Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
topical

Goold: After summer fun, Cardinals' unceremonious fall highlights rising cost of contention

  • 0

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss the directions the Cardinals could go after yet another postseason flop.

His hair not yet dry from the manager’s orchestrated Champagne ambush, Cardinals executive John Mozeliak stood near the team’s celebration — the spoils of a division title — and could see the future his staff had been preparing for, one they could no longer postpone.

Across the room from him stood the fixtures of past and present: two retiring greats, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols, and nearby was venerable starter Adam Wainwright. All drenched. Pujols picked up where he left off, back in the playoffs with the Cardinals just like he was the last time he wore the redbirds, in 2011. Molina and Wainwright remained the constants, the battery that powered 15 consecutive winning seasons and won four National League pennants. Molina personified the Cardinals’ continuum, connecting the 100-win teams of 2004 and 2005 through 2022, his 13th autumn in the playoffs.

Philadelphia Phillies vs St. Louis Cardinals Game 2 National League wild card series

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) stands in the dugout after being pulled from the game for a pinch runner when Molina singled in Game 2 of the National League Wild Card series agasinst the Philadelphia Phillies at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. 

An abrupt exit from the postseason meant what Mozeliak watched in Milwaukee were the last splashes of success for that trio together, a prelude to the moment the Cardinals knew was coming.

It proved to be brightest before dusk.

“You trade for Nolan Arenado because you’re trading for greatness. You trade for Paul Goldschmidt because you want greatness,” president of baseball operations Mozeliak said, motioning toward the MVP candidates in the middle of the lineup, a Champagne bottle in his hand. “The way we were thinking was, yes, we understood we had some players who were on the downward side of their careers — Yadi and Waino. And then we’re looking at this: How can we re-establish the elite talent the Cardinals have always had?

“We could not wait for it,” Mozeliak said. “You can develop it. Or, you can trade for it. Or, you can sign it. And we chose to trade for it.”

Now, they need to augment it.

For the first time since 2000, the Cardinals have an open competition at catcher, and they’ll have a new opening day starter there for the first time since 2005. The Cardinals can only name candidates, not certainties, at all of the positions up the middle. Although, Tommy Edman will be at shortstop or second, unless he’s suddenly in center. The Cardinals hope their cornermen, Goldschmidt and Arenado, steady the new core.

Cardinals v Brewers

St. Louis Cardinals infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado celebrate a 3-1 win on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, over the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. 

As the Molina Era ends, the Cardinals face a renewed question.

Is it time for their tried-and-true model to retire, too?

“I think all postseason runs are typically defined by who gets hot. Can you put things together at the right time?” Mozeliak said. “Look back at the successful runs — think about 2004, 2006, 2011, 2013 — and you had people doing a lot of positive things (for) deeper runs. Do I feel like that team (2022) is built for a deep run? It has to click. It has to come together.”

It did not.

Blink and the season ended.

For more than 15 years, the Cardinals have, like teams from Tampa Bay to Boston, the North Side to southeast Texas, recognized the randomness of the postseason. Surrendered to it, really. They target their roster, their spending, and their goals to winning the division. And then see what happens in the short-series theater of October. Well, with 93 wins, they won the division. They also were the one division winner not to make the division series. An NL Central crown ain’t what it used to be.

The new playoff format rewards the top two division champs in each league, based on their record, with first-round byes and then dumps the other division winner into the bin with the wild-card berths.

The postseason still has games of chance. An 89-win San Diego club can waltz into Queens, take on the kings of K, and leave Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Edwin Diaz with a bad draw after going all in on a $290-million payroll. Not winning the division makes a team more vulnerable to October’s randomness. Ask the 101-win Mets. The Cardinals might have won a five-game series against Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and the Phillies, but they’ll never know. Winning the NL Central wasn’t enough to avoid a first-round bounce by the Phillies.

Philadelphia Phillies vs St. Louis Cardinals Game 2 National League wild card series

Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) pumps his fist as St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (46) strikes out in the eighth inning with two runners on during Game 2 of the National League wild card series between the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

A way to reduce the risk of the postseason’s layered randomness now is to strive for the top record in the NL, not just a division. That could mean aiming for 100 wins.

Inflation is everywhere. The cost of contending is going up.

Four of the six clubs that will pay a luxury tax this season, according to Major League Baseball, were NL playoff teams — the Cardinals’ rivals for the pennant. Of the six NL playoff teams, five had payrolls of at least $210 million. With an estimated $170-million payroll, the Cardinals spent approximately 50% less than the average of the other five playoff teams. They were 25% less than Atlanta, and that payroll could balloon with young players locked up, $150 million committed for 2023, and a cascade of revenue coming from ticket sales and development around a new suburban ballpark complex.

