THE REDBIRD REVIEW

The Cardinals have set up headquarters at Wrigley Field, where they’ll play five games in four days.

The action begins tonight at 7:05 p.m. The Cardinals are perky these days, having gone 9-3 in their last 12 games including the three-game brooming of the Padres in a sweep at Busch Stadium.

As for the other side of the rivalry, this is probably a good time to ask: where did the Cubs dynasty go?

The Cubs are 21-29 this season, and have won only nine of 26 home games so far. The misery that set in last summer has spread into a second season. And while there’s still plenty of beer-fueled mirth in Wrigleyville, the Cubs’ enclave has more sad eyes and long faces.

That’s because the Cubs are rebuilding again … for the second time in 11 years. The 2016 yearbook is filed away on a dusty shelf, right next to photos of the Cubs’ World Series celebration.

Last year ownership and management began busting up the roster, and the deterioration was swift and unmerciful for Cubs fans. As late as June 24 last season, the Cubs were in first place in the NL Central with a 42-33 record. But that soon came to an end as the trade winds swirled through Wrigley.

In no particular order the Cubs moved first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, closer Craig Kimbrel, lefty reliever Andrew Chafin, outfielder Joc Pederson, and RH reliever Ryan Tepera.

From July 27 through the end of the season the Cubs went 21-40 (.344) to finish 71-91 and 24 games behind first-place Milwaukee.

Combining the 2021 fade and this season’s record through 50 contests, the Cubs have won only 42 of their last 111 regular-season games. That’s a .378 winning percentage.

Since the beginning of May the Pirates and Reds have a better record than the Cubs. The team’s current Injured List is populated by a collection of talent that includes starting pitchers Wade Miley, Drew Smyly, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay plus outfielder Seiya Suzuki, catcher Yan Gomes and infielders Jonathan Villar and David Bote. Starting shortstop Nico Hoerner recently returned after missing 15 days with a sprained ankle.

Oct 3, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner (7) tags out Chicago Cubs left fielder Ian Happ (8) during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As the Cardinals meet the Cubs for the first time in 2022, they will see a team that has only three players left from the 2016 World Series champion: starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks, catcher Willson Contreras and outfielder Jason Heyward. Contreras can become an unrestricted free agent after the season and no one would be surprised to see the Cubs trade him for prospects this summer.

The year 2016 wasn’t that long ago. But at Wrigley, 2016 must seem like a very long time ago. The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908, finally made it to the promised land in 2016, and are starting all over again only five-plus years after producing the greatest achievement in franchise history.

“I think what we achieved was it burned incredibly bright, but it was probably for a shorter amount of time than we had hoped,” Cubs president of baseball ops Jed Hoyer said. “And we ended up trading those guys away and getting assets that we’re really excited about for our future.”

Cubs fans are smoldering with anger. They see an ownership group that has enormous wealth, a franchise that has a gushing revenue flow, and a baseball business that seems more interested in building hotels and other real estate projects in Wrigleyville. As the Cubs made plans to move away from a more traditional and comfortable TV setup to create their own platform (Marquee) to broadcast games, owner Tom Ricketts told fans the change would pump in more revenue to ensure funding for extravagant payrolls.

Yes, you will have to pay for Marquee to see our games but we’ll have more financial clout to sign big-name star players. This is a positive thing!

How’s that working out?

As recently as 2019 the Cubs had an opening day 25-man payroll of $203.3 million which was third largest in the majors. This year’s 26-man opening day payroll was $174.8 million which ranks 14th in MLB.

In 2021 a sports-marketing firm reported that a fan would pay $110 dollars for a general-admission ticket, parking, a beer, and two hot dogs when attending a game at Wrigley Field. It was the highest average in major-league baseball last season.

Meanwhile, Hoyer has been pushing back at the Chicago media for describing the team’s current state as a “rebuild.” He refuses to call it a rebuild. He refuses to acknowledge that a rebuild exists.

