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Why the 2018 Cardinals will be a disaster

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It probably won’t be. But if it is, here’s how it will happen.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals
(not a Cardinal)
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals finished 83-79 last season—certainly not a bad season, but also one which flirted with mediocrity far more aggressively than any other Cardinals season for over a decade. And the Cardinals reached 83 wins largely on the back of unexpected performances.

Nobody expected Tommy Pham to be as good as he was in 2017—even those who were bullish on the longtime Cardinals minor leaguer and believed that he deserved to crack last season’s Opening Day roster could not have imagined the 6.3 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement season that Pham provided. With Pham, health was always the big concern rather than talent, but even so, 2017 Pham had an unsustainably high batting average on balls in play of .368. By wOBA, Pham had a very strong mark of .398; by xwOBA, which measures batted ball data and examines the likelihood of hits rather than his more luck-dependent BABIP, Pham stood at .361.

None of this is meant to be a knock on Pham, really—he’s a good player. But expecting regression is fair. ZiPS projects Tommy Pham to be worth 2.9 WAR in 2018, which makes him an above-average player, but one which is worth 3.0 fewer FanGraphs WAR than in 2017. Subtracting WAR from a team’s actual win total is hardly scientific, but it is a reasonable estimate, and by this estimate, the 2017 Cardinals would drop from 83 wins to 80 wins (i.e. “a losing record”). And this assumes Tommy Pham stays healthy, something he has not been consistently able to do throughout his career. Pham showed in 2017 that he has a rather high ceiling, but he hasn’t shown a consistent enough level of performance at the Major League level to assure that his floor is particularly high.

Pham falling from MVP candidate to within a standard deviation or so of average is an issue in and of itself, but another concern for the Cardinals is injury—it has long been a concern for Pham, but Dexter Fowler has a concerning recent history of Disabled List stints. Fowler, who is being moved to right field after a below-average year defensively in center field, only played in 118 games in 2017.

While Fowler was above-average offensively, and this is probably about fair as a projection of his offense moving forward, the Cardinals dealt away much of their outfield depth in the off-season. Gone are Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, neither of whom would (or should) regularly start over Pham, Fowler, or Marcell Ozuna but who provide an extra layer of 2018 floor. The fourth outfielder is now Jose Martinez, a dreadful defensive corner outfield by the (admittedly limited) numbers and by the eye test who hit far beyond the expectations of a 28 year-old with 18 career MLB plate appearances entering the season. Next on the depth chart is Harrison Bader, whose offense was uninspiring at the Major League level in 2017—his 70 wRC+ in 92 plate appearances made for the worst offensive season by a Cardinal with as many plate appearances since 2015.

The infield has similar depth concerns. The big breakthrough of 2017 was Paul DeJong, who went from AAA third baseman-turned-shortstop to begin the season to National League Rookie of the Year runner-up by the end of it. His offense was a revelation, as DeJong led the Cardinals in home runs despite not debuting until late May, and regression is to be expected—there was, for instance, a 39 point drop from his wOBA to his xwOBA. But perhaps most concerning is his defense—he was above-average in the field in 2017 by the numbers and critical consensus was mostly positive, but he’s still learning a mostly new position and a move up the defensive spectrum from the minors to Major League Baseball is rare. Meanwhile, the Cardinals traded Aledmys Diaz, 2016’s version of Paul DeJong, in the off-season, serving both to remove shortstop depth from the organization and to act as warning of how fickle Major League performance can be.

Jedd Gyorko looked impressive at the hot corner in 2017 and it is reasonable to expect him to be average-at-worst at the position in 2018, but his offense, while fine for the season as a whole, took a bit of a nosedive as 2017 went along, with Gyorko’s wRC+ standing at 83 following the All-Star break. Entering Spring Training, there seemed to be a clear backup plan—move Matt Carpenter from first base to third base and slot Jose Martinez at first. But with Matt Carpenter’s lingering back pain, he will likely be limited to playing first base almost exclusively. Matt Carpenter is a good enough hitter to have value as a first baseman, but he has far less value at first than when he is playing more premium defensive positions.

Kolten Wong had his first above-average season at the plate in 2017; he also had a career-high (by 35 points) .331 BABIP. His defensive numbers were down, and he’s probably due for a bit of a bounce-back in that department, but offensively, regression is a substantial risk. Yadier Molina continues to play whenever he is physically able to do so and, while he is certainly in decline, he’s still a viable option. But he turns 36 this season and the toll of years of continuously playing could mean the increased presence of Carson Kelly, who has been disastrous at the plate in MLB. Kelly has a career .206 BABIP, so I won’t pretend his 24 wRC+ reflects his actual ability, but in 82 plate appearances, he has just four extra-base hits (all doubles). Kelly might be a fine hitter. He also might not be.

The starting rotation is led by Carlos Martinez, who has been consistently good (one can be disappointed he hasn’t become great, but he’s certainly an above-average MLB pitcher), but question marks abound beyond that. Michael Wacha was an above-average pitcher in 2017, slightly by ERA (2% above-average) and to a greater degree by FIP (15% above-average), but his third time through the order weaknesses remain a concern. Adam Wainwright’s diminishing fastball velocity, in addition to overall dips in his results, make his viability a bit of a question mark.

Miles Mikolas has struggled in Spring Training—this in and of itself shouldn’t be a major issue, but considering his struggles during his first run in Major League Baseball before his reinvention in Japan, better results would inspire more confidence that Mikolas will be a solid member of the rotation. Luke Weaver was solid by ERA and strong by FIP in 2017, but this still amounts to fewer than 100 career innings pitched, and when considering all of his MLB innings, his 4.56 ERA and 3.61 FIP, while hardly enough upon which to dismiss him, are less exciting. The Cardinals do have Jack Flaherty, a risk himself but an exciting potential option, waiting in the wings in case one of the incumbent starters falters, but he too is unproven and had outright bad results in limited MLB action in 2017.

In the bullpen, expected closer Luke Gregerson was replacement level in 2017 and was relegated to just 3 23 postseason innings in the eighteen games of the Houston Astros postseason run. He will probably rebound some, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The next two out of the pen, Tyler Lyons and Dominic Leone, were unheralded relievers who had career years in 2017. They have other established, Totally Fine relievers in Brett Cecil and Matt Bowman, among others, but until Alex Reyes returns (and this assumes he will immediately revert to his dynamic, 2016 self, hardly assured following Tommy John surgery), the bullpen will lack a truly dynamic presence.

Also, Mike Matheny is the manager of the Cardinals. This is just a statement of fact.

The odds that all of the pessimistic stances on the 2018 Cardinals outlined above come to fruition are very low, but the odds that some come true are high. Sure, we may get pleasant surprises like Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong again, but depending upon this is a bit overly optimistic. And there is quite a bit of variability with the Cardinals—this is a team which could be good, but a team which could also collapse due to its lack of viable alternatives to its risky players expected to lead the team in 2018.