With raises due arbitration-eligible players, the Cardinals have an estimated $155 million committed to an active roster for 2023. Colorado is set to cover $16 million of Arenado’s $35-million salary, offering additional relief. Another year removed from ticket-sale limitations, the Cardinals ownership expected payroll to grow for 2023, and that was before the Pujols Farewell Tour played before sold-out crowds.

The Cardinals hinted at their willingness to add a sizeable contract with their pursuit of outfielder Juan Soto at the trade deadline.

And, in hindsight, offered a peek into an area of focus, too.

The playoffs underscored why.

“We just couldn’t produce offensively,” manager Oliver Marmol said after the Phillies’ sweep in the best-of-three National League Wild Card round. “We just didn’t put up runs. Need runs to win.”

Hoisted by Pujols, Arenado, and MVP favorite Goldschmidt, the Cardinals’ lineup had a robust season. Their 772 runs finished fifth in the majors, behind the Dodgers and Atlanta in the NL but ahead of the Mets. Their .745 OPS ranked fifth, too, behind LA and Atlanta, but better than the Mets. They had the fourth-lowest strikeout rate (19.9%) in the majors. They were also, curiously, held to a run or less in 32 games. They were shutout an NL-high 16 games in the regular season. The 17th shutout of the season was their last game of the season. In the series against the Phillies, the Cardinals’ offense went as cold as the ice they once pulled Champagne from.

All three runs in 18 innings came on two swings from pinch-hitting rookies.

In the playoffs, they’re 9-19 since the 2013 World Series, and in nine of those losses they’ve scored one or fewer runs.

This October was more than a continuation of past postseasons. It was a window into clear and present issues facing the Cardinals. First, leading contenders work in threes. Check the lineups for the top NL teams and it’s possible each one has three elite offensive players: LA’s Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, and Trea Turner will all receive MVP votes; Atlanta has Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson as MVP contenders and Michael Harris II is a favorite for the rookie of the year; and the Mets had RBI champ Pete Alonso, MVP candidate Francisco Lindor, and batting champ Jeff McNeil.

The Cardinals had Goldschmidt, Arenado, and a second-half resurgent Pujols. He made history with so many swings. Now history repeats itself. In 2011, Pujols left the Cardinals with a hole to fill in their lineup. In 2022, after 18 homers, 48 RBIs, and a .715 slugging percentage after the All-Star break, Pujols leaves the Cardinals with a hole to fill in their lineup.

Where have you gone Carlos Beltran?

Second, a power supply from the outfield could fill that hole. Tyler O’Neill’s breakout 2021 included a .912 OPS and elevated the outfield production to the levels the Cardinals have been seeking since Matt Holliday’s departure. The Cardinals entered 2022 having cleared the way for three returning, young, everyday outfielders — and all three regressed. By rotating outfielders based on matchups, Marmol was able to salvage above average production — the outfield slipped from .782 (ranked seventh) in 2021 to .719 (11th) — but individuals struggled.

Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader (before trade), and O’Neill, undone by injuries, all slugged less than .400, all saw their OPS shrivel by at least 80 points.

Third, they weren’t alone. As the Cardinals audit the offense and look for ways to maintain or improve it, they’ll find several hitters who fell into funks and did not emerge. Slumps weren’t solved, they persisted. That’s true of Paul DeJong for several seasons, Carlson this season, and Goldschmidt for the final five weeks of the season. He led the NL in OPS and slugging but did not have a hit vs. the Phillies and struck out in half his eight plate appearances.

As the Cardinals’ offseason arrives, five names can shape it:

1. Nolan Arenado, 3B

His decision on whether to opt out or commit to at least five more years with the Cardinals is the first forecast of winter’s temp. Arenado has steadfastly maintained his “love” for playing in St. Louis and said he’ll reveal his decision later, likely around the World Series. The Cardinals could rework his deal to guarantee a 2027 club option.

2. Jordan Walker, OF/3B

Springfield Cardinals

Springfield's Jordan Walker celebrates a home run during a Double-A game on Thursday, June 2, 2022, at Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo.

By January, Walker could be the No. 1 prospect in baseball. By spring, he could be competing for a spot in the opening day lineup. At 20, Walker is excelling in the outfield and manifesting power potential against top-flight peers in the Arizona Fall League.

3. Andrew Knizner, C

How the Cardinals feel about the longtime heir apparent to Molina will be revealed by how far they wade into trade talks for a catcher or the thin (and pricey) free-agent market. They’ll at least discuss Sean Murphy, Willson Contreras, and Tucker Barnhart.

