THE REDBIRD REVIEW
It’s been a loathsome season for the Cardinals, a team that can’t overcome the gravitational pull of uninspiring, losing baseball and the force that keeps them down in the standings.
As they go into a weekend series with the visiting Reds, the Cardinals are 26-37, in last place in the NL Central, and possess a limp winning percentage (.413) that’s tied for 13th in the National League and 27th overall. They must shake off the repercussions of a malodorous 5-10 stretch that reduced their division-title probability to 15.6 percent – down from 31.7% on May 21, the day they defeated the Dodgers for their 11th in 14 games. Their overall playoff possibility went from 44.4 percent on May 21 to 20.1% today.
And yet …
Despite the fact the Redbirds sit 8 and ½ games behind the first-place Brewers, I can’t count them out. I’m not being naive here. I’m not trying to be Mister Happy Talk. But considering all of their failures through their first 63 games, the Cardinals are “only” 8 and ½ out with 61 percent of their schedule in front of them.
Or let’s look at the scene another way by comparing the deficits of every last-place team in the six divisions. How far are they from first place?
AL East: Boston, 13 out.
AL Central: Kansas City, 13 out.
AL West: Oakland, 27.5 out.
NL East: Washington, 12 out.
NL Central: St. Louis 8.5 out.
NL West: Colorado, 11.5 out.
I’m not even looking at the wild-card math; I think winning the division is the Cards’ clearest itinerary to the postseason. If that changes, I’ll do a reset.
Conjecture aside, something has to change for the Cardinals to move up – and up, and up, and up – in the standings. Big scoop: they have to improve in all phases! Roster upgrades almost certainly will be part of that process … or forget about it.
To get something out of the way up front: you won’t see FIRE MARMOL! or FIRE MOZELIAK! In here. I’m interested in reality, not fantasy. Marmol won’t be fired during the season, and I’d be surprised if he’s sacked after 2023. Mozeliak’s new contract runs through 2025, and chairman Bill DeWitt enthusiastically chose to make the deal.
And pardon me but I’m skipping the “buyers or sellers” hooey because it’s premature. STL’s next six weeks of baseball will influence the decision, and we’ll have ample time to probe the buyer-seller variables.
My thoughts on Cardinal changes are limited to the 2023 team and are all about baseball.
Here’s the to-do list …
And the must-think-about list …
With some do-not-do-this mixed in …
1. Upgrade. Upgrade. Upgrade. If there’s a weakness, it must be addressed. Starting pitching, bullpen, and possibly the outfield. How much the front office is willing to give up in trades designed to improve the roster is the biggest question, but is a so-called “blockbuster” realistic? Based on how Mozeliak has handled the trade deadline in recent years, the answer would be “no.” We’ll see. Would less ambitious upgrades work? To an extent, yes. (See: 2021, 2022.) But not in a transformational way. Not in a way that would make the Cardinals a more dangerous postseason contender if they survive the regular season.
2. For the love of Ozzie Smith, sanitize the defense. As of Friday morning the Cardinals were 25th in the majors in defensive runs saved, and 30th (last) in defensive efficiency. Elite defense was a main factor in getting the Cardinals to the postseason in the full seasons of 2019, 2021 and 2022. Their defense has become raggedy and unreliable and can be especially damaging in one-run games. And the Cardinals have lost 14 of 21 one-run games so far this season.
3. Manager Oli Marmol can stabilize the defense by keeping more guys in place at their most comfortable positions.
And that won’t be easy to do. There have been injuries, but I decline to use that as an excuse. That’s because the position-player injuries have been limited to the outfield, and this is nothing new. Tyler O’Neill is an Injured List regular, and Dylan Carlson seems to be going that way.
Rookie Jordan Walker outfield inexperience makes him a defensive liability, but unless they want to make him a DH, the Cardinals will have to live with his corner defense as he gets reps to improve.
Multi-position men Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan have no problem playing in the outfield – but then again, they’ve been less effective as infielders. Is that related, or just a smaller-sample fluke?
