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2018 NL Central Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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St. Louis seems poised to end a two-year playoff drought, and has a slew of top-rated prospects ready to make an impact. Fun.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t used to sitting out October. You have to go back almost 20 years (1997-1999) to find the last time they missed the playoffs three years in a row. Back then, they responded by trading for Jim Edmonds and Mike Matheny and got a breakout performance by (then-pitching) rookie Rick Ankiel.

After missing the postseason for a second consecutive season last year, the team didn’t wait around for a third straight disappointment. The 2017 Cardinals lacked an impact bat in the middle of the order, so they went out and got one -- much like when they traded for Edmonds 18 years ago.

There are still plenty of questions about this year’s Cardinals, especially on the pitching side, but it looks like they’ll be squarely in the wildcard race this year -- and contending for division titles again before too long.

Additions and Subtractions

Even when the Cardinals won 100 games in 2015, they didn’t have a truly intimidating big bat in the middle of the lineup -- and honestly, they haven’t really had one since Albert Pujols left town after the 2011 season. Since then, they’ve mostly built lineups full of patient contact hitters that create an incredibly annoying three hours for opposing fans.

But that pixie dust seems to have run out in the past couple years, with a mix of injuries and ineffectiveness taking its toll. That’s why the Cardinals went out and joined the New York Yankees in ripping off the Miami Marlins, acquiring Marcell Ozuna for a package of four prospects that was considered light by most. The best prospect the Cardinals gave up was pitcher Sandy Alcantara, who wasn’t even a Top 5 prospect in their system, depending on who you ask.

In return, the Cardinals got a 27-year-old two-time All-Star who won both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger last year after hitting .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and 30 doubles. It was a breakout season for Ozuna, who always had power potential but fully embraced the launch angle revolution last year and became a superstar.

It’s part of a big outfield makeover for the red birds, who traded Stephen Piscotty to Oakland in an act of goodwill (yes, even the Cardinals are capable of doing good things) to allow him to be closer to his family after his mom was diagnosed with ALS. They also traded Randal Grichuk to Toronto for reliever Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone may end up closing games for the Cardinals this year after striking out 81 batters in 70.1 innings last year and putting up a 2.56 ERA/2.94 FIP with Toronto.

The Cardinals lost Lance Lynn from their rotation and signed Miles Mikolas, who is trying to make an Eric Thames-like return to the United States after putting up a 2.18 ERA in Japan over the past three years. The fact the Cards never tried to keep Lynn may have less to do with how they feel about his longterm health and more to do with what they have on the horizon.

Infield

Shortstop Paul DeJong was one of the big surprises of last season, hitting .285/.325/.532 with 25 home runs and finishing second in the Rookie of the Year race. He parlayed that into a 6-year, $26 million contract, giving him some security in the event he goes through a sophomore slump this year.

Kolten Wong will return to second base after finally starting to show some of his offensive promise last year with a .285/.376/.412 line in 108 games, while Matt Carpenter will once again play first base. The Cardinals toyed with the idea of finding a new third baseman in the winter, but ended up letting Jedd Gyorko keep the job after he followed a 30-home run 2016 season with a more well-rounded .272/.341/.472 20-home run, 21-double season last year.

Behind the plate, Yadier Molina is going into his 15th year of catching and the first year of a 3-year, $60 million contract extension he signed last spring. Despite showing signs of offensive decline last season, he’ll make $20 million per year in his age 35 through 37 seasons.

Outfield

The addition of Ozuna shuffled the order of the Cardinals’ outfield, with the team deciding to move last year’s left fielder Tommy Pham to center field and shifting Dexter Fowler over to right field. The move will likely improve the defense in the outfield -- aside from Ozuna’s Gold Glove, moving Fowler to the corner should also help after he graded out at -18 Defensive Runs Saved and a -5.9 UZR in center last year. As always, take single-year defensive metrics with a grain of salt, but UZR has never liked Fowler that much -- his career UZR/150 is -10.6 and he’s only had one net positive DRS full season in his career.

Pham graded out very well defensively last season in left field, which was a big part in him putting up a 6 WAR season out of nowhere. Of course, his .306/.411/.520 line with 23 home runs also played a factor in that.

Time will tell how well this group plays defensively -- especially Pham in center -- but they may end up rivaling the Brewers in terms of offensive production.

Rotation

When you look at what the Cardinals have beyond Carlos Martinez, you might question their decision to let Lance Lynn walk. Like the Brewers, there are plenty of question marks once you get to the last few spots in the rotation, but the group at least projects to have a higher ceiling, and that’s before you consider their prospect depth.

