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Which Cardinals are most likely to take home awards in 2017?

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2016 was a quiet year for the Cardinals come awards season. Could 2017 be any different?

NLCS - Los Angeles Dodgers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The 2016 MLB Awards season was a quiet one for the St. Louis Cardinals. In National League Most Valuable Player voting, only catcher Yadier Molina received any votes, and he still managed to only finish tied for 23rd, along with other MVP non-candidates Ryan Braun and Kyle Hendricks. Despite a few strong pitching seasons, notably from Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals were shut out of NL Cy Young voting. And while Aledmys Diaz, and to a lesser extent Seung-hwan Oh, had semi-credible Rookie of the Year candidacies, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, who finished third in MVP voting, rendered all other candidates also-rans.

Mike Matheny received no votes for Manager of the Year; while he was frequently criticized for his tactics in 2016, he has also been praised by more old-school outlets for his interpersonal skills, and of the five managers in the NL whose teams finished with a better record than Matheny’s, only San Francisco Giants skipper Bruce Bochy did not receive votes for the award. Additionally, the Cardinals were shut out in Gold Glove and Silver Slugger voting.

The Cardinal who likely had the most credible case to win any of these awards last season was Adam Wainwright for Silver Slugger. He and Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who won the award, were easily the front-runners by most measures. By runs batted in, a dubious stat for measuring talent but able to measure raw production, Wainwright was better, but by wRC+, a more context-neutral statistic, Arrieta held a slight edge. Jake Arrieta also benefited from a much-higher batting average on balls in play. One could make an argument for either.

But while Adam Wainwright is a decent hitter by pitcher standards, he has generally not been the strongest in the league—Arrieta has historically been better, and Madison Bumgarner remains the odds-on favorite entering any season. He probably has a better chance of winning the pitching Gold Glove, which he has already won twice.

Yadier Molina has some chance at a Gold Glove since, well, he has eight of them. His defensive statistics took a tumble in 2016, but if they can even just jump back up to average, he has enough of a reputation that he may still have a chance at hardware. Otherwise, Gold Glove may be an uphill climb for the Cardinals, unless Randal Grichuk’s move from center field to left field really does turn him into an elite fielder.

A healthy Matt Carpenter would have a reasonable, if somewhat outside, chance at a Silver Slugger at third base, but it is more of an uphill battle at first base. Just in the division, Carpenter will have to compete against Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo, while the league also includes (literal) heavy-hitters Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

Aledmys Diaz was a surprise offensive threat from a defensively-inclined position last season. He ranked second in the NL among shortstops by wRC+ to fellow rookie Corey Seager, a highly touted prospect who is certainly the favorite for the award this season. While Diaz is the likelier regression candidate between the two, given that his strong 2016 was more shocking, this is one of those cases where the wide overall variability of outcomes gives Diaz a better chance than projections might suggest. Though, and let’s be very clear—Aledmys Diaz remains a long shot.

Dexter Fowler had an incrementally worse offensive season in 2016 than Silver Slugger winner Charlie Blackmon, trailing the Rockies center fielder by one point of wRC+. Fowler remains a reasonable candidate for the award, but Blackmon, new Nationals center fielder Adam Eaton, and Diamondbacks bounce-back candidate A.J. Pollock mean a fairly clustered field.

Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers are possible, even if no one player is a runaway candidate to win one, but these are somewhat uninspiring awards. The one-per-position crowns are quickly forgotten by casual fans, but you probably remember the last Cardinal to win MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards (2009 Albert Pujols, 2005 Chris Carpenter, and 2001 Albert Pujols respectively, though you already knew that, according to me earlier in this sentence). So which Cardinal is most likely to take home one of the major awards?

Two and a half weeks ago, this answer was very easy—rookie pitcher Alex Reyes. He was listed as one of five leading NL candidates by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo in November (and one of the five, Lucas Giolito, had since been traded to an American League club), and Reyes had shown flashes of brilliance in his time with St. Louis in 2016. But with his season-ending Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals lack an obvious Rookie of the Year candidate.

Luke Weaver, however, leads this particular pack—despite a defined lack of role, there are many spots where he is the likely backup plan. Carson Kelly, the team’s other top prospect who is considered at-or-near MLB-ready, is only likely to make the Major League club early in the season if there is an injury to Yadier Molina, and even then, catchers of Kelly’s age (he turns 23 in July) are rarely effective enough as rookies to make a significant dent in voting for the Rookie of the Year Award.

