AnalysisNL Central

St. Louis Cardinals 2021 Season Preview: The Age of Arenado

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Ethan Deimeke takes a look at the St. Louis Cardinals! 

After a middling 2020 that was struck by COVID outbreak, weeks-long quarantine, and more double-headers than I can count, slightly annoyed Cardinal fans were ready for another quiet, lowkey offseason from the front office. The surprise free agency of long-time second baseman Kolten Wong without a contract renewal turned fan discomfort into outrage, which was quickly transformed into awe with the acquisition of All-Star Nolan Arenado from Colorado. With a very respectable infield, a young outfield still developing, and pitching depth that rivals the Mariana Trench, the Redbirds are positioned to have an exceptionally entertaining, if not sneakily competitive, 2021. 

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 30-28, 3rd Place in National League Central
Team MVP: Paul Goldschmidt (.304/.417/.466, 146 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR)
Team Cy Young: Kwang-Hyun Kim (1.62 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 0.7 fWAR)

Pros of the 2020 Season:

Let’s start with the upsides of 2020, shall we? Paul Goldschimdt’s first year with the Cards in 2019 was a little shaky, which for him meant only being an above-average hitter. 2020 saw the Goldy of old rise again, returning to the elite slugger we know him to be. Mr. Kwang Hyun Kim had himself a silly COVID season, posting a 1.62 ERA in 39 innings. Sustainable? Not really. Hilarious to think about? Absolutely. The bullpen that shouldered a good chunk of the season’s innings looked fantastic, as per usual. Finally, 2020 saw the long-awaited arrival of Dylan Carlson to the Big Leagues!

Cons of the 2020 Season:

Now, for the downsides. Dylan Carlson’s long-awaited arrival to the Big League didn’t go super awesome. He flashed his glove and proved he belonged in Busch Stadium’s outfield, but his bat didn’t seem ready for the majors. This makes total sense for a twenty-one-year-old with insane levels of expectations heaped upon him. The left-field slot was not ideal just in general, whether we’re talking about Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas. The bats of just about everyone in the Cardinals’ lineup didn’t play, with only two everyday players posting a wRC+ of at least league average or higher. Lastly, and crucially, staff ace Jack Flaherty took a step back from his ridiculous Cy Young-contending 2019, walking more batters and pitching to a nearly five ERA. 

2020-2021 Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020:

  • 2B Kolten Wong – 2019-2020 fWAR: 5.0

In a startling move, the Redbirds’ front office declined the 2021 team option for eight-year Cardinal Kolten Wong, paying a $1 million buyout to send Wong to free agency. He didn’t go far, landing in the NL Central with the Milwaukee Brewers on a multi-year deal. Fans will be seeing plenty of the Hawaiian in the coming years.

Notable Free Agent Additions:

With franchise staples Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright departing St. Louis after 2020, fans thought it was the last they had seen of the infamous battery. To much hurrah, the duo’s time in Cardinal Red was extended with a pair of one-year contracts, $8 million with incentives for Waino, $9 million flat for Yadi. The return of Molina’s pitcher management skills and Wainwright’s consistency bodes well for the Cards’ pitching staff. 

Notable Trades:

  • OF Dexter Fowler – 2019-2020 fWAR: 1.5
  • 3B Nolan Arenado – 2019-2020 fWAR: 6.9

After a rocky four years in St. Louis and with one final year on his contract, Dexter Fowler was shipped to the Angels, along with $12.5 million, in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations. This opens up the Busch Stadium outfield to a young, growing core, and clears a bench spot as well. 

Most astoundingly this offseason, after months and months of speculation, the Cardinals acquired Nolan Arenado from the Rockies in an absolute fleece. St. Louis received Arenado, $51 million dollars (which means the first year of the third baseman is essentially a free trial), and the remainder of Nolan’s $260 million dollar, eight-year contract. The Cardinals will owe the man $214 million, with an extra year tacked on the end, through 2027. The Cardinals sent major-league lefty Austin Gomber, infield prospects Elehuris Montero and Mateo Gil, and right-handers Toney Locey and Jake Sommers back to Denver. The most valuable prospect given up was Montero, number eight in the Cardinals’ farm system. Despite the opt-out clauses after 2021 and 2022 built into his contract, Arenado has said that he highly expects St. Louis to be home for a long, long time. 

