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Point-Counterpoint with the 2020 Cardinals

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Buckle up. This year promises to be a wild ride.

MLB: MAR 29 Cardinals at Brewers Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every baseball season is beautifully organized chaos full of twists and turns. The beautiful organization part is easy- Mike Trout will be the best player in baseball, the Dodgers and Yankees are almost certainly behemoths, and Yadier Molina will catch a lot of games. It’s the twists and turns and variance- the volatility, if you will- that makes up the chaos. There seems to be more volatility than normal for the Cardinals this year, as reader LondonBird recently pointed out in the comments. Let’s take a look at some of those volatile 2020 outcomes, at least in general terms, in a point/counterpoint style.

Point #1: The Cardinals have several candidates to rebound at the plate.

Several Cardinal hitters regressed in 2019. Most notably, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, and Harrison Bader experienced declines from their career numbers. Yadier Molina slipped from a 105 wRC+ to 87, and Tyler O’Neill undershot both his pre-season projection and his 2018 performance. In the cases of Carpenter, Goldschmidt, Bader, and O’Neill, ZiPS sees a modest rebound. Rebounds are the safe bet for all three as long as you’re willing to accept the “modest” modifier. 2018 Matt Carpenter and 2015-2018 Paul Goldschmidt, for instance, probably aren’t walking through the clubhouse door. However, it’s reasonable to think they’ll take baby steps from 2019 back towards their previous level.

Counterpoint #1: The Cardinals also have several regression candidates at the plate and uncertainty in left field.

It’s not exactly a 1:1 relationship between the number of likely rebounds to possible decliners, but there’s still possible decline baked in to the season. Tommy Edman ran up a 123 wRC+ in 349 plate appearances, an output he hadn’t matched against lesser competition in the minors since his 2016 season in low-A. Dexter Fowler made strides in erasing his 2018 season with a 103 wRC+. Still, he’s just one season removed from a 63 wRC+ season. The last we saw of him was a 78 wRC+ September and a dreadful 2-for-33 post-season.

More importantly, the team no longer has Marcell Ozuna in left field. In theory, replacing Ozuna isn’t a hardship. His production was perfectly fine and a little above average, but he wasn’t elite. The quandary is that they’re rolling the dice with Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams, Lane Thomas, and Dylan Carlson. Even with their varied skill sets and prospect prestige (current or past), there’s a lot of variance to what they’ll get out of that group at the plate, with giant chunks of the error bars landing well below Ozuna circa 2019. That’s to say nothing of also replacing Jose Martinez and his bench bat. In short, even with the potential gains from the rebounders, there’s just as much of a chance that regression and the loss of Ozuna and Jose Martinez will short-circuit the benefit.

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Point #2: The fifth starter is likely to be a massive upgrade over Michael Wacha’s 2019

Michael Wacha’s endearing run as a Cardinal came to a thud in its final season. In 29 appearances and 24 games started, he tossed 126.2 innings with a 4.76 ERA, 5.61 FIP, and an fWAR in the negative (-0.2). He was below replacement level, and now he’s gone. Simply replacing him with an average pitcher, or even a little worse, represents a gain of one or two wins.

The Cardinals plan isn’t just to replace him with a pitcher a little below average. The goal is for Carlos Martinez to replace Wacha’s starts and innings. His ZiPS projection understandably still thinks he’s a reliever. However, he averaged 3.2 fWAR from 2015 to 2017, the last three years he occupied a rotation slot. Even in 2018, a season in which he was limited to 18 starts and dealing with injuries, he amassed 1.8 fWAR while in the rotation. Failing a triumphant return to the rotation for Martinez, the Cardinals inked Kwang-Hyun Kim, a lefty that ZiPS projects to 2.2 fWAR. Whether it’s a fully healthy Martinez, a limited Martinez á la 2018, or the baseline projection for KK, all three scenarios represent at least an improvement of 1.6 wins over Wacha’s 2019. There’s even room for more (2-3 wins of improvement) if Martinez or KK reach the upper end of their projections.

Counterpoint: Three-fourths of the rest of the rotation has red flags.

This isn’t rocket science. You know about these red flags.

  • Far be it from me to doubt Adam Wainwright. It feels downright blasphemous. However, he’s 38 and struggled mightily in 2017 and 2018 before reversing course in 2019. For what it’s worth, there was strong evidence supporting his 2019 rebirth as something more than a fluke. Still, 38 is 38 and the 2017-2018 data is very much part of the equation in projecting 2020 Wainwright.
  • Dakota Hudson’s ERA greatly outproduced his FIP last year. His walk, strikeout, and homerun rates in 2019 mean he’s ripe for regression unless something changes in his 2020 approach. Admittedly, it’s overstated a bit- he has some great tools to build on, his high homerun rate was out of character in 2019, and Ben Clemens effectively argued against using FIP as the lone judge of Hudson’s quality. Overstated or not, a repeat of 2019 for Hudson in 2020 isn’t likely.
  • Finally, Miles Mikolas is already injured and will miss some starts early in the year, if not longer. Getting hurt before Opening Day isn’t ideal and there are new questions about how he’ll pitch when he returns. Whatever you thought Miles Mikolas would do in 2020, you have to remove at least five to ten starts of value, maybe more depending on how effective and healthy he is when he returns.

The gains from replacing Wacha with Martinez or KK could easily evaporate depending on how well the Wainwright/Hudson/Mikolas mid-rotation triumvirate replicates their 2019.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Point #3: The bullpen, one of the best in MLB in 2019, returns mostly intact and has additional young options for 2020.

