|Sportsbook||Win NL Central||Win NL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 87.5 (BetOnline)|
Good health goes a long way. Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals. Their four primary starting pitchers all made at least 31 starts and five relievers appeared in at least 64 games. It doesn’t hurt, however, to remain healthy and not be forced to tap into those second and third-tier players. In fact, it generally helps a team to great heights, like a division title.
The Cardinal Way is often the butt of a lot of jokes, but what it means to me is that the team has tremendous depth at the MLB level and also in the upper minors that allows the team the ability to play a lot of different platoons and also fill the void when somebody does get hurt.
It is impossible to overstate how important average players are. So many players in the Major Leagues are below average compared to their peers. When it comes to the Cardinals, one of the reasons why they have been so consistent over the last 20 years is that they never trot out a lot of “bad” players. They always have somebody waiting in the wings that can play at a competent level. That is why the Cardinals have one losing season since 1999 and 13 playoff appearances.
Last season, though, marked the first time that the Cardinals were in the playoffs since 2015. They only used 43 players total and only 23 pitchers. The 662 runs that they allowed were the fewest since 2015, which, coincidentally, was the last time that the Cardinals won the division.
I talk a lot about how people want to find teams that they can trust when they bet on sports. Sometimes the hardest bet to make is the right one, but there are people out there that simply cannot pull the trigger because it is too difficult. With the Cardinals, by and large, you know what you are getting. That played itself out this past season and could very well play itself out this season, too. After all, the Cardinals won fewer than 85 games just three times in the first two decades of the 21st century. The irony is that they actually won the World Series one of those years with an 83-78 record in 2006.
You know the floor is high for the Cardinals. It always is. The ceiling is always the question, particularly when it comes to season win totals because a level of consistency such as this invites higher expectations and higher projections. Last season’s win total line was 88.5. The last five years have been 88.5, 86.5, 83.5, 87.5, and 87.5. You don’t get a whole lot of margin for error and, interestingly enough, the 83.5 season was the year that the Cardinals finished with 83 wins.
The last five years, the Cardinals have won 91, 88, 83, 86, and 100 games. In other words, there is rarely a lot of value on the number itself. That means that you have to dig deep into this team and see how it stacks up against odds that suggest a Wild Card Game appearance or higher. You have to survey the rest of the division and see how many of those 76 games are there for the taking.
Let’s remember, this is a team that hit the All-Star Break at 44-44. St. Louis was 47-27 after the Break and that included four losses in the last five games. An 18-7 April gave way to a 9-18 May and a 13-13 June. Things all came together after the Midsummer Classic.
I don’t know if that necessarily gives us a starting point for 2020, but it sure gives us a lot to think about.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+85 (4.64/4.12)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||91.4-70.6|
|Record in One-Run Games||25-22|
|Additions: Brad Miller, Oscar Hernandez, Kwang-hyun Kim, Austin Dean, Matthew Liberatore, Edgardo Rodriguez, Ricardo Sanchez|
|Losses: Dominic Leone, Joe Hudson, Luke Gregerson, Marcell Ozuna, Michael Wacha, Tony Cingrani, Diowill Burgos, Randy Arozarena, Jose Martinez, Adolis Garcia, Mike Mayers, Ramon Urias|
It was a pretty quiet and mostly boring offseason in St. Louis. The Cardinals will go into the 2020 season with most of what they had through the 2019 season. The lineup looks almost exactly the same, as the Cardinals do lose some depth in Randy Arozarena and Jose Martinez. It is rather amazing that six of the projected eight regular starters in the Cardinals lineup are homegrown. That is a rarity.
The rotation adds KBO pitcher Kwang-hyun Kim to replace Michael Wacha and the bullpen looks just about the same. It is a rather boring situation, but some would say that the Cardinals didn’t need much after winning 91 games and the NL Central last season. Most of the depth in the minor leagues is homegrown as well.
It is kind of a wonder that the Cardinals won the NL Central with offensive numbers this bad, but they found a way. The Cardinals were tied for second in stolen bases, which is something we don’t really think about too often in this current run environment.
Like I’ve talked about before, you can go a long way by having a lot of good players, even if you don’t have a lot of great players. The Cardinals are mostly league average or better at just about every position. Nobody actively hurts the team on a regular basis and when that is the case, teams wind up being pretty solid.
The best offensive player for the Cardinals was Tommy Edman, who posted a 123 wRC+ and a .357 wOBA with a .304/.350/.500 slash and a .357 wOBA in 349 plate appearances. There were a lot of guys between 100 and 116 in wRC+, including top fWAR man Paul De Jong, who was league average on offense, but excellent on defense. It was something of a lackluster season for Paul Goldschmidt with a 116 wRC+ and a .346 wOBA. He did hit 34 homers, but had just a .303 BABIP and that hurt both his average and OBP. The .346 OBP was the lowest of Goldy’s career in a full season.
