In the first 23 seasons of the 21st century, the St. Louis Cardinals had the third best cumulative record in Major League Baseball and were the only National League Central team in the top half of the league. They had Albert Pujols, the best hitter of his generation, for a while and then again. They had Adam Wainwright, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Yadier Molina, a maybe-future Hall of Fame catcher, and a rotating cast of other pretty good players who ensured that the Cardinals were basically always good. They won a couple of World Series under effective albeit insufferable manager Tony La Russa. Their executives, fans, and even some players talk about a mythic ethos called The Cardinal Way. It is all supremely annoying for people who do not like the Cardinals, their self-aggrandizing fanbase, or their incessant run of success.
But what a joy these early weeks of the 2023 season have been for the nation’s non-Cardinal silent majority. The Cardinals enter the weekend with a 13–25 record, eight games out of first place in the lousy Central, last in the division. St. Louis, coming off a division championship last year, began the year in a somewhat superficial state of transition. On the one hand, they were saying farewell to Pujols (for a second time) and Molina, who along with Wainwright defined the Cardinals for many years. On the other hand, Molina was no good by the time he retired, Pujols had a majestic few months on his way out but was never going to do that again, and the Cardinals’ best players were all coming back. National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt at first base? Back. Eternal Gold Glove winner Nolan Arenado at third? Back. A bunch of other good hitters? Back. Pretty much everyone important on the pitching staff except for a two-month rental, José Quintana, who left in free agency? All back. On top of that, the Cardinals made a big free agent signing to replace Molina, bringing on ex–Chicago Cub Willson Contreras for $87.5 million.
Few could have seen this faceplant coming. So far, it has added up to the most perplexing (or funniest, some would say) start any team has had. The Cardinals face a long slog to even flirt with the postseason; FanGraphs gives them a 22 percent chance to make the playoffs and projects some improvement but still just a 79-win output. Of course, every team has down years, and it speaks well of the Cardinals that such a season would be their worst since a 78-win 2007. But what is so odd (or hilarious) about the Cardinals’ 2023 woes is how they came from nowhere, and how they’ve come along with some distinctly non–Cardinal Way stories off the field.
The ridiculously bad start is not really a matter of the offense, although the Cardinals’ hitters have been a bit worse this year than last. Two pretty solid outfielders, Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill, have given the club sub-replacement level production. Shortstop Tommy Edman has followed a career year (5.7 WAR in 2022, according to FanGraphs) with just a so-so start. And Arenado has been a shell of himself, hitting for a .233/.285/.336 batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage slash line that cannot possibly continue for that much longer. That’s nearly half the lineup just not doing it, but the Cardinals are still 13th in the majors in position player WAR. Their offense has been 7 percent better than league average, going by the all-encompassing weighted Runs Created stat that measures offense.
The team defense has not been good, but also has not been that bad. The Cardinals are sitting at negative-4 Defensive Runs Saved, 19th in the majors. Arenado is still a sparkling defender at third base, at least. The team’s most notable defensive problems have been when second baseman and outfielder Brendan Donovan has played the infield, and when prized prospect Jordan Walker has played the outfield. The Cardinals sent Walker back to Triple-A despite a solid offensive start, and they didn’t mention his defense as a reason, but it probably contributed. (Walker mostly played third base in the minors, but the Cardinals have Arenado at his natural position.) Still: The team-wide fielding has been fine.
That only leaves pitching as a candidate to be the big bad problem, and indeed the Cardinals have not thrown baseballs very well. They enter the weekend 23rd in staff-wide earned-run average (4.77) and seventh in fielding-independent pitching, an estimate of ERA in a neutral defensive environment (4.44). It isn’t good, and only one starter, Jordan Montgomery at 4.11, has an ERA under 5. But the Cardinals’ overall pitching has been more mediocre than “one of the worst teams in the league” bad. The bullpen, with a combined 3.88 ERA and a pretty groovy 10.18 strikeouts per nine innings, has been fine. The Cardinals’ pitchers are almost all guys who have pitched for this team before and done it well. The biggest red flag? Starter Jack Flaherty, whose 6.18 ERA signals the further fading of a once-promising career.
On some level the Cardinals have just been unlucky. If run differential (-0.6 per game) were perfectly indicative of the standings, the Cardinals would be 17–21, bad but not as disastrous as 13–25. Only their division mates the Cubs, six real-life wins worse than their Pythagorean total, have been less lucky in how they’ve sequenced their runs scored and allowed. Things should (though are not guaranteed to) even out somewhat as the season goes on. The Cardinals will not stay on a 55-win pace forever.
Merely running the numbers, the Cardinals do not come off as one of the worst teams in baseball, with a win total only higher than the miserable Kansas City Royals and soon-to-be Las Vegas A’s. The Cardinals seem mediocre but with upside. However, off the field? They look much more shambolic.
Only a month into his huge contract, the Cardinals decided that Contreras should no longer be a catcher and should move to designated hitter and outfield duty. It was an odd move, pegging Contreras’ work behind the plate as the scapegoat for the team’s pitching problems. Contreras has a perfectly fine defensive track record as a catcher, having added defensive value at the position every year of his career except the first weeks of this season at -0.1 defensive WAR, per Baseball Reference. MLB’s Statcast measurements paint him as pretty much fine behind the plate this spring: a bit worse than average in pitch framing and blocking balls in the dirt, a bit better than average in throwing out base stealers.
The Cardinals can play their players wherever they want, but the manner of the Contreras shift was weird. They made a whole big announcement about it, then walked it back a bit when Contreras defended his work as a catcher to the media. Not very Cardinal Way behavior for a supposedly model franchise. The Walker demotion felt like a herky-jerky way to handle the development of a key part of the club’s future. And to add a cruel (or some would say very funny) twist, the most valuable pitcher in baseball this season is a former Cardinals prospect whom the team traded in 2017. Zac Gallen, who has a 2.36 ERA with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said this week of the Cardinals dealing him: “You know the Cardinals, you know they got their certain ways about how they go about some things.” Yes, we do: The Cardinal Way.
Making the Cardinals’ brutal start more unfortunate (or, one might argue, hysterical) is that the NL Central is right there for the taking. First place entering the weekend belongs to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had a dreamy April but are 1–9 in their past 10 games. They’ve only retained the top spot because the Milwaukee Brewers are 2–8 in the same span. The Cubs are just OK, and the Cincinnati Reds are a nonentity. Even a bland Cardinals season would give the team a pretty good chance at a division title, but so far, it hasn’t happened. With the Pirates in freefall, the Brewers look like the best bet to come out of the division. The Central being one of baseball’s worst divisions is not new. It is the case most years. But 2023’s innovative new feature is that the team most weighing down the NL Central is the one that’s won it 11 times this millennium.