The St. Louis Cardinals have been in perennial contention to win the National League Central in virtually every year since 2000. In that time span, they have had just one losing season, been to the playoffs twelve times, gone to the World Series four times, and won two World Series Championships. Throughout that same period, the Milwaukee Brewers were the whipping boys for Cardinals’ teams beating them 184 times and losing just 137.
That narrative changed with the hiring of David Stearns, Matt Arnold, Craig Counsell, and others who have changed the culture and the fortunes of the Milwaukee organization. Over the past two years the Cardinals have been taking it on the chin quite a bit more than they were accustomed to in the past. Milwaukee is 38-22 against the Cardinals since 2017, and obviously, the Cardinals watched from home as the Brew Crew made their deep playoff run last year. It has been three years since they were in the playoffs. Cardinals’ brass and fan base are less than happy.
The Cardinals have to understand they’ve been surpassed by Milwaukee and Chicago. To their credit, they’ve made a couple of significant upgrades, the biggest being the trade made for Paul Goldschmidt. With just one more year of control over Goldschmidt, the Arizona Diamondbacks were looking for a team that would offer a decent price the All-Star first basemen. The Cardinals stepped up and sent Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, and Andy Young to Arizona and Goldschmidt came to the “Gateway to the West.”
Goldschmidt has been one of the top run producers in the National League for several years. He has a career slash of .297/.398/.532 and a career wRC+ of 144 accumulating 36.2 fWAR since he came into the league in 2011. The 31 year old slugger is an elite hitter and defender at first base. His addition is a significant improvement, and as you’ve probably heard, he will be a Cardinal for the next long term.
Goldschmidt and the Cardinals have reportedly agreed to an extension. Goldy will sign a five-year pact for $130 million. He will have full no trade protection and there will be no opt clauses.
The Cardinals also sought to upgrade their bullpen by signing Andrew Miller. The man that created the high leverage, multi-inning reliever role signed a 2 year, $25 million contract. The Cardinals are banking that Miller returns to his 2015-2017 form. He turns 34 in May and is coming off an injury riddled 2018 where he pitched to a 4.24 ERA and a 3.68 xFIP.
The #STLCards have agreed to terms with free-agent left-handed relief pitcher Andrew Miller on a two-year (2019-20) deal with a vesting option for the 2021 season. #TimeToFly pic.twitter.com/2v6rfivKpq— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) December 21, 2018
St. Louis also took a flyer on Matt Wieters. They signed him to a minor league contract with the hope that he would back up Yadier Molina. Wieters is 32 years old and has a slash line of just .235/.303/.376 since 2016. The good news about the additions made is that there is quite the track record of success. The bad news is, an older team just gets older.
As mentioned Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly were traded to Arizona in the Paul Goldschmidt trade, and they were the most significant subtractions from the Cardinals squad. Both Weaver and Kelly were once highly touted prospects. Weaver in particular had achieved major league success in 2017. Over 60.1 innings pitched that year, he pitched to a 3.88 ERA and a 2.93 xFIP, striking out almost 11 K/9. 2018 was not as successful. Over 136.1 innings he had an ERA of 4.95 and an xFIP of 4.46. That fantastic strikeout rate caved as well to less than 8 K/9.
Kelly was considered to be the heir apparent to Yadier Molina. As it were, that was not in the cards. In very limited action (he appeared in 10, 34, and 19 games between 2016-2018), Kelly had trouble with the bat. His career slash line to this point is .154/.227/.188. He has shown better in the minor leagues, and at just 24 years old, he still has time to come into his own. It just will not be as a St. Louis Cardinal.
Quite possibly the most significant subtraction for St. Louis came during the 2018 season when they fired manager Mike Matheny. After leading the Cardinals to the playoffs for the first four years of his tenure, he saw the Chicago Cubs and then the Brewers race past his team. With three straight years of no playoffs, the St. Louis brass lost patience, and seeing one more season fade away, let him go.
The previously mentioned Paul Goldschmidt will man first base. That means defensive liability Jose Martinez will have very few chances to play the spot and will play more in the outfield. The Cardinals upgrade significantly at the position both offensively and defensively.
The rest of the infield will be made up of a combination of Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Jedd Gyorko, and Kolten Wong. Where that leaves players like Yairo Munoz and Drew Robinson is starting the season in AAA, most likely. Carpenter is coming off a very nice year where he finished 9th in the MVP voting and finished with a batting line of .257/.374/.523 with 36 home runs. He will play both second and third bases this year, most likely.
