This bears no repeating but the Cardinals are not a trendy pick to win another NL Central title in 2016. PECOTA projects them to win a mere 82 games and miss the postseason, and Jonah Keri ranked them as the 13th best team in all of MLB.
The reason why nobody believes in them, and yes, you will hear that a lot this year, is nuanced but if it had to be broken down into two parts it would likely be as follows:
- The Cardinals' pitching staff excelled at run prevention in 2015, and put up arguably fluky stats with runners in scoring position, and are due for regression; and
- Jason Heyward is gone.
As to the first point, the Cardinals aren't likely to replicate their run prevention numbers in 2015, but with Adam Wainwright returning, and the bullpen in excellent shape, it's hard to envision the Cardinals' problem in 2016 being pitching. To the second point, losing Heyward hurts and there's no way around that. But with a solid core of young outfielders, right field is not going to be the looming issue it was in 2014. Heyward was uniquely valuable to the Cardinals last year because he plugged a hole that desperately needed to be filled. In 2014, Allen Craig and the late Oscar Taveras were worth -1.8 fWAR in 504 plate appearances combined in right field. Heyward, in 517 plate appearances last year in right field was worth 5.5 fWAR. That's a profound difference; the type that can help a 90-win team in 2014 be measuredly better the following year.
Looking ahead to this season, a position that could be greatly improved upon is first base. The Cardinals' stats at first base last year were not as ugly, by comparison, as right field was in 2014, but it was a problem nonetheless. There were a total of 10,371 plate appearances taken by first basemen in the National League in 2015 adding up to a value of 38.1 fWAR. The Cardinals' contribution to that figure? 0.5 fWAR - which was from 664 plate appearances divided mostly between Mark Reynolds, Matt Adams, and Brandon Moss. Xavier Scruggs, Stephen Piscotty, Dan Johnson (remember?), and Matt Carpenter also saw time at first base but in pretty limited action and Johnson and Carpenter combined for only 22 of the plate appearances cited above.
Following the departure of Reynolds to Colorado, who, in 2015, had possibly the worst year of his career, the bulk of first base will be handled by Adams, Moss, and possibly Piscotty. As is widely known, Adams and Moss were hobbled with injuries last year - Adams with a torn quad and Moss coming off hip surgery - and there's reason to expect they are better than their 2015 versions when they were each below average hitters. Adams has hit right-handed pitchers exceptionally well, he has a career 123 wRC+ in 592 plate appearances versus righties (though that number dipped to 85 in 2015 and his stats vs. lefties continued to be quite objectionable), and Moss' underwhelming 94 wRC+ in 2015 varied wildly from his three previous seasons. If they are each healthy this year - of course, always a big "if" with the Cardinals - and if Piscotty can fill in as a right-handed platoon when and if it's necessary, this might be a position where the Cardinals can steal back some wins which will be lost from the inevitable pitching regression and defections to rival clubs.
This is far from a perfect comparison to the right field situation last year when the lack of production was replaced with one of the best right fielders in baseball. In 2016, the lack of production at first base from Reynolds, Adams and Moss is being replaced with, well, hopefully a healthier and better Adams and Moss, and maybe Piscotty. Also, of the major projection systems, PECOTA and FanGraphs have Moss worth 1.3 wins, which is the highest projection for either Adams or Moss. However, in the very recent past, they have both been better than what seems to be expected from them going forward, and just like there are areas where the Cardinals seemingly got worse there are also areas where it's not unreasonable to expect improvement.