Those three weeks with the Cardinals dead last in the NL Central sure were fun.
I enjoyed it. Hope you did, too. Because if you’ve been keeping up with current events, you know the St. Louis team that experts predicted would win the division has finally shown up. Since their 8-game losing streak, the Cardinals are 11-3 and 21-27 overall. They’re coming off a sweep of the Red Sox, a series win versus Milwaukee and taking three out of four from the Dodgers.
As of this morning, they’re a few decimal points ahead of the Cubs for third in the division.
If you’re a Reds fan, you also know the Cardinals have dominated the series between the two clubs in recent years. In the 16 seasons since Bob Castellini bought the Reds, the Cardinals have won the season series 14 times. The two exceptions were 2011 and 2021.
Over that 16-year stretch, St. Louis has qualified for the postseason 10 times, the Reds four. The Cardinals won a World Series, won another NL pennant and won the first round of the postseason three other times. The Reds haven’t won a postseason series since, um, 1990.
With that history as context, the Cardinals arrive in town for an important 4-game series this week. At least as important as a series can be when the stakes are fourth-place vs. fifth-place. But it’s also true that only five games separate the penthouse and basement in the division, so four NL Central games do carry weight.
- Monday (6:40 pm)
- Tuesday (6:40 pm)
- Wednesday (6:40 pm)
- Thursday (12:35 pm)
Coming off a 93-win season and a first-place finish in the division, the Cardinals return almost completely intact. Their main acquisition was a free agent catcher to replace Yadi Molina who retired.
- Willson Contreras (C) 5 years, $87.5 million
They signed two other free agent position players.
- Oscar Mercado (OF) minor league contract
- Tres Barrera (C) 1 year, league minimum
Both are bench players and neither would be on the Cardinals roster were it not for injuries to OF Tyler O’Neil and OF Dylan Carlson. St. Louis surprised many by not doing anything in the offseason to improve their pitching staff.
The Cardinals have hit better than the Reds. Even with two starters sidelined by injury, they have a potent lineup. The Cardinals rank fourth in overall run creation (wRC+) while the Reds rank 26th. Looking at the components, St. Louis ranks 7th in batting average (Reds 15th) and 6th in power (Reds 27th). The two teams have the same walk rate (9.2%). While the Reds have the 6th highest strikeout rate (24.4%), the Cardinals have the 7th lowest (21%).
Second-year player Nolan Gorman has been mashing it. The lefty’s wRC+ of 178 and 13 home runs lead the club. Meanwhile, last year’s NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt has started the 2023 season with the apparent intention of repeating as the league best. His wRC+ is 155.
Nolan Arenado (3B) and Brendan Donovan (UT) won Gold Gloves last year. Goldschmidt and Edman won Gold Gloves in 2021. Arenado has won the GG in each of his ten major league seasons.
Here are the 13 Cardinals position players with their 2023 stats through Saturday. Many familiar names.
As mentioned above, LF Tyler O’Neil (strained lower back) and RF Dylan Carlson (sprained ankle) are on the IL.
Here’s the lineup manager Oliver Marmol has used against right-handed pitchers:
The Cardinals rotation has been a weakness. It ranks 21st in ERA at 4,90 (Reds 29th at 6.13), 16th in xFIP at 4.41 (Reds 17th at 4.43) and 28th in xwOBA (Reds 22nd).
The Cardinals are using a six-man rotation at the moment. Jack Flaherty, the staff ace by title, pitched yesterday and Miles Mikolas started Saturday. So the Reds should face the other four Cardinal starters in an as yet undetermined order.
Jordan Montgomery, a lefty who the Cardinals acquired from the Yankees last year in a deadline deal (Montgomery straight up for Reds nemesis Harrison Bader), will take the series opener. Montgomery pitched well in his 11 starts for St. Louis last year and has been middle-of-the-pack so far in 2023.
Last week, the Cardinals promoted their top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore. If he pitches against the Reds it will be his second start after throwing five shutout innings against the Brewers in his debut.
At the opposite end of the age spectrum, 41-year-old Adam Wainwright signed up for another go-around. His three starts have not gone well, with Wainwright exhibiting a paltry 11% strikeout rate. Check out his stats — a bunch of lowest percentile scores. His fastball velocity is down to 87 mph.
Wain … oh.
Here are the series’ probable starters:
- Monday Brandon Williamson vs. Jeff Montgomery
- Tuesday Graham Ashcraft vs TBA
- Wednesday Ben Lively vs. TBA
- Thursday Luke Weaver vs. TBA
The Cardinals bullpen ranks 9th in ERA, 4th in xFIP and 13th in xERA. The Reds fall 12th, 19th and 11th respectively.
28-year-old Ryan Helsley returns as the primary closer. He took over that job last year while posting a 39% strikeout rate. He throws a 100-mph fastball and sharp-breaking slider. Other veteran arms in the St. Louis bullpen are Giovanni Gallegos and Genesis Cabrera. Cabrera is the lefty. Gallegos has closed before. Another power relief arm is Jordan Hicks, whose four-seamer and sinker average 101 mph.
I wrote this about the Cardinals organization in 2020:
“Much as it pains us as Reds fans to admit it, the Cardinals are a superbly run organization, starting at the top. The club’s owner Bill DeWitt Jr. lives in Cincinnati and purchased the Cardinals in 1995. He is data-driven and was an early believer in and adopter of modernized systems to evaluate and develop players. The Cardinals haven’t posted a losing record since they went 78-84 in 2007 and fired general manager Walt Jocketty for being stubbornly out-of-date.”
The Cardinals do it all. They are excellent at scouting talent. Their minor league system is comparable in quality to that of the Reds and they didn’t have to decimate their major league roster to accomplish it. The Cardinals development system for position players has been terrific. They add big-ticket free agents as cornerstones for their lineup. The Cardinals are spending $100 million more than the Reds on payroll in 2023. Their one weakness is the starting rotation.
At four games, this is an important May series. The Cardinals are on a roll. Even with their horrendous start, I wouldn’t bet against them to win the division (again).
Image: Cardinals Facebook