When it comes to breaking down the St. Louis Cardinals’ performance in the 2019 National League Championship Series, I think the great American poet Huey Lewis might have said it best: Sometimes bad is bad.
This isn’t a team that lost by a whisker. It didn’t pitch, hit or field as well as the Washington Nationals. It’s unfair to compare the base running of the two teams because the Redbirds really didn’t have enough opportunities to run the bases for people to make an evaluation. But St. Louis was basically terrible at every aspect of the game. There’s no point in trying to put a fine point on things. The Birds were just baaaaad.
When the Cardinals got off the plane before Game 5 in Atlanta, it seemed as if they had all the confidence in the world. Their body language and the expressions on their face didn’t show a hint of doubt or fear. When they got off the plane in Washington down two games to none, it seemed that the St. Louis players were TRYING to put on a brave face. But I’m not sure any of them actually believed what they were putting down.
On one hand, it’s hard to complain about a team making it to the NLCS when in August it appeared the club was headed for a third or fourth-place finish. On the other, this team made it to within one step of the World Series when it seemed everyone but the front office knew the offense was a bat or two short, that the bullpen was smoked from overuse and the depth of the starting rotation disappeared in a barrage of injuries.
But the way this team finished was purely embarrassing. It’s not that they were swept. It’s HOW they were swept, nearly getting no-hit in the first two games, sloppily fumbling away game three and then getting pasted for seven runs in the first inning of the deciding game, effectively putting it out of reach nearly as soon as it began.
What if the Cardinals would have found a guy who could play in the outfield and actually put the ball in play at the plate? Might things have turned out a bit differently? What if the club had a veteran starter with playoff experience to line up against the likes of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg? I don’t know if it would have made the difference. But it sure couldn’t have hurt. It’s hard not to imagine that it wouldn’t have made a significant difference if Scherzer was playing for St. Louis as he should have been the past several years.
The Birds HAVE to do something about their ridiculous strikeout totals. Teaming up for 50 whiffs in a four-game sweep is something that is entirely unacceptable. I don’t know how you cure a whole team of the inability to put the ball in play in one off-season. But I think the Cardinals are going to have to — at the very least — severely limit the playing time of Dexter Fowler if they can’t find a way to get rid of him with two years left on his contract. I really like Marcell Ozuna in so many ways. He’s got more life in him than most of the guys on the St. Louis roster and he used to be a pretty good all-around player. But his defense has gone into the toilet, his batting average is pathetic and he whiffs way too much to offer him a multi-year contract.
The other two strikeout artists are Paul Goldschmidt, who the Cardinals knew was going to threaten 200 whiffs a year when they traded for him and then signed him to a long-term extension, and Paul DeJong. I guess they have no choice but to live with DeJong who is a decent glove at shortstop and has unusual power for his position. But it sure seems DeJong will be a .230-.250 hitter at best with an on-base percentage not much over .300. St. Louis will likely have to add to their offensive contributions as opposed to replacing them.
Through 162 regular season games and nine playoff contests, my thoughts about this team are exactly the same as they were when the club reported to spring training: The Cardinals are okay at pretty much everything, but they’re great at nothing. Their starting rotation saw big strides from Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson while veteran hurler Adam Wainwright turned back the clock several years. But the Cardinals saw Miles Mikolas take a big step backwards, Michael Wacha was a bust — again — and Alex Reyes couldn’t stay healthy. The bullpen was pretty good in stretches. But it was worn out by the shallow rotation with John Gant scratched from the playoff roster and John Brebbia basically ineffective. We’ve already talked about the shortcomings of the offense.
Teams don’t have to have 25 great players. But they have to be great at some aspect of the game to be a championship club. If you have five dominant starters, you can get away with a mediocre offense. If you score 10 runs a game, you can manage the situation if your starters give up four or five runs an outing. But you can’t score two runs and expect to win without a lockdown pitching staff.
I was disappointed when a team that missed the playoffs three years in a row decided to add a middle reliever in Andrew Miller and call it an off-season. No one expected Tommy Edman to be the team’s best player in the second half of the season. What if he hadn’t made a meteoric rise from minor league obscurity.
Will the Cardinals play the “but we made it to the NLCS card” this winter? Or will the front office learn the lessons of 2019 and try to find a couple more productive and flexible hitters to put more runners on the bases and more runs on the scoreboard? Will the team add a veteran starter to take some of the heat off of Flaherty and Hudson as they develop? It seemed, based on his comments during the NLDS, that Dallas Keuchel was itching to play in St. Louis.
I believe this team has the core to be a contender in 2020. But the front office needs to stop shooting itself in the foot with the Mike Leake, Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter type signings and add difference makers to its home-grown core.