photo: Cardinals clinch playoffs, 09/22/19 (St. Louis Cardinals)
This is the first installment of our three-part annual series recapping the recently-completed season for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Part 1 begins with a quick summary, before we go into significant detail on off-season moves, spring training and the regular season, month by month.
- Season summary
- Personnel changes
- Spring training injuries
- Spring training results
- Job competitions
- Lineups and roles
Part 2 of this annual recap will take a deep dive into the Cardinals’ regular season numbers followed by Part 3, a post-season review, with the latter being offered after a three-year hiatus.
The 2019 St. Louis Cardinals concluded their 128th season of play by winning their 12th N.L. Central title and their first since 2015.
The Cardinals reported to spring training with a new star first baseman and a manager running his first camp with a resolve to break a three-year playoff drought.
After securing Paul Goldschmidt in trade and signing left-handed pitcher Andrew Miller, manager Mike Shildt’s Cardinals were plagued by an inconsistent offense in the spring as they suffered their first losing spring since 2016.
Unlike in recent seasons, the Cardinals played extremely well in April, going 20-10 (through May 1) while opening up a three-game division lead. It was short-lived, however, as the club went into a tailspin in May. On the 22nd, they had fallen to .500 and were in fourth place, five games back. At the July All-Star break, the Cards were still treading water at 44-44.
A post-break spurt enabled the Cards to re-capture the division lead for a week starting on July 25. A disastrous 0-6 road trip to Oakland and Los Angeles knocked St. Louis back into third place, four games out.
In the midst of a six-game winning streak, on August 23, the Cardinals took over first place for the final time. Even including the aforementioned West Coast trip, St. Louis finished the month 18-9.
On September 8, St. Louis opened up its season-best 4.5-game lead. A huge four-game sweep in Chicago ending on September 22nd helped to put the Cubs away and in the process, the Cards clinched a Wild Card.
But Milwaukee, even without injured reigning MVP Christian Yelich, would not go away. The Cardinals were pushed to the final day of the regular season before clinching the division, ending at 91-71 and a two-game edge over the Wild-Card Brewers.
Last fall, the club said goodbye to six players – first baseman Matt Adams, relievers Bud Norris, Matt Bowman and Tyson Ross, infielder Greg Garcia and starter Adam Wainwright. After declaring free agency, the latter immediately re-signed a much-reduced, incentive-laden contract to return to St. Louis for a 14th season.
On December 5, the Cardinals announced the acquisition of all-star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from Arizona for pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, minor league second baseman Andy Young and a draft pick. 16 days later, they signed free agent lefty reliever Andrew Miller.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Cardinals added a journeyman free agent catcher on a minor league contract. However, Francisco Pena was not added to the big-league roster at the end of spring training as had been expected when a more experienced backstop, Matt Wieters, was signed in late February.
There seems to be at least one major contract announcement each spring and so it was in 2019. In fact there were two. First, 2018 NL All-Star pitcher Miles Mikolas agreed to terms on a four-year extension covering 2020-2023, then in a major surprise, Goldschmidt agreed to remain with the Cardinals from 2020-2024 before ever playing a home game at Busch. His five-year deal was announced on March 23.
In a rash of multi-year extensions that swept across MLB this spring, apparently the Cardinals felt they had to join in. In a surprise to most, the Cardinals agreed to a two-year extension plus a third-year vesting option with Matt Carpenter, guaranteeing him $39 million.
The April 10 deal was struck a year earlier than necessary, and because of the third baseman’s struggles in 2019, it looked bad almost from the very start. Carpenter put together his worst season as a major leaguer and eventually lost his starting job to rookie Tommy Edman.
Multiple changes were made in the coaching staff from the interim staff assembled when Shildt was promoted into the top job last July. New hires were hitting coach Jeff Albert, a former Cardinals minor league coach who came from Houston, and first base coach Stubby Clapp, two-time Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year and title winner.
In other shifts, George Greer and Jose Oquendo returned to their prior minor league coaching duties. Oliver Marmol moved from first base to bench coach and Ron “Pop” Warner shifted from bench coach to third base.
Spring training injuries
Five Cardinals opened the regular season on the injured list. Jedd Gyorko missed much of camp with a hamstring injury and minor leaguer Justin Williams sat out for what became months due to a hand broken in the off-season.
