Editor’s note: I do not believe the 2023 St. Louis Cardinals, or any 2023 baseball team for that matter, will go down in history as the greatest Major League Baseball team ever assembled. I’m just saying there’s *a* path forward for it. This is my summary of the season in which that path is followed.
It is a shame that, following the Cardinals’ eleventh World Series title in 2011, Joe Buck already burned the line, “What a team, what a ride” to describe a team which, while it had a postseason run, was hardly exceptional–after all, it took a major collapse by the Atlanta Braves for the Cardinals to even secure the fourth-best record in the National League. But while Joe Davis was stuck with the Replacement Level coronation of “Abreu pops it up, Edman is under…the Cardinals are World Series champions!”, the sentiment of Joe Buck resonates more than ever with the 2023 St. Louis Cardinals.
Entering the season, I believed the Cardinals were NL Central favorites–I felt they had improved from 2022 while the Milwaukee Brewers had declined and that the seven games which separated them last season meant something. But I was doubtful that the Cardinals would even be competitive for a Wild Card bye, hoping instead mostly that the Cardinals could accomplish the astonishingly timid task of winning multiple home playoff games for the first time since 2014. They did, of course, but what they accomplished–119 wins, the most in history with the third-highest winning percentage in history (trailing only the 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers, as many asterisks as you may want to put on “60 game season” or “are the Cubs”)–was truly extraordinary. And unlike the 1906 Cubs team with a credible claim as the greatest team in history in a full regular season, the 2023 Cardinals won their final game of the season.
Statistically, by far the biggest weakness of the 2022 Cardinals was catcher, particularly the increasingly inept offense of Yadier Molina. Despite Molina’s stature as a franchise stalwart, his production had diminished substantially, and replacement Willson Contreras figured to provide an upgrade almost by accident. By continuing his 2022 production at the plate while continuing his general career trajectory from absolutely terrible pitch framer to “look, he isn’t great at it but it’s not destroying him”, Contreras proved to offer a substantial boost to the Cardinals lineup–even if he wasn’t one of the single best hitters on the team, the presence of one of the sport’s best offensive catchers meant a lineup without holes, one that seemed to never get the boost of pitchers not hitting (aside from Oli Marmol letting Adam Wainwright bat for himself in his final home regular season game, of course) with Molina entrenched. And with a robotic strike zone coming to MLB in 2024, the lessened shortcomings of Contreras behind the plate should be even further diminished.
The biggest story of 2022 on the offensive side of the ball, with the possible exception of Albert Pujols’s final season renaissance, was the dueling MVP-caliber seasons of Paul Goldschmidt, who won the 2022 award, and Nolan Arenado. It was assumed that they could not maintain that pace in 2023, something that proved literally true but was beside the point–while neither competed with Juan Soto’s resurgent first full season with the San Diego Padres, who ran away with the National League MVP award, Goldschmidt and Arenado were still 5.5 and 6-win players, respectively, combining diminished-by-2022-and-no-other-standards offense with strong defense at the corners. But unlike in 2022, when the two seemed so vital for the offense of the Cardinals that they arguably over-exerted themselves, eventually becoming borderline useless by October, the Cardinals’ large lead in September allowed the duo to take days off, both by filling in at designated hitter and by sitting on the bench while the deep Cardinals lineup still put on a show for the fans.
The middle infield seemed to be something of a question entering 2023 for the Cardinals–it was widely assumed that Tommy Edman would start somewhere, but the other spot was up for grabs, with the prime candidates being 2022 breakthrough Brendan Donovan, 2022 slugging rookie Nolan Gorman, and incumbent shortstop Paul DeJong. Ultimately, it was Gorman who broke through the loudest–while his defense was a far cry from that of Edman at second base, it was serviceable enough, and when your second baseman is hitting 33 home runs and giving the Cardinals their most credible left-handed power threat in years, it’s hard to complain too much about the glove. Brendan Donovan, while not quite his 2022 self, proved to be a versatile defender who was capable of playing across the infield and outfield–while the lack of major injuries on the 2023 Cardinals arguably cost him in the WAR department, Donovan’s ability to slide into the lineup arguably helped the team with load management. And while Paul DeJong still struck out a bit more than one would prefer, he was a competent enough hitter (power sure does help, doesn’t it?) to justify keeping around as a backup shortstop and late-inning defensive replacement.
