THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals are messing with John Mozeliak’s mind. They’re winning games and winning series. They’re pitching with authority early in games. Their relievers are reliable late in games, preserving victories without setting fire to hazardous materials.
Their offense is consistently timely and violent. Defensively the Cardinals are fetching the baseball without a series of cringeworthy misadventures. They are running the bases without making it look like a field sobriety test. Oli Marmol is managing more like Mike Shildt than Mike Matheny, and I suppose that qualifies as a compliment.
With a dull 6-1 loss to the Mets on June 16, the Cardinals (27-43) collapsed to a season-low 16 games below .500. They had the worst winning percentage (.386) in the National League. Among the 30 MLB teams, only Kansas City and Oakland were more incapacitated and incompetent than St. Louis.
At that point the Cardinals ranked 28th in the bigs in winning percentage. And then they began winning. The Redbirds are 16-10 since June 17 and have MLB’s sixth-best winning percentage (.615) over that time. They have won seven of their last eight games, and are flexing with an 8-2 mark in their last 10 contests.
They have won three straight series and four of their last five. They have lost only two of their last 10 series, winning six and splitting two.
Earlier this week Mozeliak revealed his strategy in the run-up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline, and he didn’t do a Winston Churchill. The president of baseball operations surrendered in the standings, essentially gave up on the 2023 season, and firmly relegated the Cardinals to the “seller” category.
“Usually when you’re having a year like this, it’s more than one thing that went wrong,” Mozeliak said before Monday’s game against Miami. “I feel like where this club’s at right now, we just know it’s not working intact. We do know we have to make some changes. If we can find talent that we think can help emerge in 2024, that’d be great.”
The Cardinals won Monday. They beat the Marlins again on Tuesday. They completed the sweep on Wednesday. I don’t know if this is an act of defiance by the STL players, but it can be taken that way. And all of a sudden fans are texting talk shows, logging on to message boards, and putting their opinions in the comments sections under stories.
Here’s one such comment from a reader of The Athletic: “Is it possible that the Cards pull off a 2018-2019 Blues run? We all know where they were at the end of 2018 with (GM Doug Armstrong) ready to start making trades. Then lightning struck at the beginning of 2019 and we all know how that ended. Maybe something finally clicked or reality set in for the Cards at the break. Do the Cards have their own version of Jordan Binnington? Perhaps Mo might want to go have a conversation with Army.”
The Cardinals are playing good ball. They sure are trying to make this interesting, and I thank them for providing an extra shot of entertainment value. We enjoy debates, and the BFIB are lining up in opposing (but cordial) camps.
— Should Mozeliak reconsider his strategy and keep the roster largely intact by holding onto impending free agents Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, Chris Stratton and Paul DeJong? The Cardinals can keep those guys and make offseason qualifying offers and collect compensatory draft picks if they sign elsewhere. The draft-choice compensation doesn’t apply to DeJong; the Cardinals have team options on him for 2024 and 2025.
— Or should Mozeliak remain pragmatic, stick with his announced strategy, trade assets before they enter free agency after the season, and use the sell-off as the first stage of reshaping the roster for 2024?
As you probably guessed, I have a few thoughts on this subject:
1) This is a lot of fun to talk about. And sports are supposed to be fun. We collectively go bonkers every year in anticipation of the trade deadline. But the 2023 deadline represents a whole new experience for Cardinals management; the franchise hasn’t made a notable “seller” personnel move since trading Willie McGee to Oakland in 1990. Mozeliak made his priority clear: acquire pitching, pitching and more pitching. There will be intense pressure on him to succeed.
2) My inner grouch feels obligated to say this: I think we’re being premature – this typist included. If Mozeliak had any inclination to reconsider his “seller” stance, he doesn’t have to do it now. He should not do it now. And he won’t do it now.
The Cardinals have 11 games to play before the deadline day arrives: four at Wrigley Field, three at Arizona, and four against the Cubs at home. The trade deadline expires on Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 5:30 p.m. local time – one hour and 15 minutes before the Cardinals face the Twins in the first of three games at Busch Stadium.
3) By then – or close to then – Mozeliak will have a more complete assessment of his team. If the Cardinals keep winning, he can reevaluate and see where the Cardinals fit in the NL Central standings. If the Cardinals go into a downturn, there’s nothing to reconsider. Mozeliak will get his trade on and try to make his best deals. There’s no rush to make a call here; if the Cardinals stay in their winning trajectory and box Mozeliak in, he’ll have the option to reconsider if so inclined to do so.
