I enjoyed reading the results of an online Cardinal-fan survey published by The Athletic. The questions were wide-ranging and wise, and the answers were … interesting.
For example: when asked to rate the quality of the job done by chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. during his tenure as owner, 25.4 percent went for “average,” 10.7 percent chose below-average, and 3.4 percent gave DeWitt a poor grade. DeWitt also received plenty of support, with 60.5 percent of respondents giving DeWitt a score of above average or excellent.
What’s the basis for an average rating or worse? I can only assume much of the negativity comes from last season’s hideous 71-91 collapse. Recency bias, and all of that. But the question was phrased to judge DeWitt on his entire tenure. And that’s 28 seasons of baseball, beginning with the 1996 campaign.
Before DeWitt took over the Cardinals hadn’t qualified for the postseason since 1987. Granted, the wild-card format didn’t take effect until 1995, the season before the Cardinals were sold. Then again, the Cardinals had four losing records in the eight seasons prior to the franchise transfer to new ownership.
Since DeWitt’s first season (1996) of leadership the Cardinals rank fourth in MLB in regular-season winning percentage, are second in the number of postseason games played and have the third-most postseason victories. DeWitt’s Cardinals have made the playoffs 17 times, an accomplishment topped by only the Yankees (23) and Braves (19).
And during the DeWitt Era the Cardinals have won four NL pennants and two World Series titles. Given the magnitude of the overall DeWitt track record, how in the heck did 39.5 percent of the voters label BDJ’s ownership as no better than average? That’s completely disconnected from the actual facts.
This voter comment that caught my attention:
“It could be much worse, but the DeWitts seem content to rest on their laurels and sell three million tickets. I wish they still displayed a passion for winning like they once did.”
With all due respect, I don’t think the DeWitt “passion” has waned. And the Cardinals are consistent winners. I understand the anger over the disastrous 2023, but before last season’s vile failure the Cardinals had competed in four consecutive postseasons. From 2011 through 2022, they played in nine postseasons in 12 years, tied with the Yankees for second in the majors. Only the Dodgers (10) made it into the postseason more times than the Cardinals since the start of 2011. But for sure, last season was appalling.
The problem is the organization’s failure to draft and develop prominent or elite-level pitching. That’s obvious grounds for criticism. Under DeWitt’s watch, Cardinals management has allowed a stable, dependable strength – pitching – turn into a corrosive, damaging weakness. The Cardinals would have averted 2023’s collapse had they done better job of curating their own pitching.
If “passion” was intended as a comment on payroll size …
Well, let’s review:
* In DeWitt’s 28 seasons the Cardinals have had an average MLB payroll ranking of 10.6. And right now — subject to change — they rank 10th in both the 26-man payroll and the 40-man competitive balance tax payroll.
* I split the spending into four, seven-season blocks. The Cardinals never had a seven-year payroll-ranking average “better” than 9.8 or “worse” than 11.2. By any rational measure, the spending pattern here is consistent.
* The 17 DeWitt teams that reached the postseason had an average MLB payroll ranking of 10.4.
* The four DeWitt teams that won the NL pennant had an average MLB payroll ranking of 10.75.
* The two World Series champions had a payroll average of 11th.
* The 11 DeWitt teams that didn’t make the playoffs had an average payroll ranking of 11th – the same as the two World Series champs. Six of the 11 who missed out were no “worse” than 10th in payroll.
* The last 10 teams to compete in the World Series had an average payroll ranking of 10.6. Four of the 10 were in the payroll top five in their pennant-winning season, but three were 14th or “worse” including 2023 Arizona (21st) and 2020 Tampa Bay (28th.) The others were ninth or 10th.
Do you see any direct, reliable correlation between spending and success?
The point: DeWitt’s historical payroll average would fit into this group.
