Will the 2024 Cardinals return the franchise to glory? Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But after the hellscape of 2023, a winning season and a reappearance in the playoffs are reasonable goals, and certainly within reach.

It isn’t loony-tunes to think the Cardinals can do a lot better in 2024. That’s why I’ve been doing a series of columns that identify aspects of the team that engender some optimism.

Part One: Improved starting pitching.

Part Two: The sharpening of defense, baserunning and other fundamentals.

Part Three: An upturn on offense from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

Now it’s time for the next installment of my Cautious Optimism Report. As usual, I’ll include a “Yeah, but!” rider to explain why my optimism could get busted.

Reason No. 4
Clubhouse Culture
Stronger Leadership
More Accountability

This offseason has included voluminous talk about reconditioning the clubhouse culture. And how important this can be to the team’s success in 2024.

Questions:

1. Why didn’t we hear a lot more about this during the wretched 2023 season? Or maybe I’m wrong about this. There was a controversy with Tyler O’Neill’s lack of hustle and manager Oli Marmol roasting him publicly. There was the ridiculous Willson Contreras controversy with whining pitchers blaming him for their own failures – and Marmol responding (terribly) by benching the first-year Cardinal catcher. So maybe that covers it. But I don’t think so. The shock of losing led to resignation – giving into adversity – and plummeting morale. It wasn’t a jolly place. And the team collectively lost its competitive edge.

2. Does clubhouse culture really matter, or is it little more than the typical buzz-word terminology – a tiresome cliche that’s been overused by just about every danged professional sports franchise in North America?

Two answers: (A) the great Tony La Russa believed that having a good clubhouse doesn’t mean your team will win. If you don’t have enough good players, the culture won’t increase your win total in a meaningful way. But (B) La Russa also believes that a positive clubhouse environment can help your team get through bad, losing stretches of baseball.

I agree with La Russa on this. During his 16 seasons as manager in St. Louis, we had many conversations about how “culture” can impact a team. Except that no one referred to it as “culture” then.

When the 2003 Cardinals failed to make the playoffs – and the clubhouse was festering with unhappiness and backbiting – La Russa made changes before 2024.

The sulking Tino Martinez was shipped off to Tampa Bay – and the Cardinals agreed to pay his salary just to get him out of here. Others were quietly moved. La Russa formed a leadership council of players and encouraged them to come to him with grievances and suggestions for ways to make the team better. And TLR really wanted the team leaders to speak up and air it all out. Which they did. And not just the baseball stuff – but also in matters related to travel, dress codes, and other factors that could raise morale and keep it strong.

La Russa’s proactive initiative made a difference; just look at what the Cardinals accomplished from 2004 through 2006: two 100-win seasons, two pennants and the 2006 World Series championship.

Marmol has prioritized a rehabbed clubhouse culture for 2024. And he hasn’t held back. Near the end of the team’s 71-91 season, Marmol threw down with this:

“I want a clubhouse full of guys that has one thing on their minds, and it’s not themselves. It’s winning a championship,” he said. “So, you start out by weeding those out.”

Marmol amplified this issue last weekend during the annual Winter Warm-Up.

“There’s a lot of time invested in making sure that we get this right,” Marmol said during his Monday media session with reporters. “The bottom line is this: can you create a culture where we truly trust each other in that clubhouse? You do that and you’ll be fine. And these guys have invested a decent amount of time to make sure that happens.”

By nature, I’m a little skeptical of this stuff. It’s nothing against Marmol. But as I mentioned earlier in this piece, every coach or manager in the five major sports leagues – MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, MLS – make too many sermons on this subject, players repeat the sermons, media parrots the sermons – and it all sounds the same.

But in the Cardinals’ case, I think there’s something to it. And if anything, I’d line up with the folks – including Marmol – that believe it’s imperative to freshen the atmosphere and have stronger, more proactive leadership among the players.

The Cardinals have taken steps to do just that.

+ Marmol seems to have learned a lot from the extremely unpleasant experience that poisoned this team in 2023. And that includes his own imperfections. He’s determined. His favorite word this offseason? Redemption.

