Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In 2024, the St. Louis Cardinals looked like something we don’t see often from the storied franchise: A bad team.

Granted, this wasn’t the anticipated game script. Out with future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina, in with former Cub and better hitter Willson Contreras. Paul Goldschmidt was fresh off an MVP season and the pitching staff was intact. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, to be blunt, everything. St. Louis finished 71-91 and dead last in the NL Central, five games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals hadn’t lost that many games since 1990. Age hit Adam Wainwright with the force of a clanging trolley as the pitching staff finished 24th in with a 4.79 ERA.

It’s all forced the Cardinals to enter unchartered territory: Outside the organization. Such is the case when, if you believe a couple of tweets from a former Cards minor leaguer, there isn’t coherent communication among the ranks.

And now that the NL Central is very much win or go home, St. Louis really hopes last year wasn’t the start of a new normal.

Greatest Addition: Sonny Gray. No better way to fix a rickety pitching staff than signing a Cy Young runner-up, right? Gray joined the Cardinals on a three-year, $75 million deal shortly after finishing second to Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in the AL Cy Young race. The veteran righty had a 2.88 ERA with the Twins last year and allowed just eight home runs in 184 innings, and then led baseball in FIP just for fun.

Gray is currently dealing with a minor hamstring issue and, thus far, doesn’t appear in danger of missing Opening Day. Even if he does, the Cardinals also signed Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn. Regardless, Gray’s pitching style is perfect for the National League and brings a sense of stability to a rotation that desperately needs it.

Greatest Loss: Adam Wainwright. Ignore the 7.40 ERA from last year. Or that he actually looked old standing out on the mound. Wainwright was still the last man standing from the St. Louis Cardinals’ last World Series in 2011. He finished his lauded career with exactly 200 wins and just over 2,200 strikeouts.

The main they called “Waino” never won a Cy Young, nor was he a statistical miracle. Though standing an intimidating 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, he didn’t have natural velocity. His fastball averaged 90 mph for his career and he relied on ground balls and soft contact. He was durable and pitched at least 200 innings in six of his 18 seasons.

Adam Wainwright, for a majority of his career, defined St. Louis Cardinals pitching. Next stop, Cooperstown.

Greatest Strength: Masyn Wynn & Co. Win or lose, the Cardinals have always had strong player development. Veteran executive John Mozeliak should consider himself lucky the next crop of young St. Louis talent almost certainly debuts this year, headlined by shortstop Masyn Winn. He only hit .172 in 37 games with the big league club in 2023, but hit 18 home runs at Triple-A Memphis and has blazing speed with a plus glove.

Speaking of speed, outfielder and No. 4 prospect Victor Scott stole 94 bases across High-A and Double-A last year.

Nearly half of St. Louis’ Top 30 prospects are in a position to make their MLB debuts this season. We’ll soon see if the system still works or needs a serious overhaul.

Greatest Weakness: Pitching depth. Great as it was to see the Cardinals spend on pitching, there are some small red flags. Gray is 34, Gibson is 36, and Lynn turns 37 in May. Behind them, St. Louis is banking on serious bounceback campaigns from both Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz.

And that’s pretty much it. If one of those five gets hurt, the Cardinals likely rely on either Matthew Liberatore or bullpen games. Sure, there are some pitching prospects worth calling, but even that comes with risks.

No. 2 prospect Tink Hence has never pitched more than 96 innings in a season since turning pro and is still refining his command. Tekoah Roby came over from Texas in the Jordan Montgomery trade, but is still developing his secondary pitches and also has a history of elbow and shoulder troubles. Drew Rom debuted with eight starts last year and posted an ugly 8.02 ERA.

The Cardinals are, essentially, banking on their staff staying healthy all season, which is just unrealistic. Win or lose, St. Louis absolutely must trade for pitching at the deadline.

Will the Cardinals swoop back into the playoffs in 2024? The Cardinals should certainly have a better showing this season, but the playoffs seem too much a pipe dream. The NL Central’s only playoff team will be the division winner, and the race is closer than we realize. Save for Pittsburgh, every team in the division has a shot at the crown.

Unfortunately for St. Louis, their lack of quality arms will send them to the golf course come October.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.