THE REDBIRD REVIEW
To rehabilitate last season’s decrepit .438 winning percentage, the Cardinals put their resources and attention on starting pitching.
Swell. But the disaster fund must be put to other uses after president of baseball operations John Mozeliak signed free-agent starters Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson.
Mozeliak is supposedly seeking meaningful free-agent support for a rickety bullpen. And that has to be a mandatory task because the bullpen was cruddy in 2023.
How toxic was St. Louis pitching in 2023? The Cardinals have played 62 seasons since the National League converted to an expanded schedule in 1962. And the ‘23 Cardinals allowed the most earned runs (767) and had the worst ERA (4.83) in a full season over the last 62 years. The glaring yield included a 5.08 starting-pitching ERA and a 4.47 earned-run average by their relievers.
The starting-pitching additions should make the 2024 rotation more competitive. As MLB.com noted, the current 30-team projections at FanGraphs show the Cardinals listed at No. 14 in rotation strength. That’s hardly ideal but is still an upgrade of the No. 25 rotation ranking before the start of the offseason.
Two things bug me:
1. Unproven starting-pitching depth. I’m still feeling positive about the three incoming starting pitchers. But the Cardinals are low on established, reassuring depth in their starting-pitching reserve. Their renovated rotation – Gray, Miles Mikolas, Lance Lynn, Steven Matz, Kyle Gibson – was put together with used parts. By the 2024 All-Star break, the average age of the STL rotation will be 35 years old. Multiple injuries have limited Matz to an average of 13.5 starts in his two years as a Cardinal. Gray turned in a full 32 starts last season but injuries reduced his availability to an average of 25 starts over 2021 and 2022. Lynn spent 71 in-season days on the IL in 2022 and made only 21 starts.
At this point Cardinals’ experienced MLB rotation depth is led by Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore. The two young lefties collectively have pitched to a 5.44 ERA in 28 combined big–league starts. Rookie LH Drew Rom started eight games last season after coming over from a trade with Baltimore and was popped for an 8.02 ERA in 33 and ⅔ innings. I should mention Andre Pallante, the right-hander who has made 10 starts for the Cardinals in his two MLB seasons. Pallante’s ERA in the starter role is decent (3.98) but beware of the 17.5% strikeout rate and inflated 1.417 walks-hits per inning. The Cardinals can talk up prospects Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy but they each have a heck of a lot to prove. Perhaps Tekoah Roby could be a surprise rotation candidate at some point in 2024 but that would require solid pitching health and a strong showing at Triple A.
Hoping for something is not the same as doing something.
Too many questions. Too many maybes.
2. The bullpen doesn’t have many quality assets returning in 2024. The top three STL relievers in terms of Wins Above Replacement last season are Ryan Helsley (1.5 WAR), JoJo Romero (1.2) and Giovanny Gallegos (0.3). Matz, Thompson and John King combined for 0.7 WAR as Cardinal relievers in 2023. Liberatore (0.1 WAR) could be a bullpen contributor in ‘24 and the relief role brings out his aggressiveness. But Libby isn’t a sure thing.
Helsley– per Stuff+ – was a top-four MLB reliever last season but missed 71 days with a strained forearm. He also missed 48 days with elbow issues in 2021, and 21 days with a shoulder problem in 2019. (And was sidelined by Covid 19 in 2020.) As I’ve mentioned a few times already, Gallegos experienced a noticeable drop in strikeout punch – and an alarmingly high rate of hard-hit contact in 2023. Romero looked good last season with a 28.6 percent strikeout rate but is still in the prove-it stage of his career. Pallante went off the rails last season.
This is a fragile group, and no one should be surprised if Mozeliak continues to market lower-tier offseason pickups Nick Robertson, Riley O’Brien and Ryan Fernandez as bullpen solutions. That’s been his newest pitch.
In fairness, the St. Louis bullpen is ranked No. 7 in the current FanGraphs projections for 2024. That seems … really … optimistic.
