THE REDBIRD REVIEW
After breezing to a 7-2 victory over the Cubs on Thursday night, the Cardinals were slapped back into reality over the weekend at Wrigley Field. Three straight losses, three days of frustration and failure.
Steven Matz pitched well in the series-opening win. But from that point Cards starters Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Jordan Montgomery were whupped for 14 earned runs in 17 innings for a collective 7.41 ERA. Beginning Friday it was a weekend of bad starts, blown leads, a shortage of pitching, botched offensive opportunities and the usual caterwauling over ball-strike calls. In other words: a summary of the 2023 season for your 44-56 St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cubs won three of four from the Redbirds to shove their arch rivals back to 12 games under .500. The Cardinals already had been designated as sellers by president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, but a sudden bout of winning had happy-talk optimists chirping about 1964.
The Redbirds had won 9 of 11, and the success was fresh and fun while it lasted, but the pitching could not hold. The Cardinals returned to their new normal of losing the same ballgame over and over again.
I think we can move on, accept this team’s fate, and look forward to seeing how Mozeliak does in the salesman’s role for the first time in his 16 seasons as the baseball gaffer in St. Louis.
Here’s my question: how do Mozeliak and associates wheel and deal in a method that will make their cheapjack pitching staff whole by 2024? How does Mo convince chairman and friend Bill DeWitt Jr., to believe that spending for pitching is a necessity – and not the sort of virtue that BDJ normally embraces?
Can DeWitt be convinced to open DeWallet and show the willingness to spend at 2024 rates? If the Cardinals fail to update their thinking, then we’ll likely be facing several years of sallow baseball.
As I’ve said and written before, the upcoming drama will be staged in two acts: (1) the 2023 trade deadline and (2) the offseason free-agent paper chase. Mozeliak doesn’t have to solve all of the problems by making two or three transactions in the trade emporium. He’ll have the winter to complete the job – well, that’s assuming Cardinals ownership management will aggressively seek to go forward and win in 2024 instead of looking back and casually admiring their successful past.
Let’s get to my thought exercise for the day.
It has to do with pain.
What? Yeah, pain. For the Cardinals to get close to where they want to go, they’ll have to traffic in moves that make them really uncomfortable. Deals that will likely cause them to grimace and yelp and lose sleep. They’ll have to trade current players – even if they’re initially opposed to doing so. This isn’t supposed to be easy, and it won’t be.
It isn’t painful or unsettling to trade walk-year players who can venture into free agency after the season. This widely circulated list revolves around starting pitchers Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty plus relievers Jordan Hicks and Chris Stratton.
It isn’t painful to trade outfielder Tyler O’Neill who doesn’t play much baseball, anyway.
It wouldn’t be painful to trade, say, Steven Matz. The lefty starter will be paid $22 million total over 2024 and 2025. Is there a market for him?
If lustrous shortstop prospect Masyn Winn is as potentially great as the Cardinals believe, then he’s your starter at short in 2024, and there’s no distress in trading Paul DeJong.
But what about other Cardinals that are favorites of management? Do the Cardinals put up the “off limits” sign and move on – or stop and contemplate potentially attractive offers?
In no particular order, here are the “”painful” trade candidates among Cardinals:
Paul Goldschmidt: Not gonna happen unless Goldy tells Mozeliak he wants out. (Forget about it.) The Pain Factor in trading him would be very high, and I don’t know why Mozeliak and DeWitt would change their minds. They view Goldy as a big part of the future and I’d be surprised if the Cardinals don’t sign him to a contract extension before 2024. Goldy has no-trade protection in his current contract that’s due to expire after next season.
Nolan Arenado: Not gonna happen unless Arenado demands a trade. (Forget about it.) The Pain Factor is very high, and I don’t know why Mozeliak and DeWitt would suddenly feel an urge to move him. They view Arenado as a cornerstone talent. He has no-trade security and enjoys playing here.
Rather than fans and media people wasting so much time concocting make-believe trades, they should focus on why Mozeliak has failed so miserably to put a better team around two franchise-caliber talents.
Catcher Willson Contreras: USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale says that Contreras is on the trade block. There are echoes of that in other places. First of all, I don’t know what to make of this. It’s been a bizarre situation from the start. The Cardinals courted Contreras and were thrilled to sign him to a five-year contract for $87.5 million. But they turned on Contreras about eight minutes after they signed him, and there’s been a whispering campaign to malign him. If Contreras isn’t who Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol thought he would be, that’s their fault. He was a Cub from 2016 through 2022 and the Cardinals were familiar with his pluses and minuses. If they had concerns, why offer Contreras the contract?
I’m not opposed to the Cardinals making a baseball trade.
If they are having buyer’s remorse and want to move Contreras and have the chance to do so — and come out of it in decent shape — then there’s nothing wrong about pursuing the option. But if the Cardinals are eager to dump him, then why would another team want to trade for him and inherit his contract? What is his trade value? It can’t be much. Because if a team other than St. Louis really wanted Contreras, they would have signed him as a free agent.
Bailing out on Contreras via trade – even if that’s possible without eating a ton of money – would be a straight-up acknowledgement of incompetence by Mozeliak and Marmol. That would be somewhat painful for them … but then again, both men have healthy egos and can take the hit. No one will be fired. And unless there’s trade value there, Contreras will likely stay put.
Closing comment on this: The idea of Mozeliak spending big on free agents next offseason is scary as hell.
