Cardinals' Old Faces Have Them On Verge Of National League Central Crown
SAN DIEGO—In the era of “Let the Kids Play”, it’s easy to forget the old guys can still play, too.
The Nationals won the 2019 World Series with the oldest roster in the major leagues. The Giants won a major league-high 107 games in 2021 with the oldest lineup and fifth-oldest pitching staff in the game.
This year, it’s the Cardinals reminding everyone that age isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Cardinals are on their way to their first National League Central division title since 2019 and their most wins as a franchise since 2015. At every turn, it has been players on the “wrong” side of 30—and 40, for that matter—responsible for getting them there.
Adam Wainwright, 41, leads the Cardinals rotation with a 3.38 ERA and is seventh in the majors in innings pitched. Albert Pujols, 42, is on pace for 20 home runs and an .850 OPS as he surges toward 700 career homers. Yadier Molina, 40, remains an elite receiver by every measure and leads the major leagues in caught stealing percentage. Paul Goldschmidt, 35, has the highest OPS in the National League and is the odds-on favorite to win the NL MVP award.
And that’s to say nothing of team innings leader Miles Mikolas, 33, star third baseman Nolan Arenado, 31, and key trade deadline acquisition Jose Quintana, 33.
In all, the Cardinals top three hitters by OPS and three of their top four starters by ERA are all over 30.
“Obviously the preparation that we do, we care about this team,” Molina said. “The love that we have for the game, I mean, we just go out there thinking that we are 21 years old, 25 years old, and try to do the best we can.”
The contribution from Pujols has been most remarkable of all. The future Hall of Famer was one of baseball’s worst hitters over the past five seasons and reached rock bottom when the Angels designated him for assignment last year. Even in his supposed rebirth with the Dodgers in the second half of the season, he hit .254 with a .299 on-base percentage and a 99 OPS+, meaning below league average.
When Pujols signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals last offseason, it was effectively an opportunity for him to take a sentimental victory lap back where his career began before he retiring.
Instead, Pujols has posted his highest OPS in 10 years while carrying the Cardinals offense through a blistering second half. Since the all-star break, he is batting .315/.381/.669 with 13 home runs and has played his way into an everyday job from the lefty-mashing platoon role he was in to begin the year.
“I guess (it’s) the hard work and dedication and never taking anything for granted,” Pujols said. “I think Waino can still pitch two or three more years if he decides. I think Yadi and myself, I think we can do that too. We can play for a couple of more years if we decided to do that.”
Pujols, to be clear, reiterated he is retiring after this season as planned.
Still, the point resonates. At an age when most players’ physical abilities are at their lowest, the Cardinals veterans are providing sustained, impactful performance on top of meaningful leadership.
“It's an edge even when they aren't performing, and it's amazing that they're able to do what they're doing on the field as well,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, MLB’s youngest manager at 36.
“But what they bring to that clubhouse is extremely important. I think it's what allows this organization to continue to have success year after year, because you have people passing along what it looks like and just maintaining the culture and accountability that's needed in order to have success. Those guys keep that clubhouse in check.”
From that standpoint, the contributions from Pujols, Molina, Wainwright, Goldschmidt and others were wholly expected. With more than 7,500 games played between them, the examples they’ve set for the Cardinals younger players have set an organizational standard.
“It's definitely a huge benefit for younger players in the clubhouse to be around guys who have done it before and done it at a high level,” center fielder Dylan Carlson, 23, said. “I think the biggest thing is just how willing all of them are to share the info. That's the awesome thing. They're all great, great teammates, great human beings. So that definitely helps.
“They put in a lot of hard work and I think that also is something they lead by example, which is huge. They put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time at the yard, which definitely makes it more believable that they're able to do what they can do.”
At times, that value of those intangible contributions can be undervalued, simply because they are difficult to quantify in an era increasingly defined by teams’ ability to measure every component of the game down to the most minute detail.
But year after year, the value of that experience keeps being reinforced both in the standings and in clubhouses across the game.
“Every team needs a guy, one or two or three guys, that can take the young guys to teach them how to play the game the right way,” Molina said. “I think every team has it. For us, we got three or four or five guys including Arenado and Goldy. But I mean, this team is awesome. We got some veteran guys, some young guys that can play the game the right way, and I think every team should have one.
“It’s about winning. Numbers are good, but winning is way better. I mean, you gotta learn. Your first lesson is to be a winner. And try to do the best you can to do your part to perform the way to win games.”
Of course, the measurable contributions from the Cardinals veterans have been substantial. They have also been extremely timely.
Most of the Cardinals top young players in their 20s, including Carlson, outfielder Tyler O’Neill, shortstop Paul DeJong and righthanders Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks, have struggled with injuries, ineffectiveness or both this season. The rookies who gave the club a boost early in the year, namely utilityman Brendan Donovan, second baseman Nolan Gorman, lefthander Matthew Liberatore and outfielder Juan Yepez, have slowed considerably. Gorman was demoted to Triple-A earlier this week, and Yepez and Liberatore have cycled up and down from the minors.
Aside from infielder Tommy Edman, reliever Ryan Helsley and trade deadline acquisition Jordan Montgomery, the Cardinals most impactful contributors this season have overwhelmingly been the oldest players on the roster.
Above all others, they’re the ones responsible for the Cardinals on-field success, and are providing the latest example that having an older core doesn’t preclude winning.
“The hard work they put in, with all the years they've played, it's pretty cool,” Carlson said. “They set the standard around here and it's something to build off of, for sure.”