Winning. That is the goal of every athletic competition. It is what athletes and fans take pride in, and what every organization is professional sports is judged on. As a lifetime fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, I have gotten to root for a lot of winning teams. In fact, since Bill Dewitt became the majority owner of the team after the 1995 season, the Cardinals have only had 3 losing seasons, the last one coming in 2007, the year after they won the World Series.
On top of only having 3 losing seasons in the last 27 seasons played, the Cardinals have the longest streak in all of baseball without being the worst team in the league. You have to go all the way back to 1918 to find the last time the Cardinals finished with the worst record in the National League. During this century, only the New York Yankees have made more postseasons appearances than the Cardinals. In fact, throughout history, those two franchises always seem to be one and two in terms of postseason success. However, the Cardinals have not made a World Series appearance since 2013, and while the Yankees are currently still alive the playoffs, they have not appeared in a World Series since 2009.
I am not writing to focus on the Yankees; I am writing to focus on the disturbing trend that the Cardinals and their current ownership group have been displaying since the 2015 season ended. Since 2015, the Cardinals have not had the best record in the National League one time and have only won one postseason series. Their record in the postseason since 2015 is 4-11. It gets even worse when you include 2014 and 2015, which would drop the Cardinals postseason record to 6-18 in their last 7 postseason series. Those numbers have resulted in a dormant Busch Stadium for most of October for the past 7 years.
These are numbers that a lot of true Cardinal fans are aware of, but the national media seems to still think that the Cardinals have this October magic. A lot of broadcasters make comments along the lines that the Cardinals are a team nobody wants to face in October because they just find ways to win. Well, that used to be the case a decade ago, but that Cardinal ‘devil magic’ as it came to be known is gone, and I want to dive into why it doesn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon.
The current ownership group has focused its attention on simply making the playoffs the past 5 seasons, and they were successful 4 times. They sat back and were content to let the Cubs have their run of dominance in the mid-teens while knowing they always had the resources to never let the Brewers get too far ahead of them as a franchise. In the past 4 complete seasons, not counting Covid, the Cardinals have never won fewer than 88 games but never more than 93. Again, the model of consistency. They won two division crowns, but in St. Louis that is merely a t-shirt that the players where while they dump beer and champaign all over themselves. Nobody in St. Louis celebrates division championships, nor should they.
Cardinal ownership has seemed slightly perplexed by the team’s downward trend in the postseason, but a lot of it has been chalked up to the randomness of playoff baseball. While an argument can be made that there is a level of uncertainty and chance in any postseason, is 6-18 in your last 7 postseason series really random? Even if they won 3 more games to improve to 9-15, that wouldn’t make the true fans think they were any closer to winning a meaningful championship that might warrant the purchase of a celebratory t-shirt.
So if it’s not randomness, what is it? In my opinion, the Cardinals have benefitted from a system and format that is now going to drive them further down the baseball pecking order. While the Cardinals can cling to the fact that they won a championship in 2006 with 83 wins and as a Wild Card in 2011, baseball has changed drastically since then, but the Cardinals are not changing with the times.
In 2006, the Cardinals were coming off back to back 100 win seasons with 1 World Series appearance and no World Series victories. That team struggled mightily down the stretch due to pitching issues, but they were saved by the floundering NL Central, a theme that I’ll continue to mention, and were able to clinch a playoff spot despite winning just 83 games. The playoff format at that time only allowed 4 teams in from each league, and the Cardinals had Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter at their peak. Carpenter won both Games 1 and 4 of the LDS, and Pujols hit a 2 run home run off Jake Peavy to essentially win the opening game, and the Padres elected to not have him come back on short rest the remainder of the series. Randomness? Well, teams with Hall of Famers like Pujols in his prime, an emerging Yadier Molina, along with borderline HOFers like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen are always going to be a problem.