My take on the Cardinals is that they need a lot of these guys to be better offensively if they want to replicate last season. It feels like St. Louis just benefited from Jack Flaherty’s second-half run and the fact that the NL Central just wasn’t awesome last season. Goldschmidt can’t run a .346 OBP and a .476 SLG in the middle of the lineup. He just can’t.
It was Goldschmidt’s lowest season in average exit velocity and Hard Hit% in the Statcast era, though he still graded in the 70th and 72nd percentiles, respectively. I don’t know if the 32-year-old is on the decline or not, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for this year and expect a modest bounce back effort.
As far as the rest of the lineup, Kolten Wong’s BABIP-based profile helped him to a .285/.361/.423 slash. Dexter Fowler had a nice season with a 12.9% BB% and a little bit of extra pop to post a 103 wRC+. It was a lot better than the 63 wRC+ he posted in 2018, but nowhere near the 122 or 129 he had in 2017 and 2016. Those appear to have been outliers for Fowler, though.
Matt Carpenter is the guy that really needs to pick it up. Carpenter had a 95 wRC+ in 492 plate appearances and carried just a .226 average. Carpenter had a 140 wRC+ in 2018 with a career-best total of 36 homers and a 15.1% BB%. The projection systems are looking at a mild bounce back for Carpenter, but not to where he previously was. He turned 34 in November and this may just be a case where he is hitting the aging curve. On the other hand, he also contended with injuries most of the year. His contact metrics were poor and I am not optimistic.
The Cardinals offense worries me a lot. Harrison Bader is a platoon player. Wong doesn’t have much power. Fowler, Goldy, Carpenter, and Yadier Molina are all on the wrong side of 30 and seem to be in various phases of the aging curve. Edman looks like something of a regression candidate, particularly with how low walk rate. A BABIP-dependent profile always worries me.
The bench options are not super inspiring. We could see more of prospect Andrew Knizner and should see the debut of 21-year-old Dylan Carlson, who slashed .281/364/518 in Double-A over 483 plate appearances before slashing .361/.418/.681 in Triple-A over his final 79 PA of the season.
It is just kind of a blah lineup. And maybe that works for the Cardinals, as most of these guys are established with track records and fairly safe projections. Again, not a single one of these guys actively cripples the team. There is value in that.
Ultimately, though, the Cardinals made the playoffs last season because of their pitching staff and Jack Flaherty. This was a 58-55 team as of August 7 and the Cardinals would go 32-12 over the next 44 games to lock up the division before limping into the playoffs and actually beating the Braves in the NLDS.
Overall, Flaherty finished the season with a 2.75 ERA, a 3.46 FIP, and a 3.64 xFIP in his 196.1 innings with 4.7 fWAR. That doesn’t paint the proper picture. As one of my Cy Young picks last season, Flaherty struggled out of the gate. He hit the All-Star Break with a 4.64 ERA, a .444 SLG against with 20 homers allowed in 97 innings, and a 4.74 FIP. Nobody saw his second half coming.
In the second half, Flaherty worked 99.1 innings with a 0.91 ERA, a .142/.208/.217 slash against, a .189 wOBA against, only five homers allowed, a 2.22 FIP, a 3.19 xFIP, a 33.9% K%, a .142 BAA, a .206 BABIP against, a 94.2% LOB%, and one of the most dominant second halves we have ever seen. Flaherty’s second half left the Cardinals seventh in pitcher fWAR after the All-Star Break. He accounted for 4.1 of the fWAR.
He wasn’t the only one that was good in the second half, but he was certainly the best. Miles Mikolas was better from the first half to the second half, going from a 4.46 FIP to a 4.05 FIP. FIP isn’t always the best barometer for a low-strikeout guy like Mikolas, but he continued to carry a low walk rate and shaved about 3% off of his HR/FB%. Adam Wainwright also went from a 4.53 FIP to a 4.18 FIP after the All-Star Break.
The bullpen also improved in the second half, as the Cardinals had a top-10 bullpen in ERA, FIP, and fWAR. In fact, the Cardinals were fourth in bullpen FIP in the second half. A big reason why is that Carlos Martinez came back healthy and looked good with a 3.68/2.77/3.96 pitcher slash over 32 of his 48 appearances. John Brebbia had a 2.57 FIP to go with his 4.30 ERA as a result of some bad luck.
My lineup concerns leak over onto the pitching side here. Flaherty is a Cy Young candidate again this season, but what about the guys after him? Mikolas would greatly benefit from some adjustments to the baseball, as his pitch-to-contact style would play a whole lot better with a 9.2% HR/FB% like he had in 2018 over last season’s 16.1% mark. Mikolas’s profile would definitely be elevated with a ball that isn’t spring-loaded.
