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Inflection Points of the 2018 Cardinals

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Catching the Cubs for the NL Central crown is going to be a tough task in 2018. Here are the roster spots most likely to determine how the season breaks for El Birdos.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

January is almost over. February is on its way. And that means that spring training, as amazing as it might seem, is now only a few weeks from beginning.

Why that seems at least somewhat amazing is because, well, what happened to the hot stove season? I mean, yes, the Cardinals have made moves, but we never really saw an actual offseason come around this year. There were rumours, and there was speculation, and then, just....nothing happened. The majority of the big free agents are still on the market. The big dominoes are yet to fall. How can we possibly be getting close to spring training when so very little has actually happened?

Well, anyhow, be that as it may, the calendar continues to operate at the same speed as always, even if the baseball market does not. Which means that yes, we really are going to see pitchers and catchers report in less than a month, even if the work isn’t all done.

There is good news and bad news on the Cardinal front as we head into February. The good news is that the Cardinals are one of three teams who really upgraded this offseason. The Yankees did so by accepting Derek Jeter’s generous gift of Giancarlo Stanton. The Angels did so by taking advantage of a bunch of short-term solutions peddled by slightly desperate teams to finally surround Mike Trout with a roster that look capable of proper contention. And the Cardinals did so in much the same way as they always do: they made smart moves, moves likely to generate great returns on modest investment, and moves seemingly engineered with surgical precision to somehow both upgrade the team and convince a vocal minority of the fanbase that the organisation has no interest in upgrading the team.

That’s the good news, that the Redbirds made real, tangible upgrades this offseason to a degree very few other clubs in baseball managed. The bad news is that, as we stand here today, the Cardinals are still behind the Chicago Cubs in projected wins, and there’s basically no chance at this point in the offseason of closing that gap completely. Even signing Yu Darvish, the top free agent pitcher on the market (and a move I myself am in favour of), would probably only offer another 1-1.5 win boost, given how strong the club’s pitching depth is.

Oh, and the even worse news? It looks like there’s a pretty good chance at this point that the Cubs will actually be the team to sign Darvish, which will up their win projection more than it probably would El Birdos, and put the Cards back in a bigger hole to try and climb out of. Personally, I am very much not looking forward to seeing Darvish in a Chicago uniform, largely because of how much I have always enjoyed watching him pitch in the past.

However, for now, nothing has yet happened, and we can take stock of how the Cards stack up to the Cubbies after their offseason moves, seeing as how it would appear, in all likelihood, that the renovations are finished. As it stands at the moment of writing, the gap between the Cards and Cubs looks to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of four to five wins on paper. We could be optimistic and peg it at four, pessimistic and put it at five (or really pessimistic and fill the comment section with ‘Dollar Bill’ epithets for DeWitt and conclude a third place finish is guaranteed, if not overly rosy), or we could take the middle way and just place the number somewhere in that area. Given how rarely teams play to the exact number of their projected win total, I think it’s a fair way to look at things.

So here we sit, a ~4.5 win gap between the Cardinals and Cubs, and not many options to further upgrade the team. Toronto is serious about not moving Josh Donaldson until they see if they’re competing or not this year. Baltimore is sticking to their guns on the Machado asking price. The Angels aren’t moving Andrelton Simmons, the Dodgers aren’t trading Chris Taylor, Seattle seems set on Segura and Seager both. The Cards seems unwilling to take on the risk of a long-term contract for Darvish, and Jake Arrieta lost a big chunk of his stuff last year, to the point I would avoid him like the plague. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are still out there, and they’re still both mediocre players. J.D. Martinez can really hit, but for a club with so much outfield depth already and no DH, he’s a questionable fit.

At this point, I think if the Cardinals are going to make up that gap between themselves and Chicago, the improvements will likely have to come from internal options. And that’s what we’re going to look at today. These are the players upon whom the 2018 season is likely going to turn, for good or for ill.

1.) Carlos Martinez

2017 fWAR: 3.3

2018 Projected WAR: 4.0 Steamer, 4.4 ZiPS

a) Carlos Martinez is the Cardinals’ best pitcher, and one of the better starting pitchers in the National League.

b) Carlos Martinez is one of the three to five most talented pitchers in all of baseball.

