THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Baseball’s annual Memorial Day milepost has come and gone. It is a time when the 30 MLB front offices reassess their rosters, evaluating the strengths, weaknesses and areas of need.
Welcome to June.
Two months down, three months to go. The Cardinals have played 35 percent of their 2023 schedule, and their record (25-32) is much worse than expected, and the Redbirds appear on the many “Most Disappointing Teams” lists that are popping up online.
That’s fair. The Cardinals are 12th in the NL and 25th overall with a .439 winning percentage.
All is not lost, and there are three reasons to remain calm:
The Cardinals have won 15 of their last 23 games and have the NL’s best record since May 7. But this comes with a small warning label; approaching their two-day break the fellas downshifted and went 4-5.
The Cards are blessed to compete in the sapless NL Central, a place where upward mobility is there for teams good enough to take advantage of it.
The Redbirds are only five games out of first place, and with 105 regular-season games to go there’s plenty of runway in front of them.
The Cardinals return to action on Friday night, opening a three-game series at Pittsburgh, followed by a three-game stay in Arlington for a series against the high-riding Texas Rangers.
We’ve reviewed the team flaws on a regular basis, and undoubtedly will do additional checkups when updates are necessary. But what about individual players?
For the Cardinals to become the team they think they are, here’s my list of pitchers and position players that must do better from here on out.
1. Jordan Montgomery: The lefty starter has a 4.48 ERA this season in 11 starts. But his last four starts were brutal, with Montgomery getting jolted for 29 hits, five homers, an opponent .631 slugging percentage and 15 earned runs in 19 and ⅓ innings. That’s a 6.98 ERA. For the season, Montgomery’s strikeout rate is down, his walk rate is up, and right-handed hitters have hammered him for a .488 slugging percentage, 20 doubles and seven homers in 205 at-bats.
It’s imperative for Montgomery to make repairs, reset and strengthen the rotation. The Cardinals have one terrific starter in Miles Mikolas, and that isn’t enough. We know Montgomery is capable of doing it because he had a 3.29 ERA in his first seven starts. Better batted-ball luck would help; opponents have a .337 average against him on balls in play.
2. Jack Flaherty: He reached his low point on May 4, when the Angels attacked for 10 earned runs in 2 and ⅓ innings. In Flaherty’s four starts since then, he has a 2.65 ERA and has limited opponents to a .365 slugging percentage. Has Jack settled in? Not sure, but the Cardinals need to see a lot more of the pitcher that’s looked so good since the whupping by the Angels. Going forward Flaherty must reduce his 13.5% walk rate that’s the fourth-worst among the 89 MLB starters that have worked 50+ innings this season.
3. Steven Matz: After accepting STL’s four-year $44 million contract offer before the 2022 season, Matz has a 5.44 ERA in 101 innings as a Cardinal. But a move to the bullpen should help him reestablish his fastball and confidence. He could become an asset in a relief role. We just have to wait and see.
4. Adam Wainwright: Since last September, Wainwright has a 6.71 ERA in 11 starts. That’s the third-worst ERA among MLB starters that have pitched at least 55 innings since then. The only guys with high ERAs over the corresponding time are Austin Gomber (6.79) and Jordan Lyles (6.72.) This season Wainwright has a 6.15 ERA, and opponents have roughed him up for a .325 average, .371 onbase percentage and .553 slug. It’s legitimate to put him on a “must do better” list. But realistically speaking, how likely is the possibility of Wainwright improving to the level of a league-average starter?
5. Ryan Helsley: He’s very talented and often overwhelms hitters. But the closer hasn’t been as consistent in 2023. He had a 1.25 ERA last season and that’s jumped to 3.52 this year. There’s been a 10% drop in strikeout rate from last season to this season. His swing-and-miss rate went from 18.4% last year to 14.8% now. Helsley isn’t consistent in landing first-pitch strikes – 53.6% now, compared to 63.2% last season – and that’s a factor in his elevated walk rate (11.3%) that’s become a problem. The intimidating pitching is still (mostly) there, but Helsley needs to sharpen up. If he remains vulnerable, the high-leverage relief could be trouble for the Redbirds.
