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How close are the Cardinals to the Cubs right now?

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The Cardinals made a big moves while the Cubs have tinkered. Where do the two teams stand?

Gatorade All-Star Workout Day Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Cardinals missed the playoffs for the second straight year in 2017, and have been one of the more aggressive teams so far this offseason. The winter isn’t over and many free agents remained unsigned, but given the easiest way into the playoffs is to win the division, comparing the Cardinals to the Cubs is the best way to look at the Cardinals current shot at returning to the playoffs.

Last season, the Cardinals won 83 games but their underlying talent level played like a team that should have won about five more games. The Cubs won 92 games, and that was roughly their talent level during the year last year. We can’t simply look at those win totals or even the underlying peripheral totals, add or subtract the offseason moves and come up with a projected record.

For example, if you look at the Cubs, Jason Heyward, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist all had poor years, but we can probably expect some sort of rebound from those players. On the other hand, projection systems aren’t going to expect a repeat of Tommy Pham’s performance. Let’s take a look and see what the projections have to say.

Instead of going position by position, let’s go player by player, from best to worst, starting with position players. Projections from FanGraphs Depth Charts.

Cardinals Cubs Difference
Marcell Ozuna 3.8 Kris Bryant 6.3 Cubs +2.5
Tommy Pham 3.1 Anthony Rizzo 4.9 Cubs +1.8
Yadier Molina 2.7 WIllson Contreras 3.1 Cubs +0.4
Matt Carpenter 2.7 Addison Russell 2.9 Cubs +0.2
Paul DeJong 2.6 Jason Heyward 2.4 Cardinals +0.2
Jedd Gyorko 2.3 Javier Baez 2.2 Cardinals +0.1
Kolten Wong 2.3 Kyle Schwarber 2.0 Cardinals +0.3
Dexter Fowler 2.2 Ian Happ 1.7 Cardinals +0.5
The Rest 2.3 The Rest 3.7 Cubs +1.4
Total 24.0 Total 29.2 Cubs +5.2

The Cubs are up 5.2 WAR on the position player side. There are a few different ways to look at that difference. The first is to accept it. On paper, reasonable expectations for the Cubs put their position players at about five games better than the Cardinals. If you want a more optimistic view from the Cardinals perspective, it should be noted that if Heyward, Russell, Schwarber, and Zobrist all repeat their performances from last season, that’s about five games right there. The rest of the Cubs are basically supposed to repeat last season with Rizzo also getting a bit of a bounceback.

The other side of it from the Cardinals perspective is that a vast majority of the Cardinals players are expected to repeat 2017. Those that aren’t—Tommy Pham, Marcell Ozuna, and Paul DeJong—are expected to see their performances decline from last season. If Ozuna and Pham match RIzzo and Bryant like they did in 2017, the gap between Cubs and Cardinals position players is less than one game.

Now the rotation.

Cardinals Cubs Difference
Carlos Martinez 4.0 Jose Quintana 4.4 Cubs +0.4
Michael Waca 2.8 Jon Lester 3.5 Cubs +0.7
Luke Weaver 2.8 Kyle Hendricks 2.7 Cardinals +0.1
Miles Mikolas 1.9 Tyler Chatwood 1.9 Even
Adam Wainwright 1.7 Mike Montgomery 1.6 Cardinals +0.1
The Rest 2.6 The Rest 0.3 Cardinals +2.3
Total 15.8 Total 14.4 Cardinals +1.4

At the top, Carlos Martinez and Jose Quintana are fairly close. Jon Lester is expected to rebound from his lackluster 2017 season and has a decent lead over Wacha. At 3-5, the Cardinals and Cubs are basically even. Where the Cardinals have the edge, and a pretty substantial one, is in rotation depth. Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty are expected to pitch at an above-average level, making up for the expected lack of innings from everyone on the staff after Carlos Martinez. Eddie Butler is not likely to do the same.

The Cubs seem likely to add another starting pitcher, though if it is Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, the projections aren’t likely to be impacted much on the starter side, though the Cubs bullpen would see a boost if all—or most—of Montgomery’s innings were to come in relief. Speaking of...here’s how the bullpen’s stand.

Cardinals Cubs Difference
Brett Cecil 1.0 Brandon Morrow 1.0 Even
Tyler Lyons 0.9 Justin Wilson 0.9 Even
Luke Gregerson 0.8 Steve Cishek 0.6 Cardinals +0.2
John Brebbia 0.2 Carl Edwards, Jr. 0.6 Cubs +0.4
Matt Bowman 0.2 Pedro Strop 0.4 Cubs +0.2
The Rest 0.2 The Rest 0.6 Cubs +0.4
Total 3.3 Total 4.1 Cubs +0.8

At the top, the Cubs and Cardinals are pretty even while the Cubs have the edge in depth. The differences here are pretty slim. ZiPS likes Matt Bowman, Sam Tuivailala, and John Brebbia a lot more than Steamer does (ZiPS will be incorporated into the Depth Charts projections in the spring). The difference between the two teams’ bullpens is less than a win, and it might not even be that much.

In sum, the Cubs are ahead of the Cardinals by 4.6 WAR by the projections at this stage of the game. In the projected standings, the Cubs are looking at 92 wins while the Cardinals are sitting at 88, four games behind.

The idea for this post started with a tweet I threw out yesterday.

This post generally confirms the idea I threw out yesterday. If Ozuna and Pham repeat last season’s numbers, the Cubs lineup is probably a win better than the Cardinals. Withe the Cardinals pitching staff somewhere in the neighborhood of a win ahead of the Cubs, the two teams would be on equal footing should Ozuna and Pham repeat.

Of course, the projections don’t have Ozuna and Pham repeating, and that is probably more likely. If the Cardinals wanted to be more assured of entering 2018 on the same level as the Cubs, they could trade for Chris Archer, Manny Machado, or Josh Donaldson, or perhaps even sign Yu Darvish if his price falls. That way, if Pham or Ozuna don’t repeat last year, they would be very close to the Cubs, and if they repeated 2017, the Cardinals would be the better team. There’s still time to make that happen.