As you know, the major projection systems are a bit down on this year’s Cardinals club. While Vegas odds have the Cardinals the most likely club to win the Central, many others see them as more like a .500 team. ZiPS currently pegs them as exactly average at 81-81. PECOTA projects them underwater at 80-82, as does Clay Davenport.
I wanted to do a very cursory look into the systems that are lowest on the Cardinals - PECOTA and Davenport - to see what they were seeing. I was a little surprised what I found.
Personally, I’m most concerned about the Cardinals offense. Arenado and Goldschmidt should be solidly above average. From there... it gets a little sketchy.
I’m a firm believer in Dylan Carlson. I think the version we saw late last season will be just the jumping off point for him. That said, a few weeks at the end of an abbreviated season is hardly enough to be confident, and I certainly get why projection systems don’t peg the potential I see.
That only gets us up to three guys in the Cardinals lineup, and I’m even less certain of those beyond Arenado, Goldschmidt and Carlson. DeJong has been consistently above average for long stretches, but has also struggled to maintain production over a full season. Bader has been likewise up-and-down, with even more down. Edman has posted strong stretches but relies heavily on batted ball luck. Tyler O’Neil looks promising this spring, but his MLB numbers have been consistently underwhelming. Yadi is Yadi.
Now several of these players add substantial defensive value that more than justifies their spot in the lineup. But if we’re focusing just on scoring runs, you’ve got to be banking on multiple guys breaking in the right direction for the Cardinals to be an average offense.
My expectation was that the projections who are lowest on the Cardinals would be especially down on their weak offense. To my surprise, it’s the Cardinal pitching/defense they see taking a downturn.
To keep it very simple, I’m just looking at projected runs scored and runs allowed. And because those raw totals need context, here’s where the Cardinals have ranked in recent seasons and where these projection systems see them:
The Cardinals have been a bottom third offensive team for the past two seasons, and that’s exactly where these projections see them this year. But St. Louis has been a playoff team each of the last two years because of elite run prevention, and it is here that PECOTA and Davenport are projecting a major drop, relative to recent seasons.
Kolten Wong’s departure will mean a dip in defense, but but the overall change there should be minimal. So I think it would be accurate to say the downgrade will come primarily in terms of pitching.
That surprises me. It’s not something I expect as a follower of the club, and yet I can see where a projection system would see things that way.
The bullpen is absolutely stacked - especially with Alex Reyes pegged to at least begin the season there.
The rotation was set to be nearly the same, with the subtraction of Dakota Hudson. Injuries to Mikolas and Kim look like they will test that depth, though I’m not certain to what degree those are factored into the current projections I’m looking at - and these projected numbers haven’t moved that much from before Spring Training.
But it makes sense in so much that - beyond Jack Flaherty - none of these guys jump off the page in terms of stats. There is a lot of depth if you consider guys like Ponce de Leon, Gant, Oviedo, Thompson, Liberatore et al. viable options.
I consider those guys viable depth options because I trust the Cardinals ability to crank out quality pitching. And there is enough quantity in the guys available, they can quickly move on from anyone who doesn’t have it. But if you’re a baseball projecting robot... what do those guys look like? Some scattered MLB experience between the rotation and the pen. A lot of minor league work. If I were a robot, I wouldn’t project much either.
That said, it’s never a good idea to dismiss the robots. My stupid emotions might well have me overvaluing these options.
As the season begins, I won’t be surprised or worried if the offense struggles. I’ll be watching the pitching. As long as the pitching remains strong, I still feel confident the Cardinals will win a relatively weak division.