2023 - A Tale of 3 Seasons

Season opener to May 6 (34 games, record: 10-24)

This stretch was inexplicable. The Cardinal team found every possible way to give away games. Every skill area was deficient to horrible. Offense, defense, baserunning, pitching., fundamentals. You name it. I’m of the opinion that a lot of things had to go wrong, but I think the genesis starts with the decision to play 4 mediocre-to-horrible defenders (Contreras, Burleson, Walker and Gorman) behind a mediocre pitching staff. Not to mention the ill-fated move of O’Neill to Center. Not a recipe for success when combined with the mediocre pitching staff they didn’t do much with in the off-season. Whoever thought those things would work out together?

May 7 through July 31 (74 games, record: 37-37)

Over 74 games, the team played .500 baseball. This stretch probably reflects the true talent level of the team as it was assembled.

Aug 1 through season’s end (54 game, record: 24-30)

The last 1/3 of the season. This version of the Cardinal’s was revealed after they traded away their pending free agents and their associated WAR to be provided to other teams. Flaherty (-.6 WAR with Baltimore), Hicks (.5 WAR with Toronto), Montgomery (2.1 WAR with Texas), Stratton (.4 WAR with Texas), DeJong (-1 WAR with everyone). Their replacements (hard to say exactly who they were) performed below replacement level and a ton of injuries explain the return to sub .500 baseball. To me, this confirms the assessment that the true-talent level of this team (as it was configured coming out of the gate) was right around .500, tops.

Things we should have known and factored:

1. The inevitable age-related declines of Goldschmidt and Arenado were steeper than expected, but I think that was because both had such stellar, outlier 2022 seasons. Expect some additional decline next year, but these are still good players, although beyond their prime star caliber seasons.

2. Contreras, defensively, is awful. Game calling, blocking, even just catching pitches…most everything is sub-par. This explains two things we could see in Chicago. One, the Cubs usually had him catch just a little over half their games. Two, the Cubs under-performed their true talent each season he was there after 2016. He is a good hitter, though. That .800+ OPS doesn’t look horrible in this lineup.

3. Carlson and Edman still can’t hit RH pitching.

Things we didn’t know:

1. Who knew that they’d stick Walker in the outfield right away and live with the Schwarber-esque level of defense. Boy, did they go off script with this one. Not only did they abandon their defensive excellence philosophy, they promoted a player WAY before he was ready to play at a MLB level.

2. Who knew that by end of 2023, we’d have Irving at Third, Winn at Short, Querecuto at Second and Baker at First, with Palacios and Siani roaming the outfield.

3. Really, who predicted they’d get anything out of Paul D? In half a season, they got 1.1 WAR plus two prospects at the deadline. That is a win, in my book.

4. Also, who predicted the emergence of Donovan’s power stroke? I’ll take .365 OBP and .422 slug from a middle infielder every day of the week.

5. We knew, and know this team has individual talent. Many keeper players. Donovan, Nootbar, Edman, Goldschmit, Arenado, Winn, Walker, Helsley, Gallegos to name some. But the roster construction is awful. The pieces fit terribly. Too many outfielders needing ABs to develop. Too many hitters who can’t field a position respectably (Burleson, Baker, Yepez, Walker). Not enough hitters with bat-to-ball skills needed for better situational hitting. That .190 average with the bases loaded is no small-sample size, random outcome.

6. Who knew that fundamentals can decline so fast? This was a sharp, mistake-free team the last two years. One that rarely beat themselves. This year, they made every mistake in the book and kept repeating them. The game strategy against the Cardinal’s was: 1. Keep their offense down and 2. Wait for them to implode. I finally threw up my hands the other day when Edman and Goldschmit of all people screwed up a run down.

Things we knew, but hoped we didn’t:

1. This year’s pitching was … not good. Did anyone pitch to expectations, even? Not unexpected, though. We hoped for the best, feared the worst and got the sum of all fears. I think Cardinal’s management had the same approach. To my mind, hope isn’t an effective roster construction strategy. This whole inadequate starting rotation 3 years running is getting old.

2. With all the turnover at the coaching level (Maddux, Schumacher, Albert), we knew there would be transition issues. We hoped it would be seamless. It was not.

3. We knew the Manager got pretty much a free ride last year … very few challenges, All-Star plus level performances from his stars, and a pitching rotation that was well-pieced together at the deadline (not to mention a seasoned, talented coaching staff). Talent drain and regression to the mean occurs here, too.

4. The inactivity on the pitching front this past off-season was more a sign of complacency than trust in the depth of talent accumulated. This team’s pitching has been declining, but still winning the division. All the while, their payroll has dropped to 13th-ish in MLB. I guess if you can win the division at 13th, why would you spend more? Except they overlooked 4 other teams in the NL Central who have been acquiring young talent and spending more wisely.

Some questions about the future – things we still don’t know:

1. The problems with Cardinal’s roster seem like they could take more than 1 season to fix. How long might it take?

2. How much pain are the Cardinal’s willing to endure to acquire pitching via trade. Nootbar? Edman? Winn? Hence? Walker? Gorman? It may take more than one of those names to acquire the pitching talent they need.

3. The 2023 rule changes seem to have hurt the Cardinals more than other teams. Why?

2023 is in the rear view mirror. On to the Hot Stove League. I am fascinated to watch what the Cardinals do. I am a bit skeptical, but that comes from being old, where years of reality have chipped away at optimism.