As advertised earlier, here’s my list of “Things To Do” for the Cardinals if they’re serious about making an unexpected run for first place in the NL Central or rising up to pluck an NL Wild Card spot.
This isn’t supposed to be an encyclopedia entry. You all know this team very well. For the most part the Cards’ concerns are obvious. I’m just your helpful neighborhood sportswriter, here to condense everything into one bundle of words.
1) Open The 2nd Half With A Quick Start: the July 30 trade deadline will soon arrive. If the players and the dugout staff want to inspire the front office to boost the roster through trades, this is the way to do it. The next seven games are at Busch Stadium. Three vs. the Giants, four against the Cubs. After recently winning two of three at San Francisco, the Cardinals know they can hang with the Giants. And in theory, the Redbirds will play the Cubs at a favorable time; that team is about to be broken up in a trade-deadline offload.
If the Cardinals get tripped up and shoved down in this first home stand, the standings math will likely get worse. And the seven home games are followed by a five-game roadie to Ohio that ends on July 28; three contests at Cincinnati and two in Cleveland.
Fellers, you need to give John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. a reason to spring into action and give you the help that you want, the help that you need. But if you mess up during the first 12 games of the second half, you don’t deserve a trade transfusion.
2) The Starting Pitching Must Be A Helluva Lot Better: Do it by making a trade, or catch a break by having Jack Flaherty return from the IL sooner than expected. And the bonus — Miles Mikolas Is Back, Really? Are You Serious? — is still out there. One way or another, the Cardinals have to line up five starting pitchers they can count on. And pardon my redundancy, but if the Cards fail to make headway in these games against the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Indians — the “Jack Flaherty Will Save Us” plan is tossed into irrelevancy. And the “Miles Mikolas, Hallelujah!” strategy won’t matter until 2022.
3) If Jeff Albert Can’t Fix This Offense, He Gotta Go: Even if he can’t fix the offense, I doubt that we’ll see manager Mike Shildt and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak hold Albert accountable. I realize I’m wasting time by even typing such a suggestion. You see, the Cardinals don’t do that kind of thing anymore. After Tony La Russa retired following the 2011 stunning World Series triumph, the Cardinals have slowly evolved into an easy-rider operation. They’ve become very good at covering each other’s backs. Is this the New Cardinal Way?
4) John Mozeliak Must Make A Comeback: The thing is, we’ve seen Mozeliak take charge, bring the hammer down and take bold action on multiple occasions. The Colby Rasmus trade that saved the 2011 team. Swooping in quickly to sign Carlos Beltran as the de facto replacement for the departed Albert Pujols. Firing coaches. Dumping manager Mike Matheny. Aggressively pursuing Marcell Ozuna, Paul Goldschmidt, and pulling off the stunning trade for Nolan Arenado. The Arenado maneuver was huge but it didn’t mean that Mo had gotten his mojo back. Remember, Mozeliak did nothing to improve the roster before or after he acquired Arenado.
I want Mojo Mo to come back. I want Mozeliak to show us that he still has a fastball and won’t hesitate to use it as a knockdown pitch. I want to see Mojo Mo return and take big swings. That’s preferable to being overly cautious, or lacking the nerve to shake things up when necessary.
Has Mozeliak lost confidence? I would imagine so, given the series of misjudgments that resulted in good players thriving elsewhere after being traded or released by St. Louis. And as much as the Cardinals deserve praise for landing Nolan Arenado from Colorado, let’s recognize the obvious: the Rockies made it easy. Just about any GM in baseball could have pulled that off. That said, the Cardinals were diligent about laying the groundwork for the heist. It was a lengthy process that paid off.
Is Mozeliak stale in the job? Well, the team has made the postseason seven times in the past 10 seasons, winning a World Series and two NL pennants and competing in the NLCS five times. The record shouldn’t be dismissed as insignificant. On the other side, too many mistakes have been made with payroll and personnel decisions. And the Cards have lost their touch at pulling off feats of “Devil Magic” — their skill in drafting overlooked gems, and identifying and signing low-cost, high-value players.
