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Are the Cardinals Being Underrated this Year?

I don’t know. But yes.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Man, projection systems really hate the St. Louis Cardinals. You already knew that, though. Did you know that it’s not just the computer systems who underrate the team this year? Maybe you do too, but you shouldn’t. Baseball is back and the Cardinals are winning so I’m feeling positive. Let’s push back against some of the unbelief in the team this year and have some faith that the Cardinals will be the strong team that they typically are.

First off, PECOTA has the Cardinals finishing with a 79-83 record. Yes. You read that right. 79-83. A losing record. Anyone know the last time that happened? It was 2007. The last time before that was 1999. So the Cardinals have had a losing record exactly one time in the 21st century. I’m not expecting it to happen again with this team.

Another aspect of this projection is that it puts the Cardinals in third place in the NL Central, meaning that PECOTA projected the Reds to win more games. Yes, the same Reds who finished behind the Cardinals last year and then sold off most of their good players. Interesting.

Fangraphs is more positive, but not much more. The site has projected the team to finish either 83-79 or 84-78 depending on which way you want to round a half win and a half loss. I still think this is too low, but at least they project a winning record.

Let’s not hate on the projection systems too much because they can definitely be useful. But they are built with a specific and undeviating formula that doesn’t account for plenty of factors. There are limitations, especially when it comes to the Cardinals who are underrated by them every year.

I looked at projections from eight other sites to see how national media outlets view the Cardinals. The results are as follows.

Where National Sites Rank the Cardinals

Site Ranking
Site Ranking
ESPN 15th
USA Today 10th
Sports Illustrated 16th
CBS Sports 15th
The Ringer 16th
Bleacher Report 13th 13th
NBC Sports 16th

Only three out of eight of these sites think the Cardinals are better than dead average and only one of these rankings puts the team in the top 12, which is the size of the playoffs under the new CBA.

There seems to be little belief in the Cardinals this year. Most years the Cardinals are seen as a ho-hum, kind of boring team. This is likely due in part to the fact that the team rarely spends money in free agency, though there have been some big trades in recent years. But also, the team has been so consistently good and rarely great that it’s never a trendy pick. Rather, it’s almost always easier for national outlets to see the Cardinals fading at the expense of whichever team is flashiest in the moment or whichever team spent the most money in free agency.

There are other baseball writers who have posted their predictions on Twitter and some have the Cardinals winning around 90-91 games while some weren’t nearly as high on the team and had St. Louis missing the playoffs.

Most of the criticism directed toward the Cardinals is focused on the rotation, which is fair. It could certainly be improved. But it’s definitely not bad. Wainwright looked like his vintage self on Opening Day and should have another strong year. Mikolas isn’t super exciting (and didn’t pitch well in his first outing) but he was an effective innings eater in his first two seasons in St. Louis. Dakota Hudson’s groundball tendencies should work well with this defense. Steven Matz isn’t a bad option even if the Cardinals could have done better in Spring Training. That’s to say nothing about Jordan Hicks who is a bit risky but has a high ceiling with his nasty stuff and extreme groundball tendencies.

Sure the Cardinals lack high end talent in the rotation, but they certainly aren’t lacking in mid-to-back-end talent. It might not be an exciting rotation, but it can be an effective one, especially with the best defense in baseball behind it. You want to see a bad rotation, look at the Pirates. In no world is J.T. Brubaker an Opening Day starter.

Elsewhere in the Central, ZIPS projected the Cardinals’ best five starters to be equal to the Cubs’ best five starters and the Cubs added Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley to a rotation that already had Kyle Hendricks. ZIPS also underrates Dakota Hudson in my opinion, projecting him for only 1.3 WAR. He has much more impact on the team than that.

Could the pitching be better? Sure. Is it terrible? No. It’s probably about average. But that’s only the rotation. The bullpen looks good with Gallegos, Cabrera (if he recovers his velocity), Whitley, and Ryan Helsley. There are some unknowns with VerHagen and Brooks and Pallante, but this is a group that I am higher on than most projection systems. And the pitching staff is the weakest part of the team. By far.

This defense is the best in the majors. It has five gold glove winners and there are at least average defenders at every position. This is the perfect group to pair with a mediocre pitching staff that pitches to contact. If anyone can help get value out of the rotation, this group of defenders can. Add on Oli Marmol’s willingness to pull pitchers earlier than Shildt and experiment with the rotation, and he should help maximize the value of the pitching staff too.

I understand the frustrations with the rotation. Believe me. I would be a whole lot more comfortable with a healthy Jack Flaherty and another higher tier option. But don’t let frustrations cloud your view of the staff. I wish it was better too, but that doesn’t make it bad. People tend to not be content with average, and I understand why, but when the worst part of your team is average, you have a pretty good team.

I am expecting this defense to help this group of pitchers at least be average. When Flaherty comes back it could be even better.

On offense, this is also a really good group. On Opening Day it was Tyler O’Neill doing the damage. In game two it was Nolan Arenado. Paul Goldschmidt has been an ever-present force while Dylan Carlson has been fine in the leadoff spot. Sure it’s only two games but all four of these hitters are really really good.

How much production the team gets from the DH spot and how well Paul DeJong hits the ball may determine the ceiling of this group, but it should still score plenty of runs. I mean Harrison Bader, who was an above average hitter last year, is batting eighth — literally at the bottom of the lineup despite a 110 wRC+. If DeJong has truly revamped his swing, that gives the team six above average hitters, with at least three well above average hitters. If Dickerson and Pujols can platoon well, then that’s seven out of nine spots that can do damage consistently. Even Tommy Edman isn’t a bad hitter, though he is below average.

So, does this team have weaknesses? Absolutely. Still, it’s an elite defensive team with an offense capable of scoring plenty of runs. That’s a team that can overcome average pitching. Can it beat the Brewers in the division? I don’t know, but it can definitely win more than 81 games. I agree with J.P. in his recent article. The Cardinals are much more likely to go 92-70 and contend for a division title than they are to fall out of the divisional race and miss the playoffs.

This is a good team, and it’s a team that is being slept on a little bit. The Cardinals aren’t competing with the Reds for second in the Central, they are competing with the Brewers for first. Beyond that, they are competing with all the top teams in the NL for playoff seeding.

Marmol wasn’t shy about his championship expectations in the spring. He wouldn’t be saying that if this was a .500 ballclub. It would be a disappointment if the team doesn’t at least make the playoffs this year. I know some fans want higher goals than 90 wins and a playoff berth, but don’t let that cloud your judgement of this team. The Cardinals are talented and exciting this year and they are a team that will be fun to watch.