Michael Wacha figures to be the #2 behind Martinez, but reports are that the Cardinals may try to take a Brent Suter-like approach with him this year, limiting the number of times a lineup sees him a third time in his starts. Wacha had a solid season last year, upping his K/9 rate from 7.4 in 2016 to 8.6 in 2017 and putting up a 3.63 FIP. But after holding opponents to a .570 OPS the first time through the order last year, they hit him for an .817 OPS the second time through and a .900 OPS the third time through.

Mikolas is an intriguing pitcher, but plenty of starters who haven’t been able to cut it in the majors have found success in Japan. The question will be whether he truly made adjustments overseas that will lead to more success his second time stateside.

Adam Wainwright is still sticking around and will still pitch in the rotation despite back-to-back bad years. The Cardinals may be betting that he’s had some bad luck (a 3.93 FIP in 2016 despite a 4.62 ERA, and a 4.29 FIP despite a 5.11 ERA last year), but at this point it seems more likely that age is catching up to the 36-year-old.

Luke Weaver will fill out the rotation after an impressive 60.1 innings that included 10 starts last year. He struck out 72 batters in those innings and had a 3.17 FIP, including two starts against the Brewers in which he gave up just 4 runs and struck out 18 in 12 innings.

Bullpen

The Cardinals have had a hell of a time finding a dependable closer in recent years, so this season they’ve decided not to name one heading into the season.

St. Louis is one of the teams that has announced they’ll be carrying 8 relievers, and half of those are still in the mix to get the final three outs. Candidates to get the first save opportunities include free agent signing Luke Gregerson and Leone, who was acquired in the Grichuk trade. Tyler Lyons and Bud Norris may also get looks in the 9th inning, though, depending on how things shake out.

It’s probably worth mentioning that Greg Holland is still a free agent in the event things go south in a hurry again for the St. Louis bullpen. There’s also the matter of what the team wants to do with its top prospect working his way back from an elbow injury...

Prospects

Alex Reyes is back on the mound after Tommy John surgery, and while he’s the Cardinals’ consensus #1 prospect, he doesn’t have a clear role heading into the season. The Cardinals want to give him a consistent workload, so they probably won’t use him in the back end of the bullpen as he works his way back to full strength. But at the same time, they don’t want to overwork him, so riding him all year in the starting rotation may not be an option, either. He could end up being used like how the Brewers will likely use Josh Hader -- for 4-out stretches against the opposing team’s best hitters the third time through the order. He’s expected to work between 70 and 100 innings this year, and that would be a good way to do it.

As if having one potential ace among their top prospects wasn’t enough, the Cardinals have another in Jack Flaherty, who they somehow were able to avoid giving up in the trade for Ozuna. He’ll start the year in Triple-A, where he put up a 2.74 ERA in 15 starts, but he doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove and will likely be the first man up in the event of an injury/Wainwright’s ineffectiveness. Flaherty can hit the mid-90s with his fastball and has a potentially plus changeup to go with a 55-grade slider.

But wait, there’s more -- the Cardinals have not one, not two, but three other Top-100 quality prospects who are ready to contribute this year.

Catcher Carson Kelly is Molina’s heir apparent behind the plate and considered one of the best defensive catching prospects in the game, with offensive skills to match. The only reason he’s starting the year in Triple-A is to get consistent at-bats instead of backing up Molina.

Outfielder Tyler O’Neill isn’t the biggest guy at 5’11” but he packs a punch. He hit 32 home runs in the minors a couple years ago, but a slight drop off allowed the Cardinals to swoop in and acquire him in a trade for just lefty Marco Gonzales. Now O’Neill ranks in Top-100 prospect lists and could make an impact this year, although it’s hard to find a path to playing time for him with the Cardinals’ strength in the outfield.

Another outfielder, Harrison Bader, also ranks in the back end of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 and is in the mix to make the team as a 4th outfielder. He hit .283/.347/.469 with 20 home runs in 123 games in Triple-A last year and can hold his own defensively to fill in at all three positions.

Prediction

The Cardinals didn’t mess around in addressing some of their biggest needs this winter and trying to avoid missing a third straight October. Their lineup top-to-bottom now rivals the Cubs’ and Brewers’, and if they can get consistent pitching they’ll be in line to be a frontrunner for a wildcard spot. Challenging the Cubs for a division title still seems a little out of reach, but they’ll still be one of the strongest teams in the National League either way and a real threat to keep the Brewers out of the playoffs.

While Milwaukee might have a slight edge in power in the lineup and both teams have largely unproven pitching staffs beyond their first couple arms, the projectability and higher ceiling of the Cardinals’ young pitchers may end up giving them the edge over the Brewers for second place in the division.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs

Poll

Where will the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals finish in the NL Central?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    1st
    (103 votes)
  • 35%
    2nd
    (137 votes)
  • 30%
    3rd
    (115 votes)
  • 3%
    4th
    (12 votes)
  • 4%
    5th
    (16 votes)
383 votes total Vote Now