“When [making moves for the present and future] are in conflict, we are going to look towards the future,” Hoyer said last weekend. “I think our goal is to build something really special, just like it was last time. And I think sometimes to do that you have to take a long view.”

Sorry but that sure sounds like a rebuild.

“If you want to label it that, that’s your job,” Hoyer said in the same interview with Chicago media. “My job is to tell you what our plan is.”

The team-owned Marquee Sports Network airs a show called ‘‘The Reporters’’ that features opinions from a panel of sports-media types. When longtime Chicago columnist and radio host David Haugh began criticizing Hoyer for his lack of transparency on what is obviously a rebuild, the show’s producer halted the segment and attributed it to technical difficulties.

No specific reason was given for the technical delay. But just before the producer restarted the taping of the segment, instructions were given: there would be no further discussion about Hoyer’s lack of transparency.

The apparent attempt at censorship created an immediate public-relations debacle. It’s one problem after another for the Cubs in 2022.

On the field the Cubs aren’t helpless. They rank 12th in the majors with their average of 4.40 runs per game. But it’s a challenge for a group of hitters that have the fifth-highest strikeout rate, are 17th in slugging, and 19th in OPS+.

If anything the Chicago pitching staff has performed slightly better than expected … at least not so far. But it’s a shaky foundation. The Cubs aren’t clean defensively, ranking 23rd in defensive runs saved. That’s an obvious factor in the team’s No. 21 ranking in average runs allowed (4.52) per game.

The rotation has a quality-start percentage of only 28%, which ranks 18th, and they’re 26th with an average of 4.7 innings per start. The bullpen ERA (3.80) isn’t much worse than the Cardinals’ 3.70. But protecting late leads is an issue; the Cubs are 24th in save rate (59%.)

The Cubs spent a reasonable amount of free–agent money on starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, who has a 3.95 ERA in eight starts. Hendricks, the designated No. 1 starter, has scuffled to a 5.22 ERA through 11 starts. Two of the team’s less experienced pitchers — Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele – did very well in the opening two months.

The Cubs committed nearly $100 million – including the posting fee – to sign Suzuki away from his team in Japan. Suzuki was an instant hit, exciting the fan base with an April that included a .405 onbase percentage and .529 slugging percentage. But opponents studied the video on Suzuki, and he sputtered in May with a .279 OBP and .338 slug. Can he adjust? The Cubs will likely find out more after he returns from a sprained finger.

Keep an eye on outfielder-infielder Christopher Morel during the Cards-Cubs series. The speedy rookie, 23, has become a fan favorite after posting an .837 OPS and reaching base in 15 consecutive games to start his MLB career.

Manager David Ross is maintaining an upbeat attitude. No one is blaming him for the team’s downbound-train of a record. His personality is right for a rebuilding team (sorry, Jed.) And the Cubs compete hard for Ross.

“I don’t think anybody’s punting,” Ross said recently “I haven’t in any way given up on a team that I have a ton of confidence in. They’re going to come in, work hard every single day and give me their best. That’s all I can ask for as a manager.”

The Cubs’ glory years went by so quickly.

And even though they won 97 games in 2015 and won the World Series in 2016, the Cardinals have a slightly higher winning percentage than the Cubs in regular-season ball since ‘15.

The Cardinals have been a dud in recent postseasons, not winning an NLCS game since 2014. But reaching the postseason matters, and the Cardinals have done it 15 times in the last 22 years – including the last three seasons, and in eight of the last 11 seasons.

Hoyer was right: the Cubs burned bright. But their opulence couldn’t last, and the light burned out. The Cardinals can be frustrating with their cautious ways, but at least you can count on the franchise to make the playoffs at a consistently high rate. No National League team has played in more postseasons than the Cardinals since the start of the 2000 season. The Cardinals don’t rebuild. They recharge.

