The Brewers and Cardinals will resume their entertaining and competitive NL Central rivalry at Busch Stadium in a long weekend series. The four-game set, which begins Thursday, will give us a fresh look at both teams and provide clarity on the division race.
With apologies to the Cubs, Pirates and Reds, the Brewers and Cardinals are the only teams in the NL Central that have a realistic chance of winning the division. But both STL and Milwaukee accumulate enough wins to qualify for a wild-card playoff spot if necessary.
Once again the Brewers are above the Cardinals in the standings. Milwaukee (28-16, .636) leads St. Louis (24-19, .558) by 3.5 games. The Brewers are fourth in the majors in winning percentage. The Cardinals are 10th.
The Brewers have made the playoffs four years in a row, and the Cardinals have been a playoff team in three straight years.
The Cardinals have been chasing the Brewers for a while now. Catching the Crew is difficult despite the Cardinals’ larger market size, financial advantage, and higher payroll.
The Milwaukee leadership team of president of baseball operations David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell rates among the top combinations in the majors.
Since the start of the 2018 season the Brewers rank fifth in the majors and second in the National League with a .570 winning percentage. The Cardinals are ninth overall and fourth in the NL with a .550 winning percentage.
And the Brewers have stayed ahead of the Cardinals despite spending an estimated $300 million less in payroll than St. Louis over the last four full seasons including 2022 … but excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020.)
The accounting is based on the annual 40-man competitive-balance tax payroll as reported by Cots Contracts.
That financial disparity makes Milwaukee’s success even more impressive. With the Cardinals investing significantly more money in payroll, the Cardinals should win more games than the Brewers.
Of course, that’s still possible in 2022. And STL’s Cardinals’ player-development pipeline is in better shape than Milwaukee’s.
The Brewers come to town after recently posting its best start over the first 40 games of a season in franchise history. And Counsell – certainly in the conversation for the best manager in the majors – soon will become Milwaukee’s all-time leader for most career wins by a manager. With seven more victories Counsell (557 wins) will move ahead of Phil Garner (563.)
This is Counsell’s eighth season as Milwaukee’s manager and he’s already gone against three St. Louis managers over that time: Mike Matheny, Mike Shildt, and now Oli Marmol.
Milwaukee’s manager and the front office have outmaneuvered the St. Louis operation and that explains why the Brewers win more games despite never ranking higher than 16th among the 30 teams in annual 40-man payroll in each of the last five seasons. With rare exception the Cardinals have been an annual Top 10 payroll team for many years.
As for the first two months of 2022 …
The Cardinals are scoring more runs than the Brewers so far this season, ranking third in the majors at 4.84 runs per game. Milwaukee is eighth with an average of 4.57 runs per contest.
The difference is starting pitching. The Brewers won’t have Freddy Peralta (shoulder) back until much later in the season, but they’re still rolling after plugging in lefty Aaron Ashby. It was an easy transition because Ashby had been getting starts as part of Counsell’s plan to go with a six-man rotation during busy times in the schedule.
The Cardinals lost Jack Flaherty (shoulder) and tried to replace him in the rotation with reliever Jordan Hicks. That hasn’t worked. And with Steven Matz heading to the IL earlier this week, the Cardinals are short on viable, clear-cut starting pitching and will give rookie prospect Matthew Liberatore a second start to show if he’s ready for the majors.
The Milwaukee rotation – Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Eric Lauer, Adrian Houser, Ashby and Peralta – is sixth in the majors with a 3.20 ERA. The St. Louis rotation ERA (3.86) ranks 20th.
That’s why the Brewers still have an edge on the Cardinals. It may not hold up, but for now we can say that the Crew remains well stocked in starting pitching – and the Cardinals for some inexplicable reason continue to leave themselves short in rotation depth. And that makes them vulnerable. They became even more vulnerable after their failed Jordan Hicks experiment that led him to the IL with a strained right forearm flexor.
One note about the standings: as we’ve mentioned before, Milwaukee has played 36 games against losing teams and only eight against winning teams. The Cardinals have played 19 games against losing teams and 24 against losing teams. With a 24-12 record against losing teams it’s hardly a surprise to see the Brewers on top in the NL Central.
That’s why this series is so appealing. The Cardinals and Brewers can test their strengths and weaknesses against each other.
Milwaukee has the advantage in starting pitching.
Milwaukee’s offense is better than expected, but the Cardinals rate higher in most categories and have been boosted by the presence of rookies Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez.
In a somewhat surprising development the Brewers are playing better defense than the Cardinals so far. Milwaukee ranks second in the majors with 25 defensive runs saved, and the Cardinals are seventh with 17 runs saved.
The St. Louis bullpen was doing just as well as Milwaukee’s until taking a hit because of a significant shortage of innings by Cards starting pitchers.
Milwaukee won’t have shortstop Willy Adames (ankle) or right fielder Hunter Renfroe (hamstring) available for the series in St. Louis. The Cardinals are without Dylan Carlson (hamstring) and Tyler O’Neill (shoulder something.)
As I type this the status of Brewers closer Josh Hader is unknown. He’s been away from the team this week to be with his wife in the late stages of her complicated pregnancy. An update on Hader’s family-emergency leave may be forthcoming a little later this afternoon. UPDATE: Hader has returned to the club and is ready to pitching.
The manager matchup is really interesting to me. Counsell had no problem with Matheny or Shildt, but Marmol is more innovative, forward thinking and unafraid to go beyond the old-school managerial customs. I could be proven wrong, but Marmol gives the Cardinals their best chance in years to match up with Counsell.
Enjoy the series.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.