Last Updated: 2019-03-04
Mike Matheny wasn’t the only problem for the St. Louis Cardinals, but the 41-28 record once Mike Shildt took over was not an accident. St. Louis actually entered the month of August at 54-53 and finished 88-74 on the season. That 34-21 run is the type of thing that will generally create a lot of hype and buzz about a team going into the following season.
Interestingly, the hype does seem to be tempered a little bit. Maybe that’s because the Cardinals lost five of their last six to end the regular season or because the Milwaukee Brewers nearly made it to the World Series, but the Cardinals don’t seem to be getting a ton of attention.
The strength of the NL Central has a lot to do with it, but maybe people are just a little bit disenfranchised with the Cardinals. After all, that was the third straight season that the Cards missed the postseason and their last playoff appearance resulted in a first-round exit. We’re now six years removed from the team that went to the World Series in 2013. Everybody just sort of expects the Cardinals to be good, but not good enough. Right or wrong, it may keep expectations a little bit lower for a team that hasn’t had a losing record since 2007 and has only had one losing record since the Y2K scare.
The Cardinals used a franchise-high 30 different pitchers last season and had their youngest average pitcher age per Baseball-Reference’s formula since 1979. A lot of teams regularly use 30 pitchers per season, so the Cardinals, who have been extremely fortunate on the player health side most years, did have to dig a little bit deeper last season. Seven pitchers made at least 11 starts and Adam Wainwright added eight more during an injury-plagued season.
The reason why the Cardinals used so many pitchers is because the bullpen was in a state of flux for the better part of the season. Finding guys that could reliably get outs was a problem, even late in the year, as the Cardinals were 19th for the full season in reliever FIP, but 25th in the second half. The roll of the dice on Andrew Miller could pay off handsomely and the Cardinals are flush with starters that could help out in the pen.
The lineup was already potent, but the addition of Paul Goldschmidt can’t hurt. All of the sudden, the Cardinals are something of a dark horse to take home some hardware, as Jack Flaherty is a legitimate Cy Young candidate and Goldschmidt will add a power and production element that was sorely missed behind Matt Carpenter that could be good enough to hang a couple of flags.
And, yet, the Cardinals, who do have one of the higher season win total lines in the National League, aren’t being discussed much. Why is that? Is the likely regression of Miles Mikolas going to be prove to be too much to overcome? Concerns about Carlos Martinez’s health? How about Michael Wacha?
Like most of the NL Central contenders, the floor for the Cardinals is high. The ceiling is to be determined. How much has to go right for this team to be in the hunt for 162, not just for the division or something more, but to go over a season win total that appears to leave little margin for error?
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 88-74
Run Differential: +68
Pythagorean W/L: 88-74
BaseRuns Record: 87-75
BaseRuns Run Differential: +56 (4.48/4.13)
3rd Order Win% Record: 82.7-79.3
Record in One-Run Games: 22-22
Additions: Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Wieters, Andrew Miller, Joe Hudson, Drew Robinson, Mike Hauschild, Williams Perez, Harold Arauz, Ryan Meisinger, Chris Beck, Hunter Cervenka
Losses: Matt Adams, Tyson Ross, Bud Norris, Greg Garcia, Andy Young, Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Patrick Wisdom
The Cardinals didn’t make many moves, but there are two huge additions that stand out. Paul Goldschmidt was acquired from the Diamondbacks for Andy Young, Carson Kelly, and Luke Weaver in the first and Andrew Miller was signed in free agency in the second.
Goldschmidt, who is a free agent after the season, but could very well sign an extension in St. Louis, is a bona fide middle of the order bat that should benefit from getting away from the recently-installed humidor at Chase Field. He also solves a problem at first base.
Miller is a decent-sized gamble, as the soon-to-be 34-year-old left-hander has not been healthy the last two seasons. It hasn’t been an arm issue, which is the saving grace, but those banking on the dominant days of Miller are likely to be disappointed. That being said, he should still put up decent numbers in a bullpen that could use as many options as possible.
