Welcome To The Redbird Review:
The 37-41 Cardinals are 14-26 since May 14 and have lost 19 of 26 since May 30. In only 40 calendar days the Redbirds went from having a season-best lead of 3 and ½ games in the NL Central on May 19 to a season-worst deficit of 8.0 games through Sunday.
As I type this St. Louis ranks 22nd in the majors with a .474 winning percentage. As recently as May 13, the Cardinals were No. 3 in the majors for best winning percentage, .605. Their drop has been swift and stunning.
The pitching staff is in a state of flux and the offense is increasingly easy to shut down. Clearly the Cardinals are in disarray, and I think we can agree on this much: the problem is systemic.
1) Management and front office, which includes chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, has (A) made mistakes in evaluating young players, especially outfielders; (B) misspent considerable payroll dollars in aging and/or declining players; (C) failed to reinforce the team’s roster depth for the 2021 season despite the advance industry-wide warnings of a coming injury outbreak; (D) traded for Nolan Arenado but neglected to enhance the talent base around him. The DeWitt Cardinals could be counted on for stability and depth. That is no longer the case. At least not in 2021.
What was the point of trading for Arenado and bringing back Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright if you won’t take the logical next step by supplementing the pitching and player-position depth? Other teams found insurance for injuries by scooping up value buys on the free-agent market.
“When you’re coming off a season that was shortened last year,” Milwaukee Brewers GM Matt Arnold said, “I think some of these injuries could have been anticipated to a certain degree just because of the (increased) workload guys are now taking on.
“It’s something we tried to prepare for, to the best of our ability, in terms of collecting depth and having guys behind them step up throughout the season.”
The Brewers have had 23 players on the Injured List this season, and that includes multiple IL stays for outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, second baseman Kolten Wong, and starting pitcher Brett Anderson.
The depth is an obvious factor in Milwaukee’s 45-33 record as a new week begins. The first-place Brewers lead the fourth-place Cardinals by 8 in the NL Central standings.
As mentioned, the Brewers (through Sunday) have had 23 men on the IL this season; the players have missed a combined 818 days. The Cardinals have had 17 on the IL; they’ve missed a combined 610 days. (Source: Spotrac.) One team was prepared for the injury chaos. The other, not so much.
“It’s something we pride ourselves in every year, the depth that we have,” Brewers starting pitcher Corbin Burnes said. “Obviously, we were tested early on with multiple players on the IL, and we’re going through that stretch again.
“We’ve got depth; we’ve got guys who can step up and play good baseball … that’s what we’ve done all year and I think it’s going to happen again. I’ve got no worries. We’ve got plenty of guys who are ready to step up.”
Must be nice.
2.) Cardinals manager Mike Shildt is still stuck in a Candyland version of reality, busy ladling sweet nothings from a bottomless supply of praise on a collapsing team. He continues to insult the intelligence of the fan base by insisting that his lifeless team “played our ass off” as he did again following Sunday’s 7-2 loss to the Pirates that closed a terrible 1-3 weekend series for the home team.
And to think of what the manager might say if his team didn’t bat .179 and score 11 runs in four games vs. Pittsburgh?
As I’ve written and said many times, no, I don’t expect Shildt to blast his team publicly. There is a way to speak the truth, and nothing but the truth, without betraying your players and causing internal friction. (Though, in my experience, internal friction can be effective; Tony La Russa never let his Cardinals players get comfortable.) It’s one thing to support your players. It’s another thing to live in Candyland.
Shildt is the only member of the Cards’ baseball operation who communicates with the media — and ostensibly the fans — before and after each game. In my nearly 40 years of covering baseball, I’ve found this to be true: a manager projects weakness when he habitually defends or denies weakness. Shildt seemed to be trying to do better in this area in recent days, but there’s still an obvious disconnect from realism in his assessment of the team.
Related question: if the players are so grateful for Shildt’s spirit-team leader routine, then why haven’t these fine gentlemen responded by playing better ball? They have another chance. Arizona is in town for the next three. Arizona is 7-44 since May 4.
3) Shildt and his coaches have been unable to conjure solutions, help improve individual player performances or shape a competent game plan. Second baseman Tommy Edman said the hush-hush part out loud late last week when he disclosed he team’s faulty hitting-approach preparation before games.