4) If Mozeliak proceeds with his seller plan – even if the Cardinals continue to rack up wins – then the manager, coaches and players have themselves to blame for their failure to get their performance in gear earlier in the season. Why did it take so long for the Cardinals to start playing better baseball? While Mozeliak is responsible for the roster that he filled in for the manager and the coaches, the field staff allowed problems to linger for far too long.
4a) Related note: I don’t want to hear any squawking about why Mozeliak should go for it to avoid wasting another season of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado working together as highly productive teammates. If another season is wasted, it will be because of Mozeliak’s complete failure to strengthen the team’s pitching last offseason. The worst thing Mozeliak could do is make a desperate longshot bid for the division title, pass on a rare opportunity to flip assets, and delay on the process of putting a better team around Goldy and ‘Nado in 2024.
5) I’d be very surprised – to say the least – to see Mozeliak pivot and switch to a buyer mode … or even a hybrid mode. The hybrid approach would mean holding onto some key pieces – a combination of Montgomery, Flaherty and Hicks for example. And then make a smaller move or two to upgrade the roster for the final two months without weakening their outlook for 2024. Yeah, we can continue to say that they should re-sign Monty and Flaherty and Hicks and keep them all here. Sounds good! It’s also extremely unrealistic. The wishcasting won’t work.
6) Trading Montgomery, Flaherty, Hicks and perhaps others is Mozeliak’s best chance to make the early moves to secure pitching quality and depth for 2024 and beyond. This is an overdue and necessary project and he can’t allow assets to walk away. Draft-pick compensation won’t do a damn thing for the Cardinals in 2024, 2025, etc. Getting a good return for your trade pieces is a solid way to begin the renovation, and Mozeliak can go about finishing the job during the offseason. Unless, of course, he lapses into complacency again.
7) Management’s urgency shouldn’t be a question; the Cardinals’ farm system is running ominously low on big-league ready starting pitchers and relievers. The gap became glaring in 2024, when the Cardinals all but ignored using the Memphis Shuttle to transport instant and impactful help from Triple A. It wasn’t there. Mozeliak’s meaningful solutions must come from the outside. Which is another reason why he needs to cash in his trade-chip assets. This is not a one-phase project. You can;t get all of this done in one trade-deadline period or one offseason. The roster restoration requires meaningful action in both phases.
8) The assets aren’t just pitchers that I’ve mentioned here; outfielders Tyler O’Neill (obviously) and Dylan Carlson and shortstop DeJong have been made available. I’d draw the line on a couple of other position players – Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan – but that’s just me.
9. Let me pose this question: even if Mozeliak freezes his seller initiative with the goal of winning the division – does it really matter? First of all, STL is 10 games out of first despite the 16-10 stretch. And to put that in perspective, consider this: when the Redbirds had the NL’s worst winning percentage and were 16 games under .500 on June 16, they were 8 and ½ out of first place. Yes. They really were. Even though they’ve been winning for about a month now, their deficit has only gotten worse!
10. And there’s a second part: even if the Cardinals rallied to win the division, does anyone out there view the Cardinals as a serious contender to win the NL pennant or World Series? My goodness, this organization is 5-17 in its last 22 postseason games including a humiliating 1-9 mark in their last 10 playoff matches.
This season the Cards are 24-34 against teams with winning records. And during their 16-10, they bagged 10 of the wins against losing teams. Do you think the Cardinals would prevail in a postseason matchup vs. Atlanta? What about the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Giants or Phillies?
Yes, anything can happen. (See: 2006 and 2011.) But those St. Louis teams were in a different position than the current Cardinals’ model. The 2006 Cards got healthy just before the start of the postseason and were a beast because of it. The 2011 Cardinals had the NL’s highest-scoring offense, and Mozeliak made a great three-team trade to significantly fortify a poor bullpen. And opportunistic manager Tony La Russa went with a bold and aggressive bullpen strategy in the postseason, frontloading his deep bullpen into games and decreasing the role of his starters other than Chris Carpenter. The plan worked. Beautifully so. That’s another thing the 2023 are missing; they don’t have one of the all-time great managers running the show.
My wish for the 2023 Cardinals is simple: give Mozeliak something to think about and make him squirm if possible. He’s made up his mind — SELL! — and only the Cardinals can change it. I don’t see it happening, but there’s still a little time to play with.
Thanks for reading …
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.
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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.