The way the St. Louis Cardinals played in the late months of the 2018 was a breath of fresh air. A welcome break from the rudderless and inconsistent style the team demonstrated during the Mike Matheny era.
Now it’s a new year and Redbirds fans have been hopeful that the club would produce a full season of multi-dimensional, hustling Cardinals style baseball.
Sorry. Think again. The local nine have turned back the clock and are striking out at a record pace, they’re woeful at driving in runners and the defense is back to being dreadful, especially in the outfield where Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler seem to be in a heated battle for the title of worst all-around player in Major League Baseball. Fowler’s .167 average makes the .180 he hit last season seem robust. Meanwhile, Ozuna’s .238 probably would have covered him last year. But not with the extra 25 pounds he carried with him to spring training. They both seem to meander after the ball like they’re afraid it will bite when they get to it. When they do manage to reach the ball, they throw like they’re afraid of unwittingly killing a butterfly.
The St. Louis front office earned a lot of credit with a World Series win in 2011 and a National League pennant in 2013. But can we blame the manager for the fact that John Mozeliak and company have assembled a cast of players who seem like they’re swinging without their eyes peeled?
It’s going to go down as one of the worst trades in recent Cardinals history that Mozeliak traded a trio of solid prospects including rising star Sandy Alcantara for Ozuna when the team probably could have had 2018 National League MVP Christian Yelich instead. It was insult to injury when Yelich went to a division rival and Ozuna went down the tubes.
Still, knowing that Ozuna was out of shape and his shoulder is shot, the Redbirds opted not to try to pick up a new corner outfielder last off-season. I’m pretty sure any casual fan could have told Mozeliak that at least one of the un-dynamic duo would either be hurt or be terrible this season. But the team didn’t see the need to make a move. Yeah, it traded for -- and miraculously signed -- first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and that’s awesome. But now Goldschmidt, supposedly the middle of the order power source the Birds so desperately needed, is batting SECOND?
Look, guys, if you want to bat Goldy second because of his on-base percentage, that’s just great. But then you needed to find a legitimate third and/or fourth-place slugger to hit behind him. If I was a major league manager and I had Carpenter on first and Goldschmidt at the plate with Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna batting behind them, I’d consider an intentional walk even without a base open. I probably wouldn’t throw DeJong anything but breaking balls out of the zone and, still, there would be a pretty good chance to get him to strike out. One of the best players in the game might not see a pitch in a meaningful situation all year. I really don’t get the batting second thing when there is nobody behind him to drive Goldschmidt in if he gets on base. Look, if you hit a guy third, he’s going to have twice as many chances to hit with a runner on base than he’d get batting second. And he’d probably see the same amount of at-bats in the three hole than batting second. It just doesn’t make any sense, especially on a team where a slow, slugging corner infielder bats first because he can’t mentally get himself straight to hit in another spot.
I can understand when you have a guy like Paul DeJong who is a homegrown guy who is still growing as a player, he might have some flaws in his game like a poor strikeout rate. But it’s another thing when the front office assembles a whole team of players with the same flaw. Goldschmidt is a great addition. But even he had 170 strikeouts last season. If you’re going to carry a couple of guys like that, you need to surround them with guys who can put the ball in play more often. There are just too many flawed and fundamentally unsound players on this roster.
While it’s early in the season and there is time for things to be turned around, it’s not just that the Cardinals bats are cold. The terrible lack of ability to put the ball in play isn’t something that can be blamed on bad luck. If you line the ball to the shortstop, as a hitter, you did the best you could do and things just didn’t pan out. The oldest baseball adages of the all are “hit it where they ain’t” and “put it in play and something good might happen.” If you don’t hit it at all and you don’t put it in play, there isn’t much help luck can give you.
Meanwhile, a lot of St. Louis fans and pundits alike dismissed the Milwaukee Brewers as a National League Central contender on the contention that they don’t have enough pitching to keep up with the Redbirds or the Chicago Cubs. It sure looked like the Brew Crew had the better pitching in the season-opening series. So far, through five games, St. Louis has only had one even decent start from its rotation, the lone off-season free agent pickup, Andrew Miller, has been terrible out of the bullpen and closer Jordan Hicks hasn’t exactly been overwhelming.
Skipper Mike Shildt’s magic seems to have worn off. This team looks like exactly the same listless and unprepared club that Matheny threw out on the field. At some point, it’s going to have to get some players who care enough to try to learn how to play the game the way it was intended to be played. Because changing the manager doesn’t seem to have done the trick.