THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Coming out of the All-Star break the Cardinals immediately drifted into trouble, losing three of four games to the Reds and Blue Jays. The starting pitching was cracking, getting flogged for 18 earned runs in 19 and ⅔ innings for a 8.24 ERA.

At that point the Redbirds were a mere four games over .500 at 51-47 and lagged three games behind the first-place Brewers in the NL Central standings. The St. Louis deficit would swell to four games on July 30. The rotation was swirling out of control, spinning a July ERA of 4.40 that ranked 23rd among the 30 MLB teams.

It was no surprise, then, to see the Cardinals have a losing July record (11-13.) It was part of a dreary 17-21 stretch that began June 15. And over the 38 games the starting-pitching ERA was 4.70.

The Cardinals desperately needed to strengthen the rotation to give themselves a chance to reverse an alarming downward trend.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak intensified his pitching search through the haze of the comically off-target Juan Soto rumors. Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch stayed focused on what really mattered. And right before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, the Cardinals made deals for two left-handed starting pitchers, acquiring Jose Quintana from the Pirates and Jordan Montgomery from the Yankees.

The Cardinals addressed their only serious flaw, and soon would be on their way to the top of the division. It didn’t take long.

On Aug 4, Quintana made his first start as a Cardinal, giving up one run in six innings to highlight a 7-2 win over the Cubs. And just like that, the Cardinals moved into a first-place tie with Milwaukee.

Two days later Montgomery faced the Yankees in his St. Louis debut, forged five scoreless innings, and his new team blanked his old team, 1-0. And with the Brewers losing to the Reds in Milwaukee, the Cardinals moved into sole possession of first place on the evening of Aug. 6. And as they begin a weekend series against the Cubs at Busch Stadium, the Redbirds lead the Crew by 6 and ½ games.

True fact: The Cardinals are 10-1 in the 11 games started by Quintana and Montgomery. The lefties have allowed two or fewer earned runs in nine of their assignments.

True fact: since Quintana started that first game as a Cardinal on Aug. 4, St. Louis has the best record in the majors at 21-7 (.750.)

True fact: Mozeliak changed the trajectory of his team’s season.

Mozeliak deserves credit …

Lots of credit …

Credit that goes beyond the additions of Montgomery and Quintana.

After their bumpy start when play resumed following the pause for All-Star festivities, the Cardinals straightened out to produce the second-best record in the majors (26-11, .703) since the break. Only the Dodgers (30-10) have been better than St. Louis.

Mozeliak and staff made an immense impact with upgrades that have improved – and energized – the Cardinals.

1. Mozeliak acquired Quintana and Montgomery without dealing from the organization’s treasure trove of prospects. As I’ve noted more than a few times, the Cardinals landed the two big-help starters while still holding onto 12 of their top 13 prospects … and 23 of their top 24 prospects.

2. Mozeliak’s free-agent signing of Albert Pujols was a baseball blessing. Pujols returned to St. Louis, where it all began for him as a major-league player in 2001. Pujols is completing the circle in his final big-league season as a Cardinal. He didn’t have to be great; our town and the fan base would fully embrace one of the short-list greatest players in St. Louis and MLB history. But the baseball part of the reunion has been extraordinary … which only adds layers of joy.

Since the start of July, Pujols is batting .342 with a .703 slugging percentage and 11 homers. He just completed an August in which he led MLB in slugging (.803) and OPS (1.224.) Pujols homered eight times in only 61 August at-bats. He had stunning power surges: five home runs in five games, six homers in eight games, and seven HRs in 10 games.

This is probably my favorite Pujols stat of the season: from Aug. 14 through Aug. 22, Pujols homered six times in 21 at-bats … and during his nine-day explosive charge, Pujols’ six home runs matched the total of seven entire MLB teams – and exceeded the home-run totals of eight entire teams. No way! Well, yes, he did that.

Mozeliak signed Pujols to a one-year deal for $2 million. Based on the “Dollars” metric at FanGraphs – which estimates what a player would make in free agency – Pujols comes in at $8.8 million. And that will go higher.

A good signing, yes?

3. Mozeliak made the trades that brought first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (2019) and third baseman Nolan Arenado (2021) to St. Louis. It’s probably good to remember that. Because when we all get obsessed with what Mozeliak gets wrong, we somehow ignore all that he’s gotten right. This season Goldschmidt and Arenado are the two most valuable position players in the National League, ranking first (Arenado) and second (Goldy) in WAR. The Cardinals gave up little in return for making the trades that set up the best corner-infield tandem in the majors. Cards chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. helped by negotiating with Colorado ownership to gain financial concessions in the Arenado trade. Both of these deals were steals. Absolute steals.

4. Remember how much we hollered and crabbed over outfielder Corey Dickerson? Mozeliak signed him to a one-year deal for $5 million. Dickerson batted .184 in April, .177 in May, and had three extra-base hits during the first two months. And in the third month, June, Dickerson had only nine at-bats before going into the IL with a strained calf. He missed more than a month.

