Here we are at the gates of the 2015 season, anxiously awaiting their opening on Sunday evening. The Cardinals and Cubs will play less than 60 hours from now in a game tabbed to begin the season not just for the great rivalry it involves, but also to shine a spotlight on the excitement that has rightfully developed surrounding the Cubs as their rebuilding mode appears to be shifting into once again competing. But despite returning much of last year's NL runners-up roster, the Cardinals are shifting as well. As Derrick Goold eloquently considered a week ago, the Redbird core is aging while a group of young players vie to become the next group central to the organization's successes.
Some variance around expected performance is a given for any player, even those as established and solid as the Cardinal core of Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Matt Holliday. But, barring an injury, the difference between a good but not shockingly good season and a disappointing but not shockingly disapponting one for each of those players doesn't have the potential to be so cavernous that it completely sinks or buoys the entire team. The same can probably be said for Jhonny Peralta, Jon Jay, John Lackey, and Lance Lynn. Matt Adams has a little bit of Chris Davis' background in his background if you squint hard enough, and is plenty young and strong to come into significantly more power, but a huge breakout from him would still qualify as very surprising. And while it's fun to dream about Matt Carpenter developing a little more power, especially after his memorable post-season slugging last year, it's likely we'll have to settle for him just being really good at not making outs.
This leaves a group of four players who have wide enough variances around the mean of what we could reasonably expect that their performances relative to what the Cardinals need from them could handicap or elevate the entire team. This group consists of Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong, and Jason Heyward. Let's work backward.
Of this quartet, Heyward has the highest floor as well as the highest ceiling. His floor (again, this is among outcomes that should not shock anyone paying attention: we're not talking about unexpected abyssal lines a la 2014 Allen Craig) is repeating last season's solid but not powerful offensive performance while playing good but not as amazing defense as he did last season. This is still a 3-4 WAR player, and while it would be disappointing, nobody would be overly startled by it.
However, as I argued more extensively a month ago, Heyward's ceiling is stratospheric. Given his still tender age of 25, the historically elite pedigree he established as a rookie, and the various skills he has already displayed, it should shock none but the most cynical if Heyward puts up the best season by a Cardinal since Albert Pujols went West. Jason Heyward has already had a full season with a .393 OBP. He has hit 27 home runs with a .479 SLG in a power suppressing ballpark before. He has saved over 17 runs in a season defensively before, and he has been worth nearly 10 on the basepaths. While he's not done all of these things at once, he does already have a 6.5 WAR season to his name, and if he is able to improve his game based on displaying all of the skills he's already flashed, (again--he's just 25!) he's one of the best players in baseball, and 7 or even 8 WAR would not have to involve divine intervention.
Here's a fun chart, and by fun I mean not actually fun at all. In fact, it's the opposite of fun.
Consider the similarities. Make your guesses. Ok, got your guesses? I bet at least some of you figured out that those are the ZiPS projections for, in this order, Kolten Wong, Ty Kelly, and Dean Anna. Now, Wong is the best defender and base runner there, though Anna is probably plus defensively as well and Kelly isn't bad. But, if we're just looking at the numbers, Kolten didn't exactly set the world on fire last year, and the projection systems that just look at numbers don't think he's all that different offensively from a couple of guys who the Cardinals picked up last off-season for basically nothing. Is Wong's reasonably bad season around 2 WAR, possibly losing occasional playing time? That's what STEAMER projects for him, and it's not even talking about the idea of "floor."
On the other hand, Wong put up decent but underwhelming numbers last year in a somehow very exciting manner. He was jerked around a bit, had a shoulder injury, and still marked those decent numbers while looking like a wonderful base runner and fielder. He had a great post-season, and simply looks like he's going to be an athletic and awesome ballplayer. That's my story, anyway, and VEB agrees. Judging by last year's results, VEB's community projections for the Cardinals are as good as any other system, and while it has shown a fair amount of restraint this season in projecting most of this year's team, the VEBBOT2015 is positively giddy about Wong, and has projected him to possibly be the best 2B in the national league this year with a .339 wOBA and 24 stolen bases. Add in good defense and that's a 5 WAR player, dear VEB. STEAMER and VEB have a 3 WAR gap in projections, so that seems like a conservative range of upside and downside that could happen without being particularly surprising.
While an injury to Adam Wainwright could leave the Cardinals with a staggering hole in their WAR reserves, and would admittedly not be all that shocking, Wacha is the one player on the team expected to contribute a lot whose health is tenuous enough that it has to be considered in the terms we're discussing. It seems like a long time ago now, but early last June, Michael Wacha looked not just like the rightful heir to Adam Wainwright's throne at the top of of the Cardinal rotation, but rather a usurper who might forcefully topple the old guard. Wacha's hot gas, outstanding change-up, strong command, and developing curve were clicking, and he struck out 29% of the batters he face in April, walking just 6%. His strikeouts dropped a bit in May, but he kept up the rest of his peripherals and entered June with a Wainwrightian 2.45 ERA and a 2.78 FIP, numbers now obscured by three rough outings in June that preceded the announcement of his injury and a scattering of mediocre appearances late in the year after recovered.
