THE REDBIRD REVIEW
I think it would be an overstatement to say that John Mozeliak’s legacy is totally on the line as he begins the process of resetting the Cardinals to pull them from a downward trend. But the president of baseball operations is in a tenuous spot, needing to crank up his energy and ambition to make significant changes as a sad-sack 2023 team wobbles to the worst season by the franchise since 2007.
Mozeliak is under pressure to do something about it. No, he isn’t in danger of losing his job and his contract extension lasts through 20025. But if Mozeliak fails to restore the Cardinals to their accustomed place in MLB’s hierarchy, he’ll be viewed as the baseball man responsible for the deterioration of Cardinals baseball after the organization’s prolonged and prestigious run of success. While chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is ultimately responsible for the state of Cardinals baseball, Mozeliak is BDJ’s highly empowered point man in charge of roster personnel and planning.
Make no mistake about it: the Cardinals have been tracking in the wrong direction, and it’s been happening for a while. The decline has been gradual more than sudden, and the Cardinals were able to make themselves look better than they actually were by taking advantage of a weak division. As I’ve noted a bazillion times, the 2022 Cardinals won 93 regular-season games but went only 45-41 in games played outside the NL Central. And if we include the two straight losses to the Phillies in the playoffs, that record is 45-43. To put it mildly, the 93 wins were misleading.
This house of cards collapsed in 2023, with the Cardinals wallowing at 12th in the National League and 24th overall with a .441 winning percentage.
I want to explain why I’ve portrayed the Cardinals as a team in decline. This doesn’t mean that they are haggard and hopeless and destined to sink into a pattern of long-term losing that could last for years.
But based on the high franchise standards established by DeWitt after his syndicate purchased the team before the 1996 season, the Cardinals are slipping and losing ground. Please understand that it’s all relative. St. Louis is not held to the same criterion applied to the most recent versions of the Pirates, Athletics, Rockies, Royals and Tigers. The Cardinals are in a group of teams that are expected to pursue greatness from one season to the next. Dodgers. Yankees. Braves. Astros. Red Sox.
DeWitt chose Mozeliak to replace the fired GM Walt Jocketty after the 2007 season, and Mozeliak did a terrific job of maintaining the winning tradition.
That has changed. And I’ll show you the specifics in this breakdown of Mozeliak’s first eight seasons on the job compared to his last eight seasons on the job.
— Regular-season winning percentage: .562 in Mozeliak’s first eight seasons, second in MLB. In his last eight seasons, a .539 win percentage that ranks ninth overall.
— The Cardinals competed in 64 postseason games, most in MLB, over Mozeliak’s first eight seasons. But in his last seven seasons the Cardinals have competed in 15 postseason games which ranks 13th overall. That would be 15 postseason games in eight seasons if the 2023 Cardinals finish as an also-ran.
— Postseason victories: 34 in Mozeliak’s first eight seasons, second overall. But in his last seven seasons the Cardinals have won only four postseason games, which ranked 14th through 2022. If the 2023 Cardinals fail to make the postseason, they’ll have only four postseason wins in their last eight years. To go from 34 postseason victories in the first eight years to only four in the last eight seasons … wow.
— The Cardinals are 5-17 in their last 22 postseason contests including a humiliating 1-9 in the last 10.
— The Cardinals qualified for the postseason six times in Mozeliak’s first eight seasons for a 75 percent success rate, best in MLB over that time. But if the 2023 Cardinals (as expected) miss the playoffs, the team will have reached the playoffs four times in the last eight seasons, a success rate of 50%.
— Postseason rounds won: seven in Mozeliak’s first eight seasons, plus the 2012 wild-card game. But in the last seven postseasons the Cards have just a single postseason triumph, defeating Atlanta in the five-game 2019 NLDS. If the Redbirds miss the 2023 playoffs, it will leave them with one postseason-round triumph over the past eight seasons.
— NL pennants: Two in Mozeliak’s first six seasons, but no pennant in his last 10 seasons (assuming that 2023 is another strikeout.)
— World Series titles: One, in 2011. If the 2023 Cardinals fail to make the playoffs it will mark their 12th consecutive season without hoisting the World Series trophy.
— Mozeliak and DeWitt pulled off two incredible trade heists, pilfering Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks and Nolan Arenado. One problem: the Cardinals have failed to put a more capable team around them, and somehow forgot about the vital importance of starting pitching.
— Goldschmidt and Arenado have been STL teammates since 2021. Over that time the Cardinals are 10th in the majors in regular-season winning percentage, have appeared in only three playoff games, and are 0-3 in the postseason.
— As I’ve written before, the team’s managerial bloodline has thinned with Mozeliak making the hires. He replaced the retiring Tony La Russa with Mike Matheny. Mozeliak sacked Matheny and promoted bench coach Mike Shildt, who won the NL Manager of the Year in 2019 and finished third in the voting in 2021. But when Shildt pushed back against Mozeliak’s magisterial control, he was dismissed in favor of the inexperienced but acquiescent Oli Marmol. Why is Mozeliak so afraid of hiring a strong-personality manager from the outside?
Again, I realize that the fans in many other major-league baseball markets will look at this and say: Stop whining! Cardinals fans have it great, so don’t be babies! I don’t think any rational Cardinal supporter would try to make the case that this is an oppressed fan base that’s been forsaken and emotionally abused. (Though I must add, there are loons out there who claim exactly that.)
This isn’t just another franchise. This isn’t the Carolina Panthers, the Ottawa Senators, or the Washington Wizards The Cardinals average around 3.2 million in home attendance per season, a figure that only the Los Angeles based Dodgers can top. The local TV ratings for Cardinal games are always the best, or at least among the top three, of any U.S. market.
Cardinals fans put their dollars and their loyalty in the same place every season – DeWitt can absolutely count on tremendous support – so when the team begins to slip-slide into a lower level of achievement, it’s fine to express dissatisfaction. As I said earlier, 2023 isn’t just one bad season – it’s the continuation of a gradual downturn that should be graded on the established standards. And much of the frustration comes from the realization that it didn’t have to be this way. The Cardinals could have avoided this fall.
The Cardinals aren’t some low-payroll, low-ambition, low-success entity that’s stuck in a cycle of chronic losing. This is one of the greatest franchises in North American professional team sports that has won 11 World Series championships and 19 National League pennants.
Mozeliak got the credit when the Cardinals were situated near the top of baseball’s ruling class, and I’m not sure why he shouldn’t be held responsible for the weakening trend. DeWitt, of course, is right there with Mozeliak – a point that I always make sure to include.
The pressure is on. Mozeliak publicly declared the Cardinals as sellers in the 2023 trade market, looking to trade assets for, in his words, “pitching, pitching, pitching.” But his work at the trade deadline is only part of the challenge and won’t transform the Cardinals into a formidable team. Dealing players with expiring contracts no longer leads to deadline-market windfalls.
The heavier lifting will have to take place next offseason. Mozeliak will have more trade opportunities on his desk and more time to work on them. DeWitt can use his substantial spending power to upgrade the pitching through free agency.
More than anything, Mozeliak and DeWitt must show the degree of management urgency that’s been missing around cozy Busch Stadium for too long. The complacency in the management suites have been corrosive, and it would be a shame for Mozeliak and DeWitt to damage their reputations by letting a once-great team continue to fade for no good reason. Other teams in the NL Central are on the rise, and can’t be taken for granted. The Cardinals have put themselves in this position. This is an uncomfortable time for a front office that’s become way too comfortable. The nap is over.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
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.