I’m always interested in the outside view of the St. Louis Cardinals. We have a tendency to let the local thundercracks influence our perceptions as we assess the team’s offseason.
Based on the vociferous, widespread and entertaining sentiments expressed on X-Twitter, I’m assuming the 2024 Cardinals already have been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. They’re done in the NL Central, have no chance of winning an NL wild-card spot and their season is over even before they head to spring training. I’m kidding and being a smart-aleck jerk, but you get the point.
Away from the BFIB grievance bubble, the opinions are generally kinder and more level.
MLB.com lists the Cardinals in a group of seven teams that are “poised to improve by leaps and bounds” in 2024. ESPN.com included the Cardinals in a forecast of the top five breakout teams for ‘24.
The latest assessment comes from Joel Rueter, the respected national baseball writer at Bleacher Report. Rueter had the Cardinals ranked 14th in his 30-team power rankings. There’s no parade for finishing 14th, and the team’s goals should be higher than that. Obviously. Of course. I’m not suggesting otherwise.
The dilapidated 2023 Cardinals were tied for 26th overall in the majors and 13th in the National League with a .438 winning percentage. In that context, going from 26th to 14th is … OK? At least as a hypothetical? The 2006 Cardinals ranked 13th in MLB regular-season winning percentage and proceeded to win the World Series.
Rueter also had the Cardinals as his highest-rated team in the NL Central. At least for now. The Cubs just signed free-agent reliever Hector Neris and are seeking additional moves. (Cody Bellinger? Matt Chapman?) We’ll see how it goes.
Anyhow … as of now, this is where Bleacher Report puts every NL Central team in the MLB power ratings: Pirates 25th, Brewers 21st, Cubs 16th, Reds 15th and Cardinals 14th.
“The bulk of the heavy lifting for the Cardinals was done at the onset of the offseason, with Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson signed to bolster a starting rotation that was a glaring weakness in 2023,” Rueter said. “Young hitters Nolan Gorman, Jordan Walker, Lars Nootbaar and Masyn Winn will be counted on to make an impact, and the offense has a ton of upside. Have they done enough to improve on the pitching side of things?”
No, Joel. They haven’t.
The Cardinals require a stronger dose of bullpen medication but are still putzing around instead of going into the free-agent market to buy relief.
As I list my reasons for Cautious Cardinals Optimism for 2024, you won’t find the bullpen cited on there … well, except for when I logically assumed the ‘pen will be more solid after purging so many useless relievers from the roster. The addition by subtraction thing.
Here’s my next episode in the Cautious Optimism catalog …
Reason No. 9
The Cardinals Have Many Individuals
With Much To Prove
The Force Multiplier Effect
Can Make A Difference
In no particular order …
1. Oli Marmol: As he enters spring training, the manager will go into the final year of his contract. Will he earn an extension? Will he last? He’s adrenalized to maximum levels. Prove himself? Yeah, he’s totally into that and welcomes the pressure.
2. Miles Mikolas: He had a 3.29 ERA and 22 quality starts in 2022. Last season he had a 4.78 ERA and 14 quality starts. At age 35, he’s highly motivated to return to form and is cooking up an improved slider. He’ll need a defense behind him.
3. Yadier Molina: He’ll help the organization throughout the season but won’t be a full-time coach. He wants to be a big-league manager. The 2024 season gives Molina the opportunity to reaffirm that he’ll put in the time and work to signal that he’s ready.
4. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak: For obvious reasons. Mo may have not lost credibility with chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. – but he’s certainly lost cred with the fans. Which is a problem for DeWitt, who wants to see a full house at Busch Stadium. And potential successor Chaim Bloom is part of the front office now – possibly to take over for Mozeliak when the time comes. Mozeliak’s contract expires after 2025. One way or another, Mozeliak wants to finish strong. He did a good job of jumping this winter’s free-agent market by signing three starting pitchers and trading for reliever Andrew Kittredge. There’s still time for Mozeliak to rehab his image with the fan base. He can do that in a number of ways. Get some bullpen help before the start of the season and have an aggressive mindset at the 2024 trading deadline.
5. Steven Matz: After signing a four-year, $44 million free-agent covenant the lefty averaged only 13.5 starts in his first two seasons with the club. Matz has pride. He cares. He wants to be good. He’s determined to show he can pitch without breaking down with injuries.
6. Lance Lynn: He’ll be 37 in May. He was brutal last season for the White Sox and Dodgers, getting cannonaded for 48 home runs in 188 innings including his one postseason start. He can’t be that bad again. And what better place to reset than the comfortable pitching confines of Busch Stadium? He’s on a one-year, make-good contract. If Lynn wants to continue receiving good money as a major-league starter beyond 2024, he must enhance his value.
7. Paul Goldschmidt. He’s entering the final season of his five-year contract. He’ll be 37 in September. The Cardinals have taken a neutral stance on the prospect of a new contract to keep Goldy in St. Louis.