For Cy Young, easily the most likely candidate from the Cardinals is Carlos Martinez. By projected Wins Above Replacement according to ZiPS, Martinez ranks tied for 14th among National League pitchers. By Steamer, he is tied for 10th by projected fWAR and projected RA9-WAR (WAR as dictated primarily by earned-run average, rather fielding-independent pitching). While there are some names ahead of him that Martinez could reasonably argue to be placed above, such as Robbie Ray or Aaron Nola, most are established aces—names like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Noah Syndergaard.

But unlike Adam Wainwright or Lance Lynn, pitchers who seem to have reached their peak already, Martinez has room to grow. Particularly with Reyes not available, Carlos Martinez has the highest potential among Cardinals pitchers. Michael Wacha is less likely than Martinez to sustain himself over a full season, even if he does pitch at his fairly high peak level of performance.

Even the most ardent Pecota subscriber would acknowledge that even if Mike Leake is projected as the top pitcher on the Cardinals, he has a relatively narrow range of potential outcomes—Leake is safe to be a solid pitcher, but unlikely to rise to the level of Cy Young-caliber. Martinez has that. And while the Cardinals do have a few high-upside relievers, that Zach Britton of the Baltimore Orioles could only managed a 4th place Cy Young finish with a 0.54 ERA, a perfect save conversion rate, and a lack of slam-dunk starter candidates suggests that the era of closers getting serious Cy Young consideration may be over.

MVP candidates seemingly are unlikely for the Cardinals in 2017—while ZiPS has a perfectly rosy expectation for the Cardinals in general, it is via an accumulation of good players rather than through one or two great ones. Five position players are projected for between 2 and 2.5 WAR—Matt Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Yadier Molina, Dexter Fowler, and Aledmys Diaz.

Any or all of these players reaching their projection could very well happen, but in the case of MVP consideration, players would need to exceed this mark—2.5 wins wouldn’t be enough for down-ballot votes, much less actual contention. Fowler seems unlikely to contend because with an eight-year sample size, he has never been a serious MVP candidate—2016 was Fowler’s best season and he did not manage a single top ten MVP vote. Even if he pieced together all of the elements he has displayed throughout his career, he probably wouldn’t earn a single first-place vote.

Matt Carpenter received some semi-serious MVP consideration in 2013, but this was carried by the fact that he was supplying decent defense at a premium position—now that Carpenter has moved from second base to third base and now to first base, he would need a level of offensive transcendence that, despite his very good offensive numbers, he has yet to reach, in order to make a serious MVP run.

Aledmys Diaz had a terrific rookie 2016, but even if we are to assume that he is completely for real (there are levels of “for real”-ness, and I would consider him being a league-average shortstop as opposed to being “the guy who couldn’t beat out Ruben Tejada for a roster spot last Spring” him being “for real”, but this level means “2016 was what he will be going forward), he is still far behind Corey Seager.

Stephen Piscotty is young enough and developing in such an unexpected way—that he has displayed moderate power in the big leagues was not expected—that I’m not ready to count out anything for his future. But if somebody is to make an MVP run for the Cardinals in 2017, my pick would be Yadier Molina.

While he probably won’t maintain his 150 wRC+ from the second half of 2016, his marked improvement at the plate, coupled with his sterling reputation for leadership and defense (his declining metrics behind the plate aside), could give him a bump. After all, when Molina tied Braun and Hendricks in MVP voting last season, he was drawing with two players with fairly substantial WAR advantages (by bWAR: Braun had 4.4, Hendricks had 5.0, Molina had 2.9). No player on the Cardinals matches Molina’s ability to exceed his player value metrics in awards voting.


Molina probably isn’t going to win MVP.

Or even come close, really. And at the end of the day, this doesn’t matter too much for his team’s success or lack thereof. If I had to rank the candidates for the big three awards from most to least likely to win, I’d take Martinez, then Weaver (Rookie of the Year is somewhat wide open, and I could see the argument for Weaver in first), then Molina. But all are long shots. But few, if any, had Rick Porcello on their radar heading into 2016 for AL Cy Young. Max Scherzer was a candidate in the NL, but he was not the candidate. Weird things happen, and perhaps they will happen again. I just wouldn’t hold out too much hope.