The next series the Cardinals beat the Mets 4-3 behind 4 combined victories from Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver. Weaver only pitched 1 more season and Suppan never had an ERA under 4.62 in his last 4 full big league seasons after that fall. Randomness? Well, the Cardinals got to Billy Wagner, who finished 6th in Cy Young voting that year, for 5 runs in 2.2 IP throughout the series, so maybe that’s why the Mets didn’t use him in a tied Game 7 in the 9th inning instead of Aaron Heilman. Yes, the Mets went with Aaron Heilman in the 9th inning of a Game 7 instead of one of the greatest closers of all time.
The Cardinals then went on to defeat the Tigers 4 games to 1 in the World Series after Detroit had swept through the ALCS. Whether is was rust or not, the Tigers allowed 8 unearned runs in 5 games, which drastically influenced the outcome of a series in which the Cardinals outscored the Tigers by a total of 10 runs. Randomness, or just bad baseball by Detroit?
In 2011, the Cardinals rode a ridiculous hot streak by a relatively unknown David Freese who won the NLCS and World Series MVP while going a combined 20-55 with 10EXBH and 16RBI in 13 games. The Cardinals needed an epic collapse by the Braves in September just to make the playoffs, and were helped immensely by a well-timed rain out between Games 5 and 6, which allowed Chris Carpenter to come back and start Game 7 on 3 days rest. A case could be made that he should have been World Series MVP because all he did was start 3 games going 2-0 over 19IP. If he doesn’t get to start Game 7, the Cardinals likely would have had to go with Edwin Jackson. Randomness, or…well ok, that was pretty random and fortunate for the Cardinals. However, the Rangers had ample opportunities to never have to play a Game 7.
It could be argued that the Cardinals were fortunate that MLB did not adopt the single game Wild Card Game until 2012. Had the Cardinals had to use Chris Carpenter to advance to the next round against the Phillies, he is not available to pitch and win both Games 1 and 5 of that series against Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. That changes the entire postseason for the Cardinals.
In fact, the single game wild card and playoff expansion has changed everything for the Cardinals ever since it began. The Cardinals were front and center of the randomness of postseason play in the first ever National League 1 game winner take all duel with the Braves. If you can’t remember, just picture Turner Field littered with beer cans after the infamous infield fly rule call as a pop up dropped between Matt Holliday and Pete Kozma. Without that call, Pete Kozma doesn’t go on to become the most hated baseball player in Washington D.C.
That craziness of that game seemed to propel the Cardinals into a sense of urgency to avoid that scenario again, so the organization responded by winning three straight division titles, making another World Series, an additional LCS, and a 100 win season that saw them lose in the first round, which will definitely happen to really good teams in short series like we saw in the National League this year.
However, after the 2015 season, the Cardinals were introduced to a new brand of baseball in the National League Central. In 2016, Theo Epstein brought a World Series Championship to the north side of Chicago for the first time in nearly a century. He did it by building a monster through tanking and draft picks, but he also wasn’t afraid to go out and drive up prices and outbid his competition, something the Cardinals had never experienced before in the NL Central. Cardinal fans and the front office were shocked when Jason Heyward turned down a similar offer from the Cardinals to go play for the Cubs. The Cardinal model was to get coveted players into their clubhouse prior to free agency and then get them to sign before hitting the market, hopefully for a discounted price.
This model was enhanced by the fact that the Cardinals didn’t have to worry about competition for free agents within their own division. The Cardinals could always flex payroll muscle over Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, while the Cubs and Cardinals rarely seemed to go to battle over the same players. However, within the span of a year the Cardinals lost out on three players they wanted because the Cubs wanted them more, Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, and John Lackey, with the latter two playing with the Cardinals the season prior. Suddenly there was a new sheriff in the NL Central, and the Cardinals response was to simply go hide in the weeds and wait out the Cubs reign of terror which seemed to end in 2018.
However, since 2018 things have continued to change in the National League. With new ballpark revenue streams and TV contracts, teams have been less afraid of going after top talent. The Cardinals could have a payroll near the top 10 without being significantly outspent by their competitors, but that has changed drastically the past few years. Of the six teams National League teams that made the playoffs this season, the Cardinals payroll ranked 5th of out 6 at the start of the season, and 6th at the end of the season. Is that randomness?
