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Thoughts on Cardinals ZiPS projections

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We now have a little bit more data on how 2021 could go

National League Wild Card Game 3: St. Louis Cardinals v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Today is Christmas Eve. And yesterday, I got my first present: Dan Szymborski released the Cardinals team projections for 2021. Yes, that’s right. It’s that time of year again. The time where Dan hopefully projects the Cardinals to win 100 games and everything’s rosy and every player is a superstar.

While that’s not exactly what he projects, his projection is a Christmas present of sorts - despite declining Kolten Wong’s option and making no improvements to the team, they pretty much seem to have the same projection as every year. In fact, I’ll just use his words to convey what I mean:

“ZiPS hasn’t projected them outside the 85–90 win range in a full season since 2011. Going back to the first official ZiPS team standings in 2005 — I only did players in the initial couple of years — St. Louis’ projections have been below .500 once (2008) and above 90 wins once (2010).”

Despite the loss of Wong, the Cards still appear to be in that range. You’d think losing a projected 2.7 WAR player would matter more - and of course I assume the team projection would be higher with Wong on the team - but he makes the somewhat reasonable point that Edman wasn’t likely displacing Matt Carpenter (though I imagine Carpenter would either deliver or get replaced at some point in the season)

So what are the lessons to be taken from ZiPS projection? Well, projections are a useful tool, but however one values them normally, I think 2021 projections take on less importance and value. It is an unenviable task to project based on two months of baseball and I’m assuming that the previous year of ball played a less important role than it ever has for projections which has the effect of making every player’s projection more based on two years ago than ever and a lot of things change in two years. Plus no minor league data. It’s a difficult game.

But here are a few points that stuck out to me about the projections.

Jack Flaherty is the Cardinals best player

This actually isn’t particularly close either. Flaherty is projected for 4.3 WAR, a full win ahead of anybody else on the team. Offensively, the best player is Paul DeJong with 3.3 projected WAR. ZiPS really likes DeJong’s defense, which is understandable given his defense appears to actually be elite.

One interesting wrinkle on a Francisco Lindor trade (which will never happen) is - what exactly would that do to DeJong’s value? He doesn’t strike me as the type of defender who would just be a +12 defender in 2B or 3B. Sometimes you can assume the defense transfers according to positional value, but sometimes there’s something about that specific defender that might not necessarily translate under that format. This is just an assumption on my part though.

The offense is not a pretty sight

This was somewhat predictable, but the Cardinals have exactly one player with an above above average OPS+ according to ZiPS. That player is Paul Goldschmidt, whose 117 is actually a pretty weak best OPS+ to have on a team. The second best offensive projection is Austin Dean, with a 100 OPS+. This is pretty bleak stuff.

But as you can surmise from DeJong having the best projected WAR, offense isn’t the only story. Tommy Edman has 2.1 projected WAR thanks to defense and Harrison Bader has 2.2 projected WAR (in just 440 PAs too!). And for what it’s worth, not even Brad Miller has a projection over 100. I know he’s not on the team anymore, but even if the Cards re-signed him, Goldschmidt being the only hitter with over 100 OPS+ would still be true.

Miles Mikolas got a Bob Tewksbury #1 comp

I have to admit I’m slightly surprised at Mikolas’ projection which is better than I would have predicted. He’s now two years removed from a 2.5 fWAR season and was out last year with an injury. And now he’s 32. And his new projection is... 2.5 WAR. I would 100 percent take that right now. Especially since just about no Cardinal fan is actually that confident in Mikolas’ health even though he’s supposed to have a normal spring training.

For what it’s worth, in Tewksbury’s age 32 season, back in 1993, he had a 4.3 fWAR season. He threw 213.2 IP, had a 3.83 ERA, but 3.36 FIP. This is an amazing comp if he follows Tewk’s career at all. Seriously, Mikolas is under contract for three more years and in Tewk’s three years starting at age 32, he had seasons of 4.3, 2, then 3.2 WAR. That would be fantastic.