1. Willson Contreras: the Cardinals have him a five-year, $87.5 million contract to provide a substantial upgrade offensively at the catcher position. We’re still waiting. After going 2 for 36 in his last 10 games, Contreras has a .219 average, .304 onbase percentage, .359 slug and .664 OPS. Among 17 big-league catchers that have at least 150 plate appearances so far, Contreras ranks no better than 14th in any of the categories I just mentioned. On the first day of June, I did not expect to see Contreras with a .664 OPS — 44 points lower than Andrew Knizner’s OPS.
This is disappointing – but I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. WC’s key indicators are strong. I’m talking about hard-hit rate, barrel rate, sweet-spot rate, and average exit velocity. Based on those underlying factors, Contreras should have a .443 slugging percentage according to Statcast. And compared to 2022, he’s actually raised his walk rate and lowered his strikeout rate. His batting average on balls in play is .268, which is 30 points below league average. Translation: a lot of bad luck. Better results are forthcoming.
2. Nolan Arenado: By his high standards, Arenado’s age-32 season has been more challenging than anticipated. Compared to 2022, his batting average (.263) is down 30 points, his OBP (.310) is down 48 points, and his slugging percentage (.432) has dropped 101 points, and his OPS (.742) has declined by a whopping 149 points. Arenado’s hard-hit, exit velocity and barrel rates have never been great, but at least they’ve remained intact this season. One problem is a 20.3 percent strikeout rate that would be the worst of his career.
Defensively, Arenado’s ratings are sluggish and a little off, but this will change.
After wallowing with a .600 OPS during the first month, Arenado bounced back for a .902 OPS in May. He’s moving in a positive direction offensively, and I assume this will continue.
3. Dylan Carlson: The 24-year old suffered a sprained ankle at Boston on May 14; at the time he had a 72 OPS+ that put him 28 percent below league average offensively. That said, in the 17 games before the injury, Carlson was on a with a .411 slug and .706 OPS. That’s fine, but at some point Carlson has to light it up offensively and stay consistent. Using OPS+, Carlson was 15% above league average in 2021, the year he finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Since then he’s 6% below average offensively. Carlson’s defense is somewhat overrated; but he’s still the team’s most capable center fielder.
The St. Louis outfield is disjointed and disappointing, and Carlson has the potential to make a real difference when he comes off the IL (soon.) But that’s the issue here; we’ve spent too much time talking about his potential. Results matter.
4. Alec Burleson: The 24-year-old rookie has been given plenty of plate appearances (145) this season but doesn’t have much to show for it … though he is improving. Burly is batting .237 with an 87 OPS+ that makes him 13 percent below league average offensively. But Burleson has played in only 60 big-league games, and he seems to be making strides. In his last 48 plate appearances he’s batting .286 with a .745 OPS. For the season he has an impressively low strikeout rate of 10.3 percent – tied for seventh-lowest in the majors among hitters with at least 145 plate appearances.
Burleson is a big guy. He isn’t fast. He does not look graceful when playing left field. But he isn’t nearly as bad as irate fans proclaim on Twitter. In 216 innings in left field, Burleson has minus 1 defensive runs saved, which is just a tick below average. That minus 1 is the same as Tyler O’Neill and better than that of Jordan Walker, Oscar Mercado and Juan Yepez. Heck, San Diego’s Juan Soto is a minus 1 defensively.
We don’t know how much Burleson’s playing time will go down when the injured outfielders return. I’m probably in the minority here, but I’m not down on Burleson at all. I’m still patient. But yes, sure, I want to see more offense from him.
5. Tyler O’Neill: I’ll keep this short. He’s out with a back injury that hasn’t responded to treatment. Until he’s ready to play, he goes into the non-factor category. But if he comes backs and is bestowed with playing time, O’Neill will have to do a helluva lot better than bat .228, slug .337 and hit two homers in 99 plate appearances. Those were his sorry numbers at the time of his latest injury.
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.