Given the way this offseason has played out so far, it seems likely that the Chicago Cubs will go into the 2016 season as the clear favorites in the NL Central. That does not mean that the Cardinals and Pirates are bad teams by any stretch. According to FanGraphs depth charts, the Cardinals are currently projected for 40.5 WAR in 2016, which would put them somewhere around 88 wins. Unfortunately, the Cubs are currently projected to be eleven games ahead of the Cardinals, which means that a lot will have to go right for them in 2016 if they hope to capture a fourth straight division title.
The Cardinals could potentially chip away at this eleven game difference by signing a free agent or two, but given John Mozeliak's statements regarding the unlikelihood of an impact signing, it appears that the Cardinals will need players already on their roster to perform better than expected if they are going to have any chance of catching the Cubs.
After looking through the Cardinals' 2016 Steamer projections, I came up with a list of players who I believe have a chance of significantly outperforming these projections. Keep in mind that projections are simply an estimate of a player's current true talent level. They give us a sense of the most likely outcome for a player over a specific period of time. For this exercise, I am only including players who I think have a decent chance of outperforming their projections in a significant way. In theory, every player on the Cardinals has as much of a chance of outperforming their projections as they do of underperforming them, since projections give us a player's 50th percentile level of production. I do not intend to run through reasons why every player could do slightly better than their projections. Instead, I hope to focus on players that I believe have a wider range of potential outcomes for next season.
As Ben Markham pointed out last week, Carpenter has evolved as a hitter over the last few years. In 2015, he hit for more power than usual, posting career highs in home runs (28) and slugging percentage (.505). All told, he was worth 5.2 fWAR this past season. My optimism about Carpenter has to do with the fact that he has outperformed his projected 3.8 fWAR mark each of the last three seasons, twice by more than one win. While some regression is to be expected, it is not as though Carpenter is in the twilight of his career. (He just turned 30.) If his 2015 power surge is more sustainable than the projections think it is, then Carpenter should have no problem outperforming his projection. It will also be interesting to see if Mike Matheny can better manage Carpenter's playing time to help him avoid fatigue-related slumps like the one he experienced for much of the 2015 season.
Wong has been a streaky player so far in his young career, showing All-Star potential while also enduring extended slumps. In the first half of the 2015 season, Wong slashed .280/343/.434 with a 114 wRC+, and he did so while posting a normal BABIP of .310. Unfortunately, Wong was essentially a replacement level player in the second half of the season, despite his above average defense. It is not unusual to see a player like Wong struggle with consistency in his first full season in the major leagues. I still believe that he has the potential to be a four win player at his peak, especially given the fact that he can provide value in many different ways, whether through offense, defense, or baserunning.
After following up his excellent 2014 season with a strong first half in 2015, Jhonny Peralta experienced a second half slump that mirrored that of Kolten Wong. He still posted an above batting line overall (105 wRC+), but his defensive metrics in 2015 were unusually bad, especially compared to his previous four seasons. Peralta's projections have him rebounding somewhat in 2016, and I think he has the potential to do even better. He is not far removed from his excellent 2014 season, and he averaged 4.1 fWAR per season from 2011-2014. If Mike Matheny can avoid running him into the ground like he did in 2015, then Peralta may be capable of producing at least one more above average season.
Alex Crisafulli covered Piscotty in detail on Thursday, so I won't say too much here. Piscotty will almost certainly see his .372 BABIP fall, but if he can maintain his 2015 power numbers, he could develop into at least a league average regular. His defensive metrics also seem unusually pessimistic, as most scouting reports had him rated as an average defender. Of all the players on this list, I am probably most comfortable taking the over on Piscotty's projection, especially if the Cardinals decide to stick with their current group of outfielders.
At age 23, Martinez had an outstanding first full season in the rotation, posting a 3.01 ERA in 179 2/3 innings, with his peripherals suggesting that this level of performance was quite sustainable. When compared to other age-23 seasons over the last ten years, Martinez's 2015 season ranks fourth in strikeout rate (behind Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo, and Clayton Kershaw), fifth in FIP (behind Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez, and Mat Latos), third in xFIP (behind Kershaw, Alex Wood, and Chris Sale), and eight in ERA. What Martinez has done at his age is remarkable, and his level of performance at his age makes him comparable to several elite pitchers. If he can stay healthy, he has the talent to blow past his projections and be one of the top pitchers in the National League as soon as next season.
Like Martinez, Wacha is a young and talented starting pitcher who has had some success early in his career. Unfortunately for Wacha, his numbers have been trending in the wrong direction since his shoulder injury in 2014. In 137 1/3 innings prior to his shoulder injury, Wacha posted a 2.91 FIP with a 24.0 percent strikeout rate. Since that point, he has posted a 3.87 FIP with a 19.6 percent strikeout rate in 198 innings.
Wacha's projections seem to think he will pitch at around the same level he has since his shoulder injury, which is understandable. However, Wacha is still only 24, so there is still hope that he become the elite pitcher we thought he was not too long ago. While it will be hard to look past his ugly end to the 2015 season, the good news is that Wacha's velocity and movement have remained steady since his debut. As Joe Schwarz has frequently pointed out, Wacha's biggest issue appears to be fastball command. If Wacha can somehow find a way to improve in this area (and that is a big if), his upside could be huge.
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While it is unlikely that all of these players outperform their projections in 2016, a case can be made that each of these players has the ability to outperform their projections in a potentially significant way next season. I could have also included Jaime Garcia on this list, strictly due to his low projected innings total, but I decided not to tempt the baseball gods by discussing the possibility of him getting through a full season healthy. Brandon Moss is another player who could have a rebound season in 2016 since he is further removed from his hip surgery, but at this point, it is unclear how much playing time he will actually receive.
The Cardinals are positioned several games behind the Cubs at this point, and they are lacking in high-end major league talent, as no one on their roster is projected for 4 WAR or better next season. However, the Cardinals do have several players capable of outperforming their projections, and they may need some of these players to contribute in more than expected in order to help the team compete with the Cubs next season.