Entering Spring Training, the supposed open competition for the center field job between incumbent Dylan Carlson and left fielder Tyler O’Neill was a major storyline, though the Cardinals ultimately went with the path of least resistance and kept Carlson in the spot for the most part, though allowing O’Neill occasional starts in center field did spare the Cardinals from having to stick the Bens DeLuzio of the world out there. Carlson came through with his third consecutive season of average-or-better offense and while he never exactly replaced Harrison Bader, whose highlights from the Bronx created one of the few matters about which Cardinals fans managed to complain this season, he was a solid enough defender, particularly with the solid defense flanking him on each side. Tyler O’Neill, an MVP candidate two seasons ago, came closer to recapturing that form than most anticipated, with 30 bombs and picking up his third career Gold Glove award. Fan favorite and Statcast darling Lars Nootbaar contributed 22 home runs of his own alongside Gold Glove-caliber defense and an emergence as the team’s primary leadoff hitter, buoyed by his proclivity for drawing walks. But for as solid as this trio was, the clear story of the year for the outfield was Jordan Walker.
That Walker did not make the team out of Spring Training caused a bit of a ruckus, particularly after Walker crushed Grapefruit League pitching, though on a scale of service time manipulation where Kris Bryant is a 10, Walker’s case was no worse than a 5 or 6–the 20 year-old had never played in AAA prior to 2023 and he had only started 30 total minor league games in the outfield. But once he arrived in May, Walker was an immediate smash, solidifying the team’s depth by starting in right field against lefties, and spelling Tyler O’Neill, Nolan Arenado, and even occasionally Paul Goldschmidt on occasion while getting his share of starts as designated hitter. Of course, the continued ascent of Juan Yepez as a more-than-capable replacement for Albert Pujols and Corey Dickerson at DH kept Walker’s playing time somewhat economical, but he certainly justified his call-up.
Starting pitching was arguably the team’s biggest area of concern entering 2023–not that the team didn’t have some good pitchers, but Adam Wainwright’s age, Jack Flaherty’s injury history, and Steven Matz’s 2022 struggles, among other factors, were of concern. But Wainwright recaptured his early 2022 form and managed to carry it throughout 2023, Flaherty stayed mostly healthy and emerged as the team’s go-to pitcher in October (whether the Cardinals are able to extend Flaherty, who will certainly receive a Qualifying Offer, should be the big story of this off-season), and Matz was the perfectly adequate pitcher the Cardinals anticipated he would be when they signed him. Meanwhile, Jordan Montgomery and Miles Mikolas were also credible Qualifying Offer candidates, with ERAs in the low-threes. When injuries did happen, they were not catastrophic but did require IL stints, at which point Matthew Liberatore emerging as a credible option was a huge revelation, keeping the shaky Dakota Hudson mostly relegated to bullpen duty (where he was mediocre, yes, but where he pitched in typically low-leverage situations).
The bullpen throughout the regular season was rarely counted upon to be outstanding–solid starting and a terrific offense insured this–but their handful of bullpen aces did the trick–Ryan Helsley’s mild regression was overcome by Giovanny Gallegos’s re-emergence into a bona fide closer, while lefties Génesis Cabrera and (occasional starter) Zack Thompson were legitimate Christian Yelich kryptonite during the brief period in July when it looked like the Brewers were going to make a potential run at the division crown. Rookie Freddy Pacheco went through a brilliant summer stretch, and when he inevitably came back down to Earth, all was already secured for the Cardinals (plus deadline acquisition Matt Barnes provided much of the competence they hoped to get when they traded Kodi Whitley for him in July). And by October, the Cardinals were able to mix and match starters and relievers, keeping the strong lefties of the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres off-balance in the National League playoffs. And while Yordan Alvarez’s fireworks in Game 3 of the World Series briefly put the fear of God into Cardinals fans that the Houston Astros could overcome the Cardinals’ 2-0 series lead, the Cardinals rebounded nicely in Games 4 and 5 to complete the gentleman’s sweep. That the Cardinals, holding a seven-run lead entering the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 at Minute Maid Park, had the luxury of giving Adam Wainwright the chance to close out the club’s third title since he joined the team speaks to the storybook nature of the season.
What the Cardinals do next is an open question–Matthew Liberatore has likely secured a spot in the 2024 rotation, but he and Steven Matz are the only certainties (though I would put the odds that the Cardinals retain at least two of Flaherty, Mikolas, and Montgomery very high). Paul Goldschmidt is a free agent after next season, as is Tyler O’Neill. Do the Cardinals trust their farm as replacements, or will the Cardinals try to run back the 2023 roster? I try not to worry too much about these matters–rather, I prefer to live in the moment. That’s the luxury of not actually being in the Cardinals’ front office. I can simply wax nostalgic about the most incredible baseball team we will ever see.