It’s been a rough start to the season for the St. Louis Cardinals. In just 7 games, overwhelming positivity about the start of the season and the prowess of the lineup turned into cranky “here-we-go-again” baseball watching. And it’s easy to understand why. The rotation was a mess, the bullpen spotty, and the lineup inconsistent.
Yet, through all that, the Cardinals gave us a gem of a Saturday night game against the Brewers. Nolan Arenado hit his 300th career homer, Jordan Walker went yard for just the second time in his career, and, perhaps most importantly, Jordan Montgomery threw 7 scoreless frames and gave the rotation its first quality start of the year.
In fact, Montgomery’s most recent outing was really the first time I’ve felt comfortable watching a Cardinals starter all season. And, man, that was nice.
Yet through all the doom and gloom of the start of the season, I want to point out that the sky isn’t falling. And if it did feel like it was falling, last night may have helped restore the sky to it’s natural place.
But even beyond last night’s game, there are a few reasons to believe that the Cardinals rough start to the year is simply a slump. And slumps happen all the time in a 162 game season.
Last year alone I can count 5 times in which the Cardinals had a 2-5 record (or worse) in a period of seven games. The sky wasn’t falling then and it isn’t now. The problem with a slump at the beginning of the season is that we have nothing to look back on for reassurance (except for decades of sustained success and 4 straight playoff campaigns).
That will change, though. The season may not have started well but this team will start playing better. Let me go through a couple of reasons why.
The Rotation Isn’t Bad
Through 7 games the Cardinals rotation has the 5th worst ERA in baseball at 6.62 (that’s before Montgomery’s 7 scoreless innings are factored in). This group of arms is simply too talented to continue at that pace.
Now, notice that I haven’t said this rotation is good. Because it’s not. But it’s not bad either. It’s pretty much the definition of average. Last year, the Cardinals rotation finished 15th in ERA and 17th in FIP and that’s right about where I expect this group of pitchers to finish.
Is that great? No. Is it a strength of the team? No. But is it bad? Nope. It’s dead average.
The bright side is that the rotation will improve, even if it won’t improve to the point of being in the upper third of the league.
The only way the rotation can reach those heights is with some reinforcements. For instance, if the back of the rotation, meaning Jake Woodford and Adam Wainwright when healthy, continues to struggle, a guy like Matthew Liberatore could raise the floor.
He’s off to a great start in Memphis with 14 Ks over 10 scoreless innings and it’s his improved fastball shape that has me feeling optimistic about his abilities to help in the rotation this year.
The Cardinals could also seek a major improvement at the deadline using any number of their young and talented offensive players. Those are 2 legitimately possible avenues to improving the rotation.
But even if the Cardinals don’t take either of those avenues, this is still a fine group of pitchers that isn’t actually as bad as it has been to start the year.
In fact, I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Steven Matz, Jordan Montgomery, and Miles Mikolas to continue being solid MLB starters. Then there’s Jack Flaherty whose velocity was up last outing even if his command was spotty. That leaves one more spot for Jake Woodford, Adam Wainwright, and Matthew Liberatore and I feel confident in saying that one of those pitchers will be good enough to fill a #5 spot in the rotation this year.
We all knew that pitching, and specifically starting pitching, would be this team’s biggest weakness and all the first 7 games have done for me is confirm that’s likely the case. What it hasn’t done is convince me that the rotation is bad. It’s simply off to a slow start. That’s it. And Jordan Montgomery’s strong outing last night may be the first step towards stabilizing the pitching staff as a whole.
The Cardinals Have a Top 5 Lineup in Baseball
I said it at the start of the season and I’ll say it again - The Cardinals may have the best lineup in baseball.
Cardinals Opening Day lineup by 2022 wRC+:— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) March 30, 2023
That is simply an elite lineup. https://t.co/6oNbWaDpf5
My thoughts haven’t changed after a tough 4 game losing streak. This is a lineup that mostly stayed the same, has seen early improvements from young hitters like Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan, has seen Jordan Walker more than handle MLB pitching, and has shored up it’s biggest weakness with Willson Contreras, a 132 wRC+ hitter last year.
There are legitimately zero reasons to be concerned about this lineup considering its balance, its star power, and its depth from top to bottom and even to the bench.
The lineup is what will carry the Cardinals to wins this year and once the rotation stabilizes, it should have no issues doing just that.
