THE REDBIRD REVIEW
For an esteemed St. Louis Cardinals franchise that’s frequently played successful, championship-contending baseball for two-plus decades, the 2023 season is a shock to the system.
The Cardinals (38-52) aren’t used to this.
At the All-Star break they’re loitering at 14 games under .500. They haven’t had a winning record since sitting at 2-1 on April 2. The Redbirds resided in last place in the NL Central for 66 days this season – including 31 continuous days since May 29. The bewildered Cardinals are hanging out with other misfits, ranking 13th in the National League and 25th overall with a .422 winning percentage.
“When you look at how things have unfolded, I don’t want to go through every little excuse we see,” said president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, in an interview with Martin Kilcoyne of Fox 2 News. “We know it hasn’t worked. We know changes have to happen.”
While this season represents the first real collapse by the Cardinals during the Bill DeWitt Jr. Era, which began in 1996, the Cardinals have been in a slow decline for a while.
In a 15-season stretch from 2000 through 2014, St. Louis had the top regular-season winning percentage in the National League and were second overall to the Yankees.
Over the 15 seasons the Cardinals qualified for the postseason 11 times and won four National League pennants and two World Series titles. They competed in 121 postseason games, the most in major-league baseball. They won 62 postseason games, tops in the NL and second to the Yankees, who had 64.
Since the start of the 2015 season the Cardinals have a good ranking in regular-season winning percentage – 5th – but it still represents a drop from where they were from 2000 through 2014.
And during the span that began in 2015, the Cardinals ranked 11th in the majors for most postseason games played (19) and are 19th in postseason wins (5.) Over that time 12 MLB teams have twice as many playoff wins than St. Louis.
The Cardinals have not won a World Series since 2011 or played in a World Series since winning the NL pennant in 2013.
Since the start of 2015 the Cardinals won three of the eight division titles that were up for grabs, sharing power with the Cubs (3) and Brewers (2) who combined for five division championships.
This franchise is 5-17 in its last 22 postseason games and has one postseason win – with nine losses – since defeating the Braves in the 2019 division-round series.
The Cardinals can deny this if they choose, but they’ve been sliding in recent years and the reality of the decline has knocked them flat in 2023. And perhaps this can help them; they can’t recover from something like this until they recognize that their outdated model for success requires substantial retooling and can’t be brushed aside.
Losing is never fun. For teams accustomed to winning, losing is torturous. The Cardinals are experiencing an excruciating level of pain for the first time since 2007 – which was the last time they had a losing record. But they’ve been slipping and drifting and getting too comfortable. And if the 2023 season can be the proverbial wake-up call, that can pump urgency into the tired ownership-management motivation.
“When you look at what we’ve put on paper, it should’ve worked better, but it didn’t,” Mozeliak told Kilcoyne. “The front office [and] ownership know we have to do something different. This is not the model we’re going to follow. That’s something we’ll take a hard look at and try to address it, but changes will happen.”
Here are my first-half report cards for the baseball leaders of the Cardinals franchise.
Chairman Bill DeWitt: The Cardinals were ahead of the curve around 20 years ago, getting the jump on analytics and a change in personnel philosophy to enhance payroll efficiency. DeWitt made that happen by implementing structural changes that began with his hiring of corporate executive Jeff Luhnow. The fundamental, redefining changes worked beautifully for a long time, but the industry caught up to the Cardinals. Their baseball operation has turned stale, and it happened under DeWitt’s watch.
Most disturbing is the absence of any real accountability which is symptomatic of an organization that’s lowered its competitive standards.
DeWitt is loyal to Mozeliak and protects him no matter what.
Mozeliak is loyal to manager Oli Marmol and protects him no matter what.
Marmol stands by his coaches – those who didn’t leave by their own choice – and that makes it extra comfy for everyone.
Do you think I’m wrong about that?
Here’s DeWitt on Mozeliak, via Kilcoyne and Fox 2: “He has an impressive track record and I fully support him, which is why I signed him to a two-year extension which he will fulfill.”