2021 Projected Roster

Bold denotes changes from 2020

Projected Lineup: 

1) Tommy Edman, 2B
2) Paul DeJong, SS
3) Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4) Nolan Arenado, 3B
5) Dylan Carlson, RF
6) Yadier Molina, C
7) Tyler O’Neill, LF
8) Harrison Bader, CF
9) Pitcher

I firmly believe the Cardinals will not end the 2021 season fielding this lineup, but it’s a great starting point. Tommy Edman leads off with ninety-fifth percentile sprint speed and an above-average OBP, which will only increase as he learns to lay off pitches out of the zone. Paul DeJong starts the season hitting second, lending some reliability and pop to the two-hole. As the year goes on I expect Carlson to flip with DeJong, presuming his bat flourishes as expected. Perhaps the best hitter on this Cardinals roster, Goldy will have plenty of opportunities for RBIs, and bombs, hitting third. Not much else to say about the perennial All-Star. The newcomer Arenado shores up the Redbird’s ever-tenuous clean-up role, taking the pressure off of DeJong and O’Neill to deliver stellar performances in the spot. With Fangraphs forecasting a bounce-back year for Arenado, along with a 30+ HR total, the middle of the Cardinal’s order finally has some stability, providing protection to the Pauls in DeJong and Goldschmidt. The rookie Dylan Carlson will get some extra reps in the five-hole as he continues to hunt his swing. Despite an ailing offense, I’m projecting Molina to hit sixth in this lineup, more out of necessity than desire. First, he’s Yadi, so you gotta show some respect. Second, Molina finds himself in big spots more often than not and has a proven “clutch” bat, which is probably worth something. Third… I don’t want Bader and O’Neill hitting higher in the lineup. Speaking of the swole high-flyers, Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader round out the lineup card in the seventh and eighth slots, respectively. The 2020 Gold Glover in O’Neill provides some spectacle to the bottom of the lineup with his body-builder physique, his ability to crush dingers, and team-leading quickness if he gets on base. Harrison Bader caps off the position-players with a hockey-player-esque flow, a winning smile, and some New York attitude. Bader has shown flashes of hitting ability, but his inconsistency and lifetime 95 wRC+ keep him in the bottom of the order, for now. If he picks up where his productive 2020 left off, then perhaps he crawls his way out of the eight spot.

And because the National League hates the offense of a designated hitter and loves a good sacrifice bunt to advance the runners, the pitcher will provide an out at the end of the lineup!

Projected Bench:

Matt Carpenter, INF
Andrew Knizner, C
Edmundo Sosa, INF
Lane Thomas, OF

Matt Carpenter will be captaining the bench with Arenado stealing his starts at third. With plenty of career playtime at the corners, Carp can give the infielders a day off every now and again, or even platoon with Edman if the matchup is favorable. Andrew Knizner isn’t done being number two to Yadier Molina, but will certainly see an uptick in playtime this year. As the starting catcher of the future, the front office has noted that he needs to see more major league action to prepare. Edmundo Sosa will play the utilityman for the Redbirds in 2020, taking over for DeJong or Edman if the need arises. He hasn’t seen enough major league action to make judgments on his ability, but at the very least he shouldn’t handicap the team. The fourth outfielder Lane Thomas will be splitting time with O’Neill in left, and providing Bader a day off when needed. Look for Thomas and O’Neill to be in the order interchangeably until one of them gets hot and sees consistent starts.

