THE REDBIRD REVIEW
In revealing his intention to leave his traditional comfort zone to become a trader, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak made no attempt at being coy or elusive.
He started selling by putting his message out there.
“I definitely think we’re going to treat the deadline as pitching, pitching, pitching,” he told reporters at Busch Stadium before Monday’s 6-4 win over the Marlins.
OK, so at least Mozeliak emerged from a state of deep denial to identify his team’s most substantial problem. Finally. And “Mo” owned up to neglecting an obvious issue last offseason, acknowledging that he should have been more aggressive about firming up the rotation.
What’s up with the sudden humility? This probably has something to do with the embarrassment of failure and his leading role in shaping this 2023 disaster. The word games won’t work. The usual arrogance won’t play when you’re running the baseball division of a franchise that ranks 13th in the National League, and 25th overall, in winning percentage. This is the worst time to take a smug posture with his public comments. Mozeliak can’t run from the truth. He’s ignored a glaring flaw for years now, and the negligence finally caught up to him and the franchise.
Or maybe Mozeliak is telling people what they want to hear.
Since the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, their seven worst starting-pitching ERAs have occurred since the start of 2016. During that stretch the Cardinals failed to qualify for the postseason three times – soon to be four – and won only four postseason games while losing 11. The mediocre starting pitching was made worse by an outdated style that emphasized getting ground balls over strikeouts. (You can do both, by the way.)
Mozeliak on Monday made it a point to tell us the Cardinals must change their philosophy on this – OK, but what took him so long? This is nothing new, but with the soft NL Central providing much cover in many years, the Cardinals saw no reason – in their minds – to think they had to change their approach.
That’s been the problem. A St. Louis baseball operation that was aggressive and proactive under former GM Walt Jocketty became set in its ways and yielded to more forward-thinking, ambitious front offices around the majors.
Since the start of the 2017 season Milwaukee has a better winning percentage (.552) than St. Louis (.536) despite spending a lot less on payroll.
Over the last seven years, the Brewers have spent $888.7 million on their 40-man payroll compared to the Cardinals’ allocation of $1.3 billion. This includes the prorated salary figures from the 2020 season that was shortened by the Covid-19 outbreak.
The Brewers established starting pitching and strong pitching depth as their bedrocks, an approach that continues to produce positive results in 2023. Milwaukee, 52-42, leads STL (41-53) by 11 games in the NL Central standings.
The Brewers rank 10th in MLB in starting-pitcher ERA; the Cardinals are 25th. And even after trading closer Josh Hader, the Brewer bullpen is vastly superior to the Cardinals bullpen.
Since 2017, no major–league team has won the World Series without being ranked No. 8 or better in regular-season starting pitching ERA. And except for the 2022 Phillies, no World Series runner-up ranked worse than 6th in starter ERA during the regular season. And even those Phillies still had an above-average rotation (13th in ERA) because of two esteemed starters, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler.
If you want to win at the highest level, you best bring a loaded, imposing rotation to the October tournament. Mozeliak and Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. are squaring up to the obvious reality after letting their starting pitching slide.
So we should welcome Mozeliak’s newfound – if sadly overdue – awareness in this area. That said, I have questions:
1. How do we know Mozeliak can be successful at doing this? How confident should we be in his ability to maximize assets before the Aug. 1 trade deadline? This is an unfamiliar challenge for a guy who has been the head of baseball operations since 2008. I won’t assume anything, good or bad. Frankly, Mozeliak must prove that he’s up to the challenge. This should be fun for him. But will he let it rip or go fairly conservative? That’s just one of the questions.
(The Cardinals haven’t been a true seller since 1990, when Jocketty traded outfielder Willie McGee to Oakland in late August. The 1995 Cardinals traded third baseman Todd Zeile to the Cubs, but that was more about Zeile rejecting a contract proposal, which angered the Anheuser-Busch suits that ran the franchise.)
2. Mozeliak has good inventory to showcase for interested buyers. The list begins with impending free agents: starting pitchers Jack Flaherty and Jordan Montgomery, relievers Jordan Hicks and Chris Stratton. You can put shortstop Paul DeJong on there; around $3 million remains on his 2023 contract and a team that acquires him doesn’t have to pick up his options for 2024-2025. DeJong – having an underappreciated season locally – could draw more trade interest than many would believe.
We can’t be sure of what to expect from potential trade partners and their willingness to commit to a talent overpay to secure Montgomery, Flaherty and Hicks. The walk-year market changed significantly over the past six deadlines; teams have displayed little enthusiasm for trading top prospects – especially pitching – to rent an imminent free agent for a couple of months.
Then again, the supply of sellers is limited, so teams that want Montgomery, Flaherty or Hicks might have to wince, take a labored breath, and overpay. We’ll see. But by now it’s clear the Cardinals won’t hold onto these guys for the rest of the season to pick up compensatory draft picks when they sign elsewhere as free agents. But what if the offers for Monty, Hicks and Flaherty are uninspiring? Will Mozeliak pivot? He must have a strong sense of what he’ll be able to get for the available Cardinals.