The Cardinals continue to be linked with Japanese lefty closer Yuki Matsui, and the free agent reportedly made a visit to St. Louis last week. That’s interesting. But what if anything will come of his stop? I’m assuming Matsui didn’t come here to visit the The Arch.
I’m not sure what to expect there, but I digress. Mozeliak said this Sunday when speaking with our friend Tom Ackerman on KMOX:
“We actually like our bullpen. I think that Helsley, Gallegos, and Romero are a pretty good way to finish a game, and they give you some flexibility. I do feel like Gallegos did not have the year he hoped last year, but I think ending the season on the IL gave him additional time to rest.”
Mozeliak didn’t close any doors. He didn’t rule out the idea of updating the bullpen with outside purchases. There are plenty of relievers left on the free-agent market, and there’s time for the Cardinals to secure an appropriate set of safeguards.
Oh, boy. It would be troubling to see this management team fail to address the bullpen in a significant way. I’ve said this so many times I’m getting on my own nerves. But I’ll speak on it again: this front office has an unsettling habit of overrating its roster talent.
Is Mozeliak doing it again? You be the judge.
Earlier this month at the Winter Meetings, Mozeliak was asked whether he viewed the Cardinals – as currently constructed – as a championship contender.
“I do,” Mozeliak said. “We’re excited about what we have. Again, you’ve got to play games and you need lots of things to happen. I can be as bullish as I want, but that’s why we play and that’s the beauty of sport. … We understand there are still opportunities that lie ahead and hopefully we’re able to make them happen. But even after all that, it doesn’t matter; you have to go and play.”
The Cardinals are not a championship contender at this moment.
But they do have money to spend. FanGraphs lists St. Louis with a current estimated payroll of $175 million for the 26-man roster. Cots Contracts projects less than that ($163.8 million.) The figure from Cots would make the Cardinals No. 10 in the 26-man payroll ranking. But without making additional investments, they won’t stay at 10th.
Because Gray agreed to defer much of his first-year salary of $25 million, the Cardinals will pay $28.6 million total to Gray, Gibson and Lynn in 2024. Gallegos is the most costly reliever with a $5.5 million salary for next season.
I think it’s reasonable – and obvious – to suggest the Cardinals are being too conservative and cautious again. As of now, they’re going light on payroll. St. Louis has subtracted approximately $30 million from the books – at least – with the retirement of Adam Wainwright, the trading of Tyler O’Neill and the decisions to part ways with Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford, Andrew Knizner, and Drew VerHagen.
That $30 million is pretty much the same amount of money being used to fund the 2024 salaries allocated to Gray, Lynn and Gibson. So what have the Cardinals really invested so far?
And I haven’t even broached the subject of their offense. The Cardinals ranked 19th in the majors in runs per game last season, and I’m not sure why that equals “Hey, we’re all set with our offense!” I’ll be writing about that soon.
This is absolutely fascinating to me. After the crash of 2023, you’d think ownership-management would be highly motivated to adjust the club’s outdated model and catch up with the new payroll trends in major-league baseball. But that doesn’t appear to be the case – even as the fan base continues to question the financial commitment to winning.
In 26-man payroll accounting here’s where the Cardinals ranked among the 30 teams from 2018 through 2023:
It’s too soon to assess where the Cardinals will end up on the spending scale in 2024. They’re capable of making impact moves during the remaining weeks of the offseason. I’d be really surprised to see chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak sit tight and go with what they have.
I still expect a big move. And if it doesn’t come? The fans will determine that with their own spending. In 2023 the Cardinals averaged 40,013 paid customers per home game – their lowest average in a season since 2012. After finishing second (seven times) or third (once) in MLB average home attendance over an eight-season stretch, ‘23 Cardinals dropped to fourth. That’s still very good … but the trend arrow is pointing down. Are the Cardinals getting the message?
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.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions 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.