The Cardinals are playing winning baseball. At the worst possible time.
This is a club that has sold off nearly every pending free agent on their roster. That included not-quite-elite-but-still-pretty-good Jordan Montgomery. Coulda-been-an-ace Jack Flaherty. Jordan Hicks. All Star shortstop Paul DeJong, too.
The Cardinals gutted their roster of every piece that wasn’t nailed down, and replaced them with players like Drew Rom, John King, and Richie Palacios.
Raise your hand if you had heard of any of those players before June of this year. (Put your hands down! Didn’t your momma teach you not to lie on the internet?)
Losing got them to their first major sell-off in the Mozeliak era and there was every reason in the world to think that the losing would not only continue after the trade deadline but would get worse.
Or maybe better? Because once the Cardinals admitted defeat on the season they really only had one more thing to play for: the #1 draft pick!
The Cardinals have drafted in the back half/third of the draft for something like 25 years. They just kept winning over that period, as if that was the point of baseball or something.
But all that winning did hurt their chances at getting elite draft talent. It’s a point that John Mozeliak has mentioned more than a few times. There is less margin for error for a draft and develop team that never has high draft picks.
Since we hope they will be in contention again next season, this 2023 debacle of a season is their best chance to really do losing right! A few months of post-deadline tanking, a dab of pixie dust in the draft lottery and boom, the number one pick might have come to St. Louis!
Except the Cardinals have gone and messed that up, too.
Entering play on August 29th, the Cardinals were 57-76. They were 19 games under .500 and too many games out of the NL Central for me to even bother looking it up. At that date, they would have had around a 17% chance of earning the top pick in the 2024 draft – that’s the highest odds any one team can have.
Fast forward to Friday afternoon — I am writing this before the Cards v. Phillies — and the club has won 9 of their last 14 games. They were 65-81 entering last night’s contest and are just 16 games under .500.
All that pointless winning has tanked their draft standings. If they keep this up, they might pass the Tigers, Mets, and maybe even the Angels — a team that thought they were contending a few weeks ago.
The club’s odds of getting the #1 pick in the draft lottery are dwindling away. As of today, the Cardinals have cut 7 percentage points off their draft pick lottery odds. According to Tankathon, your source for losing excellence in professional sports, they are already down to a 10% chance of getting the first pick in the draft. If they don’t start losing again soon, that could drop as low as 3%.
If there’s one thing we learned about the Cardinals this season, it’s that they just don’t know how to lose well. They didn’t lose well back when things couldn’t go right for them. It was ugly, frustrating, gut-wrenching, and ultimately just sad. Now that they’re not trying to win, they still can’t lose well. They’ve sold. They’re using a patchwork roster. Suddenly they’re winning when they should probably be tanking to maximize their draft pick lottery.
What the heck, Cardinals?
The reality is that this team can’t lose well because it just wasn’t built to lose. Even when things were at their lowest this season, this was still a pretty good roster with talent up and down the lineup. The pitching was never going to be as bad as it was early in the season. There’s a reason why I and just about everyone outside of Milwaukee picked the Cardinals to finish atop the NL Central.
The 2023 Cardinals are one of the worst teams that most of us have seen in St. Louis by record. But they were never really a bad team. We’ve seen worse teams win a lot more games.
As I said, the Cardinals entered play on Friday night 16 games under .500. Let’s rewind the calendar a bit.
On May 2, just thirty games into the season, the Cardinals were already 10-20. 10 games under .500.
On June 1, the Cardinals were 25-33 after beating the Royals. 8 games under .500.
That’s when the wheels fell off.
Over the next 14 days, the Cardinals lost 11 of 13. After losing to the Mets on June 16, they were 27-43. 16 games under .500.
That’s our balance point. They were 16 games under .500 after 70 games. They are still 16 games under .500 in game number 146. The Cardinals have played 76 games worth of .500 baseball. That’s just a few games shy of half a season.
If you look back through their results, the 2023 Cardinals built their worst team in a quarter century on two stretches of dismal baseball: a 2-win stretch from games 20-34 and a 2-win stretch from games 58-70. 4 wins in 18 games is hard to come back from.
Now, those games count just as much as the wins. You can’t erase them from existence. But if we’re going to judge the “true talent” level of this team, those games stand a bit apart. For most of the season, the Cardinals have played .500 baseball.
How does a team that’s spent a good chunk of their season playing .500 baseball end up in serious competition for the #1 draft pick? Look no further than their record in one-run games.
The Cardinals are 14-24 in one-run games. 10 of their 16 games under .500 have come from losing these games. One-run games are largely a matter of luck and not necessarily a measurement of a team’s true talent level.
This is interesting pic.twitter.com/aIlXR232sT— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) September 13, 2023
If you flipped the Cardinals’ wins and losses in one-run games, their record would be 75-70. That’s not how this works. But it does track. The 2023 club has had an incredible knack for allowing the worst thing to happen at exactly the wrong time.
Start throwing it together. Long stretches of .500 baseball. A few fortnights where the Cardinals seemed cursed and couldn’t buy a win. Terrible performance and luck in one-run games.
My gut tells me that this was probably a “true-talent” .500 team that used a recipe of bad luck, bad injuries, and bad timing to create our current misery. That’s worse than we expected. But better than what we’ve seen.
So, it’s really no surprise that some of that luck is finally turning and the Cardinals are winning games, climbing in the standings, and ruining their shot at the top pick in the draft.
But that’s not a bad thing. Winning is (almost) always a good thing.
I’m sure some people won’t read past the subtitle and the first few hundred words of this article. They will probably have at me in the comments for suggesting that the Cardinals should be tanking. Tongue-in-cheek doesn’t play as well on the internet as I would like. But at least we’ll know who read all the way through this.
Look, guys, the Cardinals don’t need to tank. The damage has already been done. Winning now will affect their chances at the number one pick, but they are guaranteed to pick in the top 10. They’ll have strong odds of picking in the top 5.
Nothing the Cardinals can do over the next three weeks will keep them from drafting a really good player! Several, actually, because their second-round pick is going to be nearly as good as those first-round comp picks that they’ve made so much out of during the Mozeliak era. There’s good talent available at the high end of the third round every year.
Simply put, Mozeliak won’t be able to use the “we always draft late” excuse after this season.
Winning now with a less-than-ideal roster also gives us another data point to set the baseline for this club now and for next year. It’s that baseline that will determine what they do this offseason.
If the Cardinals really are a “true talent” 16-20 games under .500 team, their roster building in 2024 should probably be more focused on winning in 2025. That’s just too many games for a club to make up to climb into contention, even in the relatively weak NL Central.
If the Cardinals really are a “true talent” .500 team, their roster building in 2024 should be focused on winning immediately. It’s very possible for such a team to procure enough talent on the market to not only challenge in the NLC but push some of the stronger teams in the League.
The Cardinals have the most money available in their offseason budget that I’ve ever counted. My early guess has them with at least $40M with no budget increase. Add in a reasonable budget increase and they’re at $50M. They have a slew of valuable trade chips. It’s early, but the free agent and trade markets seem like they should line up fairly well with the team’s needs.
$50M and some quality trades and this team can add some real win potential to that true talent level.
So, yes, the club is winning. They’re pulling away from their chances in the draft lottery. They probably won’t have the #1 draft pick. They aren’t losing well.
But winning now should give the club the confidence to believe they can win next year. Because they can. That should impact what they do this offseason. Everything went wrong in 2023 but there are a lot of reasons to think that a bunch of things can go right in 2024.