He’s sounding this theme in advance of the season. He put it out there again during the Winter Warm-Up. “It’s getting that amount of buy-in from everybody,” he said. “Do you really care about the St. Louis Cardinals and this team, or do you care about yourself?”

+ All three starting pitchers signed as free agents have been capable leaders in their respective clubhouses. Sonny Gray in Minnesota, Kyle Gibson in Baltimore and Lance Lynn with the Chicago White Sox. Yes, Lynn’s pitching fell apart last season but his teammates still respected him and he never stopped trying to lead in his own way. Lynn will push. He has some Chris Carpenter in him.

+ Bench coach Daniel Descalso is a future MLB manager. The next Skip Schumaker if you will. He was a respected voice as a Cardinals player. Straightforward, honest, and unafraid to say what needed to be said – be it positive and supportive, or candid and challenging. He’ll be effective in his new role and can make a difference.

+ Yadier Molina returns to the family in 2024 as an advisor/coach. I’m not going to go nuts on this until we have a chance to see Molina’s level of involvement. But if he’s a regular presence, he’ll help. He doesn’t fool around. He’s all business. He’s one of the greatest players in franchise history. He commands immense respect. Not having the retired Molina and Albert Pujols around in 2023 was a loss.

+ Contreras will be more comfortable about taking a more prominent leadership role in his second season as a Cardinal. He has heart. He’s intense. He cares about his team. He wants to make a positive difference. And unlike last year, he won’t be made the scapegoat by weak-minded pitchers who wanted to blame the new guy instead of taking responsibility for their flaws.

“What’s really important right here is that everybody owns his responsibilities,” Contreras said during his media session last weekend. “Because we’re grown men. We know what to do, and we know when we’re doing bad things or good things. That’s going to be the key this year. Have ownership of what you do.”

+ Paul Goldschmidt is a good leader in his own way; he just doesn’t put on a show for the media. He operates steadily and quietly and will do anything to help a teammate with advice. But he can only do so much.

+ Goldy needs help. I nominate Nolan Arenado. Hello? He wanted to be a Cardinal because of the winning tradition and culture. Well, anybody can be positive when a team is having success. The most impactful leaders make a difference during hard times. Closer Ryan Helsley is another guy who needs to take charge by setting an example. And that means taking the baseball and pitching when he’s physically cleared to take the ball and pitch.

+ As I wrote multiple times early in the offseason, the Cardinals would not be trading Brendan Donovan because they saw him as an emerging leader who wants to take on that role … and manager Marmol was fired up about that. Donovan is an intelligent man. He’s baseball savvy. He has an excellent work ethic. He never stops trying to get better. But he isn’t a showboat. He doesn’t try to play the media by coming up with clever and colorful quotes that will enhance his “brand” or image. Donovan is a “dirt” player, and that’s a high compliment. He loves to talk ball. And Donovan will talk baseball with teammates at any hour of the day – and for as many hours as necessary to get a slumping or demoralized Redbird back on track. The Cardinals need this: a young veteran, entering his third season, to step up as a leader and set the tone for others.

+ The enlarged coaching staff should help … especially with the pitching. Put it this way: this larger cast of coaches better help, or what’s the point of adding to the staff?

This should be a hungry, highly motivated baseball team in 2024.

A team that wants redemption.

Yeah, but! …

— Poor start, early adversity – and the center does not hold. This team can’t afford to be weak-hearted if and when things go wrong.

— Injuries that have consequences for the pitching staff. As much as they might try, it’s difficult for a pitcher to lead when he’s not on active baseball duty. The same applies to position players.

— The Molina Factor. He won’t be a full-time presence but the Cardinals agreed to that, so keep that in mind if you’re inclined to start mewling if you don’t see him around the ballclub for a couple of weeks. I do believe Yadier will be committed to the cause and it would be awkward if he’s anything less than that. But Molina wants to be a major-league manager, and this is a chance to show he’s ready.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

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. We’ll be recording a new Seeing Red on Monday, Jan. 22.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

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.