The Cardinal Nation’s Top 10 St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2023

photo: Oliver Marmol (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

The Cardinal Nation’s annual review of the top stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals during the prior calendar year is back for 2023, its 19th year. The Top Stories of the Year are based on my view of the importance of the key events surrounding the team during the prior 12 months.

Per tradition, I will follow with my prediction for the top five Cardinals-related stories of 2024 and audit how well I did in attempting to predict 2023’s biggest news items one year ago.

link to the top stories of each year from 2005 through 2022 and my start-of-year predictions for 2023 can always be found via “STORIES OF THE YEAR”, located on the red bar on the left side of the page, in the list directly underneath the site logo.

Also, join the discussion about this series at The Cardinal Nation’s free forum.

The Cardinal Nation’s Top 10 Stories of 2023

Several of the top stories of 2023 are not necessarily positive ones, but that is what comes with the huge fall from a 93-win team in 2022 to a 91-loss club in 2023.

  1. Bench Coach Shuffles

For a franchise that has valued continuity, the position of the right-hand man to the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals has experienced a very high level of turnover recently.

In the last 15 months, the Cardinals have had four bench coaches. Matt Holliday, who took the job following the 2022 season, replacing then-new Miami manager Skip Schumaker, changed his mind in early January.

Hired to take Holliday’s spot was former Cardinal Joe McEwing, most recently let go by the Chicago White Sox after serving as Tony La Russa’s bench coach in 2022.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Cardinals made what felt like a rush announcement before they were ready to name the rest of the 2024 staff. Another popular former Cardinal, Daniel Descalso, is the new bench coach with McEwing assigned to other duties in the organization. Since retiring as a player, Descalso has one year of front office experience with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but will be making his coaching debut at any level.

Once the other 2024 staff announcements were made, it became clear that this was the only substantive change to the group of coaches who served the team in 2023.

  1. Clearing the Bench

Following the disappointing 2023 season, the Cardinals let four veterans go and traded another away. Several were former starters, specifically outfielder Tyler O’Neill, dealt to Boston for a pair of minor leaguers, and nontendered pitcher Dakota Hudson.

Tyler O’Neill

Other role players not offered contracts for 2024 were catcher Andrew Knizner, utilityman Juan Yepez and pitcher Jake Woodford. In the process, the team cleared five spots from the back end of their 40-man roster.

All had been with the club multiple seasons. O’Neill and Hudson debuted in 2018, Knizner in 2019, Woodford in 2020 and Yepez in 2022.

  1. Rolen Enters Cooperstown

Each year, former Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen inched closer to the 75% support needed to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It finally occurred in 2023, with the announcement in January and his induction ceremony in Cooperstown on July 23. Rolen was already a member of the Cardinals team Hall of Fame.

  1. Walker and Winn Arrive

The Cardinals organization’s top two prospects reached the majors during 2023. Drafted as high schoolers in 2020, right-fielder Jordan Walker and shortstop Masyn Winn are expected to be lineup mainstays for years to come.

Jordan Walker

Walker, 21, made the St. Louis’ Opening Day roster, skipping over Triple-A, though he was sent down for adjustments from late April until the start of June. He finished the year fifth on the team in home runs (16) and RBI (51). Walker posted a .787 OPS and 115 OPS+, 15% above the league average batter.

Masyn Winn

Winn, 21, spent the majority of the season with Memphis, successfully ramping up his game offensively. Several weeks after the trade of Paul DeJong, Winn made his St. Louis debut and started at shortstop for the remainder of the season. He batted just .172 in his 37 games, but the current top prospect in the organization is penciled in as the starter at the position coming into 2024.

  1. Gambling on Age in 2024

To meet their self-defined need for three new starting pitchers for 2024, the Cardinals struck early in the off-season. In quick succession, the club signed veteran free agents Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson and Sonny Gray. The latter finished second in the 2023 American League Cy Young Award vote as a member of the Minnesota Twins.

Sonny Gray

The Cardinals are looking for more innings from their rotation in 2024, which was an area of prior strength for the trio. However, all are in the latter phase of their careers. Lynn and Gibson are both 36 years old, while Gray, who signed a three-year contract, is 34.

(This story will most likely take on much greater importance among 2024’s top stories once talk is replaced by action. In 2023, no results have been generated by these new arms.)

  1. Freese Declines Cardinals Hall

The Most Valuable Player of the 2011 National League Championship Series and the World Series, David Freese, became eligible for the Cardinals Hall of Fame for the first time in 2023. Likely in a landslide, the popular former third baseman and local product was selected by fan vote, but post-announcement by the team, he then declined to be inducted.

