Heading into the All Star Break, the 2023 Cardinals were a shocking 38-52, but a hot start to the second half and a weak NL Central might find the club buyers yet.
A House of Cards
Resident producers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have been as advertised, posting OPS+’s of 130 and 133 respectively. Notable auxiliary pieces like Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, Jordan Walker, and Lars Nootbaar have also performed dutifully – each posting an OPS+ above 100. Wilson Contreras’ OPS+ is also 105, a slightly above league average marker, the backstop is in the second-worst season of his offensive career, behind only 2016 where he played 138 games and posted an OPS+ of 94.
A quick note on OPS+: While not being as inclusive or having the capacity to represent each facet of a player’s game like WAR, OPS+ is the go-to/ quick-check stat for a straightforward summary of a player’s production at the plate.
As a team, the Cardinals have an OPS+ of 107, slightly above league average. They also place 11th in runs scored, a mediocre but not dreadful rank as the squad’s 38-52 record might suggest. The Cardinals have scored more runs than the 53-43 Astros, 54-43 Blue Jays, and the 54-43 Giants, so they clearly have the offensive upside to make an impact.
To understand the Cardinals early season woes, a look through the pitching staff is in order.
The 2023 Cardinals own the seventh worst team ERA in all of baseball at 4.52. Cardinals starters not named Jordan Montgomery all have ERAs above four, and with the exception of Jordan Hicks, not single reliever has an ERA south of four through a minimum 17 innings pitched. Injuries to Adam Wainwright, Matthew Liberatore, Ryan Helsley, and Drew VerHagen among others, have pushed the Cardinals pitching staff far beyond what it can handle.
They Come in Bunches
The Cardinals have shown the ability to score, and to win anything with a pitching staff that allows four and a half runs per game, you need score a lot and consistently. Unfortunately, what the Cardinals make up for in mass they lack in consistency.
Through their first 76 games, the Cardinals scored 347 runs and allowed 333 for a run differential of +11. However, in just 23 of those 76 games the cardinals scored 188 (54%) of all their runs, spreading out less than half of their runs across a much larger sample size of 53 games.
In other words, the Cardinals scored over half (54.18%) of their runs in under a third of their games played (30.26%). That leaves less than half of all their runs (45.82%) to be spread across over two thirds (69.74%) of their games. Across all of their 76 games, the Cardinals averaged 4.6 runs scored per game to just 4.4 runs allowed per game. In the lions share of their games (the 53 I mentioned above) the Cards averaged only three runs per game, well below what their pitching staff allows.
The key for the Cards? Spread the wealth m0re efficiently. If the Cardinals offense can perform at an elite level like they’ve shown they can, the club may not need to add much pitching depth to claw their way back into the race. If not, the more arms the better for the Cards.
Second Half Forecast: Only Up
The Cardinals are in disarray. A weak pitching staff and inconsistent offense have plagued the squad throughout the first half of 2023, but there is reason to suggest the Cards might succeed yet.
The more games the Cardinals play, the more the offense is likely to level out production and perform more consistently. The current squad has shown the ability to hit, and a chance to spring into form during the dog days of August may be just what the doctor ordered.
The pitching staff, as abysmal as it has been, has an abundance of high upside players. Ryan Helsley, Miles Mikolas, were both All Stars and Adam Wainwright, Jake Woodford, Dakota Hudson, and Giovanny Gallegos (among others) were all solid options on the hill in 2022. If just a few of those arms start producing like they’ve shown they’re capable, the Cardinals could be in for one hell of shot in the arm, albeit too little too late.
As they exist now, the Cardinals are not a playoff team. As of July 25, the Cardinals are 11 games behind the division leader Milwaukee Brewers and ten games behind Cincinnati, both of whom have been playing solid baseball all year. Barring a second half collapse from both Reds and Brewers, the division title seems out of reach for the Red Birds and the NL Wild Card is a slightly more manageable nine games out of reach. If the Cardinals decide not to buy at the deadline, they’ll all be playing golf come October.
The Cardinals could likely get away with the lineup they’re trotting out there every day, but it couldn’t hurt to add a bat.
Alec Burleson has by far been the weakest bat in the starting nine, posting an OPS+ of 87, second only to Paul Dejong at 97. This pair of teammates are the only two Cardinals who have a below average OPS through 65 or more games, save for the injured Tommy Edman at 89.
With an OPS+ slightly below league average and an Rdrs (defensive runs saved above average) of just 1, Paul Dejong is about as much of a non-factor as one can imagine. If the Cardinals add a bat, it should be an outfielder to replace the struggling Burleson. Burleson has the worst OPS+ of all Cardinals with at least 65 games played and is a slightly below average defender (-1 Rdrs).
At first glance, Riley Greene and Luis Robert would both make fantastic additions to the Cards, but both are young cornerstones of their franchise with lots of control – the price tag for either would be ginormous.
In search of a discount high performer, the Cards may target Brent Rooker of the Oakland Athletics. Rooker is in the midst of a career year, slashing .239/.328/.445 with 16 home runs and 46 runs batted in to compliment his 127 OPS+. While not as prolific a hitter as the other outfielders mentioned above, Rooker plays for the historically terrible Oakland Athletics who will surely be in sell mode, looking to capitalize on any chips they might be able to move. They’ve even traded Shintaro Fujinami despite signing him from overseas just last winter.
A Wing and a Prayer
To offset the failings of their pitching staff thus far, the more pitching the Cardinals could add the better.
Detroit Tigers’ Michael Lorenzen is in the midst of his first solid campaign as a starting pitcher, posting a 3.49 ERA and 1.093 WHIP through 100.2 innings pitched. With playoff odds hovering around 1%, the Tigers will undoubtedly be in sell mode, and will likely look to deal Lorenzen before he reaches free agency this offseason.
Chicago White Sox Lucas Giolito may also be on the move this deadline. The 28-year-old right hander has posted a decent 3.79 ERA and 1.223 WHIP through 121 innings in 2023. While not eye-popping numbers, Giolito is set to become a free agent at the end of 2023, and his White Sox squad is firmly out of contention for October baseball. Trading Giolito seems somewhat a certainty if the club does not intend to offer an extension, and the Cardinals would do well to take on the right hander for the stretch run to come.
Fellow White Sox arm Gregory Santos has been very effective, pitching to the tune of a 2.59 ERA despite a slightly less impressive 1.253 WHIP across 48.2 innings. A package deal to send Giolito and Santos to Saint Louis would be a massive help for the Red Birds – tack on one or two more arms like Lorenzen or another reliever in Colorado’s Daniel Bard or Washington’s Kyle Finnegan and the Cardinals have a real chance to put together a solid end to 2023.
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