Injuries aren’t the only reason for their presence out there. Marmol is aggressive about gaining platoon-split advantages with his lineup. And to his credit, that makes sense because it’s working.
Per wRC+, the Cardinals rank 4th in the majors offensively vs. lefty pitching and are No. 10 offensively against righties since Marmol became manager in 2022.
That’s kind of a big deal; in each season from 2018 through 2021 the Cardinals were below-average against righties.
Can Marmol make defense more of a priority? I think he can get it done without reducing the platoon-split offensive edge in a significant way.
This season Marmol has used 46 different defensive lineups in 63 games – or 73 percent of the time. But he moved his fielders around even more often in 2022 without harming the overall defense.
The issues on defense pretty much come down to two things:
A) Their infield defense was way above average defensively last season – but is only average so far in 2023. Heck, even third baseman Nolan Arenado has been average-ish so far. But I noticed something at Fielding Bible: when the Cardinals use a shift, their infield is a +10 defensively. When they go with a traditional infield alignment, they’re average. Please understand that defensive shifts haven’t been banned; there’s just a restriction on overloading infielders to one side, or putting an infielder on the outfield grass. Frankly, the Cardinals should take a closer look at how they position infielders because the way they’re doing is ineffective.
B) Without question, the defense is a huge problem and it’s a serious flaw that requires attention.
Last season the STL outfielders combined for plus six defensive runs saved. This season, the outfield group collectively is minus 17 in defensive runs saved, with only Edman (+2) and Lars Nootbaar (+1) above average.
Knowing that, you won’t be surprised to also know this: this season St. Louis has given up the most doubles (139) in the majors. Last season, 17 teams allowed more doubles than the Cards. Not a coincidence. Defense matters.
In 2022, Cardinals starting pitchers yielded slightly less than a double per game; this season they’re allowing 1.47 doubles per start.
This is a low-strikeout, pitch-to-contact rotation, and the ball will be in play a lot. But that was also the case last season, when 15 MLB rotations gave up fewer doubles than STL starters.
When Carlson and Nootbaar return the outfield defense should firm up and be more capable of tracking airborne baseballs to catch them or cut them off and hold opponents to singles. But with Walker still on the learning curve, and there’s only so much that Marmol can do.
Marmol should reconsider the infield positioning, find more spots to use a defense-first lineup, and go with late-game defensive substitutions when applicable.
4) Pardon my redundancy, but STL must reconsider and sharpen the baserunning. I’ve talked about this problem so much that I’m becoming tired of doing it. Let’s update, after looking at the data from Bill James: while running the bases on batted balls in play the Cardinals had a +58 base gain over the past two seasons. This year, they’re a minus 14 in extra-base advancement.
Now, maybe Marmol doesn’t want to risk too many outs on the bases with an overly aggressive approach. Maybe he wants to keep runners where they are with a power hitter batting. Perhaps the team has been cautious on the bases after falling behind by more than a couple of runs early in games. I get all of that.
OK, now look at this:
— Last season the Cardinals went from first to third on a single 102 times, which ranked 2nd in the majors. So far this season they’ve done it 31 times, which ranks 21st.
— Last season the Cardinals scored from first base on a double 31 times, which ranked 21st. This season they’ve done it nine times, which ranks 27th.
— Last season the Cards led the majors by scoring from second on a single 120 times. This year, they’ve done that 30 times which ranks 30th.
— Last season the Cardinals were 4th in the majors in the overall percentage of extra-bases taken. This season they’re 29th in that category.
Using some caution can be wise.
Being overly cautious is a mistake.
5) When is the right time to adjust the batting order when it involves a “name” player? Of course I’m referring to Willson Contreras. I’m confident that he’ll come around offensively. But he has the most plate appearances on the team (by far) when batting 5th in the lineup. But Contreras is batting .207 as the No. 5 hitter with a .340 slug and .604 OPS. When batting 5th with runners in scoring position, he’s hit .242 with a .333 slug and .684 OPS. He’s struck out 33 percent of the time in those RISP situations.
