MLB’s self-proclaimed “model team” is the cellar of the league’s worst division.
21st Over the first 23 seasons century, the St. Louis Cardinals had the third-best cumulative record in Major League Baseball and were the only National League Central team in the league’s upper half. They had Albert Pujols, the best hitter of his generation, for a while, and then again. They have Adam Wainwright, a future Hall of Famer pitcher, Yadier Molina, a likely future Hall of Famer catcher, and a rotation of other very good players who ensure the Cardinals basically always very good. They won several World Series under an effective but insufferable manager, Tony La Russa. Their executives, fans, and even some players talk about a mythical spirit known as the Cardinal Way. For anyone who doesn’t like the Cardinals, their self-inflated fan base, or their continued success, this is all very annoying.
But for the silent majority of the country who are not cardinals What a happy first few weeks of the 2023 season. The Cardinals entered the weekend with a record of 13-25, first in a poor Central and eight games into the bottom of the division. St. Louis, which won the division title last year, started the year in a somewhat superficial state of transition. On the one hand, they said goodbye to Pujols (for the second time) and Molina, who with Wainwright defined the Cardinals for years. Molina, on the other hand, didn’t play well when he retired, Pujols was great in the months he was away but won’t do it again, and the Cardinals’ best players are back. National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt at first base? step back. Eternal Gold Gloves winner Nolan Arenado is third? step back. A bunch of other good hitters? step back. With the exception of José Quintana, who was on two-month lease, just about everyone important to the pitching staff left in free agency? are back. On top of that, the Cardinals signed former Chicago Cubs Wilson Contreras in a big free agent deal to replace Molina for $87.5 million. Few could have foreseen this face-changing coming. It has by far been the most puzzling (or funniest, some would say) start any team has ever experienced. The Cardinals face a long road ahead to even flirt with the playoffs. FanGraphs gave them a 22% chance to make the playoffs and projected some improvement, but still only 79 wins. Of course, every team has down days, and the Cardinals are doing well, and this would be their worst season since their 78-win season in 2007. But what makes the Cardinals’ 2023 predicament so strange (or comical) is how they’ve come out of nowhere, and how they’ve had some decidedly non-Cardinal-path stories on the sidelines.
Ridiculously bad start not
real Offensive issues, although the Cardinals hitters are a bit worse this year than they were last year. Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neal, two very solid outfielders, have provided the club with below-replacement-level product. Shortstop Tommy Edman is off to a so-so start in his post-professional year (5.7 WAR in 2022, according to FanGraphs). And Arenado has been a shell of himself, batting . 233/. 285/. That’s almost half the lineup not doing it
, but the Cardinals are still 13th th
In the major of the location player WAR. Their offense was 7 percent better than league average, creating the stat based on the overall weighted run that measures offense. The team’s defense is not very good , but it’s not that bad. The Cardinals are minus 4 in defensive runs, 19th th in the major. At least, Arenado remains a shining defender at third base. The team’s most notable defensive problems came when second baseman and outfielder Brendan Donovan played the infield, while valuable rookie Jordan Walker played the outfield. The Cardinals sent Walker back to Triple-A, and while their offense got off to a good start, they didn’t mention his defense as a reason, but that probably contributed. (Walker mostly plays third base in the minors, but the Cardinals have Arenado in his natural spot.) Still: The defense is good across the board.
This will only make pitching a A big problem, and the Cardinals really aren’t pitching great baseball. They enter the weekend 23 rd Ranks seventh in average pitching average (4.77) and seventh in estimated ERA in a neutral defensive environment (4.44). This is not
good , and only one starter, Jordan Montgomery with a 4.11 ERA, is below 5. But the Cardinals’ overall pitching was more mediocre than “one of the worst teams in the league.” The bullpen is doing well with a 3.88 ERA and 10.18 strikeouts per nine innings. The Cardinals’ pitchers are nearly all players who have pitched for this team and have done well. Biggest red flag? Starter Jack Flaherty, whose 6.18 ERA marks a further decline in a once-promising career.
to some extent , the Cardinals were just unlucky. If the run differential (-0.6 per game) perfectly reflected the rankings, the Cardinals would be 17-21, which is bad but not as catastrophic as 13-25. Only their division mates, the Cubs, with six real-life victories worse than their Pythagorean total, haven’t been as lucky in scoring and losing points. Things should (though not guaranteed) balance out as the season progresses. The Cardinals won’t be on a 55-win streak forever.
- From data only The Cardinals don’t look like one of the worst teams in baseball, with their win totals surpassed only by the miserable Kansas City Royals and the soon-to-be Las Vegas A’s. The Cardinals look mediocre but have upside. However, what about off the field? They look more chaotic.
- red The Finches can play their players wherever they want, but the way The Contreras transformation is weird. They made a big announcement about it, then backed off a bit when Contreras defended his work as a catcher to the media. Not very
So-called exemplary franchise behavior. Walker’s relegation feels like a precarious way of dealing with the development of a key part of the club’s future. In a more brutal (or some would say downright funny) twist, the most valuable pitcher in baseball this season is the former Cardinals prospect, whom the team traded in 2017. Zac Gallen, who had a 2.36 ERA with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said of the week the Cardinals traded him: “You know the Cardinals, you know they have a certain way of dealing with certain things.” Yes Yes, we do: The Cardinal Way.
Let the Cardinal What made the team’s brutal start even more unfortunate (or, one might argue, hysterical) was that the NL Central was right there waiting to win. First place going into the weekend belongs to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had a fantastic time in April but are 1-9 in their last 10 games. They can hold on to the top spot because the Milwaukee Brewers are 2–8 in the same stretch. The Cubs are okay, and the Cincinnati Reds are insignificant. Even a lackluster Cardinals season would give the team a good chance at a division title, but so far, that hasn’t happened. With the Buccaneers in freefall, the Brewers look like the best option to emerge from the division. It’s not new that the Central is one of the worst divisions in baseball. This is true most years. But the innovative new feature for 2023 is that the team putting the most pressure on the NL Central is the team that won 11 titles in this millennium.
Major League Baseball alliance
only in his A month into the mega-contract, the Cardinals decided that Contreras would no longer be a receiver and should transition to a designated hitter and outfielder. It was an odd move to use Contreras’ work behind the plate as a scapegoat for the team’s pitching problems. Contreras has a perfect defensive record as a receiver, adding defensive value at the position every year of his career except for the first few weeks of the season, with a defensive WAR of -0.1, according to Baseball-Reference. MLB’s Statcast measurements show him doing pretty well behind the plate this spring: a little worse than average in pitching frame and blocking balls in the dirt, and a little better than average in throwing softball stealers.