The Cardinals are one of those teams that has graduated a lot of its minor league talent to the big leagues, so the move to acquire Goldschmidt did weaken the pipeline. The development of catcher Andrew Knizner allowed the team to trade Kelly and the way the Cardinals develop pitching overall allowed them to trade Weaver. It was a fair cost of doing business.
BA: .249 (17th)
OBP: .321 (14th)
SLG: .409 (14th)
wOBA: .316 (15th)
wRC+: 98 (14th)
BABIP: .294 (16th)
K%: 22.3% (15th)
BB%: 8.5% (17th)
These numbers were pretty disappointing across the board from last season for the Cardinals. Matt Carpenter got back on track with a .257/.374/.523 slash, a .375 wOBA, and a 138 wRC+, but the Cardinals still struggled to be league average. A lot of good teams can blame injuries for numbers like those, but the Cardinals just weren’t a great offensive team. Eight players had at least 400 plate appearances, with the team’s best hitters – Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, and Jose Martinez – as the three team leaders in the PA department.
Ozuna slashed .280/.325/.433, as he did play through injury. He slashed .312/.376/.548 in 2017 with the Marlins and hit 37 home runs, so the hope would be that he can improve upon last year’s performance. He was much better in the second half with a .364 wOBA compared to a .302 wOBA in the first half last season. Martinez does not appear to have a position now with Goldschmidt in the equation, so we’ll have to see how Shildt and the coaches find playing time for him. He can play the outfield, albeit very poorly.
After clubbing 25 HR in just 443 PA with a .359 wOBA in 2017, Paul De Jong dropped back in a big way with 19 HR in 490 PA with a .321 wOBA in 2018. We’ll have to see if he bounces back offensively. If he does, and keeps his defensive numbers up, there is a good chance that he has his first four-win season. Harrison Bader is a guy that I really like with okay power, decent speed, and terrific defensive numbers. Kolten Wong is a strong defensive player. Jedd Gyorko is an excellent utility man.
The Cardinals have a lot of solid players. They don’t have a lot of stars. That is a pretty good formula in today’s game because there are below average players all over the place. While the Cardinals rated around average in most offensive categories, Wong and Dexter Fowler, who had a lot of injury woes last season, were the only players in the top 11 in plate appearances that posted a sub-100 wRC+. Goldschmidt’s presence should elevate everybody.
Yadier Molina remains one of the steadiest backstops in baseball. He continues to perform well for his position offensively and still rates well in most defensive metrics. One through eight, the Cardinals don’t have many weaknesses and should take strides offensively. This is a unit with a high floor and a fairly low ceiling. The Cardinals aren’t going to suddenly lead the league in offense, but they’re going to be plenty good enough to get by most nights. Adding a career .297/.398/.532 hitter doesn’t hurt.
ERA: 3.85 (12th)
FIP: 3.97 (10th)
xFIP: 4.24 (19th)
K%: 21.3% (19th)
BB%: 9.5% (26th)
LOB%: 73.0% (16th)
Much like the offense, the total package for the Cardinals was uninspiring across the board. Also, much like the offense, the Cardinals don’t have many glaring weaknesses. Questions are starting to arise, though. Carlos Martinez is having a rough go of it in Spring Training thus far and has actually been shut down with some shoulder discomfort. Up until Jack Flaherty’s arrival last season, I would have said that Martinez far and away had the most upside on this pitching staff.
While that’s no longer the case, it is still concerning to see him in the trainer’s room again. He posted a 3.11 ERA with a 3.53 FIP and a 4.42 xFIP last season, but he only worked 118.2 innings and wound up being in a relief capacity in the second half. His HR/FB% went from 16.4 percent in 2017 to 4.9 percent in 2018, but it was the 2.8 percent drop in K% and 3.2 percent increase in BB% that caught my eye. The HR/FB% is going to regress. Will the K% and BB% return to normal levels? Will he be healthy? The Cardinals have terrific starting pitching depth with guys like Austin Gomber, Jose Reyes, Daniel Poncedeleon, and John Gant, but the loss of Martinez would put a dent in the team’s projections.
