After enduring a three-year playoff hiatus, the longest playoff drought in St. Louis since 1997-1999, the Cardinals won 91 games and captured the NL Central division crown in 2019. They went on to defeat the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS before getting swept by the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals in the NLCS. It was an up-and-down season for St. Louis a year ago. After entering the All-Star Break at an even 44-44, the Redbirds were able to go 47-27 the rest of the way. Much of that success was due to the emergence of 24-year-old righty Jack Flaherty. After struggling in the first half, Flaherty put up one of the best extended pitching performances in baseball history, posting a 0.91 ERA and a 2.22 FIP in 99.1 innings pitched. Behind Flaherty, the Cardinals had one of the best defensive units in baseball. Kolten Wong won his first gold glove, and his fellow middle infielder Paul DeJong was tied for first in Defensive Run Saved (DRS) among shortstops. Harrison Bader also played fantastic defense in center field, coming in 6th among outfielders in DRS in just 902 innings in the field. For the Cardinals to have success again in 2020, they will have to continue to pitch and play defense well. The NL Central will be one of the more tightly-contested divisions in all of baseball this year, with PECOTA projecting the Reds, Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals to all be within three games of each other. Here’s how the Cardinals stack up in this shortened, heavily-contested season:
3rd Place NLC
16.7% chance to win division
31.5% chance to make the playoffs
While the Cardinals are projected to finish third in the division, they are only 2.3 projected games back from PECOTA’s projected NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds, and only one game behind the Chicago Cubs for the 2nd wild card slot. This certainly puts the Cardinals in the hunt for the playoffs once again, but like every other team this season it’s hard to forecast how much their roster will be impacted by Covid-19 IL stints.
Notable Offseason Moves:
Re-Signed RHP Adam Wainwright to a 1-year, $5,000,000 contract.
Signed LHP KK Kim to a 2-year, $8,000,000 contract.
Acquired LHP Matthew Liberatore (Baseball America #45 overall prospect) in exchange for OF Jose Martinez and OF Randy Arozarena
Acquired OF Austin Dean in exchange for minor league OF Diowill Burgos
Signed 1B/OF Brad Miller to a 1-year, $2,000,000 contract
While it wasn’t an eye-catching offseason in St. Louis, it wasn’t too quiet, either. The Cardinals started their winter by bringing back 38-year-old Adam Wainwright on a one-year deal for what could be his final season in the big leagues. Even as he has aged and lost velocity over the years, he has still remained a productive big league pitcher, posting a 4.36 FIP and 2.2 fWAR in 171.2 innings a year ago. The biggest singing of the offseason came with the addition of Korean LHP KK Kim. Kim offers more depth to the pitching staff, with a low-nineties fastball and a curveball with big break. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has said that Kim will likely begin the season as the closer, something that he never did in Korea. His stuff, deception, and the fact that hitters have never seen him before will provide an interesting look for opponents that may play well out of the bullpen. St. Louis was also able to turn some of their overflowing outfield depth into a top-50 prospect in LHP Matthew Liberatore. Liberatore offers a fastball that sits around 93 and one of the better curveballs in the minor leagues. For a system lacking upper-echelon arms, Liberatore adds a safe, mid-rotation starter projection to a system that lacks that type of arm. Lastly, the Cardinals acquired outfielders Brad Miller and Austin Dean late in the offseason. Both players should provide nice depth and can offer some production off the bench at some point in the season.
Notable Player Losses:
OF Marcell Ozuna (.336 wOBA, 109 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR in 2019)
OF Jose Martinez (.323 wOBA, 101 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR in 2019)
RHP Michael Wacha (4.76 ERA, -0.2 fWAR in 2019)
While the Cardinals did not lose too many players from their 2019 squad in quantity, they did lose a substantial contributor in Marcell Ozuna. While Ozuna never lived up to the 5-win season he put up in 2018, he was a solid middle-of-the-order threat that the Cardinals now lack. St. Louis has no clear replacement for a guy with Ozuna’s track record and skill, and it looks like they will take a mix-and-match approach to filling out the left field position. Jose Martinez had a down year offensively in 2019, but he has shown the ability to be one of the better pure hitters in baseball. In 2018 he slashed .305/.364/.457 and was one of the best offensive players on the team. However, Martinez is terrible defensively, and with the Cardinals extensive depth in the outfield at the upper levels of the minor leagues, he was expendable. Wacha is not a very big loss for the Cardinals from a production standpoint, but he was a homegrown pitcher that offered some memorable moments for Cardinals fans over the years.
