Baseball is finally back. The free agent market has heated up and the St. Louis Cardinals first spring workout is on Monday. There is finally a sense of optimism in baseball fans everywhere, and that optimism has certainly spread to the Cardinals. According to both John Denton and Derrick Goold, Oli Marmol and the Cardinals would be disappointed with anything less than a championship this season. John Denton also wrote that Marmol said he “couldn’t be more excited about directing a Cardinals franchise that already has established a championship-or-bust mentality.”
The first question, then, is can this team win a World Series this year and should it be disappointed if it doesn’t? Beyond that, it’s possible to question the idea that the Cardinals have already had a championship-or-bust mentality.
In short, the answer to the first question is yes. This team is certainly capable of winning a championship. Is it a World Series favorite? Certainly not. There are other teams with more talent (on paper at least) and higher payrolls. Still, with an expanded playoff that adds one more team per league and a new format in which the first round is best-of-three, there is more randomness in the playoffs than in previous seasons. It’s a common thought among Cardinals fans that this could be helpful for a team that typically hovers around 90 wins.
However, if we are talking about how increased playoff randomness could help a team, then that team is certainly not a World Series favorite.
I admire the optimism from Marmol and the Cardinals and it’s certainly something that you want to see. I would hope the team has the World Series in its sights because that’s exactly how a team should be thinking in the Spring. Especially a team that can win its division. From the outside, though, the team does not seem to be among the World Series favorites, and while there is always disappointment when the Cardinals are bounced out of the playoffs, I won’t feel like they underachieved if they fall short of a team like the Dodgers.
In particular, the team looks to have a relatively weak pitching staff when compared to other contenders. There are so many question marks. Can a 40-year-old Adam Wainwright keep pitching well? Is Jack Flaherty an ace? Can Steven Matz justify his contract and stay healthy? Can Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas stay healthy? It’s possible that everything goes well but it’s equally possible that nothing does. The Cardinals have done a good job of adding swingman depth with a pair of signings from Asia and Jake Woodford should also be able to cover innings as needed. This is not exactly an imposing rotation, though. It’s fine, but it’s not much more than that unless some players pitch better than expected.
Oli Marmol could help if he is willing to be creative. Steven Matz could be a prime candidate for piggybacking and other pitchers could be as well once the doubleheaders cause games to pile up. The Cardinals would be smart to keep at least eight pitchers stretched out to start, or pitch longer relief stints, because injuries will happen with a shorter Spring Training and more doubleheaders. These eight pitchers could be part of a piggybacking strategy that could be used to monitor the workload’s of some pitchers without overly taxing the bullpen
The team has done a good job of adding depth to cover for increased workloads, but they did not add any high end talent that truly elevates the rotation. For better or for worse, the Cardinals are relying on their pitching staff to provide balanced production or have someone claim a top-of-the-rotation role.
The Blue Jays recently signed Yusei Kikuchi to a similar contract to the one Matz signed with the Cardinals. Kikuchi’s xFIP perhaps makes the Blue Jays think his results will improve outside Seattle, but he was signed to augment an already strong rotation consisting of Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. That’s the difference between his signing and the Matz signing. Matz was signed to solidify the rotation whereas Kikuchi was signed to finish an already strong group.
Perhaps the Cardinals believe Jack Flaherty can be an ace and Adam Wainwright can repeat last year’s success. Maybe Matthew Liberatore can help the rotation this year and deliver on his potential. Dakota Hudson hasn’t pitched much in recent years but if he stops walking batters then he could make a leap. There is the potential for this group of pitchers to overperform, but there are certainly fewer questions in the rotations of other playoff contenders, like the Blue Jays and the Dodgers, for example.
The lineup should be solid, but the Cardinals’ World Series hopes would be boosted with improvement from Dylan Carlson and Nolan Arenado, as well as consistent production at shortstop. I am much less worried about bats than I am about arms, though, so the team’s success this season may come down to how well the rotation holds up, or how creative Oli Marmol can be in a pinch.
Again, though, anything can happen in the playoffs, and the Cardinals should at least make the playoffs. We all saw when the Braves came out of nowhere to win the title, so it’s certainly possible for a team who doesn’t dominate during the regular season to make a run. Perhaps even more so with the new structure.
Spring is the time for optimism. The Cardinals may be talking about championships, and even though it doesn’t seem likely on paper, now is the time for hope. Baseball is back and the Cardinals will play good baseball. After a 99 day lockout, that is enough for me.
In regards, to the Cardinals having already established a championship-or-bust-mentality, that doesn’t seem to be the case in the last few years. Since 2018, the team has finished with between 88 and 91 wins each season (excluding 2020). The team didn’t make the playoffs in 2018, and it has gone 4-9 in the postseason in the last three seasons. The team did make an NLCS but then got swept by the Nationals in 2019.
That is not exactly championship-or-bust, and quite honestly, the team hasn’t done enough in the offseason to show that they are championship or bust. Instead they have been the typically Cardinals, filling gaps and looking like a possible division winner but not one of the best teams in the league. It should be another good season for a team that is consistently good and probably always has championship aspirations, even if St. Louis is never considered among the top contenders.
Are Marmol’s comments about the Cardinals a little overly hyped up? Perhaps. But I’m not going to complain about my team declaring it’s intention to win. It’s still spring and there’s a long season on it’s way. It’s fine to talk about a championship, but the Cardinals needed to do more to their pitching staff to be a true contender on paper. Regardless, baseball is back and optimism is in the air. It’s fine to be hopeful and dream of a World Series. Perhaps the Cardinals will make it happen, but the team at least has a lot of confidence and plenty of drive.