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Is a 4th place finish in the NL Central realistic for the Cardinals?

Sure. But bet against that happening anyway.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, the 2017 MLB preview was unveiled at SB Nation’s main page. If you want to take the deep dive, there’s an article on the future of baseball, one on the future of baseball which does not actually exist, and also an inquisitive look into why baseball games last so long (and plenty more). The headlining act for any season preview though is the team-by-team analysis and predictions. Lead author Grant Brisbee helpfully mapped out where he sees each team finishing in the event you only had time to browse through the piece over your lunch break.

Let us check in on the Cardinals:

Hey, wait a second. Let me scroll down some more…

There we are – slumming it near the bottom. Mr. Brisbee has the Cardinals finishing fourth, and if it is not already crystal-clear, that is not out of the entire National League, but rather the NL Central, which still features teams from Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Not good, but not novel either. Remember, this is right in line with PECOTA, which only projects the Cardinals to win 77 games.

So is this possible? Will the Cardinals finish in fourth in the NL Central?

Reasons why the Cardinals will finish fourth

Brisbee makes his case. He also fully owns up to a little bit of trolling, which we can allow since the Cardinals are not the heavyweights in the division any more. Picking the Cubs to finish fourth would have been a cause for an intervention, having the Cardinals in that spot is probably a reach but not out of the realm of possibility.

For starters, Carlos Martinez should be the only starting pitcher that does not concern you on at least a somewhat serious level. The other four have injury issues, aging issues, or “maybe this guy isn’t even good” issues. Bullpens can and will implode. Ryan Franklin had a sub-2.00 ERA in over 60 innings pitched in 2009, then fast-forward two seasons and he could not get anyone out. Edward Mujica did the same thing only over the course of just a single season in 2013. The list goes on and is always looking for new members.

A lot of us are eyeing the 2018-2019 free agency class because Manny Machado will be up for grabs and he will only be 26-years old. He is also an elite talent who would likely fill a position of need. This is relevant because the Cardinals do not really have elite talent on the current roster. Derrick Goold brought this up in his chat today. Take a look at the fWAR leaderboard since 2014 and the Cardinals do not have anyone within the top-25. They do not have anyone within the top-35 if you expand the list to include pitchers.

And that basically sums it up – a fragile roster without high-end talent is always a candidate for fourth place.

Reasons why the Cardinals will not finish fourth

Main reason, the Cardinals have a deeper and more talented roster than the Pirates, Brewers, and Reds. Their rotation is fragile yet still strong one through five. FanGraphs ranked it tenth on their positional power rankings, ahead of every division foe except the Cubs. Speaking of which, if you have been paying attention to FanGraphs’ positional power rankings over the last week or two, you’ve probably noticed that the Cardinals rank rather consistently in the top half at every position if not the top third. That goes for the bullpen, too. And that’s because Seung Hwan Oh is not Ryan Franklin or Edward Mujica but one of the better relievers in all of baseball. This earlier today from Jeff Sullivan:

Last season, 130 relievers threw at least 50 innings. Zach Britton allowed the lowest wOBA. Duh. Kenley Jansen was behind him. Aroldis Chapman finished third, and Andrew Miller finished fourth. Oh finished fifth. At .223, Oh allowed about the same wOBA that Rangers pitchers hit for. Only Chapman allowed a lower contact rate against pitches in the strike zone, which speaks to Oh’s dominance. He doesn’t have elite-level heat, but very clearly, he doesn’t need it.

It is true that the Cardinals lack an elite bat (although when healthy, Matt Carpenter has demonstrated that he probably belongs in very exclusive company), but they also have a lineup that is incredibly balanced. That is why the biggest argument in Cardinals circles the last few days has been how much playing time the leading home run hitter (Jedd Gyorko) from last season should get.

Take a look at projected lineup spots one through eight, and throw in the top three bench players as well, and Kolten Wong is possibly the only below-average hitter in the group. (While I don’t think Jhonny Peralta is going to return to his former self at this age, I don’t think last season’s .260/.307/.408 slash line is representative of the player he still is either.) And not to dig up an argument that might best be left dormant for now, but Wong was an average hitter the second half of last season. As such, this roster falls rightfully in line with the old high-floor trope.

The 2017 Cardinals could finish fourth in the division but they probably won’t. In fact, they will probably do much better than that – 57 games against the Reds, Brewers, and Pirates should serve this balanced roster well. Regardless, the most important thing is we are now only a few days away from debating projections and predictions and watching actual games.