Projected Starting Lineup:
C: Yadier Molina
1B: Paul Goldschmidt
2B: Kolten Wong
3B: Tommy Edman
SS: Paul DeJong
LF: Tyler O’Neill
CF: Harrison Bader
RF: Dexter Fowler
DH: Matt Carpenter
C Matt Wieters
C Andrew Knizner
OF Austin Dean
IF Max Schrock
1B/OF Rangel Ravelo
If you had to point a weakness with this year’s St. Louis Cardinals, it would be the offense. While they have some big names in the lineup, there are a lot of questions marks about the group as a whole. Paul Goldschmidt had a down year last year in his first season in St. Louis. After putting up career numbers in 2018, Matt Carpenter put up career lows across the board in 2019. Dexter Fowler isn’t the same player he was 3-4 years ago. Yadier Molina is now 38 years old and slugged below .400 a year ago. Tyler O’Neill has had trouble staying on the field, and struggles to make consistent contact when on it. All of those players project to play key roles for the 2020 Cardinals, and in order for the Cardinals to have success, those guys have to step up and produce. On the bright side, Tommy Edman put up an .850 OPS in his rookie season. Kolten Wong had arguably his best year of his career in 2019, slashing .285/.361/.423. The bench offers intriguing options, as well. The Cardinals are likely to start the season carrying three catchers, enabling either Matt Wieters or Andrew Knizner to come off the bench and pinch hit in key situations. 1B/OF Rangel Ravelo is another guy who can hit for power off the bench and may end up being a regular designated hitter if Matt Carpenter struggles to open the year. One missing name from the list above is OF Dylan Carlson, the #10 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America. Carlson offers an exciting blend of contact and power. He broke out last year in the minor leagues as a 20-year-old, slashing .281/.364/.518 at AA Springfield, before finishing the year slashing .361/.418/.681 in 79 plate appearances at AAA Memphis. Carlson is likely to start the year as a member of the taxi squad for service time manipulation reasons, but he could add a nice boost to the offense when he eventually arrives.
Projected Starting Rotation:
RHP Jack Flaherty
RHP Adam Wainwright
RHP Dakota Hudson
RHP Carlos Martinez
RHP Miles Mikolas
LHP Andrew Miller
LHP KK Kim
LHP Tyler Webb
LHP Austin Gomber
RHP Giovanny Gallegos
RHP Daniel Ponce de Leon
RHP Ryan Helsley
RHP John Gant
RHP Junior Fernandez
RHP Kodi Whitley
The pitching staff was a big strength of the 2019 Cardinals, and it should be a strength again in 2020. The staff is led by Jack Flaherty, who I touched on earlier. Flaherty has established himself as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, and he should put up ace-type numbers again this season. After spending 2019 in the bullpen as he worked back from injury, Carlos Martinez will rejoin the starting rotation. Martinez has been a very solid starter throughout his career, recording a 3.11 ERA and 2.1 WAR in 111 innings in his most recent season as a starter in 2018. There are some intriguing arms in the bullpen, as well. RHP Ryan Helsley showed the country what he could do during the playoffs last year, touching triple-digits while mixing in a nasty slider. Giovanny Gallegos was extremely productive a year ago, posting a 2.31 ERA in 74 innings. Gallegos did show up to camp late (7/19) due to undisclosed reasons, and it may take a few appearances for him to get his feet underneath him again. The Cardinals have good arms from the left side of their bullpen too, with established veteran Andrew Miller looking to rebound from an up-and-down season a year ago. Austin Gomber will be on the major league roster again after battling injuries and spending time in AAA in 2019. Gomber shows athleticism, deception, and mixes in a big breaking ball on the mound, and he figures to be a key part of this bullpen. As I touched on earlier, KK Kim looks to be the early favorite for closer in 2020. Kim was a starter throughout his career in Korea, and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to his new role this season.
Other Notable Players in the 60-Man Player Pool
C: Ivan Herrera, Julio Rodriguez
IF: Nolan Gorman (Baseball America #60 prospect), Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn, Elehuris Montero, Malcolm Nunez
OF: Dylan Carlson (Baseball America #10 prospect), Trejyn Fletcher, Justin Williams
RHP: Johan Oviedo, Angel Rondon, Jake Woodford
LHP: Matthew Liberatore (Baseball America #45 prospect), Zack Thompson
All in all, the Cardinals clear strengths on the mound and on defense, but the offense will be a huge question all season long. If they can get more expected performance from guys like Matt Carpenter (who has hit well during summer camp), Paul Goldschmidt, and Dexter Fowler, this team has the potential to win the NL Central yet again. With all the question marks this team still has and the depth of teams in the National League this year, I would not be surprised if the Cardinals just missed the playoffs. I think that when it is all said and done, they will be on the outside of the postseason looking in, having just missed out on a Wild Card spot.
Featured Photo: @Cardinals