THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals have 25 games remaining in their lackadaisical and ignominious 2023 season, but there’s still plenty of things worth watching. That’s because the final days of 2023 could be a factor in shaping the outlook for 2024. The Redbirds are also chasing history … even if the chronology is undesirable.
Here are nine storylines to track until the Cardinals walk off the field at Busch Stadium following the season finale on Sunday, Oct. 1 …
1. How Low Can The Cards Go? The Cardinals enter the Atlanta series with a 59-78 record for a .431 winning percentage that ranks 26th overall and 14th among the 15 NL teams. If the Cardinals finish with a .431 win percentage, it would rank 109th on the list of the 124 seasons the franchise has played since the advent of the modern era in 1900. A .431 winning percentage would be the second-worst by a Cardinals team during the expansion era (1961-present.) That encompasses 63 seasons. The worst? That would be the 1978 Cardinals and their .426 winning percentage. MLB switched to a new format in 2011, putting 15 teams in each league. Until 2023 the Cardinals had never ranked worse than seventh among the 15 NL teams in winning percentage.
Can the Cardinals finish with the worst record in the NL this season? That’s possible but unlikely. Through Monday St. Louis had a nine-game lead over Colorado, the No. 15 team. One more thing, which you probably know: the Cardinals trail the fourth-place Pirates by 4 and 1/2 games in the NL Central standings. If the Cardinals finish fifth in the division, which seems like a good possibility, it would be their first last-place finish in a division since 1990.
2. Is Oliver Marmol secure in the manager’s office? Any chance that he’ll be sacked after the season? Answer: highly unlikely. I’ll go with NO. It wasn’t Marmol’s fault that he was stuck with a pathetic starting rotation because of the obvious front-office neglect last offseason. But as I’ve repeated many times, that has nothing to do with the Cardinals’ deterioration in defense, baserunning, gross small-ball fundamentals or competitiveness. The Cardinals have gotten sloppy and soft under his watch. This would be unacceptable for an organization that has high standards and puts a large premium value on smart, winning baseball.
Marmol is safe for the same reason that the president of baseball operations is safe: there’s no meaningful accountability, and that starts at the top with chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.
DeWitt is the same owner that dismissed Mike Matheny before the 2018 All-Star break for many of the same reasons that apply to Marmol. And that includes stirring up needless controversy with a few players. But that was back in the days when DeWitt used the word “unacceptable” to judge a manager’s leadership with a disappointing and disjointed team. But Marmol needn’t concern himself with that. It’s a different time and place for the St. Louis Cardinals. DeWitt and Mozeliak can’t have much enthusiasm for firing Marmol because it would represent another failure by upper management … which has employed three managers since the 2018 midseason.
On top of that, Marmol can count on friendly media coverage because – unlike Matheny – he’s adept at playing the media. More than that, Marmol fully understands his place is in this setup, and won’t push back against Mozeliak if they disagree on the team’s roster, direction or strategy. The Cardinals could be headed to their worst season since 1978 or perhaps 1955. But everything is fine, right?
The Cardinals have slipped on the analytics side, falling behind competitors in their own division — and many more — but there’s been no urgency to improve an increasingly important area of the baseball operation.
The only realistic possibility that I can see is Mozeliak and Marmol throwing a coach or two over the side to save face. It would be an effort to make a laughably transparent case to show fans/media the team is serious about improving.
3. Monitoring Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado: I wrote a little about this on Monday here at Scoops. Let’s revisit it and expand on it. Is there any reason for legitimate concern as the first baseman and third baseman move toward another birthday? Goldy will be 36 on Sept. 10. Arenado turns 33 during the first month of the 2024 season.
– In their first two seasons (2021-2022) together in St. Louis, Goldschmidt and Arenado averaged a combined 11.6 WAR per season. With less than a month to go in the 2023 regular season, Goldy and Arenado have combined for 5.9 WAR. That’s a big drop.
– Their slugging percentages are down. After a .545 slug in 2021-2022, Goldschmidt is slugging .451 this season for a drop of 104 points. Arenado slugged .513 in 2021-2022 and is at .480 this year – a decline of 33 points. And this season the overall MLB slugging percentage hasn’t changed from where it was in 2022. So this isn’t an MLB-wide drop that’s impacting most hitters. The Goldschmidt-Arenado slugging decline can’t be attributed to league conditions in 2023.