Since returning on July 9, Dickerson is batting .374 with a .390 OBP and .582 slug with 12 extra-base hits, 13 RBI and 12 runs in 91 at-bats. And his smooth, left-handed swing stroked for a .361 average and 1.224 OPS in August.

Dickerson has an above-average 112 OPS+ for the season; it would be his best since 2019. And Dickerson has done more than his fair share to help make the Cardinals the best offense in baseball since the All-Star break. As a matter of fact, Dickerson’s .414 batting average is No. 1 in the majors among hitters that have at least 70 at-bats since the All-Star break.

Dickerson changed the narrative. It went from “Mozeliak wasted $5 million on this guy?” to “What a bargain signing by Mo.”

5. Let’s talk about Lars Nootbar, one of many Cardinals on the 2022 roster who was drafted by Mozeliak’s baseball operation. Mozeliak opened up a starting outfield spot for Nootbaar by trading injured center fielder Harrison Bader to the Yankees in the swap for Montgomery. Nootbaar’s career has flourished. In his last 43 games (39 starts) the increasingly popular Nootbaar has a .298 average, .421 OBP and .588 slug for a 1.009 OPS. And 19 of his 39 hits over that time have gone for extra bases.

Nootbaar made his MLB debut last season. And in 2022, the Cardinals have had 11 rookies make their MLB debuts. The Cardinals have benefited from the performances turned in by rookies: slugger Nolan Gorman, super-utility maniac Brendan Donovan, bopper Juan Yepez, and pitchers Andre Pallante and Zack Thompson.

The organization’s draft-development system is humming, and more prospect gems, including Jordan Walker, are on the way. Randy Flores has done a fantastic job in directing the Cardinal drafts. But when Mozeliak promoted him, some questioned Flo’s qualifications for such an important role. (Personally, I liked the choice.) So if you’re going to heap praise on Flores – as you should – just make sure to remember who made the smart call to give Flo the job. John Mozeliak.

6. In terms of WAR, the Cardinals have the second-best group of position players in the majors this season. The Dodgers position players lead with 32.5 WAR; St. Louis is second with 28.9 WAR. Of the 15 current position players that have played the most for St. Louis this season, 14 were drafted, signed as a free agent, or acquired via trade by Mozeliak. The only exception is Yadier Molina, who was drafted during Walt Jocketty’s time as general manager. Jocketty drafted Pujols but Mozeliak signed Pujols and brought him back to play his final season in St. Louis.

7. Mozeliak had the stealth touch in adding depth and surprising quality to his bullpen through the deadline-time acquisitions of right-hander Chris Stratton (Pirates) and lefty JoJo Romero (Phillies.) Stratton labored a bit at first, but they’ve impressed so far.

8. Remember when Mozeliak was the worst person in the world for firing Mike Shildt as manager and replacing Shildty with 36-year-old rookie manager Oli Marmol? Didn’t some of you want to send Mozeliak to prison for hiring batting instructor Jeff Albert to install a more modern, forward-thinking system to get the Cardinals in line with a changing industry?

Marmol is brilliant and will even get better. He’s moved his team into a more enlightened state of playing baseball. He’s made the Cardinals better with his emphasis on platoon-split advantages, hard-contact, bullpen innovation, and stronger player accountability .Marmol’s astute lineup construction — and his tough standard of basing playing time on performance — has given the Cardinals an edge.

Jeff Albert’s system has been embraced by the young players during their developmental time in the minors. They arrive in St. Louis, ready to contribute.  Veteran hitters can have their own ideas, and there is more than one hitting instructor on this team. (Just like every other team.) Albert isn’t a dictator. He’s there to help and advise. But it means something — at least to me — when we see Albert Pujols in the dugout, frequently engaging Jeff Albert in discussions about hitting. And if Jeff Albert has the respect of Pujols, Goldschmidt and Arenado, then what the heck are you caterwauling about?

The Cardinals go into the weekend with a top-three offense in baseball, averaging 4.9 runs per game, leading the majors with a 118 OPS+, and ranking second in adjusted runs created (wRC+.) Since the All-Star break the Cards lead MLB in runs per game, batting average, onbase percentage, slugging and OPS.

And if you want to jump on Jeff Albert every time a hitter goes into a slump, then why do you willfully ignore all of the positives? You want to sack Jeff Albert because Shildt didn’t like him?

That’s a bad reason. And there was more to it than that.

Mozeliak knew what he was doing.

10. Mozeliak’s popularity ratings probably aren’t great. I don’t care about that. Here are the rankings that matter: the 2022 Cardinals are 21 games over .500, have won 15 of their last 20 games, own the sixth-best record in the bigs, currently hold their largest lead of the season in the NL Central, and have a 98.2 percent probability of winning the division according to Baseball Reference.

I’ve been critical of Mozeliak for his offseason moves in advance of the 2022 season. His bad habit – making poor personnel decisions in constructing a bullpen – surfaced again. The Cardinals threw money away on T.J. McFarland, Drew VerHagen, Nick Wittgren and Aaron Brooks.

