Two years ago, I wrote a post on this blog about the increasingly obvious culture problem within the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, the Cardinals were an organization that seemed lost in every sense of the word. They weren’t a particularly exciting team, they were coming off of three straight Octobers without postseason baseball being played in St. Louis, and there didn’t seem to be much of a sense of urgency or concern from the powers that be at Busch Stadium to get things back on track.
Fortunately, there was a happy ending for the 2019 team. They came together in August and September to win the National League Central division and soon found themselves in the NLCS after vanquishing the Atlanta Braves in a memorable 5-game NLDS. In 2020, despite a COVID-19 outbreak that ravaged the roster and forced the team to play 53 games in 44 days (on top of the many other challenges the virus created for the sport), the Cardinals still qualified for the playoffs without having to rely on the expanded playoff format of that season, and came just four innings away from defeating a more talented San Diego Padres team in the wild card round.
Heading into 2021, there was reason in Cardinal Nation for optimism and even some excitement. The Cardinals’ NL Central rivals had only improved marginally at best, and the acquisition of superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado, combined with the gradual return to full capacity crowds at the ballpark, as well as Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina re-signing for a presumed farewell tour together, gave many fans the idea that this could turn out to be a special summer in St. Louis.
Needless to say, that hasn’t been the case as we inch closer and closer to the all-star break. As we sit here today, the Cardinals are a team hovering around .500 with a negative run differential and only about a 10% chance to make the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. Miraculously, the Cardinals only find themselves 4.5 games out of first place in the NL Central as of this writing, a product of the rest of the division being unable to get out of their own way and put this bad Cardinals team to waste. It’s possible (not likely, but possible) that the Cardinals could end up winning this division simply due to the sheer incompetence of everyone else in it.
But the current roster doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence that the Cardinals will be able to put a real postseason run together. The offense has gone from inconsistent to downright awful; only the Pittsburgh Pirates have scored fewer runs in all of MLB since May 5. The pitching staff was struggling with hit batters and walks before the injury to Jack Flaherty, and has all but disintegrated since then. The bullpen, projected in the spring to be one of the team’s biggest strengths, has been an outright disaster and seems to only have three effective arms (Giovanny Gallegos, Génesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes) on a good day.
Yet the team, at least publicly, doesn’t seem all that fazed by their lackluster season to date. Manager Mike Shildt continues to heap praise on his players for working hard, competing, hitting the weight room and doing other things that are to be expected of professional athletes. Last weekend, following a 9-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves, Shildt seemed almost personally offended that the Cardinals weren’t getting more credit from fans and the press for sweeping the last place Miami Marlins earlier that week.
The next day, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak spoke to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and acknowledged that things weren’t going all that well for the team that he assembled. Then, when discussing what kind of moves might be made in the near future to plug some of the numerous holes in the roster created either by injury or by himself, he offered this outlook on the state of the franchise, emphasis mine:
“If, at some point, we look for something outside the organization, we certainly will, but we’re not at a point where we’re only going to define ourselves by 2021,” Mozeliak said. “We’re not feeling that pressure if we don’t win this year that we’re all in trouble. We must understand that we can all do things better. We also understand what we thought we’re going to have — because of injuries — hasn’t yet worked out.”
As a reminder, the St. Louis Cardinals have only made the playoffs two times in the last five years, and have only won one playoff series in the last six years. They have just one NL Central title since 2015, while the rival Cubs have won three in that span. And the man leading the front office for one of the most prestigious and decorated organizations in baseball apparently feels no pressure to win soon.
It’s possible that Mozeliak is just posturing here for trade market purposes. But if this is the sincere outlook of the organization, it’s not only delusional, it’s insulting.
As I wrote two years ago, there is a growing disconnect between how the St. Louis Cardinals see themselves and what they actually are. That disconnect has only grown wider since then. All MLB teams have flaws, and each team has their own philosophy or strategy for addressing those flaws. But since at least the end of the 2015 season, the Cardinals seem to have been operating under the mindset of, “Screw you all, we’re the St. Louis Cardinals, we win all the time, everything always works out for us and it’s going to continue to work out for us, because that’s just the way things are.”
This mindset has given the Cardinals the idea that they can get by and field a contending team simply by doing the absolute bare minimum (or in some cases, nothing at all) to improve the roster. There’s no other reason that the Cardinals could acquire a player like Nolan Areando, without having to pay him a dime in 2021, and make no additional moves to build a team that could challenge the rest of the National League.
The injury to Jack Flaherty was a crushing blow to the Cardinals’ rotation, as it would be for any team. But as the Cardinals keep pointing to Flaherty’s injury as a reason for the pitching staff’s implosion, it’s worth remembering that the starting rotation behind Flaherty was filled with questions as far back as last winter. Rather than sign one of the multiple starting pitchers who were available in free agency, the Cardinals elected to build their 2021 rotation resting on:
- Miles Mikolas and Kwang-hyun Kim being effective coming off of injury, with Mikolas pitching for the first time since 2019
- Adam Wainwright continuing to pitch at a high level despite being the oldest player in the National League
- Carlos Martinez being consistent and effective out of the rotation.
So far, only one of those things has come to fruition, and it’s Wainwright. Speaking of Waino, it’s easy to forget that there was a distinct possibility a few months ago that Wainwright could’ve left to join the Braves in free agency. Same with Yadier Molina, who was reportedly courted by the two New York teams before the iconic duo elected to re-sign with the Cardinals on one-year deals for what could easily be their final seasons in baseball. Was this the team they envisioned when they put pen to paper?
As we reach the halfway point of the season, the Cardinals’ assessment of the NL Central has indeed proven correct. It’s a weak division filled with mediocre to bad teams and theoretically shouldn’t require that much effort on the part of the Cardinals to rise to the top. But for a team with the Cardinals’ resources to enter the season with their standards lowered to, “Let’s just try to not be as bad as everyone else in our division and see how it goes” is insulting. Not just to franchise icons like Molina and Wainwright, it’s insulting to players like Arenado, who came to St. Louis in part because he viewed them as an organization that tries to win the World Series every year, unlike the Rockies. And it’s insulting to fans, who waited a full year before they were even allowed to attend home games of their favorite baseball team due to a public health emergency, only to be greeted by this once the gates at Busch opened again.
This isn’t meant to be an indictment on the respective tenures of Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak and Mike Shildt. DeWitt’s ownership of the Cardinals has been a smashing success by all accounts. Shildt did an admirable job guiding the Cardinals to the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and Mozeliak still has a World Series ring with his name on it thanks to a team that he assembled. But a business professor of mine once said that sometimes, the only thing worse for an organization than hiring the wrong person is keeping the right person in one spot for too long. DeWitt has owned the Cardinals since 1995, the same time Mozeliak first came to the organization. Mozeliak has been in charge of roster construction 2007. Shildt has been either a manager or coach at some level or the Cardinals organization since the early 2000s. This is how an echo chamber forms.
There’s a lot of baseball left to be played in 2021, and we’ve seen Cardinals teams come back from the apparent dead before. But if things are going to change for the better of this organization, it needs to start at the top, and fast.