One of the biggest drivers of the 2019 team’s success was a bullpen that ranked sixth in fWAR, fifth in FIP, and sixth in ERA. Those numbers were even dragged down a bit by a September stumble. Through August, they had the best bullpen FIP in baseball. Almost all of the bullpen returns- John Brebbia, John Gant, Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller, and Tyler Webb are all back. When Mikolas returns to the rotation, they’ll have Carlos Martinez or Kwang-Hyun Kim in the mix to return to the bullpen.

They’ll also have more innings for Ryan Helsley, Junior Fernandez, and Genesis Cabrera, youngsters with big arms who made an impression last year. They augment it all with depth from Kodi Whitley, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Alex Reyes, and Austin Gomber, to name a few. There’s a whole bucket of other minor leaguers who might step into a relief role depending on how their season goes (Angel Rondon, Johan Oviedo, Ricardo Sanchez, Seth Elledge, Jesus Cruz... you get the picture).

Counterpoint #3: Bullpens are always volatile and some key pieces are missing.

Even before the Mikolas injury, the team was going to need to replace Carlos Martinez- assuming he makes the rotation- and his 48 high-quality 2019 innings. With Mikolas hurt, their additional bullpen option- Kim- is likely to land in the rotation at least early in the season. Jordan Hicks should eventually return mid-season, but you can’t take anything for granted with Tommy John surgery and rehab. They’re going to try to replicate 2019’s bullpen success without two of their three best relievers last season, and they’ll be doing so early in the season without their shiniest new bullpen toy (Kim).

Simply returning the same players is never a guarantee of the same performance. Reliever performance is volatile. Giovanny Gallegos, for instance, was a dominant force out of the bullpen last year and it wasn’t a fluke. But the margin for error with a bullpen is so thin that it would take something special for Gallegos to be exactly as good or even better, even if he pitches extraordinarily well again. Now multiply that across the five returning pitchers and compound it with the odds of the kids taking hold of more innings. The Cardinals should still have a very good bullpen in 2020, but a regression to average or worse is more of a possibility than anyone would like to admit.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals - Game One Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Point #4: Defense and speed should hold steady or even improve.

The Cardinals have swapped out Marcell Ozuna (-8 outs above average defensively) and Jose Martinez (-9 OAA) with some combination of Tyler O’Neill (29.9 sprint speed), Lane Thomas (a natural centerfielder and plus defender), Dylan Carlson, or Justin Williams. As Ben Clemens pointed out in his recent chat at FanGraphs, the relationship from OAA to runs is approximately 1:1, maybe a little bit lower. If that’s true, the Cardinals punted approximately 17 runs from defense with Ozuna and Martinez last season.

It’s hard to tell what the defensive baseline will be for the Four Horsemen of the Leftfieldpocalypse, but all four are athletic and have scouting bonafides. O’Neill and Thomas were both at 0 in limited time last season. O’Neill was +2 in 2018. If that group can get to 0 collectively- let alone better than that, which seems quite likely- it’s a 15+ run swing to the positive.

The baserunning situation isn’t as clear cut, as Ozuna’s 1.6 BsR was solid. Martinez’s -0.7, however, is an area for improvement. O’Neill was at 0.1 last year, 2.2 in limited time in 2018, and Thomas was at -0.1. They should at least be able to hold serve with last season’s group with a chance for more. Moreover, the team will have a full season of Tommy Edman (both on the bases and in the field), and Harrison Bader looks like a prime candidate to regain some baserunning value after a less successful 2019 on the basepaths.

Counterpoint #4: The age of the rest of the roster may cause regression, and speed and defensive impact is limited

For all the gains that seem possible elsewhere, it’s easy to forget that Paul Goldschmidt, Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, and Yadier Molina are all on the wrong side of 30. Players like that aren’t likely to hold on to their soft skills (baserunning and, to a lesser degree, defense) as they age. Even modest regression on the bases from that quartet could negate the gains made by moving from Ozuna and Cafecito to the Four Horsemen. It’s also worth noting that Kolten Wong enjoyed a career year on the bases, swiping 24 bags with just four times caught stealing, and his net baserunning performance was a 7.1 BsR. That was seventh best in baseball, and it represented a career high. As much as Bader seems likely to gain, Wong seems likely to slip back to his normal (still above average) level.

Speed and defense leaves something to be desired. There’s a reason the Jarrod Dysons and Billy Hamiltons of the world don’t sign $80M+ contracts. Soft skills are great and they can make a difference, but the impact is limited. Look no further than the quartet replacing Martinez and Ozuna. Between baserunning and defense, they could easily produce 16+ more runs of value. The problem is that they also have to match or approximate the production of Ozuna/Martinez at the plate for the other stuff to be meaningful. And that’s a far more impactful and meaningful task.

That’s a lot of variables for any one team to have. With all of that uncertainty, it’s easy to see two wildly divergent paths and a lot of gray area in the middle. FanGraphs projects them with 81.9 wins and PECOTA has them lower. If several of the counterpoints above come to fruition without enough of the points to balance them out, a third or even fourth place finish near .500 is absolutely on the table. On the other hand, seasons at the 80th+ percentile of their projection from any combination of (take a deep breath)... Carlos Martinez, Kwang-Hyun Kim, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, Tyler O’Neill, the bullpen army, Matt Carpenter, Harrison Bader, Paul Goldschmidt, Lane Thomas, or Dylan Carlson... could launch them towards a second straight division title. Buckle up. It’s going to be a wild ride.