In 2022, the Cardinals ranked 5th in wRC+ and I don’t know if there’s a single person who will argue that last year’s lineup is better than this year’s. The Willson Contreras effect is huge, but the Cardinals also have a certified masher hitting 8th in the lineup.
If I had any concerns about a hitter, I had them about Jordan Walker. Even with Nolan Gorman’s struggles last year, he was still an above average hitter statistically. But Jordan Walker has never experienced Triple-A and is still just 20 years old. It’s hard to project how a hitter like that will fare at the highest level.
But all my concerns seem to have been unfounded.
Yes, it’s early and Jordan Walker will surely have his struggles throughout the year, but he has come as advertised and more. Not only is Walker punishing the baseball, he’s also doing his damage against breaking balls. And that’s a great sign.
7 of Walker’s 11 hits this year, including 1 of his home runs, have come against breaking pitches and, on the year, (not including last night’s game) Walker has a whopping .517 wOBA and .387 xwOBA against breaking balls.
That was one of my biggest concerns with him coming into the year, and, so far, he has done all he can to allay my fears.
Now, again, for as amazing as he’s been, he’s going to slump. And I wouldn’t be shocked to see him be a really inconsistent hitter this year considering his early propensity to both chase (15th percentile) and whiff (29th percentile). But when he slumps there are 8 other guys all capable of picking up the slack.
For me, 5th best offense in baseball is the floor for this lineup. Right now it’s 8th in wRC+, and while that’s great, it’s still underselling the talent on the field.
The Bullpen Is Potentially Elite
The Cardinals bullpen, to me, is one of the most underrated parts of the team. Jordan Hicks has had some high profile struggles but pretty much everyone else has pitched great, as emphasized by the unit’s 3.54 ERA and 2.76 FIP.
This is a group that contains Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos as the two-headed late game monster. And while that’s great, it also the middle inning guys that make the unit so good as whole.
Zack Thompson has picked up where he left off last season, Drew VerHagen seems to have learned how to translate his good stuff into results, Andre Pallante is the same guy we saw last year but with some extra velocity, and Chris Stratton, an arm worth 1.5 fWAR over the last two seasons, is potentially the worst right-handed option right now outside of the struggling Jordan Hicks. That’s a great sign.
And even Jordan Hicks is a great worst-reliever-in-the-pen if we want to call him that for now because, for as frustrating as his appearances have been, he simply has incredible stuff and incredible arm talent. Because of that, I will never give up on him as a pitcher no matter how many times he makes me look foolish for my belief.
That’s the same reason why I didn’t give up on Drew VerHagen after his struggles last year and he seems to have come around, so there is always hope for Hicks to do the same. And though Hicks has been bad, I will point out that it’s only been 4 bad games.
He may yet settle in and if he does, the bullpen is only going to get stronger because the electric right-hander has one of the highest ceilings of any reliever in baseball if he can find some consistency.
And even though consistency has always been a problem for Hicks, that’s a really great thing to be able to say about the 8th guy in the bullpen.
With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this group of relievers work it’s way into the top 5 in baseball this year. It will also get a boost when the starters start working deeper into games, which is inevitable.
Early Season Schedule
Even going beyond play on the field, it’s important to remember that this team has opened the year with Toronto, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. That’s a really tough way to start the year. Those 3 teams combined for a record of 279-207 last year, while the Braves cleared the 100 win threshold and the Blue Jays cleared the 90 win threshold.
It’s okay to struggle against good teams early in the year. Not only is there still a lot of small sample size variance in play, but there’s also early season factors to consider. For instance, Miles Mikolas had a weird pre-season in which he didn’t see a ton of mound time. What kind of an effect does that have on his first couple outings? As we’ve seen, it wasn’t positive.
So not only are the Cardinals running the gauntlet, they’re doing it at the start of the season while everyone is looking to settle in. That’s tough. But coming up are series against the Rockies (at Coors Field which means it won’t be an easy matchup), the Pirates, and the Diamondbacks.
This upcoming stretch is when the Cardinals should be able to settle in and make up some ground.
This isn’t the start to the season that anyone wanted. It’s been a lot of losses and some player/manager tension to boot. Yet, the early season disappointments have not changed a single thing about this team and how it should be viewed. This is still the same team we thought it was all off-season and it will start to play better as the season progresses.
An 8-game stretch at the beginning of the season is no different than an 8-game stretch in the middle of the season. A slump is a slump no matter when it occurs. This is a good team and it will play like a good team even if it hasn’t done so completely just yet.
I, for one, am excited for that prospect.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Happy Easter!