THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m the loon who keeps attaching the word “optimism” to the 2024 Cardinals. For this condition I blame my intense dedication to homework and a stubborn attitude derived from an old-fashioned concept known as common sense.

This makes me a weirdo. Yes. I don’t sit at the river’s edge, contemplating a deep dive into oblivion as I think about the franchise payroll 20 hours a day, shivering and conjuring a crazy fantasy of the Cardinals spending $300 million on a Japanese pitcher.

I make no insane demands of Bill DeWitt Jr., imploring him to sell the franchise. The Cardinals have done too much winning over his 28 seasons of ownership for that to be a consideration for stable-minded individuals. But I also think BDJ should invest more money in the competitive product.

I don’t hang out with the X faction that evidently believes the Cardinals are on course to finish with 117 losses in ‘24.

Me? I’m the Cautiously Optimistic Dude. That’s OK. I can live with that. Please do not call 911 on my behalf. Thank you.

Reason No. 7 For Cautious Optimism
A Ton Of Deadwood Pitching Has Been Removed.
The Pruning Will Lead To Better Results.

And away we go …

STARTING PITCHERS

Last season Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, Jack Flaherty, Jake Woodford, Matthew Liberatore and Drew Rom collectively made 49.3 percent of the team’s starts. They were responsible for 46 percent of the total innings thrown by STL starting pitchers.

Wainwright retired. The Cardinals didn’t offer contracts to Hudson and Woodford for 2024 and became free agents. Flaherty was dealt to Baltimore at last summer’s trading deadline, became a free agent after the season, and signed a one-year, $14 million deal with Detroit on Dec. 20. Rom got some big-league experience after coming over from the Orioles in the Flaherty exchange. Rom got knocked around in his first audition for the Cardinals but is only 24 and hardly a lost cause. Liberatore made 11 starts for the Cardinals last season (5.88 ERA) and looked better as a reliever.

Four of the six pitchers are gone, Liberatore and Rom are in the mix for 2024 but will have to prove that they have what it takes to become a solid starter in the majors.

But the six pitchers I listed were a liability in 2023, and that was a disaster considering their volume of starts and innings. This rotation was doomed to fail.

Addition by subtraction is more than just a cliche. It means something. And the Cardinals will do better – perhaps significantly so – after pruning the tree and clearing the withered branches.

Here’s a review of what the six starters did for the Cardinals in 2023:

A combined ERA of 6.02.

A Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) of 5.51.

Only 17 quality starts.

A quality-start percentage of 21.2 percent. That was well below the overall MLB quality-start rate of 35 percent in 2023.

Only 60 starts (combined) that lasted a minimum of six innings. And the six had 29 starts that went fewer than five innings.

An anemic strikeout rate of 15.4 percent. In 2023, the overall MLB strikeout rate for starting pitchers was 22.1%.

A walk rate of 9.6 percent. The overall MLB rate for starting pitchers was 7.9%.

A first-inning ERA of 5.44. And a 6.14 ERA over the first two innings of a start.

A home-run rate of 1.5 homers yielded per nine innings. Wainwright, Rom and Woodford were rocked for home-run rates of 1.8 per nine innings or higher.

– The six starters collectively produced 1.5 WAR. But most of that was done by Flaherty, who had 1.7 WAR in 2023. The other five starters named in this collection had a combined WAR of minus 0.2 – meaning that they were below the replacement-level standard for starting pitchers.

Look, this was gruesome. Not entirely an aberration … more of a catastrophic event that won’t happen again in 2024.

The Cardinals’ 5.08 starting-pitching ERA was 26th among the 30 MLB teams last season. But that’s just a minor stat. Here’s the whopper: The 5.08 ERA was the worst in a full season by St. Louis starting pitchers since the franchise officially became the Cardinals in 1900.

This crackup of a traditional team foundation was due to negligence and required an belated intervention. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak didn’t waste time in signing free-agent starters Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn.

As of now, the primary concern with the 2024 STL rotation is the shortage of established, effective depth. Lynn will have to chuck those fastballs with more authority after pitching to a 5.73 ERA and getting blasted for 2.3 homers per nine innings last season.

The Cardinals’ planned 2024 rotation consists of Gray, Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Gibson and Lynn. But even with Lynn’s alarming pitching numbers baked in, the collective ERA for those five starters last season was 4.34. And their collective Fielding Independent ERA was 4.22. But four of the five – Gray, Mikolas, Gibson and Matz – collectively posted a fine 3.79 Fielding Independent ERA in 2023.

In that context it’s important for the Cardinals to get a reasonably solid season from Lynn. And they’ll need Matz to avoid Injured List time, stay in the rotation, and provide 25+  starts. Not including the 2020 Covid season, Matz averaged just under 30 starts in his last three full seasons before becoming a Cardinal.

