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.
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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.
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.
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
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
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
|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|
|Andrew Knizner||Arb 1 ($718,300)|
|Yadier Molina||FREE AGENT (retired)|
|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|
|Corey Dickerson||FREE AGENT|
|Tyler O’Neill||Arb 2 ($3.4 million)|
|Designated Hitter (1)|
|Albert Pujols, 1B/DH||FREE AGENT (retired)|