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Why Mike Shildt wasn’t the St. Louis Cardinals’ biggest problem

St. Louis Cardinals
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals epic second-half push to claim the second National League Wild Card seed ended in heartbreaking fashion, with the Cardinals failing to win a playoff series for the second consecutive year.

Following another disappointing season, with frustration mounting, Cardinals’ management determined manager Mike Shildt needed to go after three and a half seasons.

Blame for a disappointing year almost always falls on the manager first. But Shildt, who made the postseason in all three years, wasn’t the catalyst for the Cardinals’ 2021 season. The organization’s issue is they have a roster that’s underperforming.

St. Louis Cardinals lineup is coming up short

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs
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The Cardinals’ positional depth chart includes Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson. That’s a boatload of proven commodities and young players who field their positions well. How did they perform?

Keeping in mind that they improved after the MLB trade deadline, the Cardinals received lackluster production from their lineup for the bulk of the 2021 season. This isn’t supposed to happen.

Goldschmidt and Arenado are arguably the best corner infield duo in MLB. Molina and Carpenter are clutch hitters, Edman is a smooth contact hitter and DeJong has considerable pop. O’Neill had a breakout season, launching 34 home runs, and Carlson slugged at a reasonable rate in his first complete MLB season.

The offense falling short of expectations has been the story for the Cardinals in each of the last three seasons.

Can coaching be blamed for an offense failing to live up to the hype? Of course, but coaches also can’t swing the bat for players. The Cardinals have the talent to be a top-10 offense.

Health limited Mike Shildt and the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting rotation

MLB: Game Two-St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs
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Two years ago, Jack Flaherty was a force to be reckoned with. He struggled in a COVID-shortened 2020 season (4.91 ERA, 1.21 WHIP ). St. Louis hoped its ace would rebound in 2021, but the young righty was limited to 15 starts due to multiple injuries. Fellow right-hander Miles Mikolas, a fixture in the Cardinals’ rotation the previous two years, missed the bulk of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

It’s difficult to expect a team to contend without its top gun and another reliable force on the hill every fifth day. Impressively enough, though, the Cardinals’ rotation remained a respectable unit without Flaherty and Mikolas.

Adam Wainwright was spectacular from start to finish, posting a 3.05 ERA in the regular season. The 40-year-old Cy Young candidate pitched very well in the NL Wild Card Game, surrendering just one run across 5.1 innings.

When healthy, Kwang Hyun Kim (3.46 ERA) was a sturdy force, frequently evading damage and keeping the score close. After coming over at the trade deadline, J.A. Happ and Jon Lester provided a sense of stability for Shildt’s rotation.

Shildt managed this pitching staff without a pair of crucial starters and this team still fielded a reliable unit. If not for significant injuries to crucial players during the season, the Cardinals might have won the NL Central.

Mike Shildt isn’t the St. Louis Cardinals’ problem

MLB: Wildcard-St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers
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You have to win to get ownership and the fans behind you. Fielding a highly-paid playoff roster yet failing to win an NLCS game, as well as the team beginning to churn too late this season were reasons for the organization to cut ties with Shildt.

Simultaneously, one can critique the Cardinals’ front office for a pair of midseason trades for Happ and Lester. With the Cardinals failing to reach the NLDS, these moves look awful.

Why do they look so bad? John Gant, sent to the Minnesota Twins for Happ, found success to the tune of a 3.42 ERA in split time as a starter and reliever with the Cardinals. Lane Thomas, who St. Louis shipped to Washington for Lester, raked for the Nationals while commanding the outfield to the extent that the team has its new everyday center fielder.

Surely, Gant and particularly Thomas probably don’t have the level of success or hold down the roles they have on their new teams with the Cardinals. That said, these trades speak to the front office poorly assessing the talent on its roster.

The Cardinals have a traditional-esque roster with individuals capable of better performance. How does moving on from a manager with just one more year left on his contract change that dilemma? It doesn’t.

St. Louis should’ve stuck it out another year with Shildt. It’s difficult to envision them winning more than 90 games, which is the amount of games they won this season, just because a new face is in the dugout. If they happen to do as such, it’ll be because their offense played up to its billing.