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Can the Cardinals survive without a true "ace" in 2016?

The Cardinals are not projected to have an "elite" level starter in 2016. Do they need one to be contenders?

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks, in just their fourth year of existence, won the World Series. And although they had an 8.9 fWAR, 57 home run season from left fielder Luis Gonzalez, the team was notably guided to a championship by its co-ace starting pitchers: Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling finished 1st and 2nd respectively in NL Cy Young balloting, they finished 1st and 2nd among all pitchers in Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR, and finished 1st and 2nd in MLB in ERA.

The duo so defined the 2001 Diamondbacks that in the seventh game of that year's World Series, they each pitched--Schilling got the start, and after starting the previous night, Johnson pitched 1 1/3 innings of unblemished relief. The two split the World Series MVP award, they were declared Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year, and they etched out their own place in baseball lore.

And for a generation of baseball fans, they may have ruined our perception of how to build a World Series winner.

They made it look so simple, really. A team that had a 97 wRC+ in 2001, good for 15th of the 30 teams in MLB, and whose third-best starting pitcher was, depending on metric used, either Miguel Batista or Albie Lopez, won the World Series. While acquiring two pitchers as good as peak Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling wasn't going to be easy, it seemed like a cheat code of sorts for an instant Commissioner's Trophy.

If projection systems are to be trusted, the 2016 Cardinals have not positioned themselves to follow the 2001 Diamondbacks model. Projections should always be taken with a grain of salt, and they are notoriously conservative, but they display a reasonable snapshot of consensus player expectations.

According to Steamer, the Cardinals are projected by WAR to have the 27th, 28th, 47th, 66th, and 71st best starting pitchers in baseball in, respectively, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, and Mike Leake. If you were to assume an even distribution of talent, this would mean that the Cardinals have two low-end #1 starters, a mid-tier #2 starter, and two above-average #3 starters.

Now, by any reasonable measure, Mike Leake is excellent for a fifth starter, but this is a rotation whose strength lies in its depth, not in its high end.

There is a good chance that the projections are underestimating Cardinals pitchers, particularly Adam Wainwright. After all, while Wainwright is coming off a nearly season-long injury, that it was not an arm injury should probably alleviate at least some of the fears that fans and analysts tend to have about a pitcher's ability to bounce back when he gets hurt.

But even assuming the arguably pessimistic prognostication on Wainwright comes to fruition, what does this mean for the Cardinals? Can they survive without a man-against-the-world ace?

In the 2010s, six teams have won the World Series (this is the kind of high level sabermetric analysis I pride myself on bringing to readers). Here is each's top four starters (I went with four instead of five partially because teams usually only use four starters in the postseason, but mostly because the #5 starter is a more volatile role) with each's MLB rank by fWAR among starters in parentheses. Also included are the 2016 Cardinals by Steamer projections. Asterisk (*) denotes that the player was an in-season acquisition whose rank is based on full-season WAR, not only WAR accumulated with the World Series winning team.

2010 Giants 2011 Cardinals 2012 Giants 2013 Red Sox 2014 Giants 2015 Royals 2016 Cardinals
Tim Lincecum (20) Chris Carpenter (14) Matt Cain (21) Jon Lester (31) Madison Bumgarner (19) Johnny Cueto (19)* Adam Wainwright (27)
Matt Cain (26) Edwin Jackson (28)* Madison Bumgarner (32) Clay Buchholz (42) Tim Hudson (75) Yordano Ventura (45) Carlos Martinez (28)
Jonathan Sanchez (68) Jaime Garcia (30) Ryan Vogelsong (54) John Lackey (58) Jake Peavy (99)* Edinson Volquez (48) Michael Wacha (47)
Barry Zito (89) Kyle Lohse (59) Tim Lincecum (120) Felix Doubront (63) Ryan Vogelsong (108) Danny Duffy (127) Jaime Garcia (66)

There are a few recurring themes here, but an obvious one is that none of this decade's World Series champions had an otherworldly ace type of pitcher throughout the season.