Does Mozeliak feel restrained? He can answer that, but there’s been an obvious effort to hold the line on player costs. (Pandemic-related financial losses and all of that.) The team’s failure to add useful low-cost depth players before the 2021 season was simply incomprehensible — and a damaging fail. But the Cardinals still have the 10th-highest payroll in the majors this season, so it’s wrong to call them cheap. But unfortunate payroll investments have gotten in the way of change and growth. The Cardinals tend to overrate their own players, which leads to premature contract extensions — or just bad contracts, period. And that’s a problem.
Front offices get into slumps, too. And the Cardinals can’t rally unless Mozeliak rallies himself. Mozeliak has to make his people uncomfortable; they’ve been at their best when the baseball leaders push and challenge each others. But Mo can’t make others uncomfortable if he’s too comfortable himself.
5) Here’s A Thought — Perhaps It Would Help To Actually Establish An Identity On Offense? Is this a work-the-pitchers, draw walks, and rely on a fat onbase percentage offense? Is this an offense that slugs and mugs pitchers? I’m sure their answer would be, Well, We Want To Do Both, Not One Or The Other. We Want To Score Runs In All Kinds Of Ways! Sounds good, yes. But this is when I remind you that the Cardinals are 26th among the 30 MLB teams in runs per game and 25th in combined onbase-slugging since Albert took over before the 2019 season. You can’t add Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and have Tyler O’Neill emerge as a fearsome slugger and get worse offensively. That simply can’t happen. And it can’t continue.
6) Three Outfielders Must Stay Healthy: Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson. I wrote about this earlier in the week but it’s worth repeating: the planned starting outfield has been in the same starting lineup together only 17 times this season. When all three take their spots for the same game, the Cardinals are 11-6 and have averaged 5.1 runs. When the three designated outfield starters aren’t in the lineup together, the Cards are 33-40 and have averaged 4.2 runs.
7) Just Stop It. Enough Already: Through the first 90 games, 458 opponents have reached base against St. Louis pitching without getting a hit, or putting the ball in play — and at times doing this without even swinging the durned bat. The STL pitchers have walked more hitters (394) and hit more hitters (64) than any staff in the majors. Is there a pitching coach in the house? Just wondering.
8) Take Advantage Of Head-to-Head Opportunities: The Cardinals will play other NL Central teams in 60 percent of the remaining games on the schedule. This includes 13 tilts against first-place Milwaukee and nine games vs. second-place Cincinnati. In fact, the Brewers are the opponent in seven of the Cards’ final 14 games of the season.
The Cardinals also have a bunch of dates against teams that — depending on how things shake out — could be in the Wild Card pool: nine vs. Cincinnati (six on the road), four at home vs. the LA Dodgers, three at home vs. San Francisco, three at home vs. San Diego, three at home vs. Atlanta, and three at the NY Mets. And there are also 11 games against the Cubs; not sure what they’ll look like after the trade deadline.
9) Take Advantage Of The Softer Parts Of The Schedule: Based on the current records of remaining opponents, only three NL teams have a more difficult schedule than St. Louis. That’s why it’s imperative for the Cardinals to scoop up wins against teams they should beat. But the Cards haven’t been doing that lately.
STL has 10 games against Pittsburgh (34-56 record) and can’t come up short again; losing three out of four to the Pirates in St. Louis in late June was one of the low points of the season to date. Other losing-record opponents are Kansas City (6 games), Minnesota (3), Detroit (2), Atlanta (3.) But the Braves are only a game under .500; they aren’t as bad as the others mentioned here. And again, depending on the Cubs’ motivation level the Cardinals may have a chance to collect a nice batch of key wins against their rivals.
10) Toughen Up On The Road: I’ve noted this several times, but it has to be included in any second-half outlook. The Cardinals had a .428 road winning percentage before the All-Star break; that can’t continue. The Cardinals haven’t had a winning record on a multi-city road trip since going 4-2 at Cincinnati and Miami during the first week of the season. A second half of road failures will put the Cardinals away, and start the planning for 2022.
Thanks for reading …
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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.