Does a high payroll guarantee success? Absolutely not, but it sure does increase your chances of eliminating some of the randomness. The two teams with the ‘worst’ records to qualify for the NLCS had a payroll that is $60 million higher than the Cardinals. It would certainly seem that those teams spent their money wisely. Star players make a difference in the postseason, and Philadelphia and San Diego had a bunch of star players, IN THEIR PRIME.
But the Cardinals are in a small market, they can’t afford to spend like the big teams? I cannot stand that argument from Cardinals fans. If the Cardinals are in a small market, how can the Padres outspend them by $60 million? The Cardinals finished second in the league in attendance and the Cardinals signed a $1 billion contract with Bally Sports, which puts them in the top half of the league in terms of TV revenue. The Cardinals are also getting over $15 million a year from Ballpark Village revenue, and according to Forbes the Cardinals have profitted over $40 million each year and have seen the value of the team increase each year since 2014. A better product and deeper postseason runs would only increase that value, so anyone that says the Cardinals don’t have the money or ability to increase payroll is buying into some false narrative or belief that because the Cardinals are in the NL Central they should spend comparitively to their neighbors.
That mindset is what has contributed to this backslide for the Cardinals in the postseason. From 2012-2019, winning your division spared you the randomness of a one game winner take all playoff scenario. Not so coincidentally, the Cardinals won 4 division titles during those years, and most of the others they sat and watched the Cubs outspend them to keep stacking pieces in the midst of their run of dominance. However, starting with the Covid season of 2020, things have changed for the Cardinals. In 2020, MLB took 8 teams from each league, and the Cardinals snuck into the playoffs. They ran into a Padre team with more depth and lost the 3 game series 2-1. Easy enough to chalk up to randomness given the entire season and the fact that the Cardinals came close to not even being able to play enough games to qualify for postsesaon play that year. In 2021, the Cardinals won 90 games, but that was only good enough for second place in the division. That placed them against the Dodgers in a winner take all game in which they lost. Random? One could argue that more emphatically if the Cardinals had pulled off the upset. So, in 2022 the Cardinals made deadline moves to win the NL Central, which they did with 93 wins, but the new playoff format puts the bottom 4 teams into a best of three series, which increases the likelihood of playoff randomness. The Cardinals were quickly swept and left to ponder another winter of missed opportunities and changes. However, as I die-hard Cardinal fan I question how much they are really looking at making changes to get back to being a team that contends for National League and World Series crowns.
The National League Central was formed in 1994. Since that time the Cardinals have twice as many divisional crowns (12) as the next franchise, the Cubs with six. The Astros are third with four crowns, and they have not played in the NL Central since 2012. Could you imagine how different things would be for the Cardinals if the Astros were still in the same division? But that is a different discussion. However, the Cardinals benefit, and falter, from playing in the NL Central.
Since 1994, the NL Central has appeared in only 6 World Series. Given that there are three National League divisions, an equal number of appearances per division would be 9-10, so the NL Central has proven to be far weaker in the postseason than the other two divisions. So in short, the Cardinals have often benefitted from playing more games against really bad baseball teams. This year alone, there were two 100 loss teams in the NL Central. The Cardinals got 38 games guaranteed against two of the worst teams in baseball this year. Their record in those games was a combined 25-13. Factor in the Cubs, who lost 88 games despite finishing 8-2 in their last 10 games, the record gets boosted to 38-19. The Cardinals finished 24 games over .500, but only 5 games over when you eliminate games played against everyone besides the Cubs, Pirates, and Reds. The Cardinals went 24 games over .500 against teams that made up 35% of their schedule, and 5 games over .500 against teams that made up the other 65%. True Cardinal fans knew going into the postseason that this team wasn’t a true contender, but we all believed in the Cardinal ‘devil magic’ and randomness factor.
