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Where do the Cardinals Need to Improve in 2020?

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Let’s use graphs to identify areas of need

Divisional Series - Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals - Game Four Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

The off-season’s icy grip has officially wrapped around the Cardinals. We’re in the long, baseball-free stretch between the last game of the 2019 Cardinals season and the first sunny day on a practice field in Jupiter, Florida to begin the 2020 Cardinals season. Fortunately, there will be plenty to discuss in the coming months. The General Manager’s meetings will happen in mid-November, the Winter Meetings are slated for December 9-12, players will become non-tendered free agents, one-year qualifying offers will be made (or not made) to pending free agents, teams and players will decide to opt in or out of various contract options, and that’s all a prelude to free agent signings and trades. Before the season even reaches that stage, now seems like a good time to review what the Cardinals had in 2019 and what they’ll need to improve throughout that process for 2020. Cue up the graphs!

First, we’ll look at this on a positional basis. Here’s where the Cardinals ranked this year by fWAR at each position. Note that this is the cumulative fWAR for all players during their time at each specific position, for each team. We’ll exclude the bullpen, as there’s so much year to year volatility that there’s not much to discern there other than “Keep acquiring power arms.”

There’s almost no elite performances by Cardinals in this graph, but there also aren’t many areas of glaring deficiency. It would have been nice to get more from Paul Goldschmidt, but he still carried them to 10th at first base. Kolten Wong’s contributions led to the top spot at second base, while Paul DeJong had them seventh at shortstop. The Matt Carpenter/Tommy Edman experience at third base placed them 18th overall. The Cardinals ranked a respectable 11th in both center and left field. The two lowest ranked positions are catcher (23rd) and right field (22nd).

On the pitching side, the Cardinals had the eighth best #1 starter by innings pitched (Jack Flaherty), 15th best #2 (Mikolas), 7th best #4 (Wainwright), 24th best #3 (Hudson), 23rd best #5 (Wacha), and 19th best depth starters (#6 and beyond).

Looking at all of that, you might think that catcher, right field, and two of the pitching slots are major areas of need, but there’s more to those stories. For instance, the catcher production is dragged down considerably by the backups (Matt Wieters’ -0.3 fWAR and Andrew Knizner’s -0.2). Right field’s production is a little bit of a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” situation compared to center field. That’s because Dexter Fowler had a 97 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR in right field this year and a 108 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR in center field, in half the playing time that he had in right field. That dichotomy isn’t likely to continue. A more normal distribution for Fowler’s performance would have had the Cardinals around 19th or 20th in right field and 13th or 14th in center. There’s always room for improvement, but it’s not quite as dire as it seems with a ranking of 22nd.

As for the two pitching slots, there’s no doubt that they’ll need better than they received from Wacha next season. Hudson’s rank at #3 looks bad, although VEB editor emeritus Craig Edwards tackled that a bit during the NLCS. In short, his extreme groundball tendencies combined with the Cardinals’ supreme infield defense leads to a much higher RA9-WAR (3.4). That’s not to say that the RA9-WAR is an accurate reflection. It just adds a little bit of additional context to his 1.1 fWAR.

Where all of this gets tricky is the pending free agency of Marcell Ozuna, Wacha, and Wainwright. Wacha’s likely departure allows for an easy upgrade if they can find a 1 to 2-win pitcher- a fairly low bar. Replacing Wainwright’s 2.2 fWAR out of the #4 slot won’t be easy, particularly considering that simply bringing back Wainwright himself (if the doesn’t retire) is no guarantee of similar production.

The good news with the Ozuna situation is that they have a top-20 prospect in Dylan Carlson waiting in the wings. Carlson’s offense may not match Ozuna but his overall contribution very well could, as he offers better defensive and base running value. It’s an interesting crossroads for the franchise. They looked so bad at the plate at so many points of the season, yet their easiest, natural progression with their one available outfield slot (should they replace Ozuna with Carlson) pushes them further into the run suppression game.

How about the offense? Where do they need to improve at the plate? We’ll start with some standard advanced metrics. Because of the variability of the scales, this graph only shows league rank. Teams are ranked in how well they did in each category. For instance, the Astros had the lowest K% and are at the top of that category, but also had the highest BB/K. That also places them at the top of that particular category. For GB/FB, teams with a lower GB/FB are at the top- more flyballs are a better outcome.

Much like the fWAR rankings by position, there’s nothing elite here even if there are quite a few top 10 finishes. Believe it or not, it’s a pretty good offensive profile. They get their walks, they run the bases well, they hit plenty of flyballs and line drives. However, the two weaknesses won’t surprise anyone. They struck out too much and didn’t hit for nearly enough power. The lack of power isn’t a fluke. Their ISO on contact is 22nd in the league (not included in the graph). Lift the ISO in 2020 and the wRC+ is sure to follow. For that matter, the BB% is also likely to increase in concert with power. That only further complicates the pending free agency of Ozuna (a team-leading .231 ISO).

Now let’s review some advanced metrics:

In this case, the teams at the top of the swing percentage row have the lowest swing percentage. The same is true for swinging strike percentage and o-swing percentage (swing percentage out of the strike zone).

The raw plate discipline stuff here is solidly above average for the Cardinals. They aren’t chasing exorbitantly, they were selective about when they swung the bat, they made top 10 contact, and they were top 10 in limiting swinging strikes. That’s all positive. Unfortunately, what screams at you here is the 29th ranked exit velocity and 19th ranked barrel percentage. They were good at being selective and managing the strike zone, working counts to find pitches they liked, but they couldn’t convert those skills into loud contact. If you want to see the result of that deficiency, go back to the previous rankings graph and see where they were in ISO. All of this is related, and all of it makes Marcell Ozuna’s free agency quite a pickle for the team.

We’ve learned that the Cardinals’ offensive situation isn’t as dire as it seems, but they need to find a way to produce louder contact, and probably without Ozuna. Some of that may manifest itself in year two of Jeff Albert, particularly with the franchise doubling down its renewed efforts in developing hitting and advanced use of hitting technology:

It’s likely to be needed. Logically, whatever available funds they have may need to go to at least one rotation slot, as there are far fewer internal replacements there than they have for Ozuna. They’re going to need to find more value out of the position players already on the roster or lurking in the minors (*cough*O’Neill/Arozarena/Carlson*cough*).