Phillies demonstrate (again) blueprint for an October-ready roster — Will Cardinals take notice?

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after Game 4 of a baseball NL Division Series against the...
The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after Game 4 of a baseball NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in Philadelphia. The Phillies won 3-1 to win the series. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)(Matt Rourke | AP)
Published: Oct. 13, 2023 at 11:28 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - For the second consecutive year, the Philadelphia Phillies ousted their divisional rival from the MLB Postseason, delivering the knockout blow Thursday night to the 104-win Atlanta Braves. The Phillies beat the Braves, 3-1, in Game 4 of the NLDS, claiming the series by the same margin.

While another early exit for an Atlanta team that looked like a juggernaut throughout the regular season has brought about various criticisms of the current format of the baseball playoffs, those narratives miss the mark, if you ask me. And if you don’t want to ask me, ask Braves ace Spencer Strider.

No, Atlanta’s recent October shortcomings shouldn’t be used to bemoan the format. The second straight Division Series disappointment for the team that has racked up more regular-season wins than any other MLB club over the past two seasons shouldn’t be cited as evidence of the ‘randomness’ of playoff baseball, either.

Because there’s nothing random about what the Phillies are doing.

Wild-card recipients in back-to-back seasons, Philadelphia went 87-75 last year and accumulated 90 wins this season to earn its invites to those respective postseason parties. Those who would point to the Phillies to justify a half-hearted approach to roster construction⁠—’Hey, all you’ve got to do is get in! Anything can happen in October!’⁠—stand to miss the nuance behind how they have reached the doorstep of a second consecutive Fall Classic berth.

And for a St. Louis Cardinals brass publicly intent upon reasserting the organization among the league’s upper echelon, the lessons to be gleaned from Philadelphia’s strategy are particularly relevant.

Firstly, the Phillies rank fourth in payroll across MLB, according to FanGraphs data. After falling short in the World Series last season, Philadelphia’s ownership had a hunger to reach the mountaintop and demonstrated it by spending to supplement an already capable roster with proven commodities.

Though they finished as the last team standing in the National League the prior season, the Phillies had an aggressive off-season, signing Trea Turner, Taijuan Walker, Craig Kimbrel and Matt Strahm to contracts in free agency. Per Baseball Reference WAR, the quartet combined to provide 10.1 Wins Above Replacement for the Phillies this season. That willingness to supplement a contending roster in an effort to push it over the top has arguably bolstered Philadelphia as it stands among the last four remaining teams in the postseason bracket.

The Cardinals are always proud to highlight fan support from the region when they tout attendance figures, but they’re quick to point to their meager market size to explain why a consistent presence near the tail-end of the upper third of MLB payroll rankings should be celebrated.

While John Mozeliak’s vocal proclamations of impending payroll increases were technically carried out in 2023, they were reduced to the type of fulfillment one could recognize only with the help of an accountant and a magnifying glass.

While Mozeliak sought his victory lap from the fact that the payroll did increase, the public perception held that the level of action didn’t end up being proportional to the amount of conversation surrounding the team’s purported payroll muscle. Per FanGraphs, the Cardinals ranked 14th in payroll in 2023, below their typical ranking as several teams around them spent more freely over the previous winter.

Circling back to the Phillies, we see evidence that spending money should be the prerequisite. But the Cardinals can also learn from how the Phillies have spent theirs.

Boasting a pair of bona fide ace starters is perhaps the most notable element that has made the Phillies so dangerous playing the brand of baseball that we see in October. Philly signed Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million free-agent deal after the 2019 season. His presence atop the rotation alongside Aaron Nola⁠—a homegrown stud who coincidentally enters free agency this winter and is reportedly a Cardinals target⁠—has provided the Phillies with a critical competitive advantage in these short postseason series.

The Phillies have spent on sluggers. But they spent to ensure a dominant duo on the mound, too.

To thrive in October, a one-two punch at the top of the rotation is closer to necessity these days than it is mere luxury. For a Cardinals team that hopes to not only get back to October but to flourish once it gets there, the frontline starter gap must be bridged.

Whether Nola becomes half of that answer for St. Louis moving forward remains to be seen, but it has to be considered for a rotation that requires a complete overhaul. In 2023, Cardinal starters collectively ranked 26th in MLB in ERA (5.07). The organization has said publicly for months that it understands approaching the pitching deficit by wish-casting on the emergence of internal options—as it has previously—isn’t a strategy that should be expected to yield results at this point in time. Cardinals fans are eager for that talk to turn into action.

We haven’t yet heard from the front office following the end of the worst St. Louis baseball season in over three decades. The team decided that since it didn’t yet have any new news to share, there would be no point in getting in front of cameras and microphones to discuss the recent past. Perhaps the days and weeks ahead reveal a personnel shakeup that ultimately justifies the delay leading up to an end-of-year presser.

But as the club stews in its silence, hopefully it’s taking notes on the contenders for this year’s World Series trophy. As for how the Phillies got here, the blueprint is plain to see.