David Freese (USA TODAY Sports Images)

While that is his right, it would have been much better for all had Freese made his feelings known prior to the fan voting rather than waiting until afterward. This approach kept another deserving Cardinal out of the Hall for 2023.

While no Modern Era candidates entered the Cardinals Hall in August, two other accomplished inductees did. They are long-time coach and instructor Jose Oquendo and 1940’s pitching star Max Lanier.

  1. Contreras Weathers Bashing

The Cardinals made an early push in the 2022-2023 off-season to acquire a young catcher in trade to replace retired Yadier Molina. When they were unable to secure either of their top two targets, they pivoted to veteran free agent Willson Contreras. The latter was well-known to the Cards as an offense-oriented catcher and World Champion with the Chicago Cubs.

Willson Contreras

Though Contreras passed on playing for his country of Venezuela in the spring World Baseball Classic to better mesh with the Cardinals staff, trouble soon ensued. There was anonymous grumbling from the pitching ranks about Contreras’ work behind the plate.

What should have been an internal matter was made public with the team taking Contreras out of the starting catching duties for a time and placing him in the designated hitter spot. They also announced that Contreras would play in the outfield but did not discuss it with the player first.

The entire situation was handled very poorly with the organization looking particularly bad.

To his credit, Contreras kept quiet and played hard. When the season was over, he led the entire team in OPS at .826. Local articles in the 2023-2024 off-season included rave reviews of Contreras’ work from his manager as well as pitching staff veterans.

That is good, because unless his no-trade protection is removed, Contreras and the Cardinals still have four more years together.

  1. Wainwright Hangs on for 200

On a high note, 2022 marked the conclusion of the storied careers of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Their long-time teammate Adam Wainwright, however, decided to pitch one more year, his age 41 season. While he received the same adoration, he did not achieve the same level of success in his swan song.

Initially, it seemed Wainwright’s target of five more wins to reach 200 in his career would be attainable relatively quickly. It did not turn out that way, however, as Wainwright slogged through a miserable season. Likely only because of his franchise icon status did he remain in the rotation as his team cemented its last place standing.

Adam Wainwright

For almost three months, from mid-June to mid-September, Wainwright was stuck on 198 wins, dropping 10 of 11 starts plus a no-decision during that stretch. His year-to-date ERA ballooned from 5.56 to 8.19.

Finally on September 18 at Busch Stadium, in his 21st start, Wainwright earned win no. 200. He did not pitch again. Overall, he went 5-11 with a 7.40 ERA that was highest among all MLB pitchers who made at least 14 starts. As a team, the Cardinals went 7-14 in his outings.

2023 didn’t change Wainwright’s considerable legacy, but the end was difficult.

  1. The Big Sell-Off

By the end of July, the Cardinals seemed doomed to endure a losing 2023 season, with the only real question remaining whether they could escape last place. (They did not.)

For the first time in the almost three decades of the DeWitt group’s ownership, the Cardinals waved the white flag and became major sellers leading up to the July 31 deadline. Five impending free agents were dealt away for prospects, with the primary return pitchers at the Double-A and Triple-A levels.

Jordan Montgomery

The former Cardinals are shortstop Paul DeJong plus pitchers Jordan Hicks, Jordan Montgomery, Chris Stratton and Jack Flaherty. The hope is that the young arms acquired in the trades, including Tekoah Roby, Sem Robberse, Adam Kloffenstein, Zach Showalter, Drew Rom and Matt Svanson, can help replenish the pitching pipeline soon.

  1. First to Last

The 93-win, first place St. Louis Cardinals of 2022 now seem to have played a long time ago. As everyone reading this already knows, the 2023 edition almost flipped the table, winning just 71 games against 91 losses. St. Louis finished 21 games behind first-place Milwaukee and five games below National League Central Division perennial cellar-dweller Pittsburgh.

The last place finish was the Cardinals’ first in the three DeWitt decades. In fact, St. Louis had not ended a season in last place in the Wild Card Era, with 1990 their prior most recent basement year. 2023 was only the sixth time in franchise history the club dropped 90 games with the most recent occurrence also in 1990.

It did not come on quickly. In fact, St. Louis spent 145 of the 179 calendar days of the MLB schedule in last place. That included the entire months of June, August and September. In the entire NL, only the Colorado Rockies were worse than the 2023 Cardinals.

The major organizational change to try to reverse fortunes in 2024 is the addition of three new members of the starting rotation (see top story no. 6).

Follow on articles

Exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation

TCN 2024 St. Louis Cardinals Prospect #12 – Won-Bin Cho

Not yet a member?

If you enjoyed this article, please consider joining The Cardinal Nation to receive the most comprehensive coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals from the majors through the entire minor league system.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at Follow Brian on Twitter.

© 2023 The Cardinal Nation, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.