On the pitching side, Carlos Martinez’ shoulder problems from 2018 returned, keeping his role in an odd limbo. Without appearing in a regular-season game, reliever Brett Cecil required surgery to address carpal tunnel syndrome and Luke Gregerson’s rehab from his 2018 shoulder problems continued into May. Shortly after, he was released.
Spring training results
In a signal of some of the problems in the regular season ahead, the Cardinals’ sub-par 12-15-4 Grapefruit League record was primarily due to inconsistent hitting, while the pitching, particularly the starters, was good. It was the first losing spring in the last three for St. Louis.
Average spring home attendance of 6,182 was up 4.7 percent from 2018.
Continuing the pattern from at least the prior five years, pitching led the way, with the 11th-best team ERA in MLB at 4.57, still up from 3.93 and fifth in 2018.
The offense was worse than usual, however. After ranking 21st and 23rd in OPS the last two springs, the 2019 Cards were last in MLB in OPS. In fact, they were 30th in all four slash stats – .239/.308/.391/.698.
There were really only a few open job competitions in camp. The most controversial was in right field, where coming off a terrible 2018, Dexter Fowler received a vote of confidence for another chance in 2019. He batted just .200 in Florida but was in the Opening Day lineup with Jose Martinez serving as a reserve.
Other bench players were infielders Yairo Muñoz and Drew Robinson (for the injured Gyorko), outfielder Tyler O’Neill and catcher Matt Wieters.
There was a true battle for the fifth starter job. Though both pitched well, Dakota Hudson (1.25 ERA) outperformed John Gant, with the latter opening in the bullpen. Coming off two years of injury frustration, Alex Reyes made the team as a reliever.
Other bullpen members were returnees – closer Jordan Hicks, Dominic Leone, Mike Mayers and John Brebbia plus the free agent signee Miller. Another lefty, Chasen Shreve, was placed on waivers to make 40-man roster room for Wieters. He cleared and reported to Memphis.
Prospect spring standouts
Among minor league mound standouts in camp were Chris Beck and Tyler Webb. Non-roster hitters catching coaches’ eyes included infielder Tommy Edman, outfielder Randy Arozorena and infielder/outfielder Rangel Ravelo. All except Beck would go on to perform for St. Louis in the regular season.
Individual spring results
Among starters, Hudson led the way, but Michael Wacha and Jack Flaherty also posted strong spring ERAs of 1.93 and 2.12, respectively. Adam Wainwright was next at a solid 2.51, but Mikolas struggled to a 6.23 mark.
Relievers with ERAs at 3.00 or under included regulars Leone, Mayers, Brebbia and Hicks. Miller stood out for the wrong reason, with poor control, and struggled at 11.81.
On the offensive side, Goldschmidt had the highest batting average among regulars at just .280. His .560 slugging was the team-best as was his .939 OPS. Tyler O’Neill did Tyler O’Neill things – leading the Cards with five home runs, but batting just .230 and striking out at a 29 percent rate. With just nine RBI, Edman led the team. Harrison Bader and Drew Robinson stole five bags each.
In a bit of a concern, five every-day players did not hit above .212 in Grapefruit League action – Bader, Dexter Fowler, Paul DeJong, Jose Martinez and Matt Carpenter. Other than DeJong, all went on to have subpar offensive years. And even DeJong, who began hot like the team, trailed off badly over time, but was only rarely given a day off.
Lineups and roles
Unlike former manager Mike Matheny, who was often criticized for his revolving-door lineups and for riding hot hands, Shildt was quite the opposite. He opened the season with a set lineup and stuck to it every day until injuries occurred in late April.
In fact, as Carpenter’s struggles extended from weeks to months, the manager continued to ink his third baseman into the leadoff spot – until finally forced to make a change. Tommy Edman was the primary beneficiary.
The top three in the Opening Day lineup were Carpenter, Goldschmidt and DeJong, followed by Ozuna, Molina and Fowler. Wong, Bader and the pitcher brought up the rear.
In recognition of his strong 2018 Cardinals debut, Mikolas was selected to make his first Opening Day start, with Flaherty, Hudson, Wacha and Wainwright following in the rotation. Flaherty took the ball in the home opener.
The identity of the closer was unstated, though it seemed the formal announcement of Hicks was not made to keep pressure off. Miller was next in line.
With the exception of Hicks requiring Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals avoided serious injury to front-line players in 2019. When Hicks went down, Carlos Martinez took over as closer.