So the question is, how good were the 2022 St. Louis Cardinals? Turns out, not all that great. While baseball continues to expand their playoffs, they’re not letting those teams the Cardinals pound on in the regular season into the postseason. This is why I am a fan of MLB going to more of a truly balanced schedule where everyone plays each team at least once every year. It will allow young teams like Baltimore and Arizona an opportunity to not get devoured by their own division and feast on some of the weaker AL and NL Central teams. The playoffs have a better chance of having the best teams earn postseason births now because of this format.
Additionally, winning the NL Central no longer has an inherent value. In the past, winning your division kept you out of a one game playoff. However, now you must finish as one of the top two teams in the league to avoid a short three game series. While you get the “advantage” of playing at home, 3 out of the 4 home teams in this year’s playoffs were eliminated. This new format is going to force the Cardinals to have to try and become one of the top two teams in the league without feasting primarily off of weak NL Central teams, or will it?
The Cardinals front office, and a lot of their fans, seem to think that the goal is to make the playoffs, not win them. In fact, the team just extended Randy Flores and Michael Girsch’s contracts. Mozeliak’s contract is up after 2023, but there is little indication he is on any sort of hot seat. While I think they have done a nice job of continuing the Cardinals winning ways, I find it odd that an 81 year old owner who loves baseball has not come out and put more of an emphasis and pressure on returning the organization back to its championship winning ways. The Cardinals have 1 NLCS win since their last World Series appearance, which will be a decade ago at the conclusion of the 2023 season. The Cardinals have not had a losing season during that stretch, but they have not come close to making a World Series appearance during that time either.
Looking back throughout Cardinals history since 1926, the Cardinals have only gone 9 years between National League pennants three other times. So while you can argue that the Cardinals have had relative success, a real argument could be made that this is one of the worst stretches in franchise history. And with expanded playoffs, which truly makes it more difficult to get to the World Series, it is hard to see this drought coming to an end without some serious changes to the current team in the next couple of years. Nobody is saying the Cardinals are not a threat to make the playoffs or, gulp, having a losing season, but this team does not seem to be close to competing for a true championship.
Ignore the regular season records. The Padres and Phillies showed that those do not mean a whole lot, especially the Phillies whose pitching dominated the Cardinals in two games. The Cardinals need to get back to adding top end talent to this storied franchise. The Padres and Phillies currently have some of the best players in their respective franchises’ histories on their current rosters, in their prime years. The Cardinals have Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, two great players, but how many more peak years can they expect from them? The Cardinals need to surround them with a couple of other All-Star caliber bats.
This past offseason, the Cardinals had a glaring need for a left-handed power bat. Kyle Schwarber, who is in his prime, was on the market. The Cardinals decided that paying the 4 year/$79 million that he received from the Phillies would be better served going to Corey Dickerson for $5 million. Schwarber continued his string of 30+ homerun seasons with an OPS over .800, while Dickerson had an OPS 130 points lower with 40 less home runs, but he had a heck of a run against NL Central pitching in August.
After the 2018 season, the Cardinals had a glaring need for outfield offense. They courted Bryce Harper, but the let’s not risk getting caught up with a bad contract Cardinals, decided that it wasn’t worth offering a 25 year old MVP and World Champion a $30 million/year contract. So, Harper is now leading an NL competitor to a World Series appearance, and possible championship, after already collecting another MVP award. But hey, the Cardinals keep winning NL Central titles and between 88 and 93 games.
Harper is the kind of player that St. Louis fans would have loved. He plays with passion and emotion all season long, just like Nolan Arenado. However, the Cardinals use their saviness to find teams willing to dump superstars. It is hard to argue that the Goldschmidt and Arenado trades are anything less that all-time transactions in franchise history, but what GM wouldn’t pull the trigger on those deals?
The Cardinals need a GM that is willing to take the risk to push them back towards the top of the National League when it matters, October. Instead, Mozeliak continues to get pats on the back from ownership and many fans for having regular season success in a bad division. As the Cardinals enter the offseason in their annual post Carlos Beltran search for a consistent outfield bat, two outfield bats that the Cardinals could have in the open market are leading the Phillies offense in the World Series. Not to mention, Nick Castellanos, who the Cardinals have also flirted with but never acquired.