Shortstop will be manned by Paul DeJong on most days. In 2017, DeJong finished third in Rookie of the Year Voting, crushing 25 home runs to begin in MLB career. He played okay in 2018, but not as well as 2017 slashing .241/.313/.433 and 19 home runs. He strikes out a lot so the Cardinals would like to see his OBP and SLG to go up in 2019.
Gyorko will play all over the infield, although he is a hit first utility infielder. He hit 30 home runs as recently as 2016, so he has pop, and he is a lefty killer. The question will be how many at bats will the 30 year old get this season?
Kolten Wong is now 28 years old. It seems like just yesterday he was getting picked off first base in the World Series. Is it “do or die” time for the 2011 first round draft pick? A career .255/.325/.380 batting line doesn’t get it done. Manager Mike Shildt let him know that he will be starting second baseman for 2019, so maybe he will be more relaxed going into the season.
The projected starting infield will be Paul Goldschmidt (1B), Kolten Wong (2B), Paul DeJong (SS), and Matt Carpenter (3B).
The outfield has some question marks going into the 2019 season. Marcell Ozuna might be the most important question of all to answer. Ozuna was thought to be the addition to carry the team in 2018. He did not perform to expectations slashing .280/.325/.433. When they traded for Ozuna, the Cards thought they were getting something more attuned to the player he was in 2017, a year that saw him slash .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs for Miami. That kind of production in 2019 may still be problematic even after shoulder surgery. The Cardinals are being cautious with him, limiting his throwing this spring.
Dexter Fowler is a big question mark as well. Fowler’s 2018 was frustrating for both him and the team slashing a paltry .180/.278/.298. That kind of production moving forward will serve as an albatross going into his third year of a 5 year contract worth $82.5 million. Fowler, who admitted to being depressed last season, looks to rebound.
Center field will be patrolled most days by Harrison Bader. Bader had an impressive rookie campaign in 2018. He is especially regarded for his defensive prowess. Bader finished the season with an impressive 19 DRS and 3.5 fWAR.
With Marcell Ozuna in left and Harrison Bader in center, Tyler O’Neil and Jose Martinez will battle Dexter Fowler for time in right. Fowler has the big contract. Jose Martinez is a quality hitter whose defense is quite possibly worse than Eric Thames in the outfield. O’Neil spends a lot of time in the weight room and looks like he will hit home runs. Who plays out of that group? The odd man out is probably O’Neil, as the 23 year old probably does need more seasoning. A platoon of Fowler and Martinez is likely.
As mentioned, Matt Wieters might do some catching for the Cardinals in 2019, but if he does, it will be just a little. Barring injury, Yadier Molina will be framing pitches and throwing out would-be base stealers for the Redbirds this season. Like him or hate him, you have to respect him. While not the player he once was, he will likely still cause a few headaches for Brewer Nation. Worth noting, Molina will be coming back from off season knee surgery.
Year in and year out, the Cardinals seems to have a good rotation. That is likely to be the case in 2019, but there might be a bit more uncertainty than in years past. Adam Wainwright will be back for one more year. The former ace pitched to a 4.46 ERA and 4.26 xFIP in 2018. The Cardinals no longer expect ace-like performance out of the 37 year old, but a solid back of the rotation piece would help them a lot.
Jack Flaherty is the budding ace for this squad. In most years, Flaherty would have taken home the Rookie of the Year trophy in 2018, but he had the misfortune to be in the same class as Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto. Rookie pitchers carrying a near 30% strikeout rate in their first 150 frames often prophecize years of success - especially when paired with a 1.11 WHIP and sub-3.50 ERA. The Brewers will be trying to get the best of Flaherty for years to come.
Michael Wacha is in his last year before free agency, and the Cardinal’s front office has yet to engage him in long-term talks. Wacha pitched relatively well last year over 84.1 innings (3.20 ERA and 4.12 xFIP). Injuries have plagued him. With Wacha pitching an entire season, the middle of the rotation would look pretty good for St. Louis.
The real ace of the staff in 2018 was Miles Mikolas. He chose St. Louis over Milwaukee after pitching in Japan for three years, because St. Louis had its Spring Training facilities in Florida, just minutes from where Mikