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Will the Cardinals Expected Internal Improvements Be Enough to Retain the Division Crown?

St Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Since Rob Manfred and the MLB made the wise decision to postpone the start of the regular season and suspend all Spring Training activities, it could be a while before the 2020 season actually begins. While this was the right decision, it is disappointing that baseball fans must wait even longer for competitive baseball to return. Additionally Cardinals fans were on the verge of discovering whether the internal improvements that John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch, and co. advertised were going to take place. The front office has constantly declared that it is expecting internal improvements to improve the team this season, and that justifies the relative inaction of the team in the offfseason. Now Cardinals fans must wait longer to see if this was the right move in the winter, but there is clearly plenty of room for improvement, especially offensively, from the roster.

Recently MLB Trade Rumors published an article highlighting 10 NL Central hitters looking to bounce back in 2020 and four Cardinals made the list - Matt Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, Yadier Molina, and Harrison Bader. These are just some of the players that had down years. Miles Mikolas and Andrew Miller both had significantly worse seasons last year than they did in the year before, while Dexter Fowler has not been the same player since 2017, yet he is still penciled in as a starter. The biggest wildcards this year are Matt Carpenter on the hitting side and Miles Mikolas on the pitching side, while a bounce back season from Paul Goldschmidt would have a huge impact on the lineup. In the previous six seasons Carpenter had never finished with less than 3.2 WAR; however, he ended 2019 with just 1.2 WAR.

While it might be difficult to bank on these key players to rebound next season considering that Mikolas, Molina, Goldschmidt, Miller, and Carpenter are all on the wrong side of 30, there is still hope that they can improve in 2020. If their production stays at a similar level then the Cardinals will likely win a similar amount of games. However, there is hope that these players will improve, even if they do not completely return to their previous levels of production.

Mikolas had a really good year in 2018 (2.83 ERA/3.28 FIP), but he struggled to match his production last season (4.16 ERA/4.27 FIP). Much of this was due to an inflated HR/FB rate of 16.1% which was the 15th highest among qualified starters. In 2018, he posted a much better 9.2%. He will likely never return to his dominant 2018 form but he should improve on his 2019 season. It seems unlikely that he will continue to give up home runs at such a high rate. His archetype as a pitcher is clear - low strikeout rate, low walk rate, reasonable groundball rate. He fits the profile of a control pitcher, and a good one as well. If he can reduce how many home runs he allows (which seems likely) then his production will fall somewhere between the two seasons. Andrew Miller had the same problem as Mikolas last season: he gave up too many home runs. His strikeout rate was high (29.7%) and although his walk rate was also high (11.4%), he walked hitters at a similar rate in 2012-2013 when he was an effective reliever with the Red Sox. His problem was a sky high 21.6% HR/FB rate that was a career high for the 34-year-old. If he and Mikolas can experience a regression in their home run rates, then they should improve a decent amount next season.

Paul Goldschmidt should also be able to somewhat bounce back as well. In the previous six seasons, he had never finished with a WAR below 4.3. However, last season he finished with a 2.9 WAR. He will be 32 years old next year, which is certainly past a player’s prime, but not so far past it that a collapse can be expected, especially considering how good Goldschmidt has been. One of the major factors (and likely the most important factor) in his decline was a major drop in BABIP. In the previous six seasons, his BABIP hovered between .343 and .382. However, last season, his BABIP was a career low .302.If this could even improve by 20 points, he would be able to improve his wRC+ considerably, and thus, his WAR as well.

While it is easy to see Goldschmidt improving next season, it is more difficult to see Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina having significant bounce back seasons. Carpenter has seen his strikeout rate rise for three consecutive seasons while his walk rate has fallen in two consecutive seasons. This is not a good combination. However, in the previous seven seasons he had never finished with a wRC+ below 117, so if his 2019 wRC+ of 95 is the new norm, that would be quite a significant drop off. While this might seem a bit unreasonable, it would also be equally as unreasonable to expect Carpenter to return to his old levels of production. He is 34 years old and a rising strikeout rate paired with a falling walk rate is not a good sign for any hitter. Part of Carpenter’s struggles could be that pitchers threw him less fastballs and more junk. In 2018, pitchers thew him fastballs 64.6% of the time, but in 2019, they threw him fastballs just 57.6% of the time. This was a sharp decline from the previous seasons and if pitchers begin to throw fastballs to him at a higher rate, then his numbers should see somewhat of an improvement in 2020. However, it is likely unreasonable to expect Carpenter to return to being a strongly above average hitter.

Additionally, it is difficult to rely on a 37 year old catcher to have a major bounce back season. He dropped from 2.5 WAR in 2018 to 1.2 WAR in 2019 and at his age, it seems that his days as a 2.0 WAR catcher or higher are over. The major change from 2018 to 2019 is a drop in power. His .174 ISO in 2018 fell to .129 the next season and while this is a big change, Molina is a catcher, and an old one at that. Therefore, it makes sense that he is losing his power at such a fast rate.

By simply looking at these five individual players, a reasonable amount of improvement can be expected. Goldschmidt and Mikolas will likely improve the most from last season, but Miller could also show a moderate amount of improvement. However, it is difficult to expect Molina to rebound very much and Matt Carpenter is a wildcard. His strikeout and walk rates suggest that he is declining, but he has experienced a steep decline in a short amount of time. This always leads to questions about the validity of this decline, especially since Carpenter has been such a steady performer throughout his career. He is unlikely to completely bounce back, but how much he does bounce back could have a significant impact on the Cardinals offense this season. With the amount of hope the Cardinals have put in their aging core this season, they have risked losing the division crown this season. However, the Cardinals have always been a more conservative franchise, and this has worked in their favor for the better part of two decades. if these players can rebound then the front office will appear to have made a good decision in refusing to add much to the roster this year. However, we will not know for sure until the season gets underway, but there does appear to be room for the team to improve despite the lack of outside acquisitions.