The Cardinals had only 48 quality starts last season, ranking 24th in the majors. But four of the five expected starters in the modified STL rotation – Mikolas, Gibson, Gray and Lynn – had 61 quality starts in 2023.

Matz had another injury-damaged season and contributed only four quality starts. But including Matz’s total from 2023, the Cardinals’ designed rotation had 65 quality starts last season, and that’s a heckuva lot more than 48.

Last season only 10 big-league rotations produced more than 65 quality starts. And when the Cards got a quality start last season, their record was 33-15 for a .687 winning percentage. The St. Louis victory total will rise – and not by a small amount – with a larger supply of quality starts in 2024.

Sure, the 2024 Cardinals have to bank on better luck on the injury front, but that’s true of all MLB rotations. That’s why depth is so essential. The front office is apparently counting on contributions from in-development starting pitchers that will likely open 2024 in the minors. Some candidates to emerge as rotation-depth pieces include Tekoah Roby, Sem Robberse, Rom, Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy. Liberatore appears to be more effective in relief but he could get another shot at starting.

THE BULLPEN

Cardinals relievers ranked 23rd in the majors with a 4.47 ERA last season. It was the fifth-worst ERA by a St. Louis bullpen in 63 seasons of expansion-era baseball.

No wonder.

The Redbirds shuffled through 23 different relievers in 2023. (Not counting outfielder Alec Burleson, who contributed 1.2 innings.) Many of the bullpen volunteers were just passing through town, stopping by to lend a hand during emergency conditions in an exhausting, bruising season.

Another – Drew VerHagen – represented a failed move by the front-office at a time when better relievers were available in the free-agent market. A few others were farm-system arms, summoned in desperation.

A list of names: Ryan Tepera, VerHagen, Kyle Leahy, Jacob Barnes, James Naile, Guillermo Zuniga, Casey Lawrence and Andrew Suarez.

The eight relievers handled a combined 151 innings and were pelted for 118 earned runs. Their collective ERA was 7.03.

If you want to include the out-of-favor Genesis Cabrera – who pitched a lot better after being dealt to Toronto – our list would expand to nine relievers who had a combined 6.68 ERA in 183 innings. The nine arms were responsible for 31.5 percent of the total innings by the STL bullpen in ‘23. Those 183 innings resulted in minus 1.2 WAR. I didn’t imagine that this would even be possible. I’d hit you with more stats – they’re all cruddy – but what’s the point?

There were other parts to the bullpen collapse. The departure of Jordan Hicks and Chris Stratton in deadline trades … a mostly terrible second big-league season from Andre Pallante … a decrease in quality by Giovanny Gallegos … relief appearances by from starting pitchers Hudson and Woodford … a forearm strain that caused closer Ryan Helsley to miss 82 days – which limited his availability to 25 appearances and 36 and ⅔ innings.

The Cardinals also received encouraging relief work from lefties JoJo Romero, John King and Liberatore. For the second straight year, Matz was shifted to the bullpen because of injuries or ineffectiveness and pitched well.

Overall, the bullpen was an incinerator that burned late-inning scoreboard advantages. The 2023 Cardinals blew 41 leads, squandered 28 save opportunities, ranked 25th in save percentage (56%),and lost nine times when a teammate made a quality start. The ‘pen was charged with 27 losses overall, blistered for a 7.11 ERA in high-leverage situations and got popped for 23 home runs with runners in scoring position.

By all logic and reasonable standards, the bullpen shouldn’t go through another summer of Battered Reliever Syndrome. There will be more options with more upside. That’s why I believe the bullpen will render a more reliable performance in 2024. Even with weeks to go in the offseason the FanGraphs projections rank the St. Louis bullpen at No. 7 in the majors.

I don’t know about that. This bullpen should be better, yes. But it requires reinforcement, and the front office remains parked on the outside of the free-agent marketplace. I like the offseason additions of relievers Andrew Kittredge and Nick Robertson — but don’t stop there. Keep going. Give manager Oli Marmol some relief — which includes a better night of sleep. Marmol must have had some VerHagen nightmares.

The Cardinals had a bunch of horrendous relievers in 2023. Many wouldn’t have been around in normal circumstances. But it was a worst-case scenario situation, and the gory results were inevitable. I don’t envision such an extreme, 2023-level bonfire again in ‘24. A lot of deadwood pitching has been removed, and that will reduce the probability of frequent combustion. But yeah, it would be nice to see the front office get busy on the flameproofing project.

ANOTHER IMPORTANT FACTOR

The Cardinals have finally expanded their outdated and malfunctioning pitching operation, adding coaches and other support staff and bringing in pitching-savvy consultant Chaim Bloom. The Cards will get up to date on technology and give their pitchers more modern tools to work with. Overdue. But positive.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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. We recorded a new Seeing Red on Jan. 22, and it’s there for you now. 

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.

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.