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When will we know if the Cardinals are any good?

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So far this season, the Cardinals were swept by a very good team and have beat-up on some very bad teams.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This trend towards teams Tanking is just awful. Did you watch that Sunday game in Atlanta? There were 19 pitching changes, 47 walks, and the game had gone on nearly 16 hours before it was stopped by an emergency act of Congress.

At times during that game, throughout that series, and against Milwaukee on Monday, the Cardinals offense has looked like a juggernaut. In the three-game opening series against Pittsburgh, they looked anything but.

Sure, some of this is just natural variation being amplified by the very early season. But I suspect this will be a trend that continues long into the season, because MLB teams now fall into two very distinct categories:

1. Teams that are trying to win

2. Teams that are losing on purpose

Losing On Purpose™ has reaped dividends for the Cubs and Astros, so unless something can be done in the upcoming CBA to curtail it, it's not a trend that will be going away soon. So my question is, how can you tell how good a given team is with such variation in quality of competition? Can a team make the playoffs just by beating up on the teams that aren't really fighting back?

Last season, I tracked the Cardinals strength of schedule, outlining which months the team faced especially tough opponents, long stretches on the road, etc. In the end, strength of schedule evens out to not mean much between teams. But in the short term, it can distort the standings.

This season, with such a gulf between the Would-be-Winners and Intentional-Losers, I propose tracking the team's record against those populations separately.

It's pretty clear that the Braves, Brewers, Phillies and Reds are all Tanking. According to Jayson Stark, many execs would add the Rockies and Padres to that list as well. That's six teams, more than 1/3 of the National League, and the Cardinals play 64 games against them.

How bad can those teams be? The realistic floor for a Major League Baseball team is about a .300 winning percentage. The Tanking Astros nadir was a .315 winning percentage in 2013. The Tanking Cubs hit bottom at .377 in 2012.

So while the Cardinals are currently undefeated against Team Tanking, it's not realistic to expect that pace to continue. I'm going to put my faith in all six of these clubs achieving their goal of losing a lot, and believe that they will all play with the talent of a .320 winning percentage team. (Some of them will of course win more games, if nothing else because one will grudgingly have to win each time they play each other.)

If we accept the Fangraphs projection for the Cards to be about a .520 team, and use this chart to calculate how they should fare against teams that only win at a .320 clip, we should expect them to win 68% of the time against the Tanking Teams, for a total of 44 wins.

If the Cardinals go .500 against the non-Tanking teams, that would get them another 49 wins, and an almost-certainly playoff worthy 93 wins on the season.

Now granted, I'm doing some real back-of-the-napkin math here, but this ain't Fangraphs. Even so, I think this can give us a framework to understand this Brave New World of two distinct divisions within the National League.

If the Cardinals beat the Tanking Teams 2/3 of the time, and manage to win half the time against everybody else, they should be in very good shape to make the playoffs. If they could push their winning percentage against the Tanking Teams even higher, it could insulate them even if they are dominated by the top contenders.

If they can't dominate the Tanking Teams to that degree, or if they get beat up on by the Cubs, Pirates and their ilk, they risk slipping into the No Man's Land between the contenders and the intentional losers.