Chris Carpenter of the 2011 Cardinals had the highest WAR rank, but even he was not among the 12 NL pitchers to receive Cy Young votes that season. In 2015, Johnny Cueto gained notoriety for his struggles with the Royals after being traded from the Reds. And while Madison Bumgarner's 2014 postseason was the stuff of legend (that he won Sportsman of the Year can be attributed to a lack of particularly interesting alternatives, but that's another subject), he was considered a good, but not superstar, pitcher before October of that year.

The great Ben Lindbergh, while with Baseball Prospectus, wrote about the relative lack of correlation between "ace-ness" and World Series championships. The best predictor of postseason success is something so simple it's embarrassing to admit how often I personally overlook it: how well the team performed prior to the postseason. Sure, there is a certain randomness to the playoffs, but in general, a team that wins a lot in April through September is the most likely to win in October.

But the ace narrative is exciting. A lone man against the world, putting an entire staff, team, city, region, and sense of moral righteousness on his back is an appealing story to tell, but it doesn't appear to be nearly as correlative as the 2001 Diamondbacks made a 12 year-old me believe it was.

Just for further focus on the "ace", here is how each World Series champion from 2002 through 2009 ranked among MLB starters by fWAR.

2002 Jarrod Washburn (20)
2003 Mark Redman (24)
2004 Curt Schilling (5)
2005 Mark Buehrle (7)
2006 Chris Carpenter (11)
2007 Josh Beckett (4)
2008 Cole Hamels (15)
2009 CC Sabathia (8)

Of the 14 World Series champions since the Diamondbacks had the #1 and #2 pitchers in baseball, no better than the fourth best pitcher on the season has won a World Series. Exactly half of the teams had a top-15 pitcher (theoretically, a top-half starter), and two of those seven teams had the #14 and #15 pitchers. An ace is great, but it does not prove to be necessary.

So what does happen to teams that stack their rotations with ace-level talent at the top? Depicted below are the teams since 2002 which have produced the most fWAR from its top three starters and how each fared in the playoffs.

Year Team Top 3 SP fWAR Season Result
2002 Diamondbacks Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Miguel Batista 20.5 98-64, lost in NLDS
2003 Cubs Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood 16.7 88-74, lost in NLCS
2004 Red Sox Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Bronson Arroyo 14.8 98-64, won World Series
2005 Astros Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte 17.9 89-73, lost World Series
2006 Astros Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte 12.9 82-80, 2nd place
2007 Padres Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux 14.9 89-73, lost play-in game
2008 Diamondbacks Dan Haren, Brandon Webb, Randy Johnson 15.4 82-80, 2nd place
2009 Cardinals Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Joel Pineiro 15.8 91-71, lost in NLDS
2010 Phillies Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels 14.0 97-65, lost in NLCS
2011 Phillies Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels 20.0 102-60, lost in NLDS
2012 Tigers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister 14.6 88-74, lost World Series
2013 Tigers Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander 17.0 93-69, lost in ALCS
2014 Tigers David Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez 14.5 90-72, lost in ALDS
2015 Dodgers Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Alex Wood 17.1 92-70, lost in NLDS

Of these thirteen teams, ten made the LDS round of eight. Chance suggests that a random team should win 1.25 World Series, and these teams slightly under-perform this, as only the 2004 Boston Red Sox (I don't want to talk about it, either) won the World Series.

Amazingly, three of these teams whose rotations supposedly gave them a disproportionate advantage in the postseason were bounced from the playoffs without winning a single game: the 2002 Diamodbacks (still employing Johnson and Schilling, mind you), the 2009 Cardinals, and the 2014 Tigers.

The ace starter is to the mythology of baseball what the cowboy is to the Western: an unassailable, untouchable icon of all that is good, both in terms of righteousness and quality. But both have been elevated over time because stories need heroes. And even if Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, or Michael Wacha do not become the hero of the 2016 Cardinals, history shows that the club can still be very successful without one.