By definition, these stances are contradictory, but this is the nature of how the St. Louis Cardinals are constructed. For the better part of the decade, the Cardinals have been consistent, built upon Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright having the kinds of seasons you can set your watch to, but in 2018, there are tons of question marks.
But question marks aren’t inherently a bad thing—for instance, I have no questions about how the 2018 Miami Marlins season is going to go. Most projection systems have the Cardinals around the mid-eighties in terms of wins with a second place finish on the horizon, and as an aggregate prediction, this feels about right. But just as the Cardinals could fall apart and make for a long summer in St. Louis, the Cardinals could win the NL Central. Here is how.
At catcher, the Cardinals still have Yadier Molina. While Molina isn’t what he was at his peak, he was an above-average player each of the last two seasons and projects to once again be above-average in 2018. While Molina was below-average at the plate in 2017, sporting a non-disastrous but uninspiring wRC+ of 94, he also had his lowest batting average on balls in play since 2010. Yes, Molina is aging and slow and slower players tend to have lower BABIPs as a function of being unable to beat out infield singles, but Molina has always been slow. His expected weighted on-base average, or xwOBA, was 19 points higher than his actual wOBA. Expecting a return to 2012 Molina is overly optimistic, but to expect the Cardinals’ above-average defensive catcher (by advanced metrics he’s above-average; by reputation, he’s much better) to be an average-to-above average hitter and thus be a supremely valuable player is hardly a reach.
What might best help Yadier Molina, even more than luck, is Carson Kelly. While Kelly struggled at the plate thanks to a comically low BABIP, he entered 2017 as the most heralded catching prospect in baseball, and while the Cardinals post-Jason LaRue routinely employed low-upside backups (Gerald Laird, Tony Cruz, Brayan Pena, Eric Fryer) since Yadier Molina’s backup inevitably plays less often than most backups, Kelly is a bit different. At 23, the Cardinals will want Kelly to play more often than previous backups, and not only will Kelly improve upon his previous MLB performance, his existence will help to keep Yadier Molina fresh.
Paul DeJong was a surprise in 2017, but little about his season suggests he was a fluke. He might regress a little bit, for the same reason one would expect other rookie surprises such as Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger to regress, but his .320 xwOBA, while lower than his actual wOBA, would put DeJong on roughly equal terms with Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who was a more valuable player by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement than DeJong because unlike DeJong, he spent the entire 2017 season in the big leagues. Even if DeJong declines on a rate basis, that he has a chance to spend six months in St. Louis rather than four means he has a chance to be more productive.
The rest of the infield is fairly dependable. Jedd Gyorko had an identical wRC+ in 2017 as he did in 2016, and although he did falter a bit down the stretch last season, that Gyorko was hobbled with a Disabled List trip in late August suggests he may have been playing through pain. This may be a bit presumptuous, and Gyorko’s worse results are a bit of a red flag, but his early-season excellence must be weighed as well. Kolten Wong improved offensively, and while a career-high BABIP helps, he also drew more walks and was less insistent on trying to become the power hitter he’s always dreamed of being and never quite became.
Matt Carpenter is still Matt Carpenter, and the presence of Jose Martinez, who was a great hitter by wOBA and an elite hitter by xwOBA, gives the team plenty of insurance in case Carpenter’s back issues become a long-term issue. If Carpenter is ready to play by Opening Day, the presence of Martinez will still help, as he can spell injury risks at first base (Carpenter), center field (Tommy Pham, with one of the center field-capable corner outfielders moving to make room for Martinez), and right field (Dexter Fowler).
Marcell Ozuna and Tommy Pham may not duplicate their 2017 seasons, but they are solidly above-average hitters. Ozuna’s 2017 breakthrough did come with a bit of luck, but it also came with a noticeable improvement in plate discipline and, even more noticeably, an increase in power. Pham stayed healthy, continued to have above-average walk rates, and stepped up his power, and even if his offense isn’t quite 2017 levels, he may be even more valuable defensively since he moved from a corner outfield spot to center field. Dexter Fowler, despite injuries, hit a career-high 18 home runs in 2017 and now moves to right field. It may seem contradictory to suggest his move down the defensive spectrum will help him while saying Pham’s move up will also help him, but I believe Pham was always more capable of handling center field than Fowler was. In right field, Fowler can focus on mashing baseballs, which he showed in 2017 he is still capable of doing.
The Cardinals bullpen may lack an obvious relief ace (until Alex Reyes comes back, at least), but a deep bullpen of fine arms is a perfectly acceptable recipe for success. No team has won the World Series with the same closer in October that they had in April since 2010, and just last year, the Houston Astros won it all with substantial postseason relief innings logged by starting pitchers moonlighting out of the bullpen.
The rotation, however, is where the team’s upside really shines. In addition to the reliable Carlos Martinez, who may benefit from the presence of Mike Maddux but is fine even if he merely stays at the same level, the Cardinals have veterans Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright, who had down seasons by ERA last season but were much better by fielding-independent pitching. Wainwright, never a flamethrower anyway, had a precipitous and oft-covered velocity drop in 2017, but most of the issues (including the velocity drop) manifested following a Disabled List stint in the second half of the season. While Wainwright’s first-half ERA of 5.20 is concerning, his 3.81 FIP was far more palatable. He’s probably done in terms of being an ace, but Wainwright can be a solid starter.
Miles Mikolas turned into a star pitching in Nippon Professional Baseball, and Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs likened him to Colby Lewis, who was worth 4.7 fWAR in his first season back from Japan. Luke Weaver was terrific in his 60 1⁄3 innings in St. Louis last season, and while Jack Flaherty wasn’t quite as terrific, he was just 21 years old and remains a heralded prospect as the de facto sixth starter. Less exciting pitchers such as Dakota Hudson and Austin Gomber have potential to be at least serviceable right away if called to the Majors. And if you want a more exciting name, Alex Reyes comes back in May.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs no longer have the aura of invincibility they had entering 2017. They’re still a good team with several excellent players, but they no longer have the depth that propelled them to 103 wins in 2016. Their outfield is full of interchangeable parts all of which have some potential but little certainty—Kyle Schwarber may not be able to field, Jason Heyward and Albert Almora may not be able to hit, and Ian Happ may be able to do both but perhaps not excellently. Addison Russell and Javier Baez have been hyped considerably and are good defensive middle infielders, but both are projected as below-average hitters.
Their rotation now includes Yu Darvish, a marginal at most improvement over Jake Arrieta, while Jon Lester’s ERA went up nearly two runs in 2017. Jose Quintana is a good pitcher, but Kyle Hendricks may not be able to wildly outperform his peripherals forever (his FIP was 0.85 runs higher than his ERA in 2017, and in 2016, he outperformed his FIP by 1.07 runs). Also, the Cubs are depending on Tyler Chatwood, whose 2017 ERA of 4.69 and FIP of 4.94 weren’t exactly world-beating, as part of the rotation.
To be clear, a lot can also go right for the Cubs (since I haven’t yet, I guess I’ll point out the existence of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo), but a lot can also go wrong. The NL Central isn’t a lost cause, and the Cardinals have the high upside to, if things break the right way, compete for the division crown in 2018.