How did it all go so wrong?
Let’s start on 18 December 2022; just over two months after the Cardinals had been swept unceremoniously by the Phillies in the Wild Card round of the 2022 playoffs, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, in an interview with ksdk.com, said the following about the starting rotation:
“Right now, we feel like we have six starters for five spots. If we add another starter to that, you have seven.”
While nobody could argue with Mozeliak’s maths, there were immediate concerns over his judgement of what constitutes a solid starter in the big leagues.
The six starters he referred to were;
- 42 year old Adam Wainwright, heading into the final season of his distinguished career.
- Jack Flaherty, who had not shown any signs of returning to the highs of his 2019 play after a series of injuries.
- Miles Mikolas, who had a solid 2022 season, but was seen by most as a middle rotation piece at best.
- Steven Matz, who was returning from injury having torn his MCL in July 2022.
- 2022 trade deadline acquisition Jordan Montgomery, who had pitched well in the back end of the 2022 season.
- Finally, Jake Woodford, who had a promising end to the 2022 season, but had not really been tested at big league level.
Before the season had even started, six became five, when Wainwright picked up an injury in the weights room that would keep him out for the first few weeks of the year.
By the end of June, the starting rotation had managed a quality start in just 26% of games (Rank 25th), had an ERA of 4.87 (Rank 25th) and the team sat at the foot of the NL Central with a record of 32-45. The season was all but lost.
Adam Wainwright has at least given the loyal fans at Busch Stadium a couple of standout moments that have bookended what for him has been a disastrous season (5-11/7.40 ERA.) The first being the season opener, where he surprised everyone, including his teammates by stepping out of the lineup to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ country style! The second was reward for a stellar career, as against all the odds and the expectation of many supporters, he rolled back the years to notch his 200th win on an emotional night against the Brewers.
What happened to the rest of the super six?
Flaherty never gained any consistency after a wild start to the year and was shipped off to the Orioles at deadline day. Matz ended up on the IL again in mid-August and never returned. Mikolas regressed on his 2022 showing and currently sits on a 8-13 record, with an ERA of 4.82. Jordan Montgomery remained our best pitcher, but was traded to the Rangers. Poor Jake Woodford, the now infamous sixth man, didn’t last long in the rotation and ended the year with a 6.23 ERA, with very little prospect of making the starting rotation again.
Many others have tried to fill the gaps – Hudson, Thompson, Liberatore and Rom – but ultimately, Mozeliak’s bold predictions on the rotation have been laid bare by results and under achievement.
On the pitching side, the problems haven’t ended with the starters. The overused relievers have also struggled to hold onto leads, with a combined ERA of 4.49 (23rd), 35 saves (23rd) and 1.40 WHIP (24th).
Despite the concerns over pitching, most Cardinals fans were still optimistic, as our offence would surely be enough to carry us through? How could a lineup consisting of the reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt, one of the best third basemen in all of baseball in Nolan Arenado, 2022 and WBC breakout star Lars Nootbaar, and young guns like power hitter Nolan Gorman and utility man Tommy Edman, not to mention catcher Willson Contreras, who was expensively acquired from our bitter rivals the Cubs, possibly fail?
As Spring Training came to a close, the excitement was ramped up even further with the announcement that much heralded and hyped rookie Jordan Walker would start the season in the lineup too. The 2023 Cardinals were built to score runs and lots of them.
The season batting rankings are average to say the least;
- Runs – 20th
- Hits – 14th
- RBI -18th
- AVG – 16th
- OBP – 12th
- SLG – 15th
- OPS – 15th
However the real story begins when you delve into the stats with runners in scoring position;
- Runs -23rd
- Hits – 23rd
- RBI’s – 22nd
- Average – 24th
- OBP – 22nd
- SLG – 12th
- OPS -16th
I’m not sure what the opposite of ‘clutch’ is, but the 2023 Cardinals were not it.
As a result, Cardinals fans have played a depressing game each night of ‘How will we lose?’ this season. Will it be the starters giving up a healthy deficit? Or the bullpen grasping defeat from the jaws of victory? Or maybe the offence missing chance-after-chance to drive in the runners?
Game after game, week after week, month after month this season, fans have endured watching the incredibly weak NL Central slipping further away as the Pirates, then the Reds and, finally, the Brewers took control of the division. It could have been worse – at least it wasn’t the Cubs!
There have been other unbelievable moments this year. The handling of Willson Conteras, signed on a huge long term contract in the offseason, confused and befuddled all of baseball. Contreras already had a tough enough job trying to replace the irreplaceable leadership of Yadier Molina before, over the space of a few days, he was jettisoned from his catcher role to the role of Designated Hitter and, at one point, was rumoured to be moving to the outfield, a scapegoat for the early season failure of the rotation. Only to be returned to his rightful place behind the plate just a few days later after clear the air talks.
Then, there was mega rookie Jordan Walker. In the bleak first few weeks of the season, Walker was one of few positives to brighten the mood, reaching base in each of his first twelve games. Reason to reward and praise, you would think? However, Cardinals management thought differently, and decided the best course of action was to demote the crowd favourite back to Triple-A to work on his swing. Walker has returned to the majors and remains one of the few positives to come out of an ultimately fruitless season.
Of course, for fans in the UK, 2023 will always be special as we got to see our heroes play on home soil. Do we wish that a better version of the Cardinals arrived on our shores? Of course, but would we change anything about that magical weekend in June? Absolutely not! The chance to see MLB in the UK is special. The chance to see your team is phenomenal and being able to share the occasion with fans and friends from here and across the Atlantic will be something I will never forget.
Where do the Cardinals go next?
There are reasons to be optimistic. Goldschmidt and Arenado remain and along with the promising young trio of Gorman, Walker and recently promoted shortstop Masyn Winn, the lineup will be ready to bounce back next season.
Of Mozeliak’s super six, only two now remain; Mikolas and Matz. If Matz can stay healthy, both will start next year, with Zach Thompson likely to be given an opportunity as well.
So, the maths is clear. The Cardinals need to find at least two solid starters during the offseason, not to mention an overhaul of the bullpen.
Do Cardinals fans truly believe that the front office will get the job done? Time will tell, but this franchise always finds a way to win and to be competitive and will hopefully be back in contention in 2024.
2023 was an anomaly…right?
Featured image – Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images