The St. Louis Cardinals’ slow start is the most overlooked part of the young 2019 Major League Baseball season. They’re 24-23, in fourth place in the National League Central, are playing with inconsistency, and have come nowhere near meeting spring training expectations — which were, at the very least, making the playoffs.
When a team is struggling, or needs a boost, we usually lean towards saying they need to make a trade. But the Cardinals don’t necessarily have that option; this is who they are, and they can’t look to the outside for help.
Over the last three years the Cardinals have executed blockbuster trades, as well as some pricy free-agent signings. After the 2016 season they agreed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with outfielder Dexter Fowler; at the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings, they acquired All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna from the Miami Marlins for top prospect Sandy Alcantara, as well as pitchers Zac Gallen and Daniel Castano and outfielder Magneuris Sierra; over the offseason the Cardinals acquired perennial All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks for top prospects Carson Kelly and Luke Weaver, as well as outfielder Andy Young and a compensation pick; the Cardinals also signed former All-Star reliever Andrew Miller to a two-year, $25 million deal.
The Cardinals won 88 games in 2018, missed the playoffs by a game, and added two players who were premier individuals at their set niches — that being Goldschmidt and Miller. And when you look at manager Mike Shildt’s roster, this is an extremely talented ballclub.The slow start of the St. Louis Cardinals will not be fixed by an outside factor. Mike Shildt and the club will have to lean on their big guns internally. Click To Tweet
They have Goldschmidt, Ozuna, Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Jose Martinez, Kolten Wong, Harrison Bader, former Rookie of the Year finalist Paul DeJong, and one of the best catchers in MLB history in Yadier Molina on their depth chart. Going into this season you could’ve argued that this is the most talented offense and deepest team around the diamond in baseball.
Ironically, while they’ve collectively been a productive unit, the Cardinals heavy swingers have held them back. Goldschmidt is hitting .254; after a late-season power surge in 2018, Carpenter is hitting just .205; Wong is hitting .242; while he has driven in a remarkable 40 runs, you could argue there’s more production for the taking with Ozuna, who’s hitting .233.
If those individuals right the ship and return to hitting like the high-caliber players the Cardinals and MLB world are accustomed to, the Cardinals will have as dangerous of a lineup as anyone in the sport, but their starting rotation is still a lingering issue.
Last season the Cardinals starting pitching was its unsung hero, especially considering how Carlos Martinez dealt with shoulder discomfort in the second half of the season. This season they’ve become the Cardinals’ Achilles heel. Going into Monday night their rotation was 19th in MLB in ERA (4.58), 24th in opponent batting average (.261), 21st in strikeouts (216), and fourth in walks surrendered (99).
Miles Mikolas was one of the best stories in MLB last year, having not pitched at the MLB level since 2014, yet becoming the Cardinals ace and finishing with an astonishing 2.83 ERA. His efforts earned him a nice four-year, $68 million extension; this year he owns a 4.88 ERA and has pitched past the fifth inning in just five of his 10 starts.
Michael Wacha owns a rotation-worst 4.93 ERA and 1.64 WHIP; Adam Wainwright continues to be an underwhelming backend starter; Dakota Hudson has, for the most part, weathered the storm when trouble has presented itself, but is putting way too many runners on base, forcing the Cardinals hand with their bullpen; Jack Flaherty has been respectable, but nowhere near the force he was last season.
Every starting pitcher in the Cardinals rotation owns an ERA above four; that’s bad. Now, is there an alpha-dog on this staff? No, and you could argue there wasn’t one last season either, but if the Cardinals are going to turn things around, a rejuvenated offense can only do so much. It’s only inevitable that rumors start flying about which pitchers could be moved before the MLB trade deadline, but any transaction the Cardinals aspire to make is going to be a minuscule upgrade, if any, considering what they surrendered for Ozuna and Goldschmidt.
This is who the Cardinals are: They’re a deep and talented team of high-caliber veterans who are underachieving. Management plummeted the team’s farm system to go all in on this team, and understandably so. They missed the playoffs by one game in 2018 and have the talent to contend. But with the Chicago Cubs — who are well-rounded and firing on all cylinders — and Milwaukee Brewers — who will, at least, be in the playoff hunt until season’s end — in their division, the Cardinals have their hands full. The Pittsburgh Pirates also look capable of hanging around.
Now, the NL East has been wildly underwhelming, and the jury is out on whether there’s a pennant threat in the NL West not named the Los Angeles Dodgers. In theory, that gives the Cardinals a legitimate shot at claiming one of the two NL Wild Card seedings, even if it means finishing with just 80-85 wins.
At the same time, young and budding teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, and Colorado Rockies have shown what they’re capable of, and some of those teams look better than the Cardinals right now from a record and production standpoint.
Continued woes from their stars and a rattled rotation will have the Cardinals on the outside looking in at the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. There’s no help coming from the outside; the Cardinals have to change their fortunes on their own.