Here’s Mozeliak on Marmol and the coaching staff, via Kilcoyne: “I don’t think the coaches have any fault in this. They’re handed the players. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, but I think Oli and his group do a really good job, they work really hard and they continue to do that. Their level of frustration is probably as real as the fan base.”
First of all, everyone who is a part of this mess is obligated to work hard. It’s the minimum requirement. You can’t brag on that. You don’t get credit for it.
Isn’t this convenient? Who will push for changes? Who is willing to step out of their comfort zone? The aggressive, ambitious, hardcore culture that Tony La Russa installed in this organization is gone.
DeWitt, 81, isn’t as proactive as he used to be. He lets things slide now. The strong leader who fired Walt Jocketty a year after the GM put together the roster that won the World Series is seemingly content with the way things are now. This should be our assumption until DeWitt gives us reasons to believe otherwise.
And as I wrote earlier this week, the blame starts at the top.
DeWitt’s first-half grade: F.
John Mozeliak: He’s responsible for the collapse of a proud and long standing Cardinals’ hallmark: run prevention. His passive approach has resulted in a ruinous rotation of starting pitchers. For three straight years, the Cardinals rotation has been a huge problem that required feverish in-season action. He’s made a series of disastrous personnel decisions and has all but given away multiple All-Star talents. The logjam in the outfield has been a problem for several years running, but when Mozeliak tries to do something about it he goes with the wrong people and prematurely gives up on Randy Arozarena and Adolis Garcia.
I could go on, but Cardinals fans know about all of the things that have gone wrong under Mozeliak’s watch since the Cardinals had a 100-win season in 2015. The trades for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado were sensational, but Mozeliak hasn’t surrounded them with a high-caliber roster. And so the Goldy-Nado performances haven’t been maximized. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since they became St. Louis teammates in 2021. DeWitt and Mozeliak are wasting the Goldschmidt-Arenado years, and that’s shameful.
Mozeliak’s first-half grade: F.
Manager Oli Marmol and the coaches: The roster is inadequate, and the pitching staff is in disarray because of Mozeliak’s neglect. I don’t know what Marmol can do to repair all of the cracks, and extensive damage that he didn’t create. When a rotation falls apart – right from the beginning of the season – it causes the bullpen to fragment and deteriorate. And there’s been no real pitching help in the minors that can be plugged in to lessen the ongoing devastation. Marmol and the coaches aren’t responsible for stocking the minor leagues with quality players that can give the big club deeper depth. Mozeliak has put his buddy, Marmol, in a terrible situation. That said, I share most of your reservations — concerns — over pitching coach Dusty Blake. I don’t expect miracles from Blake, but at some point you’d assume he’d get some of these pitchers going. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but the scrutiny is understandable.
However … Marmol and his staff should be embarrassed by the disheveled state of this team’s defense and the failure to sharpen the baserunning in a season that’s made it easier to steal bases and get jumps from first base or second base to gain extra bases on a batted ball in play. I’ve given you the stats on this many times, and the Cardinals are among the worst teams in the majors at running the bases after being one of the best teams in this skill in 2022. An opportunity to make a positive difference on the bases was lost in 2023, and why the Cardinals were so oblivious is absolutely incomprehensible to me. And coaches are there to make sure it doesn’t go this way. Where the hell is the urgency?
As for the defense, when you have a pitching staff (especially the rotation) that’s short on strikeouts, it’s mandatory to put a clean and efficient defense out there. But the Cardinals are ranked 30th (last) in defensive efficiency. The Redbirds are near the bottom of the majors with minus 17 defensive runs saved; in the two previous seasons combined they were among the very best in MLB with 148 defensive runs saved. And this has little to do with the shift; other teams are playing under the same new rules. And many are actually better at playing defense this season.
These stunning and largely avoidable breakdown of the essential fundamentals is primarily the responsibility of the manager and coaches, and they’ve done nothing to reverse the horrible trend that’s a big part of the team’s sickly record.
First-half grade for Marmol and staff: D minus. You may be wondering why the grade isn’t a straight-up F. Well, I mentioned it earlier: Marmol isn’t responsible for assembling a flawed roster and the acute shortage of good pitchers. And I don’t believe the Cardinal players have quit on Marmol, which warrants some respect.
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.