The Cardinals rank 28th among 30 teams this season in runs per game (3.83), and are 28th in ERA (5.08) in their last 40 contests. Their pitchers cannot stop walking opponents. Their hitters are losing power, ranking 27th in homers and 29th in slugging since the end of April.
Shildt and staff are too slow to try new solutions, whether it be a lineup switch, benching a slumping regular, get the runners moving on the bases to stress defensive alignments or giving an opportunity to a promising backup (shortstop Edmundo Sosa) who started only two of the first 40 games. And not that Jake Woodford is just the guy you’d order up for a solution — again, the front office has let this team down — but why hasn’t Woodford been tried as starter?
Shildt has said “winners find solutions.”
OK, we’ll hold him and his coaches to that.
How does batting coach Jeff Albert still have his job?
4) The players themselves. There are no excuses for the pitching staff’s MLB-worst walk rate, or the low-innings total starts, the glaring decline of Paul DeJong and others in this offense, or the inability of the hitters to punish four-seam fastballs. And that — hitting fastballs — is basic stuff.
As I mentioned last week, the Cardinals have the worst batting average in the majors, .207, against four-seamers. That includes a .204 average against the pitch with runners in scoring position.
They’re also doing a poor job on two-strike counts (vs. all pitches), ranking 25th with a .186 average. That includes a .118 BA against four-seam fastballs on two-strike counts; that’s the worst in the majors.
Hey, if you can’t hit a fastball, it’s a huge problem.
5) What about the injuries? Isn’t that a big factor in the “blame” for so much losing? Yes and no. Yes because injuries are damaging. But many other teams have been smacked just as heavily, or heavier, by injuries.
The loss of Jack Flaherty indefinitely to a torn oblique is trouble for a frayed rotation. But as of Monday morning, 121 MLB starting pitchers had spent time on the IL this season, missing a combined 4,349 days. And there’s a long list of notables among them; Flaherty ain’t alone here.
Flaherty last pitched on May 31. But does that justify the team’s 6.29 rotation ERA in June? Or the 7.87 ERA in starts made by someone other than Adam Wainwright this month? And what does Flaherty’s absence have to do with a STL offense that in June ranks last in MLB in runs scored, slugging and OPS — and is 29th in batting average, OBP, and homers?
I know the Cardinals were planning on the return of Miles Mikolas to the rotation and he lasted one start and four innings. But it was reckless to assume Mikolas could make the comeback without additional injury or disruption. The Cardinals needed to have contingencies in place, and the front office didn’t do that.
The Cardinals have overcome injuries — and much worse — to prominent starters before.
No. 1 starter Darryl Kile died in late June 2002. Woody Williams, a heckuva starter, was on the IL with a strained oblique for two lengthy stints. Andy Benes was sidelined for two months with an injury.
That 2002 team had nine starting pitchers start at least 10 games, and had to use a reliever to start 14 games; basically those 14 games were handled exclusively by the bullpen.
Today, that bullpen-game tactic is known as an “opener.” But it wasn’t called an “opener” in 2002. No, in 2002 it was called “survival,” and GM Walt Jocketty, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan did a masterful job of being resourceful and creative.
Believe it or not (it’s true) the 2002 Cardinals were tied for the 10th-best rotation ERA in the majors in 2002. And when the starters came up short in a game, TLR and Duncan almost always had a procession of relievers lined up to carry the load.
Jocketty, TLR and Duncan were absolutely incredible in their ability to come up with solutions, and find something — anything! — to get their team through the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy. The Cardinals won 97 games in 2002, and advanced to the NLCS before stalling.
You’ll have to forgive me for declining to head to the fainting couch in reaction to Jack Flaherty going to the IL with an injury.
Moreover: In 2011, the Cardinals won a World Series without Adam Wainwright (elbow surgery) throwing a single pitch that season.
The 2015 Cardinals won 100 games and the division title with Wainwright making only four early-season starts before rupturing an Achilles tendon.
So just remember the 2002 and 2011 and ’15 Cardinals the next time you hear someone whining about the burden of replacing Flaherty.
And especially remember the extraordinary way the ’02 Cardinals overcame the shocking death of their No. 1 starter and team leader.
Not having Flaherty is a blow, yes. Duly noted. But he’ll return later this season. And in my opinion this is much worse: not bringing in starting-pitching help when you had all offseason to protect against injuries.
Thanks for reading …
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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.