Before they were the 2022 NL Central Division champions, the St. Louis Cardinals hadn’t won the division since 2019. They haven’t won the NL Central in consecutive years since 2013-2015. Could this year change that?
Are the St. Louis Cardinals the favorite in the National League Central?
Before answering that question, let’s look back in Cardinals history at some recent postseason stumbles.
In 2019, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a via trade. The Cardinals haven’t had a talented first baseman who could hit for average, power and defend the other hot corner since the departure of Albert Pujols in 2011. They were able to get to the postseason, but they were swept by the Washington Nationals, the team that would go on to the win the 2019 World Series.
Next came the 2020 season that was shortened by COVID-19. Although the Cardinals didn’t win the NL Central with a 30-28 record, they were able to get into the postseason through a Wild Card berth. Even though the Cardinals won Game 1 of that series against the San Diego Padres, Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Friar Faithful weren’t going down without a fight. Sure enough, the Padres came back and took the best-of-three series.
Now, after being in the NL Championship Series a year ago, how can the Cardinals come back from the NL Wild Card loss?
Before the 2021 season began, the Cardinals acquired Nolan Arenado via trade from the Colorado Rockies. Literally the best defensive third baseman in the game came to St. Louis to play the hot corner and help the middle of the batting order with Goldschmidt.
Fast forward to the end of the season and, again, the St. Louis Cardinals did not win the division, but once again landed a Wild Card spot, heading to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers. A pitching duel with two future Hall of Famers was set, with Adam Wainwright going for the Cardinals and Max Scherzer starting for the Dodgers. The two players that were acquired by trade (Goldy and Arenado) had combined at the plate going 1-for-7 with three walks and four strikeouts, as they lost the win-or-go-home game, 3-1.
You know what I’m going to ask: How can the St. Louis Cardinals get past the NL Wild Card?
Looking at 2022, it was a case of here we go again. The St. Louis Cardinals welcomed back Pujols on a one-year contract, as well as his fellow teammate Yadier Molina. Both Molina and Pujols announced that 2022 would be their last MLB campaigns. The 2022 baseball season started late due to the MLB lockout, a work stoppage that hadn’t happened since the 1994 season when former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig cancelled the rest of the regular season and postseason in mid-August.
Let’s look at the two accomplishments this past year set by Molina and Pujols. Molina and Wainwright become the all-time battery mates with 325 starts in MLB history. Pujols, meanwhile, became the fourth all-time in MLB baseball with 703 career homers. In late September, the Cardinals clinched the NL Central division against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field. With that win, the Cardinals clinched the third seed and faced the sixth seed in the NL Wild Card round, the Philadelphia Phillies.
With the entire round played in St. Louis, it felt like it should be a favorable matchup for the Cardinals … but it wasn’t. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1, the Cardinals were up 2-0 and just needed two outs to secure the win, but the Phillies put six runs in the ninth inning and the Cardinals lost Game 1 by a 6-3 margin. Philadelphia would win the next game as well, sweeping the NL Wild Card series at Busch Stadium.
The Winter Meetings just concluded and the St. Louis Cardinals signed top free agent catcher Willson Contreras on a five-year deal to be the new face behind the plate. Contreras, just like Goldschmidt and Arenado, is an outstanding defender at his position with exceptional power, hitting over 20 home runs the last two seasons.
With the stardom of Goldschmidt, Arenado, and now Contreras, does this St. Louis team have enough to win the NL Central division in back-to-back years? Can they compete in the postseason? Can they win a postseason series? We will find out soon when the 2023 season starts.