The Sucky Cardinals Are Headed Into Unfamiliar But Well-Charted Waters

St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol is getting desperate. The Cardinals will need some help from the Pirates or Reds to avoid finishing last in the NL Central for the second consecutive season, which is something they have not done in their division since 1908. They currently have the third-worst record in the National League, with no obvious solution in sight. Heading into Sunday’s series finale in Milwaukee, the Cardinals had dropped seven straight and nine of 10, including an interleague series loss to Chicago’s vile Pale Hose. They are pointed sharply in the wrong direction, the long-spoiled St. Louis faithful are losing patience, and there’s still an awful lot of regular season left to endure.

The Cardinals, beset as they are by the self-inflicted disadvantages of having assembled a roster around a core of decaying old-timers, cannot presently afford to be victimized by the game’s usual bad breaks. In Sunday’s first inning, first-base umpire Sean Barber blew a bang-bang play in favor of the Brewers, a call that was subsequently overturned on review. It happened again in the third inning; that, plus or minus some strike-zone irregularities from crew chief Alan Porter, inspired Marmol and Cardinals bench coach Daniel Descalso to do some irritable barking and provocative gesturing from the visitor’s dugout. That conflict escalated very quickly; Marmol had a lot to vent and he made the very most of the opportunity:

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To hear Marmol tell it after the game, this ejection was less about dissatisfaction with the performance of the umpiring crew and more about seizing the opportunity to raise the pulse of his shitty players. “Alan Porter and Sean Barber are good umpires,” Marmol later explained, in apparent seriousness. “That had more to do with getting something going. Those guys do a nice job. Their job is tough. But at times, you’ve just got to—a little skid—get something going. I don’t have anything against that group [of umpires].” It’s not clear that getting ejected on purpose in the third inning of a game you are losing is ever a good idea, but the Cardinals did later plate runs in three consecutive innings and slink out of Milwaukee with a one-run victory to avoid a four-game sweep; therefore, by the immutable laws of causality, we must concede that this change in fortunes was definitely propter hoc.

Marmol and Descalso might need to try a lot more of this. The odds of it working cannot be very much worse than the odds of Paul Goldschmidt rediscovering his MVP form in what is shaping up to be a nightmare of an age-36 season. Goldschmidt did sock a dinger Sunday, but it was just his sixth extra-base hit in 147 at-bats on the season, and his first in the month of May. Statcast’s new bat tracking metrics say that Goldschmidt’s average bat speed is basically fine, and a notch above the major-league average at 71.8 miles per hour. He’s just failing to make good contact, and so is searching around for solutions, and flailing, much like the entire rest of St. Louis’s roster. Goldschmidt’s whiff and strikeout rates are alarming for a guy otherwise celebrated for the beauty and efficiency of his swing; his plate appearances have been so dire through the first quarter of the season that tracking his ugliest efforts has become a social media pastime. Goldschmidt’s brutal start to the 2024 season stands out even amid a surprisingly large and diverse cohort of scuffling veteran hitters, because of his age and his position and the frequency of this kind of thing:

Pinning your hopes for a Cardinals turnaround on the possibility of a Goldschmidt resurgence means ignoring the full scope of the problem. Only the Chicago White Sox, in all of baseball, have scored fewer runs than St. Louis; by normal stats (a team batting average of .220) and advanced stats (a weighted on-base average of .287) the Cardinals are one of the two or three worst hitting teams in the sport. No one in the lineup whose arm was not gibbed by the requirements of contemporary pitch framing is doing any hitting. Nolan Arenado, also showing signs of rot at 33 years of age, leads all Cardinals regulars in OPS at a Nolan Reimold-esque .703. Two important youths—hulking first baseman turned hideously misplaced outfielder Jordan Walker and diminutive centerfielder Victor Scott II—recently bumbled themselves all the way back to the minors. Nolan Gorman and Lars Nootbar are batting a combined .389. Goldschmidt starting to hit like Paul Goldschmidt would certainly make things a lot better, but unfortunately in this case the Cardinals mirroring the offensive production of the last-place Los Angeles Angels for one solid month would have to be considered “a lot better.”

Also St. Louis’s starting pitchers rank at the bottom of the majors in Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, and the three veteran workhorse starters they signed in free agency have a combined age of 107. A normal franchise might be thinking long and hard about a teardown, but it is not clear at this time whether such behavior is permitted by the strictures of The Cardinal Way.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that The Cardinal Way is any longer the guiding philosophy in St. Louis: Back in January, the Cardinals hired Chaim Bloom as an advisor to president of baseball operations and Cardinals lifer John Mozeliak. Bloom rose up with the Tampa Bay Rays, and took over the baseball operations of the Boston Red Sox in 2019. He’s an optimization guy: Bloom enthusiastically took on the duty of gutting Boston’s team payroll, infamously trading away Mookie Betts and then lowballing Xander Bogaerts in extension negotiations. His Red Sox teams mostly sucked pretty bad, but the selling point on Chaim Bloom’s résumé is experience running a bare-bones—or “efficient,” if you like— baseball operation. Tampa Bay’s best-in-class player development pipeline and talent for maximizing the utility of Certified Weirdos made it appear that Bloom had been versed in the exploitation of a new market inefficiency, but the broader lesson of his time in baseball might be and probably is that cheapo mode is a better way to lose baseball games than to win them.

So the Cardinals might be more receptive these days to the idea of throwing in the towel and selling off everything of value, something that over the course of approximately the last century or so would’ve been just about unthinkable. Unless the current crew can fight their way back into contention, whether by hook (swinging the bat with eyes open, for a change) or by crook (Oliver Marmol picking timely fights with random umpires who he otherwise respects and admires), the Cardinals might soon find themselves charting a new Way. A way into the damn toilet!

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