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Ranking the next half-decade for the Cardinals

Where are the Cardinals among baseball’s short-term World Series contenders?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

On last Saturday’s episode of the FanGraphs podcast Effectively Wild, host Ben Lindbergh and guests Joe Sheehan and Rany Jazayerli discussed which teams would be the most likely to win the World Series over the next five seasons. Sheehan picked the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees. Lindbergh had a similar list, omitting the Indians in favor of the St. Louis Cardinals. Jazayerli’s list aimed a bit more long-term with his picks, selecting the Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees but also selecting the up-and-coming Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves.

The St. Louis Cardinals are currently in a somewhat middling position regarding their short-term future. They finished 2017 at 83-79, above-average but outside of playoff position. They have a decent farm system with a few high-end prospects and its AAA affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, won a league title in 2017, but they fell outside the top ten of MLB’s team prospect rankings following the 2017 trade deadline. Their 2017 Opening Day payroll was slightly above the median, ranking 14th.

But to break it down a little further, where do the Cardinals rank among contenders over the next five seasons?

Current outlook

Baseball in five years can be nearly impossible to predict—of the last five teams to win the World Series, only one, the San Francisco Giants, had a winning record in 2012. The next-best, the Kansas City Royals, finished 72-90. Three of baseball’s division champions in 2012 will likely be consensus picks to finish in last place for 2018: the Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, and Oakland Athletics. The safest way to win a World Series in the next five years is to win one early, when we have some idea of how good teams will be. A half-decade from now is a mystery.

By record, the Cardinals finished 12th in baseball last season. By Pythagorean Win-Loss record, the Cardinals fared slightly better, ranking tied for 9th with the Colorado Rockies, the team which ultimately beat the Cardinals out for the National League’s second Wild Card berth. By Baseball Prospectus’s third-order winning percentage, the Cardinals finished 9th, which would have earned a Wild Card position.

The 2017 Cardinals were led by surprising performances. Their best player, Tommy Pham, began the season in the minors. Their second-best player by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, Jedd Gyorko, began the season as Jhonny Peralta’s backup at third base. This probably means more variance in outcomes for the Cardinals than if everyone played as expected—sure, the Phams of the world could regress and the team could fall apart, but they could also continue with their breakthroughs while players who had down seasons in 2017, such as Adam Wainwright or Randal Grichuk, could bounce back.

Playoff competition

It is overly simplistic to chalk up the postseason to pure, random chance, but the most important step to winning in the playoffs is getting there—if a team is good enough to make it to October, they are good enough to make a run. And the Cardinals are hurt by the presence of the Chicago Cubs in the same division. The Cardinals still have a very good chance of winning Wild Card berths even in years when the Cubs take the NL Central, but for World Series-winning purposes, this essentially works out to a half-berth since Wild Card teams are susceptible to losing one game and immediately going home for the year.

The Cubs have more high-end young talent than the Cardinals—”aging core” controversy aside, the Cardinals had just one player listed on the 2017 FanGraphs Trade Value rankings—Carlos Martinez, at #13, while the Cubs have five players listed in the top 50—#4 Kris Bryant, #8 Anthony Rizzo, #19 Willson Contreras, #40 Addison Russell, and #42 Jose Quintana. The 2017 Cubs lacked the tremendous good fortune, be it health or batted ball results, of the 2016 Cubs, but still won the division and made it to the NLCS. They were never a true-talent 103 win team but they are still, on paper, stronger than the Cardinals now and in the short-term future.

But many teams are in similar, if not worse, situations than the Cardinals. The Dodgers and Yankees were each better than the Cubs last season by third-order winning percentage, have stronger farm systems, and are the two richest teams in baseball. The Houston Astros are defending World Series champions and are just now starting to flex their payroll muscle. The Indians won 102 games last season and have three of the fifteen most valuable assets in baseball on their books—Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, and Jose Ramirez. These powerful teams may preclude the Cardinals from being in the upper tier, but it does make it easier to be in the next group down.

Top talent

Top talent inherently ties in to the other factors listed above, but in projecting seasons down the road, it is even more valuable, because of how difficult it is to build teams via free agency. An ideally constructed MLB roster has cost-controlled, homegrown talent at its core, with free agents used to fill in the gaps.

If a team develops two 4-win players and two replacement level players, that team can sign free agents to replace the replacement level players. If a team develops four 2-win players, theoretically the same thing, they can still sign free agents, but there is less marginal value in doing so. There is a premium to having top talent rather than a large collection of decent talent.

Twelve teams have multiple players on the aforementioned FanGraphs Trade Value list, and that number would be thirteen had Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels been included (which, had he been with an MLB-affiliated team last year, he absolutely would have been). The list isn’t fool-proof, and some of the rankings would change since last July if the list were reassembled today, but it does reflect teams which have a young nucleus around whom a championship contender could emerge in the next few years. The Cardinals are not on this list of teams.

The Cardinals do have intriguing young players where, if things break the right way, the Cardinals could be serious World Series contenders. But the same could be said of several other teams, as well. That said, while a team like the San Diego Padres has a stronger farm system than the Cardinals, I would still rank the Cardinals higher on a list of World Series contenders for the next half-decade because they have such an overwhelming advantage for 2018.

My top five, in keeping with the exercise which inspired this post, is identical to Sheehan’s—four of last year’s somewhat overwhelming division winners, plus a Yankees team which finished second in the AL East (though with underlying statistics which suggest they were unlucky in 2017) and has scores of institutional advantages (plus Giancarlo Stanton now). I would also rank the two other division winners ahead of the Cardinals—the Boston Red Sox have five top-50 players and a large budget to hang with the Yankees and, at worst, be well-positioned for a Wild Card, and the Washington Nationals, a team which may soon go through a mini-rebuild if/when Bryce Harper leaves in free agency but which is in the meantime by far the best team in its division.

I would rank the Cardinals eighth for World Series contention. There are cases for other teams to be ranked ahead of them. The Angels won the off-season by signing Ohtani and are probably a favorite for a Wild Card spot this year, but they are considerable division underdogs and, if Mike Trout leaves after his contract expires in 2020, could be in a ton of trouble, as their farm system is notoriously mediocre. The Arizona Diamondbacks had a terrific 2017, but their farm system is also somewhat barren. The Milwaukee Brewers finished ahead of the Cardinals last year, but probably don’t have the budget to make any big signings to solidify their status as contenders. The NL East could have fascinating battles between the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies if the Nationals are forced to rebuild, but as their rebuilds are still in progress, it’s too early to declare which one is the real juggernaut-in-waiting.

The presence of the Chicago Cubs has affected the outlook for the Cardinals tremendously—that they were mostly dormant during the Tony LaRussa and early Mike Matheny eras allowed the Cardinals to be the class of the division, but the Cubs have complicated matters. Now, the Nationals and Indians get to enjoy playing in divisions filled with teams which are either rebuilding or should be rebuilding. But the Cardinals still have a better shot at glory in the next few years than most of baseball.