The Cardinal Way needs a GPS.
Going into the season, the St. Louis Cardinals were heavy favorites to repeat as National League Central champions. Instead, they’ve sputtered to an NL-worst 14-25 record — and almost certainly lost the formula that had led to four straight playoff appearances. St. Louis’ struggles came to a very public head last weekend when the team announced it was pulling Willson Contreras from the catching role just 32 games into a five-year, $87.5 million contract.
A franchise known for its even-keel front office, steady clubhouse and consistent play had played its way to the bottom of the NL Central on the field and turned into a soap opera off of it.
“It’s pretty simple,” third baseman Nolan Arenado told ESPN. “It’s not a collection of good baseball that we’ve been playing. … It’s just not Cardinal baseball. Not putting people away, not making plays, not any timely hitting. It’s hard for me to criticize anyone because I haven’t been playing very well either. And that really hurts.”
No, not even a star like Arenado is immune from the Cardinals’ early woes. After finishing third in the NL MVP voting last season, the third baseman is hitting just .252 with a .671 OPS nearly a quarter of the way into the season. But no team falls 14 games under .500 this early in the season because of just one player — or even a handful.
“Really, this first month was a perfect storm of badness,” veteran Adam Wainwright said. “We didn’t lose all those games because of one player.”
Here’s what has gone wrong for the Cardinals — and how they hope to turn their season around.
What happened to the Cardinal Way?
This has always been a franchise that prides itself in focusing on the little things — things that often win close games. But this year, many of their losses have come from an inability to execute in key spots — highlighted by a 1-7 record in one-run games — rather than being outright outplayed.
“At the end of the day, all that matters is either you win or you lose, that’s it,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “But even when we’re losing, we’ve done a lot of things well and one thing sucks, and then you lose that game.”
The numbers back up what St. Louis’ skipper is seeing on a nightly basis:
• The Cardinals rank last in winning percentage in one-run games
• They’ve blown a league-leading 11 saves
• They’ve given up the fifth-most unearned runs
• They have six come-from-behind wins, fourth-fewest in MLB
• Their 33 ground outs into double plays is sixth-most in MLB
• They even lead MLB in pitch clock violations by pitchers.
“It’s not one thing,” outfielder Lars Nootbar said. “It’s a collective group, and I don’t mean that as a cliché. When one side does something well, the other side doesn’t.”
What happened to the rotation?
When the Cardinals are at their best, the pitching staff has often been at the forefront of the club’s success. This season, the pitching staff has been at the forefront of its struggles — beginning with the rotation.
Not a single St. Louis starter has an ERA under 4.00 and the team’s collective 5.45 mark is its highest through the first 38 games since 1995. The rotation ERA ranks 26th in baseball, down from 16th last season, 11th in 2021 and fifth in 2020 — a pattern that started developing long before Contreras or new pitching coach Dusty Blake arrived.
“I think if you asked every pitcher in here, almost everyone except maybe Jordan Montgomery, who has pitched great the whole time, nobody has pitched the way they can,” Wainwright said.
Montgomery has been the best of the group, but his ERA is still over 4.00, thanks in large part to a loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in which he gave up seven runs. Fresh off an offseason contract extension, Miles Mikolas has allowed 57 hits in 41⅓ innings while compiling a 5.40 ERA, though his two May starts (3.60 ERA with 12 strikeouts and three walks in 10 innings) have been encouraging. Former ace-in-training Jack Flaherty has a 6.18 ERA, oft-injured lefty Steven Matz (5.70) has underwhelmed, and former first-round pick Jake Woodford (5.40) faltered as the direct fill-in for Wainwright, who recently came back after missing the first month with a groin injury.
There is hope that Wainwright’s return will stabilize a rotation that has failed to step up in the absence of its most accomplished starter.
But relying upon a 41-year-old pitcher coming back from injury is no sure thing and only underscores a belief from some rival evaluators that the Cardinals are now paying for not adding another starter when they had the chance.
“That’s not a championship rotation,” one American League scout said this week. “Anyone could have told you that months ago.”