This leaves Wacha as a massive wildcard entering 2015. If he's truly healthy and is able to pick up where he left off before his unusual injury, he could easily be the best pitcher on the Cardinals in 2015 and beyond. As you'll see in the predictions contest results below, VEB is bullish on the chances of this happening. On the other hand, injury comp Brandon McCarthy's career has had an awful lot of ups and downs, and whether Wacha can pitch a full season and whether he can be as effective as he was early last season are big question marks. There's a huge amount of variance around the 2 WAR ZiPS projects for Wacha, and it ranges from "long DL stint and maybe some ineffectiveness" to "best pitcher on the staff who ends the year in the Cy Young conversation."
Finally, El Gallo. Let's do this with no numbers. Carlos Martinez has a fastball that can reach
100 many miles per hour. He has a sinking fastball that Jeff Sullivan recently wrote was like Roy Halladay's but faster. He has an often but not always nasty slider and a sometimes really good but infrequently used (infrequently trusted?) change-up. The line on him is this: If Carlos Martinez doesn't refine his command and consistency, and if he does not find a way (that change-up?) to do well against lefties, he will be an occasionally brilliant pitcher, but his ceiling will ultimately be capped. If the young fireballer can refine his command and regularly use his change-up effectively, he's going to be a star, and it could happen this year.
It's possible, even likely, that through injury or sudden decline or major breakthrough another player on the Cardinals either exceeds or fails to meet expectations to such an extent that their performance is a major influence on the team relative to its pre-season outlook, in a positive or negative way. It's not hard to find examples of this in recent years. However, it's the four players above who most clearly offer this sort of upside and downside. Heyward at 4 and the rest of the trio at 2 is 10 WAR. Heyward putting in an MVP-like season and true breakouts from the other three players could clear a combined 22 wins. That cumulative total difference between the easy to imagine floors and ceilings among that quartet of 12ish WAR could easily mean the difference between missing the playoffs and winning 100 games given what the rest of the team offers.
Of course, it's unlikely that all of the four end up on the same end of what they might reasonably achieve. Most likely, there will be a mixture. But while there is clear downside to all of these players, on Sunday night when MLB kicks off a season of hyping the easy to dream on Cub youngsters, I'm perfectly content to imagine steps forward for four young players dripping with upside who wear the birds on the bat. And I say they end up closer to the top than the bottom of their collective range in projections.
The summary of results for the VEB predictions contest follows shortly. Using this type of spreadsheet summary from google had some funky formatting issues last year. My apologies if it does again.
But first, I'd like to take a minute to say goodbye to you fine people. At least a little bit of a goodbye, anyway. Life is getting busier for me, and after this post, I have nothing scheduled for the site except the results of the predictions contest after the season is over. Writing for Viva El Birdos over the last year has meant a lot to me, and I have enjoyed being a part of the community here for much longer than that. I'll still stop by to say hello and help tier things in the comments section from time to time, and I'll be at VEB day (Today is the last day to sign up! Go sign up!) and the CardsCare 6K. As long as Catapults is willing, Dugout Thrones will continue, and I might pop up as a byline on occasion during the season if Ben needs a hand with something, but it won't be frequent. Anyway, it's been fun. Thanks to all of you, and of course many thanks to our mighty and noble leader Ben Humphrey.
Your contest predictions:
What team will win the NL Central in 2015?
How many games will the Cardinals win in 2015?
Will Jason Heyward sign a contract extension with the Cardinals during the 2015 regular season?
Who will hit the most home runs in 2015 among the following?
How many starts will Carlos Martinez make in 2015?
Rank the following three players according to games appeared in, most to fewest
|Randal Grichuk, Mark Reynolds, Peter Bourjos||44||22.2%|
|Randal Grichuk, Peter Bourjos, Mark Reynolds||33||16.7%|
|Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, Mark Reynolds||25||12.6%|
|Peter Bourjos, Mark Reynolds, Randal Grichuk||25||12.6%|
|Mark Reynolds, Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk||25||12.6%|
|Mark Reynolds, Randal Grichuk, Peter Bourjos||46||23.2%|
Who will be the most useful to the Cardinals in 2015 per fWAR
Who will have the lowest FIP with at least 130 IP?
Trevor Rosenthal: over/under 39.5 saves
Jordan Walden: over/under 10.00% BB rate
How many games will Yadier Molina start?
Marco Gonzales will have this many IP in the major leagues
Rank according to fWAR, most to least.
|Jon Jay, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong||5||2.5%|
|Jon Jay, Kolten Wong, Matt Adams||13||6.6%|
|Kolten Wong, Jon Jay, Matt Adams||60||30.3%|
|Kolten Wong, Matt Adams, Jon Jay||82||41.4%|
|Matt Adams, Jon Jay, Kolten Wong||12||6.1%|
|Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, Jon Jay||26||13.1%|
Rank according to fWAR, most to least.
|Jason Heyward, Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta||108||54.5%|
|Jason Heyward, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter||47||23.7%|
|Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter, Jason Heyward||1||0.5%|
|Jhonny Peralta, Jason Heyward, Matt Carpenter||9||4.5%|
|Matt Carpenter, Jason Heyward, Jhonny Peralta||27||13.6%|
|Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Jason Heyward||6||3%
Kolten Wong SB: 24.5
Jason Heyward SB: 18.9