In August, Harrison Bader lost his job in center due to long-term offensive struggles. Dexter Fowler moved over to cover, with Edman often starting in right. That re-opened the door for slumping Carpenter to return to the regular batting order.
By end of the year, Shildt’s regular lineup was: Fowler, Wong, Goldschmidt, Ozuna, Molina, Carpenter, Edman, DeJong and the pitcher.
The final rotation was the same as it was at the start, though Wacha had been removed for a period due to ineffectiveness. In fact, only two other pitchers started all year – Daniel Ponce de Leon (eight starts) and Genesis Cabrera (two starts).
In the first half, John Gant and John Brebbia seemed the most trusted right-handed relievers, but Giovanny Gallegos (who did not make the team out of spring training) became the most dependable reliever down the stretch.
From the left side of the pen behind Miller, Brett Cecil missed the entire season and Chasen Shreve flamed out, but Tyler Webb stepped in admirably.
For the fourth straight season, the Cards did not get out of the gates smartly, however, they righted the ship much more quickly than in recent years.
St. Louis dropped two of their first three series, starting with a 1-3 showing in Milwaukee dominated by reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich. (Paul Goldschmidt had a three-home run Game 2.) By the fourth set of the season, Reyes, Muñoz and Robinson were sent to Memphis, replaced by Gyorko (off the IL) plus relievers Giovanny Gallegos and Tyler Webb. All three stuck.
The Cards then reeled off their first of three five-game winning streaks in April, beginning with a four-game home sweep of the defending league champion Dodgers.
After dropping a second set in Milwaukee, the Cards took over first place and expanded the lead to 2 ½ games during a 7-2 homestand that featured series wins over the Mets, Brewers and Reds.
St. Louis finished the 19-10 month three games up in the division after winning a pair in Washington.
In the injury department, Bader went on the IL effective April 14. That led Shildt to move Fowler to center and Jose Martinez took over in right. Bader returned 10 days later, around when Fowler lost a week and eight pounds due to a virus.
The team had three .300 hitters in April, including two right-fielders – Jose Martinez (.364) and Dexter Fowler (.312). In between was Paul DeJong at .342. Fowler had the top OBP at .415, with Marcell Ozuna’s slugging of .610 highest, as was DeJong’s 1.010 OPS.
After a slow start, Ozuna slammed 10 home runs and drove in 28 in 27 games. Goldschmidt was next in both categories with nine and 19, respectively. DeJong led the entire National League with 14 doubles (but would have just 17 more over the next five months combined).
For the second consecutive season, leadoff man Carpenter was off to a rough start, batting just .202 with five RBI. However, unlike 2018, the third baseman with the big, new contract extension never rebounded.
The fact the team went 19-10 with these ERAs from the starters was pretty amazing – Hudson 5.62, Mikolas 5.29, Wacha 4.78, Flaherty 4.08 and best of all, Wainwright at 3.73.
The bullpen was strong, with Brebbia (0.55), Gant (0.90, three wins and two saves) and Hicks (2.13 with nine saves) leading the way.
Two top 10 prospects made their St. Louis debuts during the month and performed well in their brief fill-in stints before returning to Memphis – outfielder Lane Thomas and pitcher Ryan Helsley. Both would be back.
A win to open the month gave St. Louis MLB’s-best 20-10 record and maintained their three-game division lead.
After the Cards dropped a getaway day game in D.C., the first Cubs series of 2019 became a Chicago home sweep, starting a downward spiral that led to a terrible May. In fact, it was the third-worst in team history, as the club went 9-18 (.333) and did not win a series the entire month. Even so, the division deficit was just 3 ½ games.
In mid-month, the Luke Gregerson experiment officially ended with the right-hander’s release. Carlos Martinez returned from the injured list, still shrouded by confusion over his role. On the last day of the month, Yadier Molina was placed on the injured list with what was called a tendon strain in his right thumb, a problem that would plague the 37-year old catcher for months.
With veteran Michael Wacha struggling, the team pushed lefty Genesis Cabrera into the rotation for two starts, on May 29 and June 4, but the 22-year old showed he was not ready, soon returned to Memphis.
At .293, Goldschmidt was the only regular to bat over .268 in the month. Despite a .226 average, Ozuna led the team with six home runs, 17 runs scored and 22 RBI. DeJong (.200), Fowler (.171) and Wong (.170) struggled.