The first of those statements is true in a relatively objective sense; we have numbers that measure how good players are, and those numbers tell us that Carlos Martinez is a very good pitcher. The second statement is a bit more subjective in nature, but I believe it to be every bit as true. And that second statement means that first statement is true, but it should, in fact, be an understatement, rather than simply accurate.

Going from 2016 to ‘17, El Gallo actually made some real improvements. He eclipsed the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career. He pushed his strikeout rate up almost four percentage points, while trimming his walk rate ever so slightly. His K-BB% was the best of his career. Overall, he put up numbers remarkably similar to his 2015 campaign, which was not only very good, but also took place in a markedly different offensive environment. The fact Carlos did in 2017 what he did in 2015 is a very, very positive thing, considering just how much scoring in baseball rose in just those couple seasons.

And yet, 2017 was also a tough season for Martinez. A frustrating season, certainly. There were times when he lost his command of the zone — he walked 25 of his season total of 71 batters in just 5 of 32 starts — and he struggled all season, as did many other pitchers throughout the game, to keep the ball in the ballpark. In his first two seasons as a starting pitcher, he posted identical HR/FB% figures of 10.6%. In 2017, that number soared to 16.4%. So much of the criticism Martinez faced from fans last year was based on an elevated number of balls leaving the park.

Both Steamer and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system see Carlos putting up a career-best season in 2018, and that’s very good news for the Cardinals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I don’t really see a scenario in which the Cards have a realistic chance at the division that doesn’t include a 4+ win campaign from Martinez.

But let’s face it: a big part of the frustration with Carlos in 2017 wasn’t because he was a four-win pitcher performing like a three-win pitcher. It’s because Carlos has the talent of ‘short list for best pitcher in baseball’ pitcher, and was performing like a three-win hurler.

I hesitate to predict any kind of big jump from Martinez this season, simply because he’s already very good, and it’s hard to forecast him beating those 4+ win projections by all that much, simply because it’s hard to be much better than that. But if there’s one pitcher on the Cardinal roster right now who could take a transformative step forward, it’s pretty clearly Carlos Martinez. This will be the first time in his major league career he’ll have a different pitching coach, and perhaps Mike Maddux’s analytical, open-minded approach can unlock that next level for Carlos. A change in pitch mix could, I think, benefit Martinez, who has all the stuff in the world but doesn’t always seem to get the most out of that stuff. More consistent mechanics would help, I believe; I actually love the way Carlos pitches below maximum effort so often, pacing himself to contribute innings, but his delivery varies so much when he does so that I feel he actually becomes far less efficient.

If Carlos Martinez improves this season and goes from a ~3+ win pitcher to a ~4+ win pitcher, that could be a big boost for the Cardinals. On the other hand, if he could take that final step and ascend to the ranks of the elite, that could be a game-changer. And could take a chunk out of that ~4.5 win difference between the Cards and Cubs.

2.) Tommy Pham

2017 fWAR: 5.9 (530 PA)

Projected 2018 WAR: 2.9 Steamer (586 PA), 3.3 ZiPS (532 PA)

If you’re looking for a place where a couple of those projected wins separating the Cardinals and Cubs could be made up in one fell swoop, look no further than Tommy Pham. In fact, while Carlos Martinez may be the bellwether for the 2018 Cardinals, I would hazard to say Tommy Pham is probably the most important inflection point. If Pham is really the very solid, respectable starting outfielder the projections see him as, then things are probably fine, and the Redbirds are solid Wild Card contenders. If, however, Tommy Pham is anywhere near the all-around badass he was in 2017, then immediately something like half of the gap between St. Louis and Chicago just disappears. And if he’s somehow really the guy he performed like in the second half of ‘17, he might make up that whole gap on his own.

The thing is, I could actually see Pham being terrible in 2018. I could see his eyes becoming an issue again if he struggles to find the right prescription day to day, and him striking out 35% of the time again as he did in 2016. I could see him getting hurt and just missing tons of time. After all, while he’s actually been fairly healthy the last few years, his reputation as a perpetually injured tool tease didn’t come from nowhere; it was hard-earned in his early 20s. So I could see Tommy having one of those failure to launch type seasons, and torpedoing the club’s division chances.