Projected Rotation:

1. Jack Flaherty, RHP
2. Kwang-Hyun Kim, LHP
3. Adam Wainwright, RHP
4. Miles Mikolas, RHP
5. Carlos Martínez, RHP (Maybe…)

Flaherty leads the rotation as the ace in 2021. I attribute his rough 2020 to the nature of the season, the start-stop hogwash for the quarantined Cards, and having to throw into a mattress in his hotel room to get his work in. In two full seasons (2018-2019), Flare posted over 10 Ks per nine, a 3 ERA, and a spectacular ERA- of 75 in 347.1 innings of work. He even brought his walks down a whole point (3.52 BB/9 in 2018, 2.52 BB/9 in 2019) and controlled the long ball more effectively between those years. 2020 was an aberration, not the standard, and Flaherty is going to be a lynchpin for this 2021 rotation.

Kwang-Hyun Kim is the Cardinals’ number two guy, and I’m intrigued to see what happens next in the tale of Kim. After moving to the starter role early in the 2020 season, the dude did nothing but shove. After eleven very productive seasons in the KBO, Korean MVP Kim is no stranger to success, but ending a campaign with a sub-2 ERA is hallowed ground. Sure, it was over forty innings, and yes, his FIP was over double his ERA, but all the signs pointed to his dominance being somewhat legitimate. Kim will regress in 2021, but if he can be a dependable lefty every fifth day and beat his projections by just a smidge, I’ll be happy to have him.

Returning to St. Louis for his sixteenth stint in red and white, Adam Wainwright will add a grounding presence to the rotation. Waino has been there, done that, and traditionally has been depended on to give the guys a shot every time he takes the field. However, don’t be disappointed or surprised if the veteran takes a step back for his age thirty-nine season. Look for curveball usage to continue to climb as Wainwright’s sinker and cutter velocity dips lower, with strikeouts few and far between.

The famed mustache of Miles Mikolas is back in the Redbird rotation after surgery to repair his right flexor tendon shut him down in 2020. After a brief stint in Japan, Mikolas’ first season back in the Bigs was a statement for the “Lizard King”, as he became not only a breakout pitcher in the Cardinals’ rotation but one of the most effective hurlers in all of baseball, finishing twelfth in the league in WAR among qualified starters. Another strong season in 2019 proved his homecoming was no fluke, and with a repaired and rejuvenated flexor tendon I expect Mikolas to be an effective innings-eater once again for St. Louis. I have him fourth on this list, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as the fifth man in the rotation as training staff keeps a close eye on his recovery.

The fifth rotation slot is up for grabs, and more than a few hungry Cardinals are salivating over the juicy, titillating opportunity. Though manager Mike Shildt has insisted that the last starter will have to compete for the privilege of going every fifth day, Carlos Martínez is the incumbent in the role and odds are he gets the first crack at the job. After a few impressive outings in LIDOM ball and the Caribbean Series this past offseason, Martínez may have finally recaptured some of the outstanding, but fleeting, skill he has displayed in years past. Hot on his heels are a bevy of starter-quality players in Alex Reyes, Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant, and even the Cardinals’ number eleven prospect Johan Oviedo, who saw some major league action in 2020. The long-awaited Reyes is probably next in line if Martínez doesn’t pan out, followed by Ponce. Regardless of who wins the spot, the Cardinals will have a reliable man rounding out their rotation and the bullpen will receive a hearty bolstering from the other candidates.

Projected Bullpen

Alex Reyes, RHP
Giovanny Gallegos, RHP
Andrew Miller, LHP
Jordan Hicks, RHP
Ryan Helsley, RHP
John Gant, RHP
Tyler Webb, LHP
Génesis Cabrera, LHP
Daniel Ponce de Leon, RHP

The biggest headline for the bullpen is the return of fireballer Jordan Hicks after receiving Tommy John surgery in 2019 and opting out of 2020 due to health concerns. Peeking at his Instagram clips, one would assume that Hicks is feeling like a champion and raring to re-establish himself as the hardest-throwing pitcher in Major League Baseball.