Hudson had the best month among the starters, with a 2-2 record and a 2.80 ERA. In addition to Wacha (8.86), Wainwright (6.33) also had a rough May.
The pen was strong, led by Gant (1.86), Miller (2.25) and Brebbia (2.77). However, Hicks (6.14) had just two save opportunities all month, and converted both.
June opened better, as the Cardinals returned the favor, sweeping the Cubs in St. Louis. However, just a week later back at Wrigley, the Cubs took all three over the Cards.
From there, things began to look up a bit, as the Cardinals won consecutive series over the Marlins, Mets, Marlins again and Angels, but still could never string more than two consecutive wins together. A five-game losing skid before an extra innings win on the 30th added up to a mediocre 13-13 month.
A pleasant by-product of the Angels series was the emotional and celebratory return of Albert Pujols, in his first games at Busch Stadium since his departure as a free agent following the 2011 World Championship. Also along for the trip was the current best player in baseball, Mike Trout.
On June 11, Molina was activated from the injured list, but did not seem 100 percent. The 25th brought two pieces of bad news on the pitching front. Inconsistent Alex Reyes went back on the injured list at Memphis with a strained pectoral muscle, and even worse, closer Jordan Hicks required Tommy John surgery. Neither would return in 2019. Carlos Martinez, who was being aimed back toward the rotation, was instead installed as the new ninth-inning man, a job with which he had prior experience.
The injury bug bit even harder on the 29th, as team RBI leader and cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna suffered fractured fingers while running the bases. Tyler O’Neill was given an extended trial in left field, but did not excel before being injured again himself, leaving left field in 2020 a major open question.
The offense continued to sputter. No regular batted .300, with Ozuna tops at .299. Fowler led the way with 14 RBI despite batting .235. It was a similar story for June runs scored leader DeJong (12/.218). Other strugglers included Carpenter (.208), Goldschmidt (.181) and Bader (.155).
Once again, Hudson topped the rotation with a 2.25 June ERA, but the even bigger news was that both Wacha (2.84) and Wainwright (2.96) rebounded from their difficult Mays. Gallegos began to emerge in the pen, with 18 strikeouts and just one run allowed in 14 2/3 innings (0.61 ERA).
Flaherty endured his worst stretch of the season, going 0-2 with a 7.31 ERA in five June starts. Brebbia was bombed for 10 runs in 10 1/3 innings (8.71 ERA).
Concluding the first half with a 4-5 West Coast road trip through San Diego, Seattle and San Francisco, the Cardinals slogged through a 25-game stretch against teams of apparent lesser quality with a record of just 13-12.
That landed them at the All-Star break right where they started, at .500 (44-44). Yet because no team in the division was playing consistently well, St. Louis was just two games behind the first-place Cubs.
In an outside assessment of the disappointing season to date, the Cardinals had just one All-Star Game selection. DeJong was chosen as a reserve, primarily based on his strong April. Only because each team was required to have one representative was a Cardinal likely chosen at all.
Coming off a season-long slump, the worst of his career, Carpenter was activated from the injured list coming out of the break, but the team lost Molina, whose earlier hand injury was not healed. Rookie Tommy Edman provided a spark at the top of the lineup while Carpenter was away and continued to earn time as a utility player.
Following the break, the Cards went 13-6, including five of six series wins, to conclude the 16-9 month of July. As the calendar flipped over to August, the Cards won two of three over the Cubs at Busch.
Goldschmidt’s bat powered the way, as the first sacker blasted 11 July home runs and plated 27 in 25 games. Wong batted .357. The same names were bringing up the rear – DeJong (.205), Carpenter (.200) and Bader (.146).
Despite a team-best 2.48 ERA in five July starts, Flaherty could not buy a win. Mikolas had his best month at 2.93, but Wainwright (4.85) and Hudson (5.47) backslid.
Gallegos continued to impress in relief, with 18 strikeouts and a 0.69 ERA over 13 innings. Miller also had a solid month (1.80 ERA, 14 Ks in 10 IP). Martinez saved all nine July chances, but his 4.91 ERA reminds us that nothing came easy.
The trade deadline was very quiet in St. Louis, with no deals done – other than the subtraction of third baseman Gyorko, sent to the Dodgers for salary relief and two injured pitchers. It was a curious deal to say the least.
On August 7, the 58-55 Cardinals were languishing in third place. They were 3 ½ games back of first-place Chicago, which had a 62-52 record. The Brewers were in second place. The Cards had just lost five consecutive games.