Mikolas, though, has come down with a flexor tendon strain in Spring Training and his timetable is uncertain. At best, I would say we see Mikolas at some point in June or July. As a potential bounce back guy for a thin rotation, his loss is pretty damning.
Wainwright is what he is at this stage of his career, though his enormous home/road splits are something to consider. He had a 2.56 ERA at home over 95 innings with a .303 wOBA against. On the road, his ERA ballooned to 6.22 in 76.2 innings with a .360 wOBA against. His FIP was .75 points higher on the road.
Dakota Hudson is a tough guy to peg. The extreme ground ball hurler has plenty of control issues, but he’s got a 3.25 ERA in 202 MLB innings. He also has an ugly 4.78 FIP and a 4.58 xFIP, both of which would suggest copious amounts of regression. Hudson saw a BABIP spike from .238 to .274 year over year and his ERA shot up from 2.63 to 3.35, but this was his first full season as a starter. It is understandable to think that Hudson would regress some more, but extreme ground ball guys can cancel out low strikeout rates with double plays and contact less detrimental than fly balls and line drives. He’s an important cog for the Cardinals.
Over 12 seasons in Korea, all of which were with SK, Kwang-hyun Kim had a 3.27 ERA with 1,456 strikeouts in 1,673.2 innings. After missing all of 2017, Kim posted a K/BB ratio of about 4.5/1 over the last two seasons for SK. I don’t know exactly how he’ll translate to the Majors, but it looks like the Cardinals are hoping for another Mikolas. Given how things look right now, they’re going to need one and then some.
The pitching side for the Cardinals is really interesting because they have guys like Alex Reyes, Daniel Ponce De Leon, Austin Gomber, and Genesis Cabrera as options. They could start, they could relief, they could pitch in Triple-A. This is a St. Louis staff with a ton of depth, but the upside could very well be limited to Flaherty, given that Reyes is likely to pitch in relief since he has only pitched 67.1 innings since 2016. He missed all of 2017 and big chunks of 2018 and 2019. He is being stretched out as a starter in the spring, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
The bullpen looks a lot more promising than the starting rotation, but Carlos Martinez will have to move back to pitching every fifth day now, so the ceiling is a little bit lower. Giovanny Gallegos will get the first crack at saves with an excellent set of peripherals, but an 87.3% LOB% suggests a regression of his 2.31 ERA up towards his strong 3.05 FIP. He’ll be good, but probably not as great as last season. The same may ring true for John Brebbia if his HR/FB% regresses. He only had a 26.9% GB%, but managed a 6.4% HR/FB%. That is how you have a 3.59 ERA with a 4.63 xFIP as a reliever with a high K%.
The bullpen is honestly the least of the Cardinals’ worries, even if the ceiling for that unit is a tad lower without Martinez.
Positives & Negatives
While I’m not really high on the Cardinals in any way, they are deep, versatile, resourceful, and just have a knack for winning a lot of games. Previous teams have been far more talented, but the Cardinals almost always seem to perform right around expectation, as I mentioned in the intro. The question is whether or not the expectation is just a little bit too high this time around.
As a general rule, teams like the Cardinals are not my favorite season win total plays to make. I like variance. I like a wide range of outcomes so that I can make a call. We know what we’re getting with pretty much every player on the Cardinals. Consider last season when several hitters underperformed and the team still found a way to get to 91 wins. They’re almost too predictable.
Pick: Under 87.5
A very pessimistic PECOTA projection did a number on this win total line. Some people got in at under 88.5, but this was down to 87.5 and -140 on the under at time of publish. Hopes are not high in Cardinal land for this team. Flaherty really pushed a .500 type of team to the postseason and the Cardinals did enough against the Braves to win a series before getting swept by the Nationals.
It is hard to envision the Cardinals falling so short of expectations because it would be rare air for them, but this could very well be the season. The offense looks pedestrian once again and the pitching staff behind Flaherty has some glaring weaknesses.
After wavering back and forth a little bit, I ultimately pulled the trigger and bet the Cardinals under. In fairness, I did find an 88.5 that was a little bit juiced to the under, but I wouldn’t bet it if I didn’t feel like I had a bigger edge than that. The Cardinals have all sorts of pitching concerns and the offense isn’t nearly as special as we’ve seen in past years. There are some well-known names, but those guys are either tailing off or just don’t live up to the name recognition.
This was a team trending towards .500 for the majority of the season before Flaherty took over. Flaherty could do that again this season, but I have much lower hopes for this year’s Cardinals team. It is extremely scary to take an under with such a consistent squad, but projection systems, friends I respect, and the latest Mikolas setback have taken me to the point of no return.
Cardinals under the total is the pick for the guide and a pick worthy of a bet.