I could also see Pham staying healthy, getting ~650 plate appearances, and being in the MVP discussion again. I could see him playing a plus center field, posting an ISO about .215, walking 14% of the time, striking out 20% of the time, and stealing 25 bags on top of everything else. I could see Tommy Pham being awesome in 2018.

What I actually can’t really see, at least as of this moment, is a completely healthy Tommy Pham who’s just sort-of-pretty-good. I can see an all-star, and I can see a collapse. I can’t see an average or slightly above player no matter how I tilt my head.

The Cardinals have been looking for stars. If there’s one already on the roster, chances are it’s Tommy Pham. And if not, well, then that could be a hell of a negative swing in value as well.

3.) Paul DeJong

2017 fWAR: 3.0 (443 PA)

Projected 2018 WAR: 2.4 Steamer (556 PA), 2.1 ZiPS (602 PA)

For the second year in a row, the Cardinals enter the season with a rookie phenom in place as their presumptive shortstop of the future. In 2017 it was Aledmys Diaz, fresh off his rookie turn as a contact machine whose bat overcame a weak glove. This year it will be Paul DeJong, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, whose combination of power and a surprisingly solid glove were more than enough to overcome a plate approach colloquially described as ‘hacktastic’.

Let’s hope DeJong’s sophomore campaign goes better than that of his predecessor.

I think we all know the story pretty well by now with DeJong. His walk rate was under 5%, his strikeout rate close to 30%. That is an untenable situation, even with the power numbers he produced. On the other hand, he plays shortstop, and appears to be competent at the position (he was a scratch defender in almost 750 innings at short by DRS, a +1 by plus/minus, and +1.8 by UZR), which gives him a relatively solid base from which to work. The projections see quite a bit of regression from him, but still think he’s roughly a league-average hitter. If he can play shortstop at a zero to plus five sort of level and put up a league average line, that’s a 2.5-3.0 win player pretty easily.

Personally, I think there’s even more potentially in the tank for DeJong. I remember watching him a bit as an amateur, and I thought he had a good approach at the plate. He’s probably always going to be a fairly aggressive hitter, but I don’t think he should be a 5:1 strikeout to walk guy.

Probably the biggest question is just what kind of power production we should expect from DeJong in 2018. He showed significant pop in the minors, clubbing 22 dingers in Springfield in 2016, but this past season was something completely different. Between Memphis and the big leagues, DeJong hit 38 homers in 633 trips to the plate. If he’s really a 30-35 home run slugger in a full season, the sky could be the limit for he and the Cardinals both.

4.) Miles Mikolas

2017 fWAR: N/A (played in Japan)

Projected 2018 WAR: 1.9 Steamer (120 IP), 2.0 ZiPS (148 IP)

It is possible, even likely, that Miles Mikolas has the widest range of reasonable potential outcomes of any Cardinal player in 2018. Teams seem to have a better feel for how statistics from NPB or the KBO will translate to the majors now than ever before, and yet it still feels like Mikolas could be very nearly anything.

It seems worth noting, however, that pretty much all the projection systems from which we have already heard think he’s a decent bet to be an above-average starting pitcher. Steamer likes him for a 4.03 FIP and a ~2.5 win pace over a full season’s worth of innings. Szymborski has him pegged at roughly league average in both ERA and FIP, and is actually the low opinion. The NEIFI guys think Mikolas could be a top 30ish pitcher in baseball, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly. (Their projections are licensed out to MLB teams, rather than the public, but they also like to drop hints via Twitter.) So everyone thinks he should be at least average, but some think he might be downright fantastic.

There’s honestly very little at this point I can say about Mikolas for sure. I worry about a lower-velocity control artist working the bottom of the zone in MLB right now, considering how dangerous the lower part of the strike zone has become the last couple years, but at the same time his command is so fine even if he’s getting knocked around a bit on homers he should be able to avoid hurting himself via free passes and getting behind in counts constantly.