From there, St. Louis turned on the jets, including winning two series over the Brewers and one against the Rockies to close the 18-9 August, the team’s best month of 2019. The Cards took over sole possession of first place following their win on August 23 and held it for the remainder of the season.
Not all was smooth sailing, however. In mid-August, the Cardinals fired assistant hitting coach Mark Budaska amid rumors of tension between new boss Jeff Albert and the organization’s old-school instructors. Once the season concluded, minors hitting coordinator George Greer was let go as well.
Wong led the Cards in August with a .373 batting average and a .460 OBP and was eventually rewarded with a move up into the number two spot in the order. In a bit of a surprise, Fowler drove in 21 runs in the month, the most on the team. Carpenter (.238) and DeJong (.235) continued to scuffle, though the latter still plated 15. Edman led the team with 19 runs scored, with DeJong one behind.
Flaherty (0.71 ERA) and Hudson (2.38) both went 4-1 in the month. The pen was anchored by Webb (1.64) plus Gallegos and Helsley (both with 1.69 ERAs). Martinez was 5-for-6 in save opportunities.
St. Louis did not pull away in the final month, returning to their early-season routine of never winning or losing more than two straight.
That changed with a six-game winning streak. The highlight was reached on the 22nd, when Cardinals clinched a playoff berth at the end of an exciting four-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. All four wins were decided by just one run. This not only propelled the Cards into the post-season after a three-year drought, it essentially knocked the Cubs out, hastening the departure of manager Joe Maddon, whose contract was not renewed.
However, taking the division title proved to be a greater challenge as the Cards lost two of three in Arizona, including a crushing 19-inning defeat, while the red-hot Brewers closed to within one game heading into the final weekend.
Those same Cubs traveled into Busch for the final three games. With a number of front line players sitting out, the Cubs started many younger players and reserves. It did not matter, as Chicago won the first two, but Colorado provided a major assist, defeating Milwaukee twice as well.
On the final day of the season, with the magic number down to one, the Cardinals won the division through the front door. They dominated the Cubs in Game 162 with win no. 91 of the season behind their ace Flaherty. Chicago manager Joe Maddon was told the night before he would not be retained for 2020, managing Game 162 as a lame – make that dead – duck.
The Brewers finished with 89 wins, even with a season-ending fractured knee cap to Christian Yelich suffered on September 10. Their 20-7 September was incredible, but left them just short of repeating as Central Division Champions. (Milwaukee lost in the Wild Card Game to eventual World Series winner Washington.)
At the end of the regular season, the Cards led the division by two games, just ahead of the Brewers with the wilting Cubs a distant seven games back in third.
In September, injured players Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill returned to the active roster, but both played sparingly down the stretch. After a demotion to Memphis to work on his hitting, Bader returned in the final month, but struggled to a .191 average in September. Lane Thomas suffered a broken hand and was lost for the year.
Call-ups from Memphis included pitchers Genesis Cabrera, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Junior Fernandez and Mike Mayers, catchers Andrew Knizner and Joe Hudson, infielders Rangel Ravelo and Edmundo Sosa and outfielder Randy Arozarena. Of the group, only Cabrera (as the third left-handed reliever) and Arozarena (over Tyler O’Neill) made the post-season roster.
With a 0.91 ERA over the final two months of the season, including an 0.82 in September, Flaherty was the National League Pitcher of the Month in both August and September – a rare and dominating feat.
In fact, all the starters came through in the final four weeks. Mikolas, with a still-respectable 3.34 ERA, was the only rotation member to have a September ERA over 3.00.
Though it got hairy at times, Martinez was 8-for-8 in saves and added two holds and a win. Brebbia (7.36 ERA), Miller (8.10) and Gant (13.50) all scuffled in September.
Goldschmidt stepped up to lead the offense, with 24 RBI in the final 27 games. Edman batted a cool .350 and scored 22 runs. However, all was not well with the offense as four regulars batted under the Mendoza Line in September – Ozuna (.160), DeJong (.175), Fowler (.183) and the aforementioned Bader (.191).
The offensive shortfall was an ongoing theme that would lead to the Cardinals demise during the Championship Series. Much more on that is coming!
Link to master article with all 2019 award winners and team recaps for the entire system. Following a deep dive into the numbers behind the 2019 regular season, this 50-article annual series will conclude with a look back at St. Louis’ post-season run.
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