If one wants to talk about the decade of the 2010s, and we certainly have over at this site, four players really stand out among the rest. All four accrued at least 20+ fWAR during their tenure with a rather significant drop off to the 5th best player. On January 2nd, three of the four were in the Cardinals organization with the fourth looking likely to join them soon (which he did in three days). If that is any indication towards the future, then it logically follows that the players who will accomplish the difficult task of 20+ WAR in the 2020s are already in the organization.
A few were not exactly predictable, as predicting such lofty goals for anyone is a foolish game, but easy to imagine with rose-colored glasses. Yadier Molina achieving 40+ fWAR was definitely not predictable - and would have been extremely difficult to predict because framing numbers weren’t embedded in the numbers - but he was about to be in his age 27 season and had just had his first above average season with the bat. The bat would, after a false start in 2010 (84 wRC+), break out even more just a year later. Adam Wainwright too was coming off a breakout season that established him as an ace and was just 28. Lastly, Matt Holliday, who had not yet signed, had finished 2009 by lighting the world on fire and if he had a weakness, it was that he was already 30.
The fourth guy was in the organization, but he had just joined the organization six months prior. In the 13th round of the MLB draft, Matt Carpenter was drafted at 23-years-old, and those guys pretty much never work out. He did make it farther than probably most 23-years-old at the time, as the Cards gave him 37 PAs in short season A ball (228 wRC+), then 126 PAs at Peoria (132 wRC+), and ending his season at Palm Beach. But he faltered at Palm Beach, as so many have before, and had an 83 wRC+. Nobody would have predicted he’d be one of the top four Cardinals players of the 2010s.
And if you look at the decade of the 2000s, there were also four players with 20+ fWAR, but unlike the most recent decade, only one of them was actually in the organization on January 2nd, and that one was as unpredictable as Carpenter at the time. Jim Edmonds was three months away from being traded to the Cardinals and five months away from a 6-year extension. Obviously, he would have been a prime candidate for this list once both of those things happened.
Scott Rolen was two and a half years away from being traded to the Cardinals and was a terrible candidate to guess until he signed his extension. And Chris Carpenter was nearly three years from being signed to an MLB deal, but he missed the entire 2003 season and was not a particularly great candidate to guess until after the 2005 season, when he already had 9 of the 20.1 WAR. Lastly, there’s 13th rounder Albert Pujols, six months away from being drafted, but who didn’t record a plate appearance in 1999. The only person even in the organization as of January 2nd would have been the most insane guess of them all, even though the rest were on different teams.
So the 2010s say that the players will be in the organization right now (and though unsigned at the time, Holiday is essentially in that camp too) while the 2000s group says that they won’t be. Both improbably suggest a 13th rounder from the previous draft will ultimately be one of the best players of the decade. Which would mean Tommy Jew is the next superstar Cardinal by 2022. He bridges the gap between Pujols and Carpenter nicely, in that he’s in between their ages (Pujols was 19 when drafted while Carp was 23) and he’s following the Pujols track of not playing at all in the year he was drafted.
Because I have no way of knowing how to predict a comparable 2000s list of players, and because John Mozeliak was the GM in 2010 and the Cardinals are still run effectively the same way, looking towards the 2010 group is better for 2020 guesses. And we have some easy comparable players right off the bat.
In the role of Wainwright, the Cardinals have Jack Flaherty. Wainwright’s breakout season came the season before and the same applies to Flaherty. Wainwright’s team friendly contract kept him with the Cardinals for four more years, Flaherty has four more years of service time until he’s eligible for free agency. Flaherty happens to be quite a bit younger than Wainwright at the time, which only really bolsters his case. The biggest impediment to Flaherty accomplishing something similar to Wainwright is he might not have enough time and sign with another team in free agency. But Flaherty is clearly Prediction #1 on this club.
And the 2000s group does not have a comparable player, but they have someone really close: Matt Morris. Morris was coming off a missed season after needing Tommy John surgery at the beginning of 1999 and returning later in 2000 and staying in the bullpen, but he too had four years of team control. His breakout season was his rookie year, so obviously not a perfect comparison and he’s an example of how Flaherty probably needs more than four years.
The second comparable player would have been much better if things had gone much differently. In the Matt Holliday role, there’s Paul Goldschmidt. He’s already two years older than Holiday was, so again even under more ideal circumstances, he’s still not a perfect comp. But a Goldschmidt who crushed it for 2019 could look like a good candidate. I know Holiday is who they had in mind when they traded for Goldschmidt. A player whose projections were always underrating his performance thanks to consistently high BABIPs and a great plate approach. For 20+ fWAR to feel plausible, he’s going to need a hell of a bounceback in 2020. I would love to pick Goldschmidt, but he needs to average more WAR for the next five years than he had in 2019 so I really don’t think it’s going to happen.
There is no really obvious comparable to Molina, however, there is an elite level defender at a difficult position who has an extremely team friendly deal that will keep him employed as a Cardinal for most of this decade: Paul DeJong. DeJong has a head start over every other player by virtue of being under contract, or effectively under contract, for six of the ten seasons. Nobody else has that who is also a proven MLBer. With 3,000 innings in his belt, DeJong’s defense looks for real, and with a .259 BABIP, he’s a prime candidate to take his offense to another level. And if not, he was already a 4 WAR player last year. DeJong is my easy choice #2.
For my third selection, I’m going to go back to the 1990s group, which I haven’t mentioned, mostly because only one player achieved 20+ fWAR: Ray Lankford. Lankford before the 1990s season would have been an ideal choice for this list, as he was the #19 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America prior to the 1990 season. A highly rated outfield prospect who would start the season in the minors - I mean you see where I’m going with this right? Dylan Carlson is pick #3. And a Cardinal who came close by fWAR, but had 20 bWAR was Brian Jordan, who was also a top 100 prospect before the 1990 season.
That leaves the Carpenter/Pujols pick and I’m not going to pick Tommy Jew, because surely lightning won’t strike three times. But there are more than a few guys you can pick currently in the system, all of whom more predictable than Carp/Pujols. Nolan Gorman is the obvious one of course, with a surprisingly similar future trajectory to Carpenter (Gorman may start the year at Palm Beach and finish it at Springfield and be in the majors at the end of the year after that).
But I will stay within the spirit of having the fourth guy be unlikely and not pick Gorman. Gorman’s defense is mostly an unknown right now and it’s not difficult to see a scenario where that limits his potential. And while I’m going for unlikely, I’m not insane enough to pick a pitcher in the system. Look no further than Alex Reyes on why that is a fool’s errand. No, my fourth pick is Ivan Herrera.
I’ll admit I’m not quite going out on a limb on this one. Herrera had a 136 wRC+ at Peoria at just 19-years-old and the reports of his defense have him as very advanced for his age. He made it to Palm Beach and held his own in a small sample. But he’s still a catching prospect, and if the fantasy baseball site ottoneu has taught me anything, it’s don’t bet on catching prospects. Well I’m going to bet on Herrera.
And nothing says that the Cardinals can’t have five players with 20+ fWAR. The 1980s and ‘90s both had only one player (Ozzie and Lankford), the 70s had three (Gibson, Brock and Simmons), and the 60s had SIX players. (Curt Flood, Ken Boyer, Bill White, Curt Simmons, and Gibson/Brock again). So anything’s possible here. But the 60s had the reserve clause and our two most recent examples are four, so I’m sticking with four. So the current and future core of the Cardinals: Jack Flaherty, Paul DeJong, Dylan Carlson, and Ivan Herrera.