Collectively, the National League Central has been one of the most active divisions this off-season. The Brewers pounced on a slow market to add Yasmani Grandal. The Reds have rocketed towards relevance by adding Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp. It’s been slow in Chicago, though they did add Daniel Descalso. The Pirates made their 2019 moves back in July. In St. Louis, the (fairly) aggressive Cardinals have dealt for a fringe MVP candidate in Paul Goldschmidt and inked 2014-2017 bullpen lefty extraordinaire Andrew Miller.
As Jeff Sullivan noted this week at Fangraphs, the movement has created a tight division- potentially one of the closest divisions in modern baseball history. Where do the Cardinals stand in all of this?
It’s important to note that there’s still a lot of value on the free agent market, with four of the five highest crowd source estimated contracts still unsigned. A lot can still happen, even if it’s unlikely that Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, or Craig Kimbrel ends up in the NL Central. Even beyond the big names, there are ~40 projected wins available for purchase right now. That should help give part of the frame to the rest of this article. Any one of these teams could upgrade any deficiencies.
Let’s use Steamer’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) projections to take a look at how the Cardinals fare within the division. We’ll start with starting position players.
There were some tough decisions to make here. Since the Cardinals have been adamant that Dexter Fowler will get every opportunity to start in right field, he’s their OF3. The Cubs have Ben Zobrist as a potential outfielder with a better projection than some listed, but Albert Almora is more likely to see regular playing time in center field. Choosing a Pirates infield was challenging. I opted for Adam Frazier at second base, Kevin Newman at shortstop, and Colin Moran at third. Addison Russell had to go somewhere and still has the most projected playing time in Chicago, so he slots in at shortstop. The players excluded in the starting lineup will show up when I get to the bench. That’s when we’ll see the value of Zobrist, the displaced José Martínez, Jung Ho Kang, and Eric Thames.
Goldschmidt launches the Cardinals into a tie for the best first base projection in the division. Wong sits behind Javier Baez for second best at second base, though the Brewers have Keston Hiura (not on the graph) potentially making his debut this year. Steamer projects a major decline for Scooter Gennett, giving him a 1.3 fWAR projection after 4.5 last year. Matt Carpenter sits behind only Kris Bryant at third base, though the gap between Carpenter and Eugenio Suarez is small. Paul DeJong has the best projection amongst NL Central shortstops. The catcher position is the totem animal for the division, with four backstops bunched between 2.2 and 2.7 fWAR. Yadier Molina is tied at the top.
The Brewers lead the way in the outfield thanks to Lorenzo Cain (3.7) and Christian Yelich (4.9), the two best projections for any outfielder in the division. Marcell Ozuna has the third best projection. Harrison Bader has the second best projection for second best outfielders, while Dexter Fowler brings up the rear.
Below, you’ll see the starting lineups ranked by overall projected value. These numbers don’t give you a general estimate for how a team will do. It’s best to think of it as a measure of the amount of talent and potential each team has in its projected lineup.
Total fWAR, Starting Lineup
There were more tough decisions to make. Each pitcher is ranked by their projected fWAR. That means Jack Flaherty (2.8) is the #1, Miles Mikolas (2.7) is the #2, Carlos Martinez (2.3) is #3, Alex Reyes (1.4) is #4, Adam Wainwright (1.3) is #5, and Michael Wacha (1.0) brings up the rear. It’s fairly unrealistic, but that kind of oddity is why I’ve chosen to include the top six projected starters for each team. Each of these teams will end up using at least six starters, probably many more.
The front of the Pirates’ rotation is formidable, with a projected 9.5 fWAR collectively from Chris Archer, Jameson Taillon, and Joe Musgrove. The Cubs have three 2.6 fWAR pitchers in those same slots (Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks). The Reds are respectable enough. The Cardinals are solid, but sit a little behind some of the others. Their floor is as good as anyone, but the quality in the back of the rotation lags. It’s a byproduct of the injury potential for Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, and Alex Reyes. The Brewers trail the division, but it’s hard to properly gauge them with so many variables and Craig Counsell’s eagerness to turn the bullpen up to 11.
This is what it looks like in total:
Total fWAR, Top 6 Starting Pitchers
I don’t want to spend too much time here. Bench production is influenced by luck and random variance. Moreover, it’s hard in January to accurately predict which players will contribute. Still, it has some value in that it identifies which teams have non-starters good enough to be semi-regulars.
I’ve selected the five players projected by Steamer to see the most playing time, presuming they didn’t land in the starting lineup. I included at least one backup catcher, one outfielder, and one infielder. For the Cardinals, Andrew Knizner has quite a projection- 0.5 fWAR. It seems unlikely that he’ll garner enough playing time for that to be realistic, so I’ve swapped him out for 0 fWAR from Francisco Peña.
There are eight non-starters in the division projected for .5+ fWAR. Three are Cardinals- José Martínez, Jedd Gyorko, and Tyler O’Neill. However, the Cubs also have three in Zobrist, Ian Happ, and Victor Caratini, and they collectively project for more than the Redbird trio. There’s a trend emerging.
I’ve collected the nine pitchers outside of the starting rotation list with the most projected innings. For the Cardinals, that includes Dakota Hudson, Andrew Miller, Jordan Hicks, John Gant, John Brebbia, Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, Dominic Leone, and Chasen Shreve.
The Brewers (Josh Hader, Corey Knebel) and Pirates (Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela) each impressively have two relievers with a 1.0 fWAR projection. Andrew Miller is right behind them at 0.9. The Brewers bullpen projects as formidably as you’d expect. The Cubs are the only team with three relievers projected for a zero or negative fWAR. Here’s how it looks when adding them all up:
Total fWAR, Top 9 Relief Pitchers
If you thought the Cardinals were behind the Cubs, you’re right. The bullpen looks superior in St. Louis, but it’s not enough to overcome light deficits in the rotation, lineup, and bench.
Here’s how it all comes together:
Steamer Projections by Team Component
The projections show a clear advantage for the Cardinals and Cubs over the three other teams. Overall, the Cardinals don’t come in first in any one component. They’re consistently average or above across the roster. The Reds have made a lot of noise and quickly closed the gap, but still need more depth. The projections don’t like the Brewers, although they have some hidden value in that second base is easy to correct. They also have a manager who has proven proficient- at least once- at squeezing every last drop of value out of his roster. The Pirates should be competitive in most games thanks to their pitching. The Cubs have the most to work with, but also have some fragility. To me, they’re reminiscent of recent top-heavy Nationals teams.
As close as the Cardinals are to the Cubs, now seems like the time to add more in any way they can to close the gap if they want some certainty entering the season. Unfortunately, it’s the same situation they’ve had in recent years. Finding an upgrade right now is not easy. Even marginal and solid additions to the rotation and the bullpen won’t move the needle that much because the additions would replace solid production. It would take one of the major upgrades to do the trick- Harper, Machado, or Keuchel.