THE REDBIRD REVIEW 

The Cardinals gave us a fun season … the regular season … before getting chucked out of the NL playoffs by the bouncers from Philadelphia. Two games. Gone. Bye. In actual time of play, the St. Louis postseason lasted only 6 hours and 43 minutes.

We should not be surprised. With its latest embarrassment, the franchise has lost five consecutive playoff games and nine of its last 10. I’m a big believer in postseason randomness. Each postseason has its share of unanticipated, tempestuous storms that disrupt the natural and unexpected order. Will your team get struck down by lightning? Will your team dodge the danger, be enlivened by the adrenaline rush and run off with the World Series trophy?

After so much winning in the regular season, and so much success in the playoffs, maybe the Cardinals and their fans are being reminded of something: this ain’t supposed to be easy. Navigating your way through October whirlwinds is difficult and can be agonizing.

We have learned, again, that suffering is part of this game.

“Suffering is overrated,” the late baseball owner Bill Veeck once said.

That may be true. But in St. Louis on this Monday morning, the anguish stings. The Cardinals should be playing. Albert Pujols should be swinging the bat. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado should have another chance to bust out of their grievous slumps.

Baseball’s answer to that?

Better Luck Next Year.

On that note, in this column I turn forward to next season. To assess what the Cardinals must do to enhance their chances of winning 95-plus games, seizing another division title, and securing a top-two postseason seed in the National League to bypass the trap of the wild-card round that just snared them.

I don’t have all of the answers. I do have some suggestions. I’m also a realistic old boy – knowing that I’d be trying to shout over the noise of a chainsaw to demand that Cardinal ownership spend whatever it takes to pull in two or three top free agents.

Here goes …

1. Go in big for a catcher. For the first time since the early aughts the Cardinals actually need a starting catcher. This is a huge opportunity to upgrade the position and the offense and give the team more of an edgy presence. I’m in favor of making an aggressive bid on free agent Willson Contreras or trading prospects – and the price would be heavy – for Oakland’s Sean Murphy. I’ll leave it at that for now. Putting together a ridiculous 500-name lists of candidates is boring and can be done later.

The Cardinals can’t make a weak half-measure move. I don’t want to hear about how the St. Louis pitchers like Andrew Knizner. (My gosh, the media in this town … how many more times will we read or hear about that?) That’s one of the problems with this team: so many nice guys! He’s a great dude! He should be our catcher! Knizner gives great quotes! Such a swell feller he is!

Well, to heck with that. Do you want the Cardinals to do things to strengthen themselves in a significant way to stand among the strongest, baddest teams instead of settling for the light-heavyweight title in the NL Central? There are only so many realistic ways to do this, but addressing the catcher position in a serious way should be the top priority.

Over the last two seasons the Cardinals rank LAST in the majors with minus 0.6 WAR at the catcher position. That means their performance at the position has been below the replacement level over two consecutive seasons. That should be unacceptable for a front office that truly yearns to build a better ballclub.

Here’s where the Cardinals rank offensively at the catcher position among the 30 teams since the start of the 2021 season: 24th in onbase percentage, 26th in OPS, 27th in wRC+, and 28th in slugging (.315!) And using the FanGraphs defensive ratings, STL catchers are 21st over the last two seasons.

Knizner had 478 plate appearances over the last two seasons and batted .200 with a .569 OPS and an adjusted OPS that put him 36 percent below league average offensively. He homered every 84 at-bats. Among the 60 catchers listed by Statcast, Knizner in 2022 ranked 50th in strike rate and 53rd in catcher-framing runs (minus 6.)

2. Open the DeWallet and DeVault and for a premium free-agent shortstop. Now let me say this: Highly Unlikely. Two reasons: (A) the cost of signing potential free-agents Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts or Dansby Swanson. This is not ownership’s style. And (B) management won’t want to block the path of a preferred-status prospect, shortstop Masyn Winn. And they may be correct in their thinking on this.

This will be one of the problems when outsiders like me (and you) see an obvious chance to improve the team and begin playing Fantasy GM. The Cardinals love their prospects. Love them bunches. The way the bosses look at it, why spend $200 million or more on an offensive-force shortstop when the organization’s next-gen shortstop is making his way to The Lou? This is The Cardinal Way, peoples.

Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak have abundant resources for pursuing a star shortstop … but it’s a matter of wanting to do it, and being determined to do it. And that, my friends, is the “highly unlikely” part. Don’t throw coconuts at me; I’m just the dude who has to remind you how the Cardinals chose to do business. And they’ve been doing it this way for a very long time.

3. Cultivate more matchup impact for manager Oli Marmol. By the way, I’m fine with Tommy Edman at shortstop. He can play second, third, and in the outfield. Along with Brendan Donovan the Cardinals would have two all-purpose assets to move around defensively and create matchup advantages based on the opposing-team pitchers. I’m not forgetting about Nolan Gorman. He could be a third movable chess piece. Gorman was trained as a third baseman and first baseman and was learning how to play corner outfield. And he was OK at second base in 2022. Gorman should be prominent in the plans at designated hitter. But here’s the added appeal of adding a true-core shortstop, it would boost the offense and give Marmol the flexibility to move even more guys around in his matchup-seeking system. Of course, this would also mean the end of this insanity with shortstop Paul DeJong. And we know that ownership-management won’t quit on DeJong because they owe him a bunch of guaranteed money in 2023 – $9.167 million salary plus a $2 million payment on his prorated signing bonus.

4. Do something about the outfield puzzle. Please let me share a story. My darling wife invited her mom and sister over to our house Saturday to work on a new, and massive puzzle at the dining room table. This puzzle was massive in size. My goodness, this puzzle was large enough to cover the oversized table used by FDR, Churchill, Stalin and their aides back in 1945 to plan the defeat of the Axis.

Sunday, I noticed that our table was clear. The puzzle was gone. What’s up with that? Direct quote from Mrs. Bernie: “I couldn’t deal with that. It was on my nerves. I told my sister to take it home.”

I know how she feels; I’m burned out talking about the St. Louis outfield puzzle. It gives me migraines. Heck, some local company should make an actual puzzle that features those that are still here, those that have come and gone.

Colby Rasmus. Randal Grichuk. Dexter Fowler. Brandon Moss. Stephen Piscotty. Tommy Pham. Randy Arozarena. Adolis Garcia. Jose Martinez. Marcell Ozuna. Jason Heyward. Lane Thomas. Jon Jay. Peter Bourjos. Carlos Beltran. Allen Craig. Harrison Bader. Justin Williams. Mags Sierra. Yairo Munoz. Jeremy Hazelbaker. Austin Dean. Conner Capel.

And so many more.

You’d need a pretty big damn table for that particular puzzle.

So what should the Cardinals do with their current group?

— More than anything the Cardinals need an every-day outfield presence that can hit for power and drive in runs, and hit the ball hard on a regular basis. The best offenses have that (for the most part.) Do the Cardinals have that? No. Not at this point, but there is some potential.

– Will they consider trading the injury-prone Tyler O’Neill? But given the front-office luck and some of the horrendous results of past outfield maneuvers … as soon as they traded O’Neill he’d put up 43 homers, 110 RBI, 25 steals and win another Gold Glove for his new team in ‘23. Might help if someone with authority in the STL organization would ask O’Neill to stop living in the weight room. The muscles are awesome … until he starts running fast … right into the next injury.

— Do the Cardinals view switch-hitter Dylan Carlson as an every-day player? In 347 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitching in 2022, Carlson batted .207 with five homers and a mediocre .633 OPS. He reached base against RH only 29 percent of the time. Over the final three months Carlson hit lefties for a .181 average, .313 slug and .596. If he can’t handle righty pitchers, he has to be a platoon guy.

– Are the Cardinals sold on Lars Nootbaar? They should be. A high-onbase guy with plenty of power and refined plate discipline – and a plus defender with one of the strongest outfield arms in the game. And this left-side hitter hits LH pitchers well.

— Where does Juan Yepez fit in? Depends on O’Neill. Much of the future outfield shape depends on O’Neill … including the trust factor with his defensive work in center field. (All of that running in center field … not good for his hamstrings.)

— When the Cardinals promote No. 1 prospect Jordan Walker next season, do they install him as an outfield starter and let him grow and go? He can handle part of the post-Pujols duties at DH. But will Walker be a prominent outfield presence for the Cardinals in 2023? If he earns a big-league roster spot in spring training, will the Cardinals put him in their opening day lineup or play the usual service-time games and ship him to the minors.

— It makes sense to sign an outfielder/DH type to give the Cardinals some extra pop. They need that after losing Albert Pujols’ 24 home runs to retirement.