8. Nolan Arenado: The third baseman declined defensively in 2023 and was bypassed in the Gold Glove voting for the first time in his career. At the plate, Arenado posted his worst full-season OPS+ (109) of his career. His home-run count plummeted from 42 in 2022 to 26 last season, and that was accompanied by a 74-point decrease in slugging percentage. He was frustrated and miserable last season and was not in the mood to be a team leader. Can Arenado pull himself together? I assume he’ll be fired up in 2024. And that means he’ll be part of the solution instead of whatever the heck happened to him last year.
9. Lars Nootbaar: The outfielder has the talent, but can he stay healthy long enough for that ability to fully flourish? He’s done well but hasn’t fulfilled his potential. It’s time to put it all together … and surely he knows this.
10. Ryan Helsley: He has a lot on the line – money – because he can become a free agent after the 2025 season. After working in 54 games and pitching 64.2 innings in 2022, Helsley missed time with a forearm injury in 2023 and appeared in only 33 games, throwing 36.2 innings. His performance in high-leverage situations declined in 2023. The OPS against him in high-leverage scenarios was .288 in 2022 – and flared to .705 in ‘23. Strikeout rate went down. Walk rate went up. His Win Probability Added went from a plus 3.7 in 2022 to a minus 0.1 in ‘23. On the cusp of spring training Helsley has two choices: (A) build a stronger resume to enhance his big-money earnings power, or (B) take another step back.
11. Masyn Winn: Batted .172 late last season in his initial MLB passage. Much is expected of him. The Cardinals are committed to him as their long-term shortstop. This prospect does not require added motivation. But his determination, competitiveness and hunger to improve should carry him forward.
12. Giovanny Gallegos: By his standards, Gio had a down year in 2023. We could see it in a number of ways: a 4.42 ERA, a decline in strikeout rate, a glaring increase in the hard-hit rate against him, and a home-run rate that was twice as high in 2023 compared to ‘22. Was 2023 just an outlier or something more serious and lasting? This could be his final season with St. Louis; the team holds an option ($6.5 million) and won’t pick it up if Gallegos struggles again in ‘24.
13. Jordan Walker: Proud guy. Smart man. Wants to be great. He’s got to be tired of 10,000 media people writing and talking about his uncoordinated defense in right field. He improved late in the season and should be much better in 2024. He’ll work hard to get it done.
14. New bench coach Daniel Descalso: He’s now officially on the managerial track. In 2022 the Cardinals won 93 games and the NL Central title – and bench coach Skip Schumaker turned his higher-profile position into a statement on his value to the team. The Miami Marlins were impressed and hired Schumaker as manager. If the Cardinals have a turnaround season in 2024, Descalso will be an appealing candidate to fill a manager’s job in the next wave of hiring.
15. Willson Contreras: The catcher was wronged by his pitchers, the manager and the front office in 2023. No need to rehash all of that now. But the 2024 season offers a fresh situation for Contreras. The public is on his side and even the whiny pitchers have taken responsibility for their own failures instead of blaming him. With three new starting pitchers and no WBC to disrupt the team, Contreras will have the advantage of a full spring training without distractions. He can get to work on his catching with full cooperation from the pitching staff. No one will be mewling because he isn’t Molina; that part is over. Contreras won’t have to deal with last year’s craziness and can fully concentrate on the work to prove that he’s solid defensively. And the peace will be healthy for his hitting. Last season, per wRC+, Contreras was 13 percent below league average offensively in his first three months as a Cardinal. But over his final three months of the season – after he was allowed to settle in – Contreras performed 88 percent above league average offensively.
16. Bill DeWitt Jr: Ownership is always the focal point, and DeWitt has received substantial and deserving praise for his stewardship of the St. Louis franchise over the past 28 seasons. But when a team skids to 71-91, a different kind of attention is focused on the owner. The incessant grumbling over the size of the team payroll is largely overstated; DeWitt has been an excellent owner during his time in office. But if the Cardinals hold the line on payroll, decline opportunities to add talent, and miss another postseason, the yelping will increase. That’s just the way it is.
17. Tommy Edman: I think he’s a good center fielder. The Cardinals evidently believe he’s Willie Mays. For the first time in his career, Edman will have to show that he can thrive in center over an entire season.
18. Dylan Carlson: I don’t think anyone in spring training will have more to prove than this 25-year-old outfielder. And he has so much to gain. Time to make an upward move to elevate his career.
19. Nolan Gorman: In his second MLB season, the slugger increased his slugging percentage by 58 points and put up a 13 percent improvement in OPS+. After homering every 20.2 at-bats as a rookie, Gorman went deep every 15 at-bats as a sophomore big leaguer. Gorman’s career is off to a good start. How high and deep can he go in 2024? And given that he deals with back pain, can he compete without significant interruption?
20. Brendan Donovan: He’s a terrific hitter with exceptional plate discipline. But he’s also coming off elbow surgery. And after making strides in 2023, he’s trying to build on his power increase again in 2024. Donovan wants to move into a team-leader role, and the Cardinals need that from one of their younger veterans. So on multiple fronts 2024 looms as a big year for Donovan.
21. Alec Burleson: The Cardinals signed old friend Matt Carpenter to a one-year contract. That’s direct competition for Burleson — for a roster spot, and for playing time. He’s been put on notice.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through 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, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.
For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.