Assessing 2023 MLB front offices: St. Louis Cardinals took a nosedive in part because of moves

How much did the front office impact the St. Louis Cardinals this season? Let's look at the numbers.
Aug 24, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals general manager Mike Girsch looks on during a
Aug 24, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals general manager Mike Girsch looks on during a / Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

John Mozeliak/Mike Girsch front office WAA impact for St. Louis Cardinals: -5.9 games. Rank in MLB: 26. Rank in division: 4.

Mozeliak and Girsch form possibly the game’s most consistent front office tandem. Mozeliak was named GM in 2008, and Girsch succeeded him when Mozeliak was named team president prior to the 2018 season.

That’s what makes 2023 so unusual. Statistically, as well as in the standings, 2023 was the worst season of their joint experience.

Due largely to a fairly disastrous first-year crop, the Mozeliak-Girsch operation cost the Cardinals 5.9 games in the standings as estimated by the net short term impact of their Wins Above Average (WAA) moves. While 5.9 games doesn’t sound like much for a team that finished 21 games out of the division and 13 games out of postseason money, it’s the worst performance by a Cardinal front office since 2007.

WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

Mozeliak and Girsch were often criticized for their relative reluctance to engage aggressively in either the trade market or free agent processes. There’s no question they were risk-averse.

Since the conclusion of the 2022 postseason, Mozeliak, Girsch and the Cardinals leadership team made only 35 personnel moves affecting a major league roster. The problem is that a bare eight of those 35 moves worked to the benefit of the Cardinals, while 23 produced a negative impact (four were neutral). The sum total of that short-term impact on St. Louis 2023 fortunes works out to minus-5.9 games.

With only eight positive moves, the easy place to begin is with the best. That would be catcher Willson Contreras, whose signing on the free agent market to replace Yadier Molina brought a +1.8 WAA return.

Contreras was the subject of early season criticism for his presumed catching deficiencies, but in time his .826 OPS assuaged those concerns.  

But Contreras was virtually the only positive note to the Mozeliak-Girsch performance these past 12 months. Only one other arrival (trade pickup John King, +0.7) generated value in excess of +0.2 games.

Aside from Contreras, the most heralded Cardinal arrivals failed to live up to the hype. Outfielder Jordan Walker (minus-1.6) had nice offensive credentials offset by defensive incompetence. Alec Burleson hit .244 with little power as the primary DH.

The front office re-signed Adam Wainwright to a one-year farewell deal and got a 5-11 record and 7.40 ERA in return.

Here’s the full short-term and long-term statistical profile on the Mozeliak-Girsch 2023 performance. Again, all figures reflect group Wins Above Average.

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase:

  • Since October 2022: 5 players, minus-0.7 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 5 players, +1.8 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons:

  • Since October 2022, 11 players, minus-1.1 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 5 players, +1.2 net impact

System products:

  • Since October 2022, 8 players, minus-5.0 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 16 players, +2.0 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency:

  • Since October 2022, 10 players, +0.9 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 23 players, +2.4 net impact

The unfortunate thing was that the players under previous contract to the Cards (the holdover core) performed pretty well. Paul Goldschmidt had his usual good season, and an imposing 15 prior-year system products performed, as a group, positively.

That core — Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, Tommy Edman — exists going forward and is a reason why the Cardinals are a decent bet to come back in 2024.

What the Cardinals, who historically have depended on their system, cannot afford is another season or two of negative short-term production from the farm. Walker, Burleson and Matthew Liberatore have to justify their reputations, and the system products who follow them must replicate the results generated by the classes of 2018-22, not the class of 2023.

Next. Albert Pujols on Cardinals. Albert Pujols shares advice for 2024 Cardinals. dark