Even when they have made moves for pitching in recent seasons, the Cardinals have seemed more focused on a short-term fix with an aging starter, such as Jon Lester and J.A. Happ in 2021, or a pending free agent, like Jose Quintana last season, rather than a long-term solution. There are still nearly two months until the trade deadline, but it’s hard to see the Cardinals in the market for any outside pitching help this summer unless the current group of starters improves enough to get them back near contention.
What is Contreras’ role?
How much of the pitching staff’s struggles can be attributed to not having Yadier Molina behind the plate for the first time since 2004? That question moved from talk radio debate fodder to the center of the St. Louis clubhouse last weekend when the Cardinals announced they were pulling Contreras, whom they hand-picked to replace Molina, from his catching duties.
Six months after signing the largest free agent contract in Cardinals history, Conteras is now serving as the team’s designated hitter. It was a headline-making, head-scratching move that played out publicly just as the team was heading to Chicago for Contreras’ first meeting against his former team, the Cubs.
“He has not caught his last game and is a key part of this team,” Cardinals president of baseball operation John Mozeliak said in an email to ESPN. “We just ask for patience as we work through things.”
The decision came the day after Flaherty gave up 10 runs in 2⅓ innings against the San Francisco Giants. Two days later, Flaherty was part of a meeting between Marmol, Contreras and Wainwright — though Marmol wouldn’t elaborate on why those were the participants, the reason for the meeting was to tell Contreras how much they need him.
“He needed to hear from some meaningful guys that you’re our guy, we love you, we trust you, Marmol said. “The only way we get to where we want to get to is with you helping lead behind the plate — and here’s how we’re going to do that.”
It was a day Marmol declared “one of the most productive” of the season. But the Cardinals still aren’t saying why Contreras isn’t back behind the plate.
“There’s what’s out there and then what’s really happening behind closed doors and they couldn’t be more different,” Marmol said. “The timing of it sucks. But it’s a small blip in the story over the next five years.”
When asked if Contreras’ issues were due in part to him learning a new staff while getting used to the pitch clock — all while missing time with some Cardinals pitchers during the spring because they were pitching in the WBC — Marmol gave the first real window into the decision.
“The answer to that is yes,” he said. “There’s more to what you just said. [But] the combination of learning a new staff [and] the WBC and the pitch clock, that’s a tough combo. Is that a big player [in the decision]? Yes, absolutely.”
“I think Willson is going to step up to this challenge,” shortstop Paul DeJong said. “I think he will catch for us. I think he has all the talent and ability to do it, and I think he’s going to show everyone that he deserves to catch. He’s going to use that as a springboard.
“Maybe at first he was a little taken aback by it. A little sensitive, which is understandable. When we’re in this situation we’re in right now, we have to do what we can to make an improvement today. I think that’s what the front office was thinking.”
Where does the season go from here?
After taking the first two games in Chicago, the Cardinals got blown out Wednesday. Still, their 3-1 win Monday showed what their manager wants to see from his team. It was followed by a grind-it-out 6-4 victory Tuesday.
“That’s the way baseball should look, as far as our brand of baseball,” Marmol said. “You get good pitching, you play defense and some timely hitting. We’ve had a couple that have looked that way, but not as many as we should at this point.”
While everyone in St. Louis would love to see the Cardinals go on a massive run that gets them back into contention, the way out of a hole this deep is likely to come with smaller steps. Could their first three-game win streak of the season be one?
“We are still trying to find our stride,” Mozeliak said. “The first month of the season did not begin as we planned. We all understand that baseball is a long season, and even though we are not playing to our expectations, we also know there is time to get things right.”
Sometimes it has been the pitching that has failed to meet those expectations. Other times, the new acquisitions. And others, star players whom the team had counted on to deliver would up short. There is one consistent amid the struggles, though: The Cardinals clubhouse undeniably has looked different than a year ago without some of the familiar faces who have served as leaders.
“I think we may have gotten a little bit lost thinking about what we did have, maybe a little love drunk about Yadi and Albert [Pujols] being gone, and not having Waino at the start of the season,” DeJong said. “We were a little fragmented.”
Still, a last-place record, high ERAs and sloppy play coupled with some early controversy is uncharted territory for a franchise accustomed to having things go its way. How will the team respond?
“I don’t think our confidence is shaken,” Nootbar said. “We were unfamiliar with the start for sure, but the Cardinals always find a way. Over 162 we will. We’re going to need every one of them.”