NOTES ON MY SCORECARD:

Daily Accounting: The Cubs helped the Cardinals by winning the final two games of a four-game series against the Brewers at Wrigley Field. That’s important because the Brewers beat the Cubs in the first two games. The Cardinals trail the first-place Brewers by 2.0 games in the NL Central; a week ago, after losing to the Crew in the first game of a four-game set, the Cardinals trailed Milwaukee by 4.5 games. So: progress … The Cardinals now have a winning record (14-13) against opponents that have a winning percentage above .500 … The Cubs are 8-11 against winning teams … The Cardinals head into Wrigley Field with a 13-10 record on the road … The Cards are 19-11 vs NL Central teams; the Cubs are 11-12 … the Cubs are 6-13 in one-run games this season; the Cardinals are 7-5 … the Cardinals are 3-1 with two splits in their last six series.

Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson: They started the last two games of the Padres series. Each went 7 innings. In their combined 14 innings Waino and Dak allowed six hits, two walks and one run. This was exactly what the team needed to give the bullpen a break before the extra-busy series at Wrigley Field.

Keeping the Padres Down: San Diego has been cold offensively, and the Cardinals took advantage of the situation by keeping the Padres iced down during the three-game sweep. Cardinals pitchers held the Padres to seven total runs in three games, and limited the visitors to a .212 average, .268 onbase percentage and .308 slug. As a team the Padres had a 26% strikeout rate against Cardinal pitching.

What Up With Kodi Whitley? The young power-righty reliever impressed during 2020 and 2021 as a strong presence on the mound. While it’s true that Whitley walked too many hitters, he had a 2.40 ERA and 27.1 strikeout rate in his first 30 innings in the bigs. But it’s been a struggle for the big guy early on in 2022. He has a 6.00 ERA in 13 innings. His strikeout rate is down (21.4%) and his walk rate (14.3%) is terrible.

Here’s another thing: RH batters are pounding Whitley’s four-seam fastball … his best pitch and his favorite pitch. Last season RH batters hit .161 and slugged .290 against his four-seamer. This year, RH batters are hitting .385 with two homers and a .846 slugging percentage in the 13 at-bats that ended with a four-seamer. Last year RH batters had only one home run in 31 at-bats against the Whitley four-seam.

Nolan Arenado: Even with a lengthy slump baked into his stats, the Cards third baseman is having a vigorous season offensively. After his three-hit, one-homer, three-RBI day in the series finale against the Padres, Arenado is tied for 7th in the NL with 35 RBIs. He’s also 8th in the NL in slugging (.522) 9th in OPS (.872) and 10th with 10 homers.

Brendan Donovan: The rookie’s onbase percentage is still floating high at .429. That ranks tied for 5th in the majors among hitters with a minimum 90 plate appearances. Donovan has the same OBP as Paul Goldschmidt. For perspective, consider that the overall MLB onbase percentage is .311 this season. That really makes Donovan’s .429 OBP stand out.

Patrick Wisdom: The former Cardinal third baseman has 11 homers for the Cubs this season but has struck out more times (68) than any hitter in the majors so far in 2022. Wisdom’s overall strikeout rate for the season is 36 percent. In his 155 games with the Cubs, Wisdom has struck out in 39.3% of his plate appearances.

Nolan Gorman: The rookie slugger is dealing with some creakiness in his back – the same condition that set him back during spring training. Gorman told reporters that he can swing a bat without a problem – but playing defense at second base bothers his back. Hopefully this won’t be an ongoing issue. But if the back flares up, and Gorman can still swing a bat without experiencing discomfort, well … gee, wouldn’t it be nice if National League teams could use designated hitters? Then Gorman could DH! What a great idea! (Sorry for the snark.)

The Power Of Positive Pitching: During their current 9-3 stretch the Cardinals have a team ERA of 3.60. Excluding Yadier Molina’s pitching performance in the ninth inning of the 18-4 win at Pittsburgh, the Cardinal pitchers allowed only 21 earned runs in 82 innings in their nine wins. That’s a 2.30 ERA. Over the last 12 games the Redbirds have given up four runs or fewer 10 times.

Quick Note: I have a shorter piece on Paul Goldschmidt. It will be online soon.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical 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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and 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.

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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 and Brooks Baseball Net 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.