Fortunately, Jack Flaherty is a guy with a legitimate chance at winning the Cy Young. Flaherty posted a 3.34 ERA with a 3.86 FIP and a 3.58 xFIP in his 151 innings last season. He struck out 182 and walked 59. Flaherty held the opposition to a .184/.292/.337 slash in the second half with a .279 wOBA against and 95 K in 76 innings. He got stronger as the season went along and he honed his craft.
Continued development from Flaherty would help the impending regression of Miles Mikolas, who posted a 2.83 ERA with a 3.28 FIP and a 3.67 xFIP. Mikolas had one of baseball’s best walk rates and did a magnificent job in the contact management arena, but a sub-3.00 ERA seems like a long shot this time around. Mikolas will still be a well above average starter in all likelihood, but he won’t stand out the way he did in 2018.
Michael Wacha only worked 84 innings, as injuries bit him again. Adam Wainwright’s swan song season with the Cardinals shouldn’t inspire much confidence after posting a 4.46/4.28/4.26 pitcher slash in 40.1 innings. It’s hard to tell where the Cardinals are in the starting rotation right now with Martinez on the shelf and the injury worries with the other depth guys. There are a lot of options, but how many options are the Cardinals going to have to burn through?
Jordan Hicks got some serious on-the-job training last year. He made the jump from High-A to the bigs and worked in 73 games. Despite a fastball that regularly hit triple digits, he only struck out 70 in 77.2 innings and had serious walk problems. It is entirely possible that everything comes together for him, but the Cardinals are going to have to rely on the veterans around him. Andrew Miller was once the league’s best reliever, but those days are in the past. Dakota Hudson looks like a bullpen standout in the making, if that’s where he stays. Over-30 relievers Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil could be counted on for big outs. Cecil had a 6.89 ERA with a 6.28 FIP and a 6.47 xFIP and Gregerson had a 7.11 ERA in 17 appearances. Dominic Leone is a very good reliever, but this is a bullpen that has some big questions going into the year, especially if Miller falters.
Positives & Negatives
I’ve got a weird vibe about this team. Quite frankly, the NL Central has thrown me for a loop as a whole. There are five pretty good teams here, no elite teams, and the 76 head-to-head meetings are all going to be crucially important in the playoff race. The Cardinals are probably the second-best team in this division because they don’t have any glaring weaknesses, except for maybe the bullpen if injuries arise. They have a lot of very good players and a great player in Goldschmidt (and one in Flaherty, IMO). They don’t have a lot of wasted uniforms taking up plate appearances and innings. That is a positive characteristic of this team.
Firing Mike Matheny gave the Cardinals a big boost. They were 47-46 with Matheny and 41-28 with Mike Shildt. On the other hand, this is a team that played at a .500 clip for over 57 percent of the season and played well at the end to cover up some problem areas. Should that inspire confidence going into 2019?
Pick: Under 88.5
The Cardinals have the potential for a very good offense and a pretty solid pitching staff and that’s good enough to make some noise, but this is not a pick I’d wager money on. It’s a pick because I give one on all 30 teams. I think this is a team with fairly thin margins. There are a lot of over-30 bullpen components and the starting rotation will be dodging swarms of injury bugs all season. Even star prospect Alex Reyes has never exceeded 120 innings in a season and only threw 27 innings last season after missing all of 2017.
The NL Central is a really hard division to handicap. Injuries will likely decide the playoff race and could very well determine the season win totals as well. The Cardinals don’t rate particularly well on the injury risk calculator. Wacha, Martinez, and Wainwright are all concerns in the rotation, Miller in the pen, and there were some guys that played hurt or missed time because of injury in the lineup last season.
If everything goes well, the Cardinals are probably a 91-92 win team in my estimation. If everything doesn’t, they could be a team that falls victim to a really strong division and winds up somewhere around .500. I do think that they have the widest range of outcomes among the NL Central contenders and I’d rather err on the side of caution than hope everything goes right.
<< Previous PostNext Post >>