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Where do the Cardinals stand in the NL Central?

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The Cardinals have won the NL Central three years in a row, but they may not be favorites to win it again in 2016 unless they make some significant moves.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Cardinals played in what was quite possibly the best division in baseball, as they, along with Pirates and Cubs all made the playoffs with at least 97 wins. The Cardinals had to win 100 games just to win the NL Central, and it does not appear that things will get any easier for them moving forward. The Cubs and Pirates are loaded with young talent, while some of the Cardinals' top players are entering their mid-30s.

This offseason is a big one for the Cardinals, not only because the Cubs and Pirates are more threatening than ever, but also because two of the team's biggest contributors in 2015 could leave the team via free agency. (John Lackey already signed with the Cubs, while Jason Heyward is still available.) With the Winter Meetings set to begin and many moves expected to be made in the coming days, I thought it would be helpful to get an idea of where the Cardinals stand in comparison to the other teams in their division and the rest of the National League.

We could start by looking at where each team stood at the end of the season. While the Cardinals did win 100 games this past season, they outperformed their BaseRuns record in a major way. BaseRuns record gives us an estimate of how many games a team "should have" won based on their component offensive and pitching statistics. According to BaseRuns, the Cardinals played like an 89 win team, slightly behind the Pirates (91 wins) and Cubs (94 wins). Among National League teams, the Cardinals ranked 6th, behind the Dodgers (95 wins), Mets and Nationals (90 wins). Had the Cardinals' actual record matched their BaseRuns record, they would have missed the second Wild Card spot by one game.

Based on what we know from BaseRuns, it likely would have been unrealistic to go into the offseason envisioning the Cardinals as the best team in the National League, even without the potential losses of John Lackey and Jason Heyward. We should further adjust our expectations by looking ahead to what players are projected to do going forward, as opposed to what they did in 2015. Using the Steamer projections of the players currently on each team's roster, I came up with the projected WAR total for each team in the National League. Steamer projections are by no means perfect, but they work well for this particular exercise, in large part because they estimate playing time on a team basis. For example, Steamer projections make sure that the total games started by a team's starting pitchers adds up to 162.

Here is a look at the projected team WAR totals for all 15 National League teams.

As you can see, the Cardinals are 6th in the National League at 38.5 WAR. This includes 20.4 WAR from position players and 18.1 WAR from pitchers. These projections put the Cardinals in the same place that BaseRuns did at the end of the season: approximately one game out of the second Wild Card spot. A replacement level team is expected to win around 47.7 games, according to FanGraphs, so the Cardinals with their current roster would be expected to win somewhere around 86 wins.

Most notably, the Cubs are ahead of the Cardinals by over five wins, while the Pirates are ahead of the Cardinals by less than a win. This is not terribly surprising, considering that the Cubs are the only team to make a marquee addition so far this offseason.

While this is just one one estimate of the Cardinals' true talent level at this moment in time, it gives us a good sense of where the Cardinals are in terms of the 2016 playoff picture. With the roster the Cardinals have right now, they are a borderline playoff team, but they need to make a move or two to secure their position as a favorite for a playoff spot. If they re-sign Jason Heyward, which seems to be one of the only big free agents moves they could make at this point, they would be adding somewhere in the range of four wins, which would put them ahead of the Pirates, Mets and Nationals and within striking distance of the Cubs. (The four win number comes from Heyward's 4.7 WAR Steamer projection. I reduced this number slightly to account for the subsequent reduction in playing time for players like Holliday, Grichuk, Piscotty, Adams, and Moss.)

Unless disaster strikes, the Cardinals will be in the hunt for a playoff spot next season, even with their roster as it is currently constructed. They still have areas they can upgrade, though, and they are in the spot on the win curve where the marginal value of a win should be highest (i.e. each win they add this offseason could make a huge difference deciding whether or not the team makes the playoffs). If the Cardinals re-sign Jason Heyward and add a decent starting pitcher, which seem to be their top priorities at the moment, then they could realistically be co-favorites (along with the Cubs) to win the NL Central once again in 2016.