2018 Season Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

83-79

87-75

88-73

761

705

Last season was an oddity for the Cardinals in a number of ways. They didn’t make the playoffs for the second straight year following five consecutive October appearances. That matches their longest stretch of futility since the turn of the millennium, and there are another twenty fanbases who think the word “futility” is more than a little misplaced.

St. Louis has a different standard, though, considering they’ve been .500 or better in 18 of the previous 20 seasons and missed the playoffs just eight times during that period, including the last two years. But after the completion of one major trade and another that seemed to be in the works, plus highly volatile competition in the Central and the chips to survive injuries or make upgrades, the Cardinals will be strong contenders in 2018.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Marcell Ozuna, Miles Mikolas, Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone

Much like their division rivals the Brewers, the Cardinals made the slightly curious decision to take a strength and make it stronger. St. Louis ranked 6th in OF WAR in 2017, making the acquisition of Ozuna a bit odd…until you realize that half of that product was the result of a breakout year by Tommy Pham and another 1.6 came from actual first baseman Jose Martinez. In reality, the Cardinals’ outfield corps was a bit questionable, with more depth than strength, and they wisely chose to consolidate their talent into a 27-year-old coming off a five-win campaign. Mikolas put up great numbers in Japan and should help mitigate the loss of Lynn, as Holland, Gregerson, and Leone form a new closer/setup/setup trio for a surprisingly weak bullpen.

Key Losses – Lance Lynn, Stephen Piscotty, Juan Nicasio, Randal Grichuk, Seung-Hwan Oh, Aledmys Diaz

The vast majority of this is the pruning of players who are merely useful. Grichuk and Diaz are likely solid bench pieces, but the Cardinals are overflowing with those. Nicasio and Oh have both had their moments of glory, but neither should be counted on as core pieces of a team with a short bullpen. That leaves Lynn, who has had a rough couple of seasons. He lost 2016 to TJ surgery, following that with a 4.82 FIP in 2017, the worst of his career by more than a run.

It also leaves Piscotty, whom the club handed a six-year extension just last April and seemed to be a part of the future. In what isn’t completely a baseball move, though, the Cardinals swapped him to the A’s for two solid prospects including SABR-darling Max Schrock. Piscotty’s originally from the Bay Area and wanted to return so he could spend more time with his mother, who was recently diagnosed with ALS. Oakland can certainly use him, and the Cardinals didn’t just give him away, but it’s pretty clear external forces weighed heavy in the swap, which is nice to see.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

87-75

85-77

85-77

The Cardinals are definitely one of the NL’s middle-class teams, not at the Dodgers/Cubs/Nationals level and a fair bit above the small-market rebuilders. A win total in the mid-to-high 80s should keep them in the race all season, but it would be a bit surprising if 85 wins were enough to secure the second wild card considering the number of legitimate contenders there are.

Key Players:

Much like the 2017 edition’s outfield, the 2018 Cardinals have a ton of pitching depth and not a lot of star power; former ace Adam Wainwright is looking to finally stay healthy and effective for the first time since 2014, which means that probably won’t happen and it will be up to top youngster Luke Weaver to provide stable run prevention behind staff ace Carlos Martinez. It seems like every season a different unheralded Cardinals infielder breaks out before fading; Allen Craig, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, even Jedd Gyorko and the up-and-down Matt Carpenter. So will Paul DeJong finally be the Cards’ long-term answer at short? Will Jose Martinez provide some post-Pujols stability at first base? Probably not!

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

It’s always hard to say who’s going to impact the Cardinals from the minor leagues, as they tend to call up 26-year-old rookies who put up 2.5 WAR in 110 games and then effectively retire. But with at least four question marks in the rotation, top prospect Jack Flaherty should shove his way in at some point. Depending on how good his arm feels, former top five overall arm Alex Reyes should have his post-TJ action help stabilize either that shaky rotation or a questionable bullpen with some sweet triple digits. Kolten Wong doesn’t seem like a starting 2B on a contender no matter how many years are left on his contract, so Max Schrock will likely make St. Louis ask him if he can keep hitting .320, just do it in the majors this time.

Future Outlook:

Everyone on the Cardinals is always 27. The entire team exists in a bubble between hype and decline – when you’re pretty sure this guy isn’t going to get any better than he already is, but he probably won’t be much worse either. And then every so often Yadier Molina starts hitting .300 instead of .220 and oh look, it’s the Cardinals winning 83 games and a World Series. This is immediately followed by Allen Craig being released and a 105-win team meeting the Red Sox again. For every yin, there is a yang. For every season there is a Cardinals team above .500. That’s just how things are.