Congratulations to the Texas Rangers, the World Series champions for 2023.
And with that, MLB’s offseason is officially underway.
It will take a while for the baseball’s traditional Hot Stove League to heat up.
But there’s always time for Hot Takes.
What will we be saying about the Cardinals by the time they open their 2024 spring-training exhibition schedule on Feb. 24?
A year from now, will we have reason to offer congratulations to the Cardinals for turning their team around with a series of smart and aggressive moves? Will we praise them for restoring their contender status and returning to the postseason? Or will there be more disappointment, disgust and unrest?
This is most important offseason for the franchise since Bill DeWitt Jr. and partners cut a deal with Anheuser-Busch late in 1995 to take ownership of the Cardinals. At that point the declining franchise had failed to make the playoffs since 1987.
Under DeWitt’s direction, general manager Walt Jocketty hired Tony La Russa to manage the club. DeWitt increased the payroll budget to give Jocketty the capability to make a sequence of effective roster moves and upgrades. And in DeWitt’s first season as owner, the 1996 Cardinals never trailed by more than four games, made a charge in September, and won the NL Central by six games. The Redbirds were back.
In DeWitt’s 28 seasons as owner and chairman the Cardinals have won four National League pennants and two World Series. They’ve had 12 division titles and competed in 17 postseasons. They rank fourth in the majors in regular-season wins. They lead NL teams with 75 postseason victories. They are one of only six MLB teams to win multiple World Series titles since 1996.
The DeWitt Years have been filled with success, celebrations and high-stakes October baseball. But it isn’t easy to sustain success, and the organization has stalled. In recent seasons the Cardinals have gradually returned to the pack.
By any measure their 2023 season was a disaster. The Cardinals ranked 25th among the 30 teams with a .438 winning percentage. They spent exactly one day of the season with a record above 500 – and that was a 2-1 mark after their first three games. They lost 91 games to stagger to their worst record since the 1990 outfit went 70-92. Their home winning percentage at Busch Stadium this year – .432 – was the 12th worst by a Cardinals team over the last 123 seasons.
The Cardinals fell apart in sudden fashion, but in retrospect we should have known that it was possible. The trends had been heading downward.
I wrote about this during the 2023 season and I think we should revisit it. President of baseball operations has been in charge of the club for the last 16 seasons (2008 through 2023.) And there’s a glaring split between his first eight seasons and the last eight campaigns.
First eight seasons: .562 winning percentage, first in the NL and second to the Yankees overall. Four division titles and six trips to the playoffs.
Second eight seasons: .530 winning percentage, 10th overall, fifth in the NL, and below division rivals Milwaukee and Chicago. Two division titles and four trips to the playoffs.
First eight seasons: competed in 64 postseason games, the most in the majors. And 32 postseason wins, second in MLB to San Francisco’s 34. One World Series title, two NL pennants, four appearances in the NLCS, seven triumphs in a postseason series plus a win in the 2012 wild-card game.
Last eight seasons: 15 postseason games, tied for 15th most in the majors. Only four wins, and 14 MLB teams have won more over that time. No participation in the World Series. No NL pennants. Only one appearance in the NLCS.
And the Cardinals have enjoyed only one success in a postseason series, defeating Atlanta in the 2019 NLDS. Over the last eight years STL’s 4-11 postseason record computes to a .267 winning percentage – the second poorest success rate among the 18 MLB teams that have competed in at least 10 postseason games over the last eight seasons.
ELITE PITCHING TALENT
First eight seasons: Led by Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, four different Cardinal pitchers received Cy Young votes. Wainwright and Carpenter combined for five top-three finishes in the voting (four by Waino.) Kyle Lohse and John Lackey also received Cy Young votes during the eight-season block. Total Cy Young points amassed by St. Louis pitchers over the eight years: 500.
Last eight seasons: Four different pitchers received Cy Young votes – Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Wainwright and Ryan Helsley. But there were no top-three finishes. The best was Flaherty’s fourth-place nod in 2019. Total Cy Young points accrued by STL pitchers over the last eight seasons: 86.
ELITE OFFENSIVE TALENT
First eight seasons: Ten St. Louis position players received MVP votes. Albert Pujols won two MVP awards and also finished second and fifth in other years. The other nine St. Louis position players to receive MVP votes were Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, Jason Heyward, Ryan Ludwick and Jhonny Peralta.