One of the best bullpens among the thirty clubs returns intact and with more experience under their belt. I expect Gant and Ponce to be long relief guys if the starters need a buoy. Reyes, Helsley, and Miller will go for a couple of innings in the middle, and Webb and Cabrera can be slotted in for lefties. Gallegos gets the ball late in the game to keep the opposition in check, before handing it off to Hicks to absolutely slam the door in the ninth.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record:

81.4-80.6, 2nd place in National League Central

PECOTA Projected Record:

80.7-81.3, 3rd place in National League Central

Personal Projection:

86-75, 2nd place in National League Central

For as positive as I’ve been about this St. Louis team, projections are not looking overly kind to the boys. The word of the day is “average”, in just about every area on the ball field. Of the five starters, Fangraphs forecasts a sub-4 ERA exclusively out of Jack Flaherty, noting significant regression from Waino and Kim, and predicting middling seasons from returning Mikolas and shaky Martínez. Flare is also the only man in the rotation putting up more than 2 WAR, with the others combining for anywhere from 6-8 WAR, based on outlook. Normally, a slew of reliable, average pitchers headed by a stud or two would be just fine to get through the regular season and make a good run in October, but unfortunately, the mediocrity continues past the pitching.

Ignoring the All-Star corners of Goldschmidt and Arenado, the only everyday Cardinal to even crack 100 wRC+ on Fangraphs’ projections is Paul DeJong, and just barely at 102. Edman, O’Neill, Molina, Carlson, and Bader are all expected to have below-average offensive seasons, with the aging catcher Yadi being the worst offender at a brutal mid-80s wRC+. Two men can’t carry an entire team’s offense on their shoulders, and it’s looking like contributions from around the diamond will be slim.

Doom and gloom is well and good, but let’s tackle why I think that projections have it slightly wrong. To start, the pitching is deceptively good. Flaherty hit a bump in the road, but an impeccable mental game and time to re-focus is just what the trainer ordered for a return to form. Wainwright defied the odds last year with a productive season, and I see no reason he can’t do it again through seemingly sheer desire to be good at baseball. Mikolas has already proven his ability to be a top hurler in the game, and a repeat of his past performance could give the Redbirds the number-two guy they desperately need to take the season deep. Kim is a total anomaly, but the metrics on his pitch tunneling and deceptiveness lead me to believe he might be a tougher at-bat than he gets credit for. If Martínez pitches like he is capable, he’ll have a resurgent season. If he can’t, another ready and willing man will take his place. Simple as that. Next up, a top defense in the league only got much, much better with Arenado joining up. Despite their inability to consistently hit a baseball, O’Neill and Bader are capable of some flat-out jaw-dropping defensive plays. One of them has a Gold Glove, and the other will certainly earn a couple by the time he hangs them up. The infield is rock-solid, and Dylan Carlson has shown some good leather in right field.

Finally, the Cards are going into the 2021 season motivated, and with a great culture. I’m not talking about the Cardinal Way, I’m referring to the energy injection a team gets when it acquires a genuine “dude”, a stud, a human highlight reel. A guy like Nolan Arenado. Spirits are high in St. Louis, and pure emotion will sustain the players’, and the fanbase’s, hopes for at least a little while before the cracks in the team start to show.

Final Thoughts

The thing this team needs is time: time to become cohesive, time to find their swings, and time to allow the final pieces of the puzzle to develop. Some major talent is on the way in Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Johan Oviedo, and more. Assuming he opts-out of his opt-outs, Arenado will be in St. Louis for a while, and Goldy still has time on his contract. This isn’t a win-now season, and fans need to prepare themselves for that. Arenado wasn’t the magical fix to make the Cardinals World Series contenders, but he will be part of the next World Series team. A youthful core is assembling, and while 2021 isn’t going to be the Redbird’s year, that fateful time is not far off. In a matter of years, the Cardinals will be returning to their traditional place in October baseball.

So, Cardinal fans, for now, let’s just enjoy another year of an actually competitive team, take the losses as they come, and if it is truly their last seasons playing Major League baseball, send off Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright with a grateful “thank you”.

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