– After averaging 156 wRC+ in 2021-2022, Goldy has a 124 wRC+ in 2023 – a drop of 32 percent from his combined 2021-2022 level. And Arenado’s current 114 wRC+ is down 17 percent from his combined wRC+ in 2021-2022. (The league average for wRC+ is 100.)
– As I noted on Monday: Since the 2023 All-Star break Goldschmidt and Arenado rank eighth and ninth respectively in slugging, OPS and wRC+ among nine Cardinals that have at least 100 plate appearances in the second half.
One more question: if we’ve praised Goldschmidt and Arenado for their leadership during good times, is it It’s fair to wonder about the quality of their leadership during hard times?
4. What’s Up With Matthew Liberatore? And what does it mean for Zack Thompson? After two alarming starts at Triple A Memphis Liberatore was activated from the IL by the Cardinals on Monday. In 18 MLB starts over the last two seasons the lefty Liberatore has been punished for a 5.72 ERA and hitters have gotten to him for a .301 average, .380 OBP and .491 slug. His career strikeout rate is a paltry 16 percent. RH batters have used Liberatore for batting practice, putting up a .321 average, .390 OBP and .536 slug against him when he starts.
Liberatore will pitch out of the St. Louis bullpen for now, but you can bet on him making two or three starts in the remaining weeks. I can understand why the front office wants to champion Liberatore as part of justifying the giveaway trade that put the true-star Randy Arozarena in the Tampa Bay outfield. But with the Cardinals in such dire need of rebuilding their rotation in time for the 2024 season, can the front office put politics ahead of performance by giving Liberatore favorite-son status for a ‘24 rotation spot?
5. Where Does Zack Thompson Fit In? He has a chance to build more credibility and trust over the remaining weeks. Thompson has looked good in his five starts since Aug. 6, pitching to a 3.60 ERA despite having bad batted ball luck work against him. And that shows – again – why it’s beneficial for a pitcher to have strikeout muscle. And Thompson qualifies (so far) with a 25.2 percent strikeout rate that’s above the overall MLB rate of 22% for starters this season.
Look, Thompson has to do a lot more than pitch well over five starts. Sustainability is important. The long-term outlook is important. But in comparison to Liberatore, Thompson has demonstrated more talent, consistency, competitiveness, an effective variety of pitches, legit swing-miss stuff and strikeout smack at the MLB level. But will Thompson get a raw deal if Mozeliak is determined to show that he was right in trading for Liberatore?
I’m getting ahead of myself here; maybe this has everything to do with the team’s desire to get Liberatore as much MLB experience as possible during the final month. And Thompson was the 19th overall selection in the 2019 draft, so the front office is invested in him.
The organization has been in a terrible slump in drafting/developing starters since 2016, and could get a rare “win” if Thompson earns a rotation slot in 2024. But when it comes to playing politics do you trust this front office? There’s no reason to. And I don’t trust them either.
6. A Strong Finish For Nolan Gorman? This would be a reassuring development for the Cardinals. Here’s a quick review of his extreme streakiness this season:
– From the start of June until the All-Star break: 30 games, .157 average, .232 OBP, .294 slug, .526 OPS, an average of one home run every 25.5 at-bats, and a 42 percent strikeout rate.
– His first 10 games after the All-Star break: .400 average, .447 OBP, .914 slug, 1.362 OPS, an average of one home run every 7 at-bats, and a low strikeout rate of 15.7 percent.
– His last 20 games through Sunday’s win over the Pirates: .162 average, .296 OBP, .265 slug, .561 OPS, an average of one home run every 34 at-bats, and a 41 percent strikeout rate.
Bothered by lower-back pain, Gorman didn’t play from Aug. 13 through Aug. 24. But in eight games since coming off the IL, Gorman is 2 for 25 (.080) with no extra-base hits and a startling 48.2% strikeout rate.
Has the back pain bothered him more than the Cardinals and Gorman are letting on? Was the back a factor in his power-hitting decline before he went on the IL? If so, how much? Given the Cardinals unfortunate history of providing misleading information in this area – well, you just can’t rule anything out.
This is an important final month for Gorman. Because right now we’re not sure what’s going on, and what we should realistically expect from him.