Right-handed reliever Giovanny Gallegos: the Cardinals signed him to a contract extension that pays $5.5 million next season with a team option of $6.5 million for 2025. That’s affordable for contenders that are hankering for a high-leverage reliever. From the front-office standpoint, I don’t think the Pain Factor would be intense. Why? Because Gio’s ERA has gone up a full run this year, to 4.05, his strikeout rate has dropped seven percent, the hard-hit rate against him has increased by 12 percent, and he’s been ripped for a .473 slug. Lots of warning signs there.
Catcher Ivan Herrera: A little more than a year after bringing him for the first time – and quickly returning him to Triple A Memphis – the Cardinals are enthralled by their 23-year catching prospect. I don’t blame them. But if Mozeliak and Marmol were so high on Herrera and thrilled by his improvement – then why did the team invest $87.5 million in Contreras? Because of the DH there’s room for both, but that really isn’t the point. Given how they’ve apparently soured on Contreras, It would be extremely painful for the Cardinals to trade Herrera.
Tommy Edman, super utility: He can play shortstop, second base, third base and anywhere in the outfield. He’s a good fielder, runs fast, and a terrific base runner. But this switch-hitter isn’t effective against righty pitchers, and you have to wonder if all of the miles on his body will wear him down. He can’t become a free agent until 2026. The bosses like Tommy, but what if another team makes an appealing trade offer? What’s the Pain Factor here for Mozeliak? Would he trade Tommy away? I would not be stunned if it happens. But Edman’s sore elbow is an issue that likely impacts his trade value right now. But the timing of the offseason is more plausible.
Second baseman Nolan Gorman: The Cardinals would be a special kind of foolish to trade a 23-year-old slugger who will only keep improving as he gains experience on the job. Gorman is one of only 15 hitters that has at least 20 homers and 60 RBI this season. And Gorman is, by far, the youngest of the 15. Since the start of the 2022 season, Gorman ranks 3rd in homers, 3rd in RBI, 6th in slugging and 8th in OPS. It would be excruciatingly painful for Mozeliak to trade Gorman. MLB hitters take 72% of their plate appearances against right-handed pitchers, and Gorman has a career .451 slug vs. RH. That includes a .474 slug against them in 2023.
Brendan Donovan, super utility: The idea of trading him would be agonizingly painful for the Cardinals. Here’s a left-side hitter who puts up numbers against lefties and righties, an onbase-percentage machine who fuels an offense, and a capable fielder at six defensive positions. His power is on the rise. This season only Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado have more WAR than Donovan’s 2.2 WAR among Cardinals. Plus, Donovan won’t even be eligible for salary arbitration until 2026. I guess we can’t rule it out, but a decision to trade Donovan would surprise me.
Dylan Carlson, outfielder: He’s still only 24. He plays good if overrated defense. His power has dropped for the second consecutive season, and despite his rep as a high OBP guy, his career onbase percentage is .326. That said, his OBP this season is .343 and that could be tantalizing for some trade partners. Carlson’s switch-hitting isn’t as prominent as it should be. For his career, per wRC+, Carlson is 40 percent above league average offensively vs. lefties, and 10 percent below average against righties. How do other teams view Carlson? And have the Cardinals lost patience with him?
Here’s Joel Sherman of MLB Network and the New York Post on Carlson: “He would be an upgrade for the Yankees, but his MLB performance does not match the tout on him — scouts too often see a guy just floating through games with too little impact.”
That seems like a pretty accurate assessment to me. Then again, Carlson could become the next outfielder who causes immense pain for the Cardinals if he’s traded and prospers elsewhere. Trading Carlson would be uncomfortable for Mozeliak – but not nearly as wrenching as it would have been a year or two ago.
Lars Nootbaar, outfielder: You’ve probably heard or read something about Noot being “untouchable.” And it seems that a lot of teams coveted him last offseason. But is Nootbaar still in the “untouchable” classification? If so, why? Not that I’m urging the Cardinals to trade him. But he’s stalled a bit this season. Injuries have become an issue. He’s still hitting ground balls at a too-high rate of 54 percent. His slugging percentage has dropped 55 points from last season and currently sits at .393. But Nootbaar can also play effective defense at all three positions, continues to draw a lot of walks, and his onbase percentage is actually up by 20 points (to .360) over last season.
This hasn’t been a so-called breakout season for him, but Nootbaar won’t be 26 until September, he’s under long-term contract control, and the idea of moving him in a trade probably causes wicked pain for Mozeliak … who must live with a horrendous record of trading the wrong outfielder, only to see them reach the All-Star level in their new quarters. My devil’s advocate point: if Nootbaar is still such a valuable trade piece, don’t the Cardinals make him available to see how much they can get in return?
Alec Burleson: There’s interest in the big-dude outfielder who has excellence contact skills and a chance to evolve into a good MLB hitters. But Mozeliak and Marmol are smitten by Burly. But if some team wants him included in what would be a larger deal that works for the Cardinals, Mozeliak, has to be smart — even if it’s painful to part with his guy. Burleson has been coming on a bit, batting .314 with an .815 OPS in his last 17 games.
Before I go, here’s a note from Jim Bowden (The Athletic) who suggests a trade partnership between the Cardinals and Dodgers. “That’s where St. Louis needs to bear down,” Bowden said. “The Dodgers are interested in one of their outfielders and their soon-to-be free agent starting pitchers, so a trade match is definitely possible.” Bowden also wrote that the Orioles should pursue Montgomery and Flaherty.
Please pardon my typos!
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.