This past weekend the Cardinals had their annual Winter Warm Up event which coincided with the Cubs Convention in Chicago. Both events serve as a way for players to interact with their respective fans and media, and to maybe lob a fun sound bite or two in the direction of their rival.
Case in point, the Cubs continued an offseason of needling the Cardinals by having Jason Heyward and Ryan Dempster read mean tweets from Cardinals fans. (If you're curious about Dempster's involvement, he's now employed as an assistant to Theo Esptein and was always known to have a pretty good sense of humor. And just for fun I'd like to point out that the Cardinals hit .287/.355/.463 in 742 career plate appearances versus Dempster so he might have an ax to grind.) Across the way, a large focus of the Cardinals event seemed to be on their unfamiliar status of now being perceived as second fiddle in the NL Central to Chicago. When the Cubs weren't mentioned directly by name it was clearly insinuated that that's where the attention was.
For instance, take this quote from manager Mike Matheny in Derrick Goold's column today about the Cardinals embracing their newfound role of underdog:
"There are some teams out there who have never been in a certain position before and you don't know how they're going to handle it," Matheny said. "Our club has been in at least similar water. ... I'm going to tell you something that they have and it kind of goes back through a lot of things we've talked about. I'm sensing an edge to this club already. I don't know if you guys are getting that in here or if that is coming through in their interviews, but there is an edge to this club. You take talent and mix that kind of fire and heads up."
Perhaps I'm projecting too much, but I take the first part of that quote as a not-so-subtle jab at the already-crowned Cubs even though the Cardinals are coming off three straight NL Central titles and a 100 win season. As for the second part, the "edge" part, Matheny is implying that the Cardinals will have some extra motivation in 2016 because they are perceived as an underdog.
So are the Cardinals, in fact, the underdog to the Cubs heading into 2016?
Yes, they are. While variance of the postseason is a real thing, I believe the Cubs beat the Cardinals in the 2015 NLDS because their team, at the time, was better. The Cardinals finished three games ahead in the final standings but from May 2nd until the end of the season, the Cubs had the better record. And from August 1st until the end of the season the Cubs were 6.5 games better than the Cardinals. Luckily, games in April count the same as they do the rest of the season but what we saw in the NLDS was not a mirage.
Heading into 2016 the Cubs are still likely better. Fangraphs has the Cubs finishing ten games ahead of the Cardinals. Steamer projects Matt Carpenter to be worth 3.8 wins, the highest on the team. Meanwhile, the Cubs have three players (Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Heyward) projected to be worth 4.9 or higher. And it was just a few weeks ago that a lot of baseball scribes were salivating over Dan Szymborski's 2016 ZiPS projections for the Cubs. (The Cardinals ZiPS projections are supposed to be revealed sometime this week.)
True, the Cardinals have the opportunity to be healthy this season, a luxury which was not afforded to them in 2015 and why they coasted into the postseason on fumes. And they're essentially replacing a 37-year old John Lackey and Lance Lynn - a guy who regressed mightily in the second half of 2015 perhaps due to injury, with a healthy Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake. I view this is an upgrade.
But while none of this needs repeating, the Cubs upgrade this offseason was even more profound. In Lackey, they found a reliable third starter. As mentioned, Lackey is not young and I think it's fair to be worried about his recent splits away from Busch Stadium, but Steamer still predicts him to be nearly a three win player in 2016, which is a nice boost for that rotation. The plate discipline of Ben Zobrist and Heyward will help balance out a lineup that slugged above average in 2015 but also led all of baseball in strikeouts. So it's not a huge mystery why the Cubs are projected to be better than the Cardinals.
But will the Cardinals' role as underdog matter?
Probably not. I don't say that positively. I, of course, have no idea what it's like to be a professional baseball player and endure a 162 game season. And in in my perfect baseball world it would matter. I want the Cardinals to feel slighted by all of the positive press the Cubs are receiving and use that as a springboard to another division title.
But I'm not sure the grind of a full season allows much room for that. Good teams can mix in some luck to the result of a truly special season - as we know all too well with the Cardinals .330 batting average with runners in scoring position in 2013 or their pitching staff's run prevention numbers in 2015. However, it's doubtful an inferior team is winning a division on account of that edge Matheny was talking about. When it comes to teams who play with an "edge," or feel disrespected because they're the perceived underdog, or had the proverbial "closed door/players only meeting" before turning the season around - these are all memes latched onto in the offseason or after a successful season when a fitting story is needed to plug in the narrative holes.
If the Cardinals only win 84 games in 2016 and miss the postseason you won't see "played with the edge of an underdog" written anywhere on their epitaph. Similarly, you'll notice no one cares that an 89-loss Phillies team once had a closed door meeting in 2014. That's not to say there's anything wrong with a team grabbing onto any motivation they can or that the idea of a team gaining focus after feeling slighted is completely imaginary.
And that's not to say the Cardinals can't be better than the Cubs and win the NL Central in 2016. I personally think they can. As Goold noted, Matheny has shown an unquantifiable ability to "reach" a clubhouse which I don't think is trivial. But if the Cardinals do win the NL Central in 2016 it will be because they turned out to have a better team over the course of 162 games for any myriad of reasons (health, better pitching, more experienced lineup, etc.) and I'd doubt any extra edge would have much to do with it.