7. Adam Wainwright’s Problematic Quest For No. 200: the final-season mission resumes Thursday in Atlanta. Wainwright wanted to pitch there – a final appearance in his beloved home state – to give a large contingent of friends and family a chance to see him make his last career start in Georgia. That was a gutsy choice because the Braves statistically have one of the best single-season offenses by a major-league team since the Live Ball Era began in 1920.
By withdrawing from Sunday’s assignment against the Pirates – which could have gotten him career win No. 199 – Waino draws a much tougher opponent than the Pirates on Thursday in Atlanta, and he’ll also make one fewer start in the final month. On the other hand, by changing the timing of his starts, Wainwright gets to avoid the coming weekend series at Cincinnati. It’s been a cruel environment for him; Wainwright has an 11.21 ERA in eight road starts at Great American Ballpark since the beginning of 2017.
But pitching a final game in Atlanta is a big deal to him, and so the Cardinals adjusted the original plan. Why not? According to the team, Wainwright was moved back because he didn’t feel good physically after his Aug. 17 start against the Mets. OK. If they say so, then that must be the truth. At this point does it really matter?
Wainwright’s brilliant Cardinals career is nearly over. His final season has been an unfortunate experience for him and the team. Among MLB starting pitchers that have worked at least 80 innings this season, Wainwright has the worst ERA (8.10) and strikeout rate (11.1) and opponents have pummeled him for a .359 average, .409 OBP and .587 slug. And the Cardinals are 5-13 when Wainwright starts a game. Mozeliak and Marmol have done everything they could to look the other way in an effort to get Wainwright to the finish line with two more career wins. All he needs is two good starts and a splurge of run support to get capture No. 200 for a positive ending. After all of these beatdowns in 2023, it would be a damn shame to see Wainwright miss out on the payoff and come up short.
8. Is This The Final Countdown For Other Cardinals? A definite possibility … and a likely probability. That list would include outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. But some other names could be in play if the front office pursues aggressive offseason trades to land a premium starting pitcher or two. In that scenario the names Alec Burleson, Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, Gorman, Dakota Hudson, Andrew Knizner, Liberatore and Thompson could surface in the trade speculation. I’m talking about guys that have been a part of the Cards roster during the season – instead of mentioning potential minor-league prospects that could be moved. Catcher Ivan Herrera is one example.
Some of you are pushing for Goldschmidt and/or Arenado to be traded for an exciting return. And others recommend trading outfielder Lars Nootbaar if it means adding a coveted starting pitcher. I don’t believe any of those things will happen, but your opinions are duly noted – and with respect. I’m not sure if the front office is still holding a grudge because of its own incomprehensible failure to properly evaluate Willson Contreras (his defense) before signing him to a five-year, $87.5 million contract last offseason. But who knows? They may put his name out there (again) before the trading season opens.
9. Can Masyn Winn Do Enough To Solidify His Bid For Starting Shortstop? Winn hasn’t done much offensively since making his MLB debut on Aug. 18. He has 8 hits in 47 at-bats (.170) with two extra-base hits (doubles) and a .400 slug. I don’t care about that; the whole point of promoting him to the majors was getting him valuable experience to get a head start on 2024. The expectation is that Winn will be their starter at shortstop next season, but of course we’ll be told that it’ll be a wide-open competition in 2024 spring training. I’m not buying that – but Winn can make a strong move forward by putting up a more robust set of numbers over the final 25 games.
10. The Final Month Could Help Someone Like Outfielder Richie Palacios. This is a classic small sample, but so far his audition has consisted of only 12 games and 36 plate appearances. But Palacios, 26, has impressed with a .299 average, .418 OBP and .459 slug. Per wRC+, he’s 23 percent above league average offensively with the Cardinals. He doesn’t walk much, but his contact skills have led to a low 14 percent strikeout rate. And he’s saved two runs defensively in 61 innings of action in center field. If the Cardinals thin their outfield supply during the coming offseason, the reduction could open the gate for Palacios. His performance over the final three-plus weeks could enhance his status in a reordered outfield group.
In a related note, I thought it made sense to give slugger Luken Baker a more extensive look in a lost-cause season, but that’s a no-go. Baker hit his first major-league homer on Aug. 26 but has had only two at-bats in the team’s last seven games.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com 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, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.