As I’ve said many times before: it isn’t just about how much you spend. It’s how you spend the money. Evidence: from 2018 through 2023, the Cardinals outspent Milwaukee by a total of $284 million … and didn’t win as many games as the Brewers. Milwaukee’s winning percentage was 26 points higher than STL’s during the six seasons. It wasn’t money. It was judgment.
Over DeWitt’s full 28 years, the franchise has spent enough money to have a higher regular-season percentage than 26 MLB teams – and has won more postseason games than 27 teams.
If the Cardinals can’t have a successful season with a Top 10 payroll, it means they’ve made some poor roster choices. As it stands now – subject to change – the FanGraphs and Clay Davenport projections have the Cardinals winning the NL Central in 2024.
If the Cardinals make it back to the postseason in 2024 they’ll have a chance to reverse a postseason slide that’s turned into a 1-9 skid in their last 10 games. But if that 1-9 record is all about the spending – or lack thereof – then how do we account for the Dodgers going 1-6 in their last seven postseason games? Or the Yankees going 3-7 in their last 10?
Those goliath franchises spend like crazy. But the Yankees haven’t played in a World Series since winning it in 2009. And the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series in a full season in 1988. But wait … isn’t postseason success all about payroll size? No. When will we learn that?
I wish the Cardinals would spend more on payroll. And not because it would signal a larger commitment and appease the payroll fetishists. Me? I would prefer a larger baseball IQ. And increased roster insurance. If the Cards sprinkled more money around, it would give them more ways to make up for their personnel miscalculations, and that’s important.
It’s fine to go wish casting. But unless I’m hallucinating without realizing it, I don’t see free-agent starter Jordan Montgomery in the Cardinals’ immediate future.
That said, I don’t believe DeWitt or president of baseball ops John Mozeliak need to feel ashamed for the team’s efforts this offseason. Via free-agent signings or trades, the Cardinals have brought in three new starting pitchers and seven relievers. The list is headed by Sonny Gray, who was FanGraphs ranked 5th among available free-agent starters on the market this winter – in the non-Ohtani category.
This has been the Cardinals’ busiest offseason in quite some time. The signing of three established major-league starters – Gray, Kyle Gibson, Lance Lynn – is particularly notable.
Until now, as far as offseason moves go, the Cardinals hadn’t acquired three established MLB starting pitchers from outside the organization since trading for Pat Hentgen and Darryl Kile and signing free agent Andy Benes before the 2000 season. (Benes was a Cardinal in 1996 and ‘97, but pitched for Arizona in 1998-1999.)
The Cards’ total $99 million investment in Gray, Lynn and Gibson is the most spent on free-agent starting pitching during an offseason since DeWitt purchased the club. That doesn’t include new offseason contracts for starting pitchers who already were Cardinals. (Adam Wainwright and Woody Williams, for example.) The Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a five-year $80 million deal before 2016, and gave current starter Steven Matz four years and $44 million in the planning for 2022. But those deals were singular-starter moves.
The Cardinals have signed or traded for multiple relievers in previous offseasons, but this year’s count – seven additions – represents the largest number of winter moves to address the bullpen during DeWitt’s time as owner. This does not include guys signed to minor-league deals.
We don’t know how many of the seven new relievers will pitch for St. Louis in 2024, but Andrew Kittredge and Keynan Middleton will be a big part of the bullpen. And at least two or three of the other new arms should contribute to the relief effort in ‘24. Nick Robertson, Riley O’Brien, etc.
The offseason initiative included the smart hiring of Chaim Bloom, who will raise organizational enlightenment from an advisory role. He’s already made a difference by identifying potential low-cost, high-value bullpen solutions — which is absolutely the way to do it.
The Cardinals have done well this offseason … and that opinion doesn’t mean I’m after Fredbird’s job. I’m just trying to maintain a fair and sane outlook on this. Have the Cardinals done enough? It’s a fair question. I think they’re on the borderline. They could do more, yes. But they’ve done more than what they’re receiving credit for — at least locally. The real answer will surface over 162 regular-season games.
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, 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.