Relievers have been in great demand in recent trade-deadline periods, and that will likely continue in 2023. If that market is heated, the Cardinals could shop Giovanny Gallegos and/or Ryan Helsley to gauge interest.
3. What about the outfielders? Let’s start with the obvious trade candidate, Tyler O’Neill. He can increase his trade value by going off on a power drive as soon as he returns from the IL and reenters the lineup – which figures to happen Tuesday against the Marlins. This is Bro’s showcase. And he has added value – even with the injury history – simply because of his contract status. A team that trades for O’Neill will have him under contract in 2024.
4. The Cardinals declared their willingness to make outfielder Dylan Carlson available when manager Oli Marmol made a blunt disclosure: his starting outfield for the rest of the season (health factors permitting) will be O’Neill in left, Lars Nootbaar in center and Jordan Walker in right. Carlson, who turns 25 in the fall, is under contract control through 2025. After 1,400 MLB plate appearances the switch hitter is slightly above offensively overall, but chronically below average when facing right-handed pitching.
Carlson’s only extensive stretch of impressive hitting came after the All-Star break in 2021 until the end of the season. Since then Carlson has batted .210 against righties with a .301 OBP and .341 slug and is 15 percent below average offensively per wRC+. That’s a problem; over the last three seasons MLB hitters have made 72% of their plate appearances against RH pitchers. Carlson is solid – but overrated – defensively. “DC” has youth on his side we can assume and at least some teams will think they can “fix” him … and they might be right. Mozeliak has a regrettable habit of trading away offensive players that thrive in a new setting. Carlson is the proverbial change-of-scenery dude. The only question: what would Carlson command on the trade market?
5. If the Cardinals are enticed by the availability of a coveted starting pitcher, would they be willing to trade Nolan Gorman or Brendan Donovan? I’d include Tommy Edman on the list but his viability is in question because of a wrist injury. Some fans in these parts seem to be in a hurry to trade Gorman or Donovan. That’s interesting. Both players are under long-term contract control. Both hit from the left side, giving the team an edge vs. right-handed pitching Donovan is an onbase machine that’s developing power – plus he’s effective against lefties.
Gorman is slightly above average at second base and ranks third in the majors since the start of last season for most homers by a hitter age 23 or younger. And remember what I wrote earlier: MLB hitters face righty pitchers in 72 percent of their plate appearances. In his 575 career plate appearances vs. RHP, Gorman has a .451 slug and bangs a homer every 17 at-bats.
Both players would have considerable appeal on the market.
6. Monday, Mozeliak said the Cardinals couldn’t fill their projected rotation openings through trades only and indicated that the team would likely sign a free-agent starter. OK, what kind of a free-agent starter? Mike Leake? Brad Penny? Steven Matz? Do they try their luck again in Pacific Rim? The team’s best free-agent signing (starting pitcher) was Kyle Loshe; the Cardinals got him for a tub of bubblegum because teams had injury concerns. Will Mozeliak look for rehab projects instead of signing the real deal?
Will DeWitt be in favor of spending big money for a more elite free-agent starter such as Julio Urias, Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, Lucas Giolito, Aaron Nola, or Marcus Stroman? If Max Scherzer opts out of his Mets contract after the season, will the Cardinals make an effort to sign him? My point is, Mozeliak and DeWitt shouldn’t play the penny slots and hope to get lucky. One possible clue: Montgomery’s request to discuss a contract extension before the 2023 season failed to entice management’s interest. If Montgomery — STL’s best starter — is too expensive for DeWitt, then what the hell does that say?
7. Uh-oh, here we go again. Mozeliak may be lining up a scapegoat. The same scapegoat, actually … Willson Contreras. You can’t make this junk up. When asked by the media about the catcher’s availability in trades, Mozeliak said this according to Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson: “I think we will table that until the offseason. Obviously when we look back at it in the short-term now, there are some things that need to change. Short view, it’s kind of nice what we are seeing out of (Ivan) Herrera right now. But ultimately when we start thinking about 2024 some of those things will have to be addressed in the offseason.”
This stuff requires a laugh track. If you needed more evidence that the Cardinals have experienced a collective brain drain on the baseball side, this is it. Why in the name of Tim McCarver did Mozeliak spend $87.5 million on Contreras when it was pretty much universal knowledge that Willson didn’t fit the prototype of what the Cardinals were accustomed to having at catcher? Did they not watch Contreras catch for the Cubs from 2016 through 2022? Did they not see his flaws? Why did they ignore the negatives and proceed to pay him the largest free-agent contract in franchise history for a player who wasn’t already a Cardinal? Weren’t the Cardinals aware of the obvious reservations that the Cubs had about Contreras?
This could work out. Both Contreras and Herrera can be used at DH and over the years we’ve seen plenty of two-catcher systems in the majors.
That said, Mozeliak’s untimely and intentionally vague dig at Contreras was just another reason why I question his judgment as he shifts into an unaccustomed “seller” mode.
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.