Contreras isn’t the only reason – but he’s certainly a reason – why the Cardinals have only 22 RBI from the No. 5 spot. That ranks 25th among the 30 teams. If Contreras doesn’t get banging soon, Marmol should adjust his lineup. The Cubs used Contreras up and down the lineup, and he did well when slotted anywhere from first through sixth. After pulling Contreras as their starting catcher – a ridiculous move the Cardinals ended after nine games – his spot in the lineup could be a sensitive matter.
6. If Adam Wainwright doesn’t pitch more effectively, how will the club handle it? I hope Wainwright improves. (He’s been a little better lately.) I don’t believe for a minute that Marmol and Mozeliak would pull a healthy Wainwright from the rotation during his final big-league season. Such a move would seem cold-hearted and probably ignite controversy. But if winning is the top priority, they’ll have to make that tough but necessary decision if it comes to that. As I’ve mentioned before, Red Schoendienst removed Bob Gibson from the rotation in Gibby’s final season (1975.) St. Louis management had to know that an uncomfortable situation could develop after Waino was invited to return in 2023 for a one-year, $18 million salary.
7. Is there a bullpen asset in the minors? If so, make plans to call for help. The Cardinals had excellent success in 2006, 2011 and 2013 in promoting or otherwise using or repurposing younger pitchers from the minors to reinforce the bullpen. The list would include Wainwright, Josh Kinney, Tyler Johnson, Brad Thompson, Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, Joe Kelly and Kevin Siegrist. I don’t think they have many attractive options to do something like that now, but it can change quickly.
Prospect Gordon Graceffo could become that arm after he returns from the IL (shoulder inflammation) and pitches well. Certainly the Cardinals have yet another “Devil Magic” reliever that can come out of nowhere to emerge as a surprise, right?
8. Do not rush exciting shortstop prospect Masyn Winn to the majors. He has a .294 average and .788 OPS in his last 30 games for Triple A Memphis – including a .319 average in his last 15. Wynn, 21,is on a good track and will play a prominent role for the big club in the near future. But please give him time to fully develop. Why do the Jordan Walker thing all over again? Wynn has done a lot of damage against lefty pitching but will see mostly right-handers at the big-league level. He still has a lot of work to do in that area.
9. Here are a few other things that must happen for the Cardinals to make a run:
– Jordan Montgomery has to find his effective four-seam fastball and to join Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty as a third dependable option in the rotation. The Cardinals have the NL’s best starting-pitching ERA (2.77) since May 25 but need the full Monty.
– Third baseman Nolan Arenado: After delivering a 151 OPS+ last season, meaning he was 51 percent above league average offensively, Arenado is only 10% above average on offense in 2023. His defense hasn’t been as sharp or spectacular. Too often it seems that the frustration is getting to Arenado, and that can’t happen because his leadership is important. Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt set the tone.
– I’ve been defending him at every turn, but Contreras must produce more offense. That’s the top reason why the Cardinals gave him a five-year $87.5 million contract.
– Nolan Gorman has one home run, a .167 batting average and a .259 slug in his last 15 games … and that was made worse by his 37% strikeout rate over that time. Gorman’s reemergence as a fearsome, disciplined power hitter is critical to the St. Louis offense.
– When Lars Nootbaar returns from his back injury, he can be a vital presence as an ignitor from the leadoff spot. But he must stay healthy and also increase his power.
– Tommy Edman has to get going after batting .154 with a .237 OBP in his last 15 games.
— Does Paul DeJong have another outbreak of offense in him? I think he does but I can’t say I’m confident. On May 12, DeJong had a .340 average with a .596 slug, 1.000 OPS and a reasonable 23 percent strikeout rate. But since that point, he’s batting .175 with a .388 slug and .662 OPS – and his strikeout rate is 30% over that time.
Pardon my typos. I’m playing hurt today and that can lead to keyboard mishaps, especially with longer columns like this one.
Thanks for reading! Have a swell weekend.
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. 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.
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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.