jose Oquendo. I didn’t see all of the exhibition games, so I could be off base on this, but Walker still looks awkward out there. If this keeps up, the Cardinals can’t afford to leave Walker out there in 2024, giving away runs with his unrefined defense. They can’t have him running into center fielders. If the Astros – a much smarter organization – can relocate Yordan Alvarez from the outfield and install him at DH, then shouldn’t the Cardinals think about doing the same? Again: defense is a priority … or it’s not.

Other thoughts about the St. Louis defense:

1. I’m confident that Nolan Arenado will regroup and have a stellar season at third base. His 2023 season was an outlier.

2. Masyn Winn has the talent, the athleticism, the intelligence and the arm to become a fantastic major-league shortstop. Winn was just OK late last season when he played 318 innings at short for the Cardinals. But it was his first time in the show. He gets a pass. He should be a lot better defensively in his first full major-league season. And Brandon Crawford is there to help him. If Winn needs help, Crawford is a helluva good teacher to have in his corner.

3. Nolan Gorman progressed at second base last season, making strikes from his rookie showing in 2022. Now that his back-related issues have calmed, he should make even more strides at second in ‘24. He works hard at it. He wants to be good. Gorman has a “plus” arm for a second baseman, and nabbed more balls hit to his right. With the strong arm and better range, Gorman was a +4 on balls hit to his right side last season. As a rookie he was minus 5 on balls hit to his right.

4. Catcher Willson Contreras should be more skilled at pitch framing and blocking in his second season as a Cardinal. He’s put a lot of time into this. He has immense pride. He wants to prove that he can strengthen his weaker areas. And this season he won’t be sabotaged by his own pitchers.

5. The St. Louis infield defense should be fine, with the chance to be very good. And that’s especially true if the dugout operation does a better job of positioning players in 2024. (A negative in 2023.) But the usual outfield chaos is roiling again, and continued destabilization will likely lead to more trouble.

6. Last season the St. Louis outfield was rated below average at all three positions, and finished with minus 19 defensive runs saved. It was the second worst defensive breakdown by a Cardinal outfield since the defensive runs saved metric was first charted in 2002. The 2022 STL outfield was rated slightly below average defensively — so that makes two consecutive seasons of subpar outfield play. Fix this.

7. It’s up to manager Oli Marmol to maximize his defense by lining up the right guys – then staying with it instead of overmanaging and moving players around to handle too many different positions. In 2023 the Cardinals used four different catchers, seven first basemen, eight second basemen, five shortstops, seven third basemen, nine left fielders, seven center fielders and 10 right fielders. Good grief. Former Cards manager Mike Shildt moved players around but was more restrained than Marmol. I have to believe it’s more difficult to play smooth defense when the players are frequently hopping from one position to another. More continuity should help.

8. Brendan Donovan is definitely moveable. He can handle it. He won the Gold Glove for utility defense in 2022 and has been no worse than average at five defensive positions during his two seasons. His only below-average spot is second base.( But it’s nothing drastic.) If Scott stays in center, than Edman can be deployed in several positions. The Cardinals would benefit from that because Edman is a plus fielder at shortstop, second base, third base, center field and right field. Moving players around is OK as long as they are solid at the positions they’re asked to play.

9. Depending on the state of the outfield jam, I’m not sure how many starts Alec Burleson will get in left and right field this season but will he do better? Burleson hasn’t been a liability when used at first base, but Matt Carpenter will likely be utilized as the backup for Paul Goldschmidt. And Carpenter — while no Keith Hernandez — can handle first base. Burleson’s corner outfield defense was a liability in 2023. His decrease in weight and increase in mobility should make Burly more playable … but I could be wrong about that.


The revised rotation of Sonny Gray, Miles Mikolas, Lance Lynn, Steven Matz and Kyle Gibson has a chance to turn the Cardinals around and make them a postseason contender. But even if the five starters stay reasonably healthy, they won’t rise above a defense set with minefields.

The Cardinals won’t be able to get the most from their 2024 pitching staff without the support of a firm defense that makes more plays. Their pitchers will probably strike out more hitters this season, but this is still a pitch-to-contact staff. To improve the pitching, Marmol and the coaches must first improve the defense.

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 or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Spotrac, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

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.