For the second offseason in a row, the Cardinals inexplicably went into spring training with a thin rotation and flimsy starting-pitching depth. Mozeliak did sign free agent starter Steven Matz to a four-year, $44 million contract, but the lefty has been a non-factor this season because of injuries. But Matz still has three more seasons (after this one) to justify Mozeliak’s investment, and we’ll just have to wait to see how it works out.

For the second consecutive summer the Cardinals were throttled by serious starting-pitching problems … just as they were in 2021, until Mozeliak scrambled to acquire lefty starters Jon Lester and J.A. Happ in a rush at  the trade deadline. The two low-key moves turned out better than anyone expected. Down the stretch the Cardinals won 14 of 20 games started by Lester and Happ, and their stable presence was an important factor in the team’s 38-20 run from the start of August through the end of the regular season.

If it makes you happy, you can whine about the trade for Miami corner outfielder Marcell Ozuna before the 2018 season. The Cardinals famously gave up two good pitching prospects – Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen – who developed into terrific major–league starters for other teams. I liked the trade at the time; many of us had spent considerable time mewling about the shortage of power in the Cards lineup. This deal ultimately went the wrong way for the Cardinals and Mozeliak but no head of baseball operations – anywhere – gets every trade right. They all make moves that blow up. We demanded a power hitter for the St. Louis lineup, and Mozeliak went for it. His subsequent bigger deals — Goldschmidt and Arenado — made up for the swing and miss.

The Cardinals have prospered during a run of sustained success since Mozeliak replaced Jocketty before the 2008 season. And yes, I’ve written this at least twice before on “Scoops,” even as I griped about other aspects of Mozeliak’s performance. For the record I’m in favor of sustained success and don’t care for house-fly attention spans. My analysis always tries to measure the good and the bad. It works for me.

We can complain about mistakes that have been made, and opportunities that were missed. I’ve done it. We can express frustration over the Mozeliak-DeWitt conservative, cautious way. I’ve done that, too. And I definitely believe the Cardinals need to be more robust and dangerous in the postseason, where they’ve gone 5-15 in their last 20 games. That’s tremendously disappointing.

But those conservative, cautious ways have led to many years of winning baseball, and we’ve watched this franchise repeatedly outperform the industry standards.  That said, the Cardinals need more starting pitchers with power arms and strikeout punch to become more viable in the postseason, and it’s up to Mozeliak to get it done.

Here’s where I’m different from many others: if we’re going to roast Mozeliak for his flaws, we also must step back to acknowledge his long list of successes. It’s just a matter of fairness. (Such an outdated concept, I know.)

Here’s what the Cardinals have done since Mozeliak began running the baseball operation before the 2008 season:

The third-best winning percentage in regular-season play. Only the Dodgers (.582) and Yankees (.573) have played more winning baseball than the Cardinals (.554) since ‘08.

Five division titles, nine trips to the postseason, five triumphs in the NLDS, five appearances in the NLCS, two NL pennants, and the World Series championship in 2011.

During Mozeliak’s time in charge, only the Dodgers (11) and Yankees (10) have qualified for more postseasons than St. Louis All three teams will make it to the playoffs again in 2022. The Cardinals are one of only six teams to make it to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. This year they are all but certain of extending that postseason streak to four in a row.

Under Mozeliak the Cardinals have competed in 77 postseason games, which is third behind the Dodgers (112) and Astros (79.) Since 2008 the Cardinals have played in more postseason games than the Yankees, Braves, Red Sox, Cubs, Giants and other notable franchises. Footnote: Since 2008 the Cardinals have played in more postseason games (77) than their two main rivals … combined. The Cubs (42) and Brewers (32) have been in 74 postseason games, combined, since ‘08.

The Cardinals have won 36 postseason games since 2008. That ranks fifth in the majors, and their division rivals (Cubs, Brewers, Reds and Pirates) have combined for 37 postseason wins over that time.

I mentioned this earlier in this column, but want to say it again: the Cardinals must become more viable in postseason play. The trend is negative. From 2011 through 2014 the Cardinals made it to the NLCS in four straight seasons, reached two World Series, and won it all in 2011. They won 31 postseason games from 2011 through 2014. But since 2015 the Cardinals are 5-12 in the playoffs.

Mozeliak’s outstanding in-season maneuvering will give this franchise another shot at a pennant or a trophy in 2022. He rebounded from his miscalculations to build a more capable team. The Cardinals’ mix of proven veterans and precocious young players is captivating. The four best stories on this team in 2022 — Pujols, Goldschmidt, Arenado, Nootbaar — were made possible by Mozeliak. And when he traded for Montgomery and Quintana, Mozeliak instantly raised his team’s morale, and the Cardinals zoomed higher in their performance and in their place in the standings. They have lost one series — ONE — since the trade deadline. And they have won three series from postseason contenders (Yankees, Brewers, Braves) in August.

I don’t know how the Cardinals will match up with the best teams in the NL when the tournament gets underway. But you can’t go deep in the playoffs unless you actually make the playoffs. And since 2008, only two major–league teams have done that more often than John Mozeliak’s team.

Thanks for reading …

I hope you have a wonderful Labor Day Weekend.

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. 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 which is available in your preferred app store.

“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

 

 

 

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.