THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals are 11 and ½ games out of first place with 72 games remaining in their regular season. They do not pitch well early in games. They do not pitch well late in games. Their defense is broken. They can’t run the bases without a compass. The Cardinal Way is now Cardinal Dismay.
The calendar is their enemy. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak had the blogger-aggregator-blabber industrial complex panting after throwing down and declaring that he will make trades. For the record, I didn’t pass out. But my brain was deadened by reading hundreds of overheated, make-believe, no-chance, get-away-from-the-glue-pot trade proposals that would send Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and every other Cardinal to other teams to acquire 50 top pitching prospects.
As the second half of the 2023 season pops open Friday night, we have to ask the question: can the Cardinals make the playoffs?
Simple answer: No.
Of course not.
Except … they can. Baseball Reference lists the Cardinals an 0.8 percent chance to participate in the postseason.
Technically this means there’s at least a chance, so I’ll run with the premise because it’s a fun, harmless, fantasy-based column. But seriously, it ain’t going to happen … even though we’re always told that anything can happen.
But what about the comeback Cardinals teams of the past? I apologize in advance if I’ve forgotten any of those teams, but let’s cite some history.
+ The 1930 Cardinals: 12 games out on Aug. 9, they went 39-10 to win the National League pennant before losing to the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series.
+ The 1942 Cardinals: 10 games out on Aug. 5, and then stormed to a 44-9 record the rest of the way to overtake the Dodgers. The comeback was capped by a 4-1 World Series triumph over the Yankees.
+ The 1964 Cardinals: 11 games out on Aug. 24, they still trailed the first-place Phillies by five with only 11 games to go. But as part of a wild, win-stacking run 28 victories in 39 games, the Cards prevailed in 9 of their final 11. The under-pressure Philadelphians gagged. And against the odds the Cardinals captured the NL pennant and moved forward to defeat the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.
+ In 2011, the Cardinals were 10 and ½ games out of first place on Sept. 5, and a couple of miles away from the only available wild-card spot. But STL rolled to the best NL record (16-5) from that point, took advantage of Atlanta’s terrible closing stretch, and grabbed the wild-card ticket in the final hours of the regular season.
There have been other incredible comebacks that didn’t involve the Cardinals. The Guardians in 2001. The A’s in 2001, the Marlins in 2003, the Twins in 2006, the 2007 Phillies and the A’s again in 2012. And no list of epic comebacks should leave out the 1951 Giants, 1969 Mets, 1978 Yankees and 1995 Mariners. Forgive me if I neglected to mention other examples.
No two seasons are alike and there have been multiple format changes over the decades. For the longest time, the NL and AL pennant winners would head straight to the World Series. There were no playoffs. Then the two leagues were split into divisions, which meant a round of playoffs (in each league) to set the World Series matchup. And the wild-card era began in 1995. There was only one wild-card entry in each league.
In 2012 that was increased to two wild card entrants per league. Then, in 2022, the playoffs expanded to six division champions and six wild cards for a total of 12 teams in the postseason tournament.
The 2022 Phillies recovered from an awful start to take advantage of the more generous system and an easier route to a wild card to claim the NL’s final playoff spot. The Phils continued marching but couldn’t upset Houston in the World Series.
None of the teams that I’ve cited in this amazing-comebacks rundown were 14 games under .500 at the All-Star break as the Cardinals are now. But the ‘78 Yankees, seemingly fading out, trailed Boston by 14 games on July 19. Improbably, the Yankes went off on a 53-21 spree that included a special tie-breaking playoff victory in Game No. 163 to seize the AL East.
I don’t believe the 2023 Cardinals are capable of making a serious, enduring run because they don’t have the pitching that makes it possible. And the Redbirds could have even less pitching after the Aug. 1 MLB trading deadline if the front office moves starters Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty and reliever Jordan Hicks.
The Cardinals have a 4.55 team ERA right now. From 2008 through 2022, only one team that had an ERA of 4.55 or higher in a full season qualified for the postseason. The 2017 Twins had a 4.65 ERA.
The St. Louis starting pitchers and relievers rank 27th and 29th, respectively, in Win Probability Added. And the problem is more extreme when you consider the Cards pitching staff is working in front of a set of fielders that rank 30th in defensive efficiency. Yes, that’s the worst in the majors.
In most of these historical comebacks, great pitching led the charge. If you are a losing team and your pitching can’t establish and maintain any real consistency and is coughing up a startling number of late-inning leads, then how does it realistically put together an extensive winning streak or two?
To win the NL Central, the 2023 Cardinals need the Reds and Brewers to collapse, and would have to maneuver past the Pirates and Cubs. Going into the weekend the Redbirds were 11 games out of a wild-card spot, with plenty of good teams ahead of them.
The Reds have the second-best record in the majors (23-8) since the sensational rookie Elly De La Cruz was promoted from the minors on June 6 to join an exciting Cincy lineup that’s packed with rookie production and energy. Since his arrival, the Reds have MLB’s No. 2 offense, averaging 5.93 runs per game. And over that time they lead the majors in stolen bases (54 in 31 games) and are second in OBP and third in homers and slugging. The Reds rotation isn’t strong right now, but should improve when Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene return from the IL. And the Reds, led by All-Star closer Alexis Diaz, rank fifth in MLB in save percentage.
Milwaukee must juice up its offense, but Christian Yelich has rebounded to put together his best performance at the plate since the 2019 season. The Brewers should have injured starter Brandon Woodruff back from the IL by the end of the month, and their bullpen is second in the majors in Win Probability Added. Cincinnati ranks first in WPA, and that gives the two NL Central frontrunners a huge advantage over a battered St. Louis bullpen.
The Cardinals would have to play exquisite baseball the rest of the way to even enter the picture. And unlike the 1964 or 2011 Cardinals, I don’t see a Bob Gibson, Chris Carpenter, Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina or a Tony La Russa on the ‘23 team.
Even if I have virtually no hope for the Cardinals to rush their way into the postseason, I would be pleased to see few things from this team: (1) compete like mad men, (2) get to work and clean up the damn defense that’s an embarrassment to the franchise, (3) make savvy trades to set up a more successful 2024 and 2025, and (4) have ownership and management wake up, snap out of its collective complacency and arrogance, and become highly motivated to win big again starting in 2024.
The fans give their best effort by showing up 3+ million strong each full season at Busch Stadium. And ownership-management owes the fans the same level of commitment instead of operating on cruise control.
Thanks for reading, pardon my typos, and I hope it will be a happy weekend for you. Stay cool!
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or 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, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
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.