If Mikolas is a competent fifth starter, the Cardinals will have probably gotten their money’s worth out of him. The ceiling would appear to be significantly higher than that, though, in which case he could end up being one of the smartest signings we’ve seen in quite a while.

5.) The Bullpen

Okay, so I admit I’m kind of cheating a bit on this one, choosing a group of players rather than a single name, but let’s face it: the way relievers work, it’s hard to see any one guy in a given ‘pen situation offering so much value as to swing a race entirely on his own. If we take the whole group, though, well that’s potentially a different story.

The Cards’ bullpen renovation this offseason has not been as dramatic as many fans would have hoped; it seems a big chunk of the fanbase is dead set on having the most expensive closer possible, or getting the biggest name closer on the market, and don’t particularly care how good a bet said closer might actually be. Personally, I’m still a little disappointed the Cards passed on Addison Reed (or maybe he passed on the Cardinals, we don’t really know), as I thought he was a really good fit for the roster, but that’s a relatively minor quibble.

Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, Sam Tuivailala, Tyler Lyons, and Matt Bowman are all projected by ZiPS to be around one win pitchers over the course of a full season. (Tui is projected a little lower, but is also only on the board for 45 innings, which he should exceed this season by dint of lacking minor league options.) Dominic Leone is the real wild card of the bunch; his up-and-down track record makes him extraordinarily hard to project, it would seem, but if the step forward he took in 2017 proves to be real, then suddenly the Cards look to have a very strong three-man grouping to handle innings 6-9 on any given night. The Redbirds lack one truly elite option late in the game, but add up their three or four best relievers and you might have an elite group. Might, I said.

There is, of course, also the potential for additions to the ‘pen as the season goes on and the minor league pipeline continues to pump pitching talent ever closer to the majors. ZiPS has Alex Reyes at 1.4 wins in just 84 innings; we don’t yet know exactly what sort of role Reyes could appear in this coming year, but I think it’s entirely possible he could end up a real weapon in a multi-inning relief role if a rotation spot doesn’t open up for him.

The bullpen, it would seem, is still the area where the Cardinals are most vulnerable to criticism if things go wrong. Their refusal to simply spend to fix the problem, choosing instead to try and do it in a smarter way, might be prudent, but does nothing to absolve them of their image as, well, overly prudent. The group of Cecil/Leone/Lyons/Gregerson could end up contributing ~6 WAR to the cause and locking down 90+ wins this season, but Leone was terrible for two years prior to 2017, Gregerson saw his home run rate jump last year, and Tyler Lyons has never looked like the guy he was this past season before. That 6 win dream group could end up at a third of that number pretty easily, too. In which case, there’s a very good chance the Cardinals limp to the finish line and struggle to make a wild card spot, rather than having a legitimate shot at the division crown.

In the end, if we think the Redbirds need to make up something like five wins on the Cubs, we could find five wins extra in just these areas. Tommy Pham puts up a five-win season instead of 2.5-3.0, and there’s two. Mike Maddux gets Carlos Martinez to readjust his pitch mix, work more North-South in the zone, and refocus on his changeup, and maybe he jumps into that 5+ win elite category. There’s another win. Dominic Leone is the win and a half guy he was in 2017, rather than the half win pitcher Steamer sees, and there’s a fourth win you’ve made up. At that point it doesn’t take much of a leap from Mikolas, DeJong, or the rest of the ‘pen to get to where you need to be.

Of course, we could also see the downside, with an injured Pham, a homer-prone Carlos, 2016 Leone, 2017 Gregerson, and pre-Japan Miles Mikolas all showing up. Or the Cubs could sign Yu Darvish and extend that head start they have over the Cardinals, which is what I’m most worried about right now.

But if we’re looking at the roster the way they stack up right now, the gap isn’t that large. It’s still there, certainly, but the majority of the gap is the simple fact the Cubs have Bryant/Rizzo, and the Cardinals have not been able to acquire a couple stars of that level to match what Chicago has right now. So yes, there’s a gap, but not one that’s impossible to bridge.

If the Cards are to have any chance at all of jumping that gap, some things are going to have to go right for them. And if you’re looking for the most likely places for things to go right, then I think this list is an excellent place to start.