Another day, another article extolling the Cubs over the Cardinals. Mark Saxon of ESPN today wondered whether the Cards window is finally closing. There's been a steady stream of articles of this nature since Heyward signed his new deal and made his comments about some older players on the Cardinals. This is just the nature of the baseball world right now. People were tired of the Cardinals, and after the Hacking Scandal they've gone Full Patriots.
At the same time, the Cubs have become a media darling. There's a lot of reason for that of course. The Cubs have by far the longest World Series championship drought and because of a several year commitment of valuing future wins over present, have finally accrued a very enviable collection of talent. Arrieta, Heyward, Bryant, and Rizzo are projected by steamer to be four of the sixteen most productive players in baseball next year, and oh, Jon Lester comes in at 30th.This is no stars and scrubs team either; the team's lowest projected WAR by position in Fangraphs' Steamer-informed projections put there weakest position as RF and 1.7 WAR. That's mainly due to a weak projection for Jorge Soler who didn't hit all that well last year but definitely has an upside much higher than that. Their second worst position is SS, at 3.1 WAR.
Yeah we get it, the Cubs are good. Really good. I can't deny that. At the same time, the Cardinals had an underwhelming off-season. But that doesn't mean the Cardinals' window is closing. A team's window does not refer to their chances of being the best team in the division but to their chances of making the play-offs. The Cardinals are right in the mix for the Wild Card, and look to be for the near future as well.
Looking at the Team WAR totals above, the Cardinals are the tenth best team in baseball, right inside the top 3rd. Not bad, but because of the current stark nature of the NL, where most teams are either really good or really bad, they are the 6th best team in the NL. So, if every team hits their projected win total, the Cardinals would be out of the playoffs by less than a win, in some weird alternative baseball world where fractions of a win are possible in the standings.
By contrast, the AL (which currently offers much more parity relative to the NL) there are only three teams ranked better than the Cards. However, nearly every team in the AL is considered to have some level of an Open Window. To think that the Cardinals' window is closing doesn't really make much sense.
There's also a large range of outcomes that come with that mean projection. Here's an image I really like from an excellent Hardball Times article on understanding the projections at the team level. This is an image of the 2015 preseason projected AL Central:
The Tigers had the best chance of winning the division, but we know how that went. It was an evenly matched division for the most part, and a lot of things could happen, and some things did. The NL Central isn't particularly close, as the Cubs have a double digit lead in projected WAR. That's also not insurmountable though, as last year's NL East showed us last year.
Where things are much closer, is the Wild Card race. The Mets', Giants', Pirates', and Cardinals' mean projection differs by just two and a half wins. The preseason projections don't correlate well enough with end of the season records for that much weight to be put into that gap. The above picture shows a one win gap between the Tigers and Indians, and four game gap between the Tigers and the Royals, so the four way Wild Card race is much closer than the image depicted above.
Also, as I covered when ZiPs was released, Zips liked the Cards better than Steamer. While I didn't do a similar exercise for the other relevant teams, chances are this two and half win gap will be even closer once ZiPs is done releasing every teams' projection and it gets rolled into Fangraphs' projections along with Steamer. And that doesn't even count the fact that there remains a non-zero chance that the Cardinals can still win the division despite a stronger team in the division.
So the Cardinals remain firmly in playoff contention. As for next year's team, there is precisely one player not under contract for next year: Brandon Moss. With just $90M guaranteed salaries next year, there's also quite a bit of room to make improvements the following off-season, even with a lackluster free agent class. With most the exciting prospects in the mid and lower parts of the minors, the outlook on the farm system could look entirely different just one year from now.
Don't get me wrong: Just as the Cardinals shouldn't be doomed to non-competition in 2016, we shouldn't assume they'll be in the playoffs either. In 2014 and 2015, if things went too far wrong, it meant a Wild Card spot instead of a division title. In 2016, things going wrong means missing the playoffs. It's not all bad, as I wrote about earlier in the off-season. The Cardinals would have a lot of trade chips to sell at the deadline if they were out of contention, including Trevor Rosenthal, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Moss, and Jaime Garcia. With strong seasons, Jedd Gyorko, Jonathon Broxton, or Matt Adams could also be considered as trade candidates.
In the worst case scenario of the Cardinals being out of the race by the deadline enough to be sellers, it would indeed close the Cardinals' window for that year. However, selling a few pieces would help reinvigorate the farm system and free up more cash to be spent in the free agent market. Done right, the Cardinals could re-emerge as competitors again as soon as 2017, but with a much improved farm system that contains higher ranked prospects closer to the Major Leagues.
That scenario would involve a brief window close, but in the name of re-opening just a half year later and ensuring the window stays open for several more years. It doesn't have to be that way though, Cardinals fans still have a very realistic chance of playoff baseball in both 2016 and 2017. The Cardinals may be unpopular across the nation and internet, but at the moment they're not going anywhere.