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What the Cardinals need to happen

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The Cardinals offseason is, in all likelihood, over. Here’s how a long-shot division title could still happen.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Here we are. The Cubs signed the last piece out there that looked like a realistic and meaningful upgrade — although to be fair, the Cardinals were never really linked to Yu Darvish in the first place, so nobody’s expectations should have been high. Unless you’re betting on a big Jake Arrieta bounce-back, there’s no free agent SP out there that looks like more than a depth signing. The positional free agents are either not really better than the Cards’ incumbents or, in the case of J.D. Martinez, a modest and expensive upgrade only over a player with a no-trade clause. Bud Norris looks like the end of the bullpen reformulation. The Cardinals’ offseason is probably over. The crazy version didn’t happen.

So ladies and gentlemen, here — if everybody comes north healthy — is your likely 2018 opening day lineup and roster:

  1. Fowler - RF
  2. Pham - CF
  3. Carpenter - 1B
  4. Ozuna - LF
  5. Molina - C (deep sigh, but yes, 5)
  6. DeJong - SS
  7. Gyorko - 3B
  8. Wong - 2B
  9. C. Martinez - P

Bench: Garcia (INF), J. Martinez (1B/OF), Kelly (C), Bader (OF), and either 1B Luke Voit or INF Breyvic Valera. Rest of rotation: Weaver, Wacha, Wainwright, Mikolas. Bullpen: Gregerson, Leone, Lyons, Cecil, Bowman, Tuivailala, Norris.

This is, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth that “pretty good” isn’t “great,” a pretty good group. The current projected standings on FanGraphs, for example, have them as the WC1 favorite. That’s a talented baseball team perfectly capable of a postseason run, albeit also perfectly capable of missing altogether.

Before signing Darvish, the Cubs projected per Steamer as a 92-win team, vs. the Cardinals at 88. Now that’s up to 94, but the ZiPS projections like the Cubs even more. Let’s call it 96. That’s an eight-game gap on paper — better than last year at this time, but still pretty far behind. Here’s what the Cardinals need to have happen this year to bridge that gap.

Option 1: normal baseball weirdness

The amount of extra credit a team gets in the standings for having better projections is zero. Baseball is fantastically hard to predict with any granularity. Projections are useful to the extent they prevent a 75-wins-on-paper team from mistakenly acting like an 85-win one in the offseason, or vice versa. But over the last 13 seasons, the average error — the difference between real end-of-season record and what was projected — in the projections FanGraphs publishes was seven games. If the Cardinals finish +5 against their projections in 2018, and the Cubs finish -5, that should come as no huge surprise to anybody. It’s not likely, but it’s also not that weird. It’s a normal amount of weird, for baseball.

That could happen in a bunch of ways. BaseRuns, which provides an estimated win-loss total with “neutral” sequencing of events over the course of a season, helps us understand how important it is for teams to do good things in clusters (or see their opponents not do that). They can’t really control whether that happens, but it’s undeniably important; one standard deviation for BaseRuns record vs. actual is usually around 4-5 wins. So, there we go: if the Cardinals have good (not freakishly good, just regular good) sequencing luck and the Cubs have the opposite, there’s your whole gap.

Or the Cubs could have injuries and underperformances, and the Cardinals could have the opposite. Lots of things. Baseball is weird, and it annually reminds us that we are suckers for trying to predict it over the winter. Dan Szymborski’s computer says that that Cardinals presently have around a 1 in 5 shot at the NL Central, which sounds small until you remember hey, I know of some other things — including some very high-profile, consequential things! — that other computers were giving similarly small chances of happening, yet they happened. I remember the Cardinals being down around a 1% chance to even make the playoffs, and then they won the World Series. Things happen.

But “things happen” isn’t (one hopes) what you come here for. So let’s look at one particular way they could happen, not dependent on sequencing luck or the Cubs stumbling.

Option 2: the players are better than the projections say

This is really just another version of normal baseball weirdness, but let’s play it out. Here’s how to get those nine wins (nine, to win the Central outright), in rough descending order of subjective likelihood:

  • A midseason trade for Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado. This is a fudge compared to the section title, but it’s also something that’s pretty likely if they’re playing well enough early on for any of this to matter. Either Jedd Gyorko or Paul DeJong would be displaced, and both project as around average. Replacing an average player with a six-win one in the middle of the year nets you +2 wins.
  • Marcell Ozuna and Tommy Pham’s breakouts were real. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are five-win and seven-win players, as they were in 2017, but they currently project for 3.8 and 2.9 respectively per FanGraphs, well off 2017’s marks. Let’s call it nine wins between them, and that’s +2 wins.
  • Luke Weaver is excellent. FanGraphs currently pegs Weaver for 2.6 fWAR in 145 innings. But last year, Weaver was worth 1.4 fWAR in just 60 innings. Let’s say last year’s performance was what he really is, and triple it, so he finishes a bit over 4 WAR. +1 win (can’t take the full 1.5 here, because the extra innings I just projected him to throw come at the expense of another pitcher with positive value).
  • Carlos Martinez takes a small step forward. Carlos has been ~4 WAR starter so far, and projects as the same. He can be even better than that. +1 win.
  • Kolten Wong puts it together. Wong quietly had the best year of his career at the plate in 2017 (107 wRC+, vs. 92 career). If he can build just a little bit more on that, and stay healthy, a 110 wRC+ over 550 PAs with good baserunning and 2B defense is a three-win player. +1 win.
  • Matt Carpenter is fully healthy, and very good. It’s tough to project a guy getting older to suddenly be healthier than he’s recently been, but: before hurting his oblique in the middle of 2016, Matt Carpenter was way more awesome than you probably recall. FanGraphs sees three wins, but if he’s physically right, I bet there are still four-win years in there. +1 win.
  • Alex Reyes is really good and forces Wainwright out of the rotation. This isn’t as huge a bump as you might think, because FanGraphs still gives Wainwright about a win and a half over 24 starts. But if Reyes comes back strong and elbows Waino out of half of those, and is a four-win pitcher per 30 starts, that’s about a +1 win gain. [Substitute entry: Wainwright actually pitches fine all year.]

There you go: the Cardinals just went 97-65 and won the Central. Of course, every team (Cubs and Brewers included) can tell a story like this about themselves. This represents lots going right and little going wrong. Of course that makes it unlikely — the Cubs are still heavy division favorites, and rightfully so. But though unlikely to all occur at once, none of these things is unreasonable on its own. Remember, the average error in preseason record projections is seven wins; this would actually only be a little bit out of the ordinary. Every year, several teams are pleasantly surprised by how things turned out. This is one 2018 Cardinals version of that.