The Cardinals also need an ownership group that isn’t afraid to call out Mozeliak for his disastrous ventures when he did try to add impact offense players. He waited too long to acquire Dexter Fowler, and when he finally did he overpaid for a guy whose best years were behind him. While Cardinal fans seem to fixate on Randy Arozarena, who was let go before leading the Rays to the World Series, it was a trade in December of 2017 that should be brought up more often. In desparate need of outfield offense, Mozeliak traded away two guys who will likely finish in the top 5 of the NL Cy Young voting for Marcel Ozuna. While Ozuna was above average with the Cardinals, he was never the player they envisioned, while Gallen and Alcantara are the swing and miss starting pitchers the Cardinals desparately need in the postseason. It could be argued that trade is one of the worst in team history.
Yet, the Cardinals just act like that trade never happened with the current management group in place. However, because of that trade and the bad free agent high dollar signings, Mozeliak has continually shied away from the power, aggressive moves that GM’s must make in order to push their teams towards championship contention. The Cardinals keep hoping that the NL Central will continue to underwhelm and then the playoff randomness with magically circle back to the Cardinals one day.
The Cardinals have no problem automatically dishing out $17 million to a 41 year old starter that faded badly down the stretch. Yes, I love Adam Wainwright. He is one of my favorite Cardinals of all time. I am personally happy he is coming back for another season, but why did the front office just dish out frontline starter money to him? You didn’t want to may Schwarber $20 million/season, but we have no problem giving Wainwright $17 million? We’ve seen that swing and miss pitchers are the most effective in the postseason, and Wainwright is coming off his worst swing and miss rate in his career.
The Cardinals have talked openly that they are going to add payroll, but does anyone have faith that they are going to make an impact splash in free agency? They have had two chances to sign Max Scherzer, but instead signed Mike Leake and Steve Matz. The free agent pitching market is relatively weak this year outside of aging and injury prone starters, so it doesn’t seem like there is a chance the Cardinals will find their swing and miss, frontline starter there. Instead, Cardinal fans will be fed lines from the front office and medical team about the normal offseason that Jack Flaherty is having and how he will be back to his 2019 form. There are some potentially huge impact shortstops hitting the market, but the Cardinals will likely stress patience and the future with Masyn Winn, who is likely 2-3 years away from becoming a true star, if it happens. Same with Jordan Walker. Unfortunately, as those two guys emerge, Goldschmidt will likely be gone or definitely past his prime and Arenado will likely be on the decline.
The Cardinals need to add an impact bat, or two, to support Goldschmidt and Arenado, NOW. Albert Pujols was the Cardinals best hitter down the stretch, and he is now retired. Willson Contreras is a polarizing candidate as a Cardinal catcher, but he’s not a bat that is going to put you over the top as a catcher entering his age 31 season. He will likely be a name that is talked about, but ultimately signs elsewhere. Aaron Judge is set to hit the open market, but…well if anyone thinks the Cardinals will get into those sweepstakes has stopped reading this article a long time ago.
The bottom line is that it feels like this franchise will continue its stale slide into regional relevance. The 2022 regular season was one of the most memorable, maybe ever. Pujols chasing 700, Goldschmidt entering September with a chance at a triple crown to cap off an MVP season, and Wainwright and Molina setting the all time battery mark will likely never again be duplicated by any franchise for August/September drama and must watch TV.
However, the real fans are growing tired of empty Octobers. I am tired of cutting my finger nails in October instead of biting them. As the baseball schedule and playoff format has changed, there is little evidence that the Cardinals are going to change with them. Seeing is believing, and with the extensions for key members of the Cardinal front office, it seems like 2023 will be more of the same for the St. Louis Cardinals. A regular season that is good enough to qualify for October baseball, but another year of empty red seats when it matters. The Padres, Phillies, Braves, Mets, and Dodgers aren’t going anywhere next year, so the Cardinals must do something to thrust themselves into their league. Will they? Time will tell over the next couple of months, but someone give me a reason to believe this offseason will be any different than ones from the past.