The Jose Rondon signing might be better than we thought?

So here’s a twist. ZiPS loves Jose Rondon. Well, loves might be a bit strong, but for a soon-to-be 27-year-old with a career -1 fWAR in his career, this system, uh, believes he’s basically league average right now. Yeah, they have him pegged for 1.5 WAR in 424 PAs, which is quite literally 2.1 WAR per 600 PAs. So my apologies. They have him as league average right now. As far as ZiPS is concerned, the replacement for Edman has been found. We have nothing to worry about.

I have no issue with the offensive projection which I’m sure has some basis in its optimism. And by its optimism, it’s still just an 86 OPS+. But he has a career 61 wRC+ (in less than 300 PAs), so that’s quite a jump. But a lot of that projection is defense. ZiPS sees him as a +4 defender at SS. Which... actually that’s not that crazy. And to be clear, he will not be a fun offensive player to watch. That projection comes with a .284 OBP, but also 15 HRs. Which is 21 HRs per 600 PAs. This is blowing my mind right now.

Dylan Carlson’s numbers are fairly underwhelming

So in some ways, this is a good thing. Because of Carlson’s prospect status and his age, the Cardinals could theoretically see a big jump in ability and performance in Carlson at some point. Which basically means that there’s potential in their season win projection total as long as that hope is there. And Carlson’s projection is not bad. He’s projected for 1.8 WAR in 533 PAs. We’re all hoping for more, but he’s still just 22, so for 2021, it might be best to keep expectations in check for another year.

Don’t be so fooled by Tyler O’Neill’s projection

Hate to start this debate again, but O’Neill’s projection is a 91 OPS+, which is not good for a corner outfielder, however ZiPS is somewhat inexplicably down on his defense. As much as I love ZiPS, they always have a few wonky defensive projections that I simply do not trust. Whatever your opinion of O’Neill’s defense, I am sure it’s higher than a -1 defender in LF. His speed alone and the quality of competition in LF would seem to guarantee above average defense in the corners. I don’t think he’s as good as his career numbers, but if he is, it’s literally a full win swing by itself.

Justin William’s #1 comp is... Andre Eithier?

Here’s why this is confusing. Williams has a bad projection. Williams is 25 in 2021. When Eithier was going into his age 25 season, he was coming off an MLB season with a 117 wRC+. I’m truly at a loss on this one. Williams projection, despite that comp, is just an 82 OPS+. Granted, Williams even more so than most on this list, has barely any data to go by, with under 200 PAs total for the past two years combined in professional, documented plate appearances. Might as well pick a number out of a hat for a projection when that’s what you’re working with.

Should we be paying attention to Anthony Shew?

Most of the pitching projections are not that encouraging, with the exception of Mikolas and some relievers. Carlos Martinez and Austin Gomber both hover around league average, Wainwright as below average. And then there’s Anthony Shew, who was not on my radar at all, but is projected for 1 WAR in 100 IP. I don’t know how far behind he is on the depth chart, but that is a better projection than guys who are above him on the depth chart, like Johan Oviedo, Angel Rondon, Genesis Cabrera and it’s actually not that close either. Those guys all have more projected innings, less WAR.

Paul Goldschmidt sees a rebound

A HUGE rebound in fact. If you look at his team page, the 3-year ZiPS projection has not been updated to account for the 2020 season. For 2021, he is projected for 2 WAR, with a .257/.354/.452 line in 601 PAs. That would have sucked. Thankfully, 2020 is now taken into account and it’s just vastly better. He’s now projected for a .261/.359/.453 line, which actually doesn’t seem vastly better, but his projected WAR is now 3 WAR in 599 PAs. Don’t understand that. But I’m choosing to believe the WAR is the important part here. And Depth Charts has him with 3.3 WAR thanks to a belief that he will get more than 599 PAs, which is a reasonable assumption.

All in all, I think this is about as good as we could hope for, considering the Cardinals haven’t really done anything. Except sign Jose Rondon who might be a hidden great signing. So here’s to 85-90 wins again!