Several Cardinals finished in the top 11 of the voting: Molina had two top-four finishes (2012 and ‘13), Carpenter had a fourth (2013), Berkman had a seventh (2011), and Holliday received MVP votes five times; his best finish (11th) came in 2011.
Total MVP points collected by Cardinal players over the eight seasons, including some that went to their pitchers: 2,348.
Last eight seasons: Only six STL position players have received MVP votes: Molina, Carpenter, Tommy Pham, Kolten Wong, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Goldschmidt and Arenado finished first and third, respectively, in the 2022 NL MVP race. Goldy (sixth) and Tyler O’Neill (eighth) finished among the top 10 in 2021. Carpenter was ninth in 2018.
Total MVP points accumulated by Cardinal players over the last eight seasons, including some points that went to pitchers who had some down-ballot MVP recognition: 958.
I think the numbers I just cited here – the first eight seasons compared to the last eight – tell us the same story but in a number of ways. The Cardinals have slipped into a deeper talent deficit, let their model grow outdated, and this obviously has led to a significant downturn in the overall team performance.
There’s a lot of work to do.
So what should the Cardinals focus on?
1. It’s mandatory to fix the starting rotation. St. Louis starting pitchers collectively produced the worst ERA (5.08) in DeWitt’s 28 seasons as owner. The ‘23 rotation also ranked 21st in the 27 full seasons in Wins Above Replacement and was 27th in Win Probability Added. Though a trade or two can provide upgrades, what will the Cardinals give up in return? If they trade any of their coveted left-handed hitters – Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan – the offense will suffer. And it would be a huge risk to move Gorman, an emerging power hitter at age 23.
2. The bullpen should be an area of priority. The Cardinals traded two of their more capable relievers at the 2023 trading deadline, moving Jordan Hicks to Toronto and Chris Stratton to Texas. This past season Giovanny Gallegos experienced a significant drop in his strikeout rate and endured disturbing increases in home-runs allowed and in the hard-hit rate against him. Andre Pallante declined. Ryan Helsley has immense firepower but can’t be counted on to pitch regularly. They’ll see if Matthew Liberatore can successfully convert to a high-leverage relief role, and the team was fired up by Joo Jo Romero’s 28.6 percent strikeout rate.
In 2023 the St. Louis bullpen ranked 24th in ERA (4.83), 29th in strikeout rate (19.4%), 25th in strikeout-walk ratio and 27th in Win Probability Added. The relievers had a collective 56 percent save percentage that ranked 25th and pitched to an appalling 10.01 ERA in high-leverage situations. Yes. This is a mess that requires an enormous cleanup job.
3. The composition of the coaching staff. Is Yadier Molina in, or out? Is he ready to commit or does he have concerns with the St. Louis roster and the direction of the franchise? If Molina wants to be the bench coach, is manager Oli Marmol willing to move Joe McEwing to another assignment? The Cardinals should do some reshuffling but their lack of accountability has turned into a disease. So I don’t know what to expect.
4. Will there be any surprises? If third baseman Nolan Arenado is unhappy, will he signal a desire for a trade? And for the right price, would the Cardinals make a deal? They’d have to seriously consider it because the return for Arenado could speed up the process of regrouping, rebuilding, reloading, or whatever we want to term their process.
5. Will the Cardinals get busy on initiating more of an all-encompassing approach to strengthening the organization? They can’t be so heavily tilted to drafting and player development that it leads to a failure to improve via trade, or through more ambitious spending. If the Cardinals want to win right away and begin another run of sustained success, they must be focused on all of those areas. They can’t close off any avenue for improvement. And this also applies to the field staff.
Will the Cardinals catch up and freshen up in their approach to developing pitching? This is long overdue, and the 2023 season proved that the Cardinals are paying a horrible price for the neglect. We’ve been told to expect some changes … we’ll see.
I’m not sure what to make of the analytics department. Has management put enough resources into this increasingly important component? Bottom line: the Cardinals can’t afford to keep falling behind in so many areas.
That’s why this will be the most important offseason for the St. Louis Cardinals since the winter of 1995. You can laugh at me for saying what I’m about to say. And that’s OK. But if there was a way to put a wager on this, I’d bet on Bill DeWitt Jr. to come through. I respect him. I know what he’s capable of doing because I’ve watched his results for more than a quarter-century. His long-term track record is indisputably successful. But nothing can stay the same forever, there’s been deterioration, and the Cardinals are behind schedule in restoring their greatness.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on X (Twitter) @miklasz
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.