4. Steven Matz, LHP

Wainwright will soon decide if he’ll return for 2023. Jose Quintana, a free agent, would welcome an offer from the Cardinals. But the starter who, in 2023, is already signed to improve the rotation most is Matz, his Cardinals debut limited by injury.

5. John Mozeliak, POBO

St. Louis Cardinals prepare for National League Wild Card series against Philadelphia Phillies

John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations of the St. Louis Cardinals, talks to the media during a press conference before the start of Cardinals National League Wild Card series against Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Entering the final year of his contract, Mozeliak has several members of his staff about to have their contracts expire in the coming weeks, including general manager Michael Girsch. Mozeliak expressed hope to keep the group together, and no wonder.

This is the offseason when recent years of planning converge, from the overdue capital improvements the Cardinals want to make their facility in Jupiter, Florida, to the payroll emerging from back-to-back seasons of pandemic and lockout influence, to the Cardinals moving into their next age.

The last team standing in the NL Central was the first team eliminated from the NL playoffs. Their four division rivals have met with media to review the season and preview the winter. The Cardinals do not have a presser scheduled, but if or when leadership does, that will offer the first articulations of what the team does now that a season rich with history is history.

The Cardinals braced for changes.

Expectations remain the same — high and unfulfilled.

CARDINALS 40-MAN ROSTER

The 40-man roster the Cardinals finished the season with is illustrative of the players leaving, the holes that need to be filled, and raises coming due for some young players, like Gold Glove-winning infielder Tommy Edman. The following look at the 40-man roster, including players on the long-term injury list, shows financial commitments to signed players. It includes arbitration eligible players (years 1-2-3, 2022 salary in parentheses), and also pre-arbitration players who will make the minimum salary of $720,000 or slightly more based on service time and performance. And, the chart also shows players who will be leaving for free agency or retirement. Currently on 60-day injured list. Arenado can opt-out of the remainder of his deal. A decision must be made by shortly after the World Series, at the latest. Of his 2023 salary, Colorado will pay $16 million and he’s agreed to $6 million deferred. (b) includes scheduled payments related to a signing bonus. Sources: Post-Dispatch reporting, Baseball Prospectus, MLB CBA. — Derrick Goold

Player Contract status
Pitchers (27)
Genesis Cabrera, LHP Arb 1 ($719,200)
Jack Flaherty, RHP Arb 3 ($5 million)
Giovanny Gallegos, RHP $4.5 million
Ryan Helsley, RHP Arb 1 ($722,500)
Jordan Hicks, RHP Arb 3 ($938,000)
Dakota Hudson, RHP Arb 2 ($1.05 million)
Matthew Liberatore, LHP Pre-Arb
Steven Matz, LHP $10 million
Miles Mikolas, RHP $16.75 million (b)
Jordan Montgomery, LHP Arb 3 ($6 million)
James Naile, RHP Pre-Arb
Packy Naughton, LHP Pre-Arb
Freddy Pacheco, RHP Pre-Arb
Andre Pallante, RHP Pre-Arb
Jose Quintana, LHP FREE AGENT
Alex Reyes, RHP Arb 3 ($2.85 million)
JoJo Romero, LHP Pre-Arb
Chris Stratton, RHP Arb 3 ($2.7 million)
Drew VerHagen, RHP $3 million
Adam Wainwright, RHP FREE AGENT
Jake Walsh, RHP Pre-Arb
Kodi Whitley, RHP Pre-Arb
Jake Woodford, RHP Pre-Arb
Catchers (3)
Ivan Herrera Pre-Arb
Andrew Knizner Arb 1 ($718,300)
Yadier Molina FREE AGENT (retired)
Infielders (8)
Nolan Arenado, 3B $35 million
Paul DeJong, SS $9 million
Brendan Donovan, UT Pre-Arb
Tommy Edman, UT Arb 1 ($722,900)
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B $27 million (b)
Nolan Gorman, 2B/3B Pre-Arb
Kramer Robertson, UT Pre-Arb
Juan Yepez, 1B/3B Pre-Arb
Outfielders (6)
Alec Burleson Pre-Arb
Dylan Carlson Pre-Arb
Ben DeLuzio Pre-Arb
Corey Dickerson FREE AGENT
Lars Nootbaar Pre-Arb
Tyler O’Neill Arb 2 ($3.4 million)
Designated Hitter (1)
Albert Pujols, 1B/DH FREE AGENT (retired)
0 Comments
* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News

Trending

National News

News