Unless the Cardinals go for a trade or free-agent signing to buttress the outfield and bring in a full-time starter that has a history of hitting success, they’ll make use of platoons. Based on 2022 stats, here are the strongest potential hitters (as outfielders) against RH pitchers and LH pitchers. I’ll use wRC+. Just remember that 100 is league average offensively. You want the hitter to perform as much above 100 as he can.

Against LHP: Nootbaar 153, Carlson 139, O’Neill 133, Donovan 107, Yepez 104, Corey Dickerson minus 56. Which means Dickerson was 156 percent below league average offensively against lefties in 2022.

Against RHP: Dickerson 129, Nootbaar 122, Donovan 116, Yepez 102, O’Neill 95, Carlson 86, Alec Burleson 43.

Walker, who bats right, wasn’t bothered by right-handed pitchers at the Class AA level in 2022. He batted .313 against them with a .394 OBP and .518 slug. In 355 at-bats vs. RHP, Walker had 22 doubles, 15 homers and a 10 percent walk rate. He’ll only get better.

The Cardinals have the makings of a good outfield. But they’re still struggling with the instability created by O’Neill’s frequent injuries and Carlson’s deterioration against right-handed pitchers. I think we can agree on this: if the Cardinals want to have a more elite offense in 2023, a healthy and productive outfield is absolutely necessary. And the Cardinals may have to go outside the organization to do it. But wouldn’t that block Walker? Like I said, I have a migraine.

5. What is the state of the rotation? For starters, re-sign Jose Quintana. I doubt that the Cardinals have the stomach to go after one of the aging but still very effective starters that could be available this offseason. I’ll save the “Name Game” for another time. But if Justin Verlander calls Mozeliak and says he’s declining his 2023 option and would just love to be a Cardinal … Why, sure!

Yes, thanks, I’ll take a legitimate No. 1 starter who can dominate hitters — because the Cardinals don’t have that type of animal in the house. Some of the starting-pitching performances that we watched in the wild-card round (both leagues) were exhilarating. But as an aside: isn’t the offense more of an issue? How can we forget about that so soon? Generally speaking, the 2022 Cardinals punished pitchers on bad teams and struggled against pitchers on good teams. I’ll address this in more depth in an upcoming column. But this section is supposed to be about starting pitching, so …

Based on what they had in 2022, the Cardinals should have plenty of rotation options next season.

Returning starters and starting candidates: Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Montgomery, Dakota Hudson, Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson and Jake Woodford are under contract or team control for 2023.

Free agents of note: Adam Wainwright, Jose Quintana. If Wainwright wants to come back in 2023 for a Hero Tour and to get career victory No. 200, what will the Cardinals say? As I’ve documented several times season, Waino’s “stuff” showed real decline in several areas this past season – none more important than his career-lows – or near career lows – in strikeout rate, swing and miss rate, average fastball velocity, ground-ball rate and a significant drop in curve-ball value. Hitters had a 91 percent contract rate against Wainwright on strikes. The 2023 ZiPS forecast has Waino pitching to a 4.32 ERA and 4.47 FIP. I haven’t even mentioned his final-month difficulties that, in six starts, included a 7.22 ERA, 9.6% strikeout rate, a major decline in his ground-ball rate, and an opponent hitting line of .358 / .406 / . 463.

And yet, despite all of that, Marmol planned to start Wainwright in Game 3 Sunday — but the Cardinals never got there. What an awkward situation. No one with the Cardinals or the St. Louis media wants to even consider the possibility that age has caught up to a great pitcher. There’s a chance of Wainwright having a solid season in 2023. But how could the Cardinals let Quintana walk away without knowing if Wainwright can be a viable, quality option in 2023?

The Cardinals obviously value Quintana because he started Game 1 against the Phillies and did an excellent job. So what was that? Just a whim?

I appreciate what Dayn Perry wrote at CBS Sports: “As for franchise icon Adam Wainwright, maybe there’s room for him, as well. That would require close assessment of whether his late-season decline in results and stuff was owing entirely to a dead arm or whether age-related decline at last took hold in his age-40 campaign. Maybe it’s some of both. The priority, though, should be Quintana.”

The Cardinals will have to make some tough, grown-up decisions. But with franchise business booming at such a high level for the Molina-Pujols Farewell Tour in 2022, it will be hard for ownership-management to resist the chance to do another Baseball Hero Tour in 2023.

I’m a little salty today.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. 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 which is available in your preferred app store.

“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.

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Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

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.