The St. Louis Cardinals are not the favorites this season. As publications roll out their expert predictions, it is the Cubs universally thought to be the division favorites with the Cardinals chosen to miss the postseason by some. The reasons are fairly obvious as far as the Cubs go: they were very good last year and they spent a boatload in the offseason making themselves even better.
As for the Cardinals, the National League is very top-heavy with the Nationals, Mets, Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers, Giants, and maybe a couple others fighting for just five playoff spots. This season could be a difficult one for St. Louis and there are reasons to doubt the team and I went over a few minor concerns yesterday, but there are a couple of reasons to be very excited.
1. The Rotation
Although the team did lose Lance Lynn in the offseason to Tommy John surgery, the five starters who entered Spring Training as the expected rotation come Opening Day all made it through Spring Training without incident. Given that those members include: 1) a 34-year-old who missed most of last season with an Achilles injury in Adam Wainwright, 2) a 24-year-old who was shut down for shoulder discomfort last season in Carlos Martinez, 3) another 24-year-old who has a unique shoulder injury history, had been shut down in 2014 and wore down at the end of 2015 in Michael Wacha, and 4) a 29-year-old withe myriad injuries and surgeries who last qualified for the ERA title in 2011 in Jaime Garcia, that those four starters plus newcomer Mike Leake all made it to Opening Day is a bit of minor miracle.
How long those starters last is anybody's guess with Wacha not quite back to his old self just yet. However, the Cardinals will start the season with multiple pitchers with ace stuff. We are not talking about a situation like Boston last year where there was not an ace so everybody was an ace. Wainwright, Wacha, Martinez, and Garcia have all pitched like legitimate aces in their past, and Leake had the best Spring Training of anyone. The Cardinals have not had a no-hitter in 15 years, and they certainly involve a lot of luck, but right now, the Cardinals have a staff that has a chance to produce a no-hitter every single start.
The Cardinals will not be able to reproduce last year's success with runners on base, but this rotation has a chance to duplicate the results given their immense talent. The Cardinals' pitching last season was historic in terms of preventing runs and two of the players who most over-achieved their peripherals are not pitching this season as John Lackey is gone and Lance Lynn is rehabbing. All five starters will not make it to the end of the season healthy and effective, but as we start the season, there still remains that chance.
2. Unknown Position Player Upside
The Cardinals are projected to win in the low- to mid-80s by most projections, and for generally conservative projection systems that puts them in the mix for a playoff berth. When you break down the individual player projection, it is easy to see why the projections for the Cardinals are modest. Look at the projection for Kolten Wong. It's average. Matt Carpenter: a bit above average. Stephen Piscotty: average. Randal Grichuk, Matt Holliday, Tommy Pham: average, average, average.
It is hard to find a projection for a Cardinals' player that does not look achievable. Given the youth and talent of players like Piscotty, Grichuk, and Wong, and the past results of Holliday and Carpenter, it is not hard to imagine scenarios where even with a couple players breaking out that the Cardinals exceed those projections by quite a bit. The Cardinals have been safe and reliable for several years without leaving much to the imagination. This season is a departure from those recent teams.
The Cardinals do have a fairly high floor given the modest projections, but the team has a considerably higher ceiling given the talent and those same modest projections. The power of Piscotty might not come through, Grichuk might strike out too much, and Kolten Wong's poor second half could carry over to this season. That's baked in to the projections right now. On the other hand, Piscotty's power could blossom, Grichuk might strike out just a tiny bit less, walk a wee bit more and become an All-Star. Kolten Wong could put together a complete season of his first half from last year.
This Cardinals team has a chance to shape the organizational direction of the franchise for years to come, and that is what will make this season fascinating to watch. Player are setting their course to impact the Cardinals' future, and right now, we have absolutely no idea how that will play out. With depth in the rotation, the bullpen, and the bench as well as the veteran core that has helped lead the team to an unprecedented run of success, the Cardinals have a very high floor. This season, we will receive answers on the height of their ceiling.