We’re entering Projection Season™ around baseball. PECOTA has the Cardinals at 87 wins, one game behind Milwaukee for best in the division. As of today, Fangraphs has them at 86 wins, two behind Chicago and fourth best in the National League. Unlike the Brewers, whose projections swing wildly from site to site, the Cardinals’ other projections will likely be very static. Most expectations will be in the 85-88 win range, usually behind either the Cubs or Brewers, fourth or fifth in the league. However, there are a few players who could swing the season. There are six (and a half) Cardinals whose performance could launch them to the top or drag them to the middle of a competitive NL Central.
There’s plenty to like about the rotation. Miles Mikolas looks steadily above average and Jack Flaherty’s talent is tantalizing. Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright have question marks, but there’s ample depth behind them. If anything goes wrong with those two, there are reasonable internal solutions for 20 to 30 spot starts as needed.
Think about how much more you’d like the rotation if Carlos Martínez is the 2015-2017 version. Better yet, what if he can rediscover what he had last April and early May- a 0.66 ERA and 2.99 FIP after his Opening Day debacle? Early last year, it looked like we were finally going to see El Gallo shift from very good to elite. Then it evaporated in a blur of nagging injuries, ending with him in the bullpen.
There’s no doubt he could be a dominant force at the end of games. We’ve always known that. But there’s so much more value for him as a 180-200 inning starter.* If that version of El Gallo returns, the front of the rotation becomes formidable. It’s a 1 to 2 win swing, if not more.
*I’d rather we stop talking about him as a reliever until it’s a last resort
Right field was the worst spot in the lineup last season. The Cardinals were top 10 in MLB in fWAR at five positions (1B, 2B, 3B, LF, CF), and a very healthy 12th at shortstop. They were 19th behind the plate- a function of Yadi’s injury and poor backup performance. They were 24th in right field.
Despite a lot of fans logically clamoring for Bryce Harper, the Cardinals doubled down on their Dexter Fowler investment. They’ve committed to him as their right fielder, albeit with less room for error. If he falters early, they can move quickly to alternatives in José Martínez and Tyler O’Neill. That’s a decent solution but it’s not ideal.
If Fowler can rebound to 2017 levels, it’s an fWAR gain from 2018 of 3.7. If he’s half of what he was in 2017, it’s a gain of 2.4 wins. Even if Fowler can only get to replacement level- the lowest of low bars- it’s a one win upgrade, and he’d likely be replaced by a more productive Martínez/O’Neill at that point anyway. There is a lot of room for an upgrade over 2018 hidden in Dexter Fowler’s performance.
The Big Bear came over from the Marlins with much fanfare. His 144 wRC+ in 2017 was tied for 12th in MLB, while his 37 homeruns were tied for 11th. He was expected to be the big bat missing from the 2017 lineup in St. Louis. Then he showed up with a lingering shoulder injury. For the season, he was... fine. He was worth a 2.7 fWAR and 106 wRC+. Due to the shoulder injury, he spent the first half of the season firing missiles at worms. After a late season cortisone shot, he became 2017 Big Bear again. His 144 RC+ and a .245 ISO in September were almost completely identical to his 2017 season.
If he can turn back the clock to 2017, that’s a 5-win player. It’s a 2.4 win upgrade over 2018. A lineup featuring Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, and the 2017 version of Ozuna all surrounded by the rest of the supporting cast is playoff quality. Ozuna and Fowler can make or break the entire season almost completely by themselves.
Until there’s any resolution with his injuries, Alex Reyes remains the ultimate wild card. He has thrown 44 professional innings in the last two seasons, just four at the MLB level, and ZIPS still projects him for 0.8 fWAR. Steamer has him at 1.4. We’ve had our hearts broken two years in a row now. It’s hard to expect anything from Reyes until he actually stays healthy at the MLB level for more than a month.
If he can prove healthy, watch out. Swap out 10 spot starts from the Gant/Gomber/Poncedeleon triumvirate with 10 from Alex Reyes and there’s suddenly more helium in 55 innings. Perhaps Reyes takes on the Tyson Ross role from late last season, eating up two or three innings at a time, once a week. Maybe we see Reyes in the seventh inning in front of Jordan Hicks and Andrew Miller. At that point, you’re playing six inning games. Here’s a preview of how the last three innings of games might look with Hicks/Reyes/Miller:
Speaking of face-melting heat in the bullpen...
One of the biggest problems for the Cardinals the last few years has been poor performance from the bullpen in high leverage situations. Last season, they introduced Jordan Hicks and his nuclear queso into the bullpen. He performed very well, but there’s so much more in the tank. When a pitcher is as electric as Hicks, you expect a higher strikeout rate. If the strikeouts increase, you have a serious late inning weapon who can fix the high leverage issues. As it is, the Cardinals plan on giving Hicks some very high leverage innings.
Even if Hicks merely replicates 2018, it’ll be fine. But if he can unlock a higher strikeout rate, combined with his ability to bully hitters into weak contact, he would become one of baseball’s elite relievers. It would go a long way towards solving the biggest consistent conundrum at 700 Clark Avenue.
The math here is simple. If the dip in Miller’s performance in 2018 was due to injury and he’s now healthy, the Cardinals finally have an answer to their long-standing lefty relief problem. They also have a high leverage weapon they can use to take some pressure off Hicks (or Reyes or Hudson or Brebbia or...). However, he’ll have to reverse some troubling trends. There are a wide range of outcomes for Miller, even by baseball’s fluky standards. Compounding the high wire act, all of his potential outcomes are going to happen with games on the line. A lot of games will be won or lost with Miller on the mound.
(and a Half)
The last few years, the Cardinals have been the portrait of inactivity at the trade deadline. They approached the deadline below .500 in 2017 and just barely above it in 2018. In 2016, they made a cosmetic move for Zach Duke. The club hasn’t given the front office any reason to add anything significant for a stretch run. In the meantime, divisional peers have been very active. Last season alone, the Cubs, Brewers, and even Pirates harvested Chris Archer, Cole Hamels, Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop (aka “Minty Fresh”), Keone Kela, and Gio Gonzalez, amongst others.
When there’s a discrepancy between an overachieving team’s pre-season projection and their final record, you can frequently point to in-season acquisitions that bridge the gap. Last year’s Brewers are a great example. Moustakas, Curtis Granderson, and Gio were worth 1.6 fWAR in the heat of a pennant race, while their additions had extra value by lengthening the lineup and bench.
If the Cardinals are near a playoff spot by mid-July, given the sense of urgency the front office insists it has, they must enhance their chances on the open market.