There’s no other way to put it: The 2023 Cardinals are in utter shambles. Far from being the emerging World Series contender they were meant to be, the vibe in St. Louis, clubhouse and fanbase alike is that the season is already over—and we’re not even at the All-Star break.
Wallowing at the bottom of arguably the weakest division in baseball, the Cardinals find their former canon fodder in divisional rivals relishing in their slow and painful descent toward the very bottom of the league standings. Insults have been forthcoming against Cardinals fans—they’re “spoiled,” and this is simply what they deserve after years at the top of the NL Central.
The narrative has even penetrated the ranks of Cardinals fans themselves:
The Cardinals are spoiled by their fanbase, not the other way around
A quick look at the numbers, however, paints a much different picture. Cardinals fans throughout the years have poured their time, love, and hard-earned cash into the franchise, and in turn, management has given them a team with the 16th-highest payroll in baseball. Below average.
Naturally, this would have been perfectly acceptable if the team had gone into the season with a complete and solid roster, but this unfortunately wasn’t the case. While the addition of power bat Willson Contreras was a huge boost to an already stacked Cardinals offense, the starting rotation lacked the consistency and prowess of a World Series contender.
Heading into the 2022 playoffs, it was hard to name a single team in the NL side of the bracket with a less favorable pitching situation, and though the starters for Games 1 and 2, José Quintana and Miles Mikolas performed valiantly, the Cardinals were nonetheless summarily swept and brushed aside.
The Cardinals proceeded to lose Quintana in the offseason, the pitcher they trusted to start Game 1 of the Wild Card round, and did nothing to replace his value, instead remaining complacent with the status quo. Heading into 2023, the remaining pitchers each carried major question marks, leaving cause for concern.
Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Jake Woodford, and Steven Matz had all shown flashes of skill and true brilliance in their careers but were equally as prone to struggles. Adam Wainwright had performed superbly for his age, but there was an inherent risk in putting so much faith into someone over 40 years old.
That left Jordan Montgomery as the only reliable starter, but his performance still fell well short of the mark of being one of the best pitchers in the National League.
Sure enough, the Cardinals' pitching is well below average with a 4.44 ERA, the team’s worst since 2007, the last time the franchise suffered a losing season. Their WHIP is the worst since 1999.
The recent loss of Ryan Helsley, the Cardinals’ flamethrowing closer from the 2022 season has now stretched an already weak bullpen to its limits. With Helsley on the 15-day IL, it’s difficult to see a bullpen that’s already blown 15 saves this season change its trajectory any time soon.
A major signing or trade to reinforce the pitching staff was 100% required. It would have been expensive, one way or another, but the Cardinals, certainly on the surface at least, had the resources to get a deal done.
The Cardinals currently stand as the 7th most valued franchise in the MLB, and have posted a top-three attendance in the league nearly every year for the last decade—money should presumably not be a problem, especially with their 2023 payroll being below league average. The Cardinals also boasted and still boast some of the best hitters, fielders, and prospects in the entire league. While they had leverage as the high and mighty 2022 NL Central Champions during the offseason, a solid deal could have theoretically been worked out.
Naturally, this is all speculation. As outsiders looking in on the team, we don’t have a good grasp on the team’s financial situation, and we don’t know what it really would have taken to bring in the supplemental pitchers the Cardinals so desperately need. In spite of this, it’s nearly impossible to shake the sullen feeling that the Cardinals have been too dormant in recent offseasons and trade deadlines to the point that it’s genuinely starting to feel like complacency.
The additions of Quintana and Montgomery were great last year, as were LeBlanc, Happ, and Lester (all of who retired at the end of that season) in 2021, but they felt more like band-aids being placed over the gaping holes of a sinking ship than legitimate solutions to the Cardinals’ pitching dilemma.
This is not to say that the Cardinals haven’t made excellent moves in the offseason. The trades for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have been downright amazing for the team, providing a solid foundation for a potential juggernaut. They needed help, however.
Goldschmidt first donned the birds on the bat when he was 31, and Arenado when he was 29. They are now 35 and 32, respectively, in the later stages of their careers. To capitalize on this staggering, once-in-a-lifetime duo at the corners, the Cardinals needed to provide them the support they needed on the mound to win them their first ring. Thus far, this is something they have failed to do, and time marches on. Realistically, the remaining window for this core is short.
St. Louis loves their Cardinals. So much so, that the team is a critically engrained part of the city’s culture—maybe even more so than any other team in their respective city. Through showing up year after year, the Cardinals’ annual attendance consistency surpasses that of the Yankees, a team with a metropolitan area around seven times larger than that of St. Louis.
The Cardinals receive support from their fans that other teams from “small markets” don’t even get half, a third, or even glimpse a fifth of. In the midst of this nightmare season, they still officially hold the third-highest attendance in baseball. Cardinals fans have done their part to provide the resources necessary to deliver a contender, and sadly the team hasn’t done their part. The 16th-highest payroll in baseball is simply unacceptable in the state the team is in.
There’s still time, but moves need to be made—costly ones. That or this year will simply be abandoned.
Whatever the case, Cardinals fans aren’t “spoiled.” They deserve a real competitor because they pay for one.