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A lineup with no superstars

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For 30 years, the Cardinals have always had at least one "star" player in the lineup. This season may break that streak.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

There are many ways to construct a winning baseball team. During the 15-year run I'll call the modern Cardinals dynasty, the team has taken several shapes, from a "stars & scrubs" approach to the more balanced, value-at-every-position squads we have increasingly seen in the Post-Pujols era.

But throughout all those iterations, the team has always had at least one, and often two or three "superstar" position players. In fact, the streak goes on long before this recent run of success. This may actually be the weakest Cardinals lineup in terms of top-tier talent since 1976.

The idea of what makes a "star" player is of course a little squishy, so just to give us a framework, I went to the Fangraphs WAR explainer, which lays out this as a rule-of-thumb:

With that framework in mind, looking at the Steamer projections for 2016, here's how the Cardinals (present) likely starters rate:

Good Players: Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina

Solid Starters: Johnny Peralta, Randal Grichuk, Matt Holliday, Kolten Wong

Role Players: Matt Adams, Brandon Moss, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty

Now, those four "role players" WAR totals are a bit suppressed based on playing time, and in reality they will probably combine Voltron-style to cover most of the innings at 1st Base and Right Field. So let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that Chess Master Mike Matheny divvies up the playing time optimally, and the WAR totals at both positions reaches into the "solid starter" range.

That would give the Cardinals a lineup in 2016 that consists of two good players and six solid starters. In the Post-Pujols era, the team has always managed at least one player at or above "All-Star" level, such as Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter or Yadier Molina. Pujols was obviously a fixture in the Superstar/MVP tier for much of his Cardinals tenure. Even at the peak of the "Albert and Nobody Else" lineups, in 2007, Pujols was worth 7.7 WAR, while the best of the rest barely reached into Solid Starter territory.

And even before the dawn of Pujols, there was Jim Edmonds, Mark McGwire, Ray Lankford and even Brian Jordan. Even on some pretty bad teams, which finished 3rd or 4th in the division, there was always at least one individual player worth 4-5 wins.

Now, 1994 is a bit of a question mark in this streak. Mark Whiten and Ray Lankford were the Cardinals top position players, worth 2.7 and 2.4 WAR respectively. However, the strike-shortened season also meant fewer games to amass WAR. That team was terrible, but the shortened-season doesn't make for an apples-to-apples comparison, so let's set that aside with an asterisk.

From there, you'd have to go all the way back to 1976 to find a season where no Cardinals position player racked up at least 4.0 WAR. In '76, Ted Simmons was the team leader with 3.8 - still above the 3.5 projected for Matt Carpenter to lead the team with this season. Even in the 1981 season - which like '94, lost games to a strike - Keith Hernandez managed 4.1 WAR.

Now of course, these cut-offs for categories like "All-Star" and "Solid Starter" are rather arbitrary, and of course, we can hope (and even expect) some players to exceed their projections. Overall, the Steamer projections might be conservative. But the overall picture is pretty clear: This Cardinals team has less top-tier offensive talent than it has in a very long time.

So... can you win with a lineup that looks like that? While the ceiling for individual performances projects to be pretty low, the floor is relatively high, and as Jeff Sullivan noted, not having bad players can be as important as having good players. On the other hand, looking at last year's playoff teams, only one - the Yankees - fielded a lineup without at least one player with a WAR above 4.0.

And of course, I'm ignoring the pitching side of the equation altogether. Even in 2015, the Cardinals extracted much more value from their pitchers than they did from their hitters, so we could hope that great pitching might again make-up for deficits in offense. That said, Steamer currently ranks the Cardinals 9th in both batting and pitching.

The Hallmark of John Mozeliak as GM has been an emphasis on value and efficiency. The team does not sign bad free agent contracts. When the team makes trades, the balance sheet (almost) always tips in their favor. But it's possible to field a team which extracts value at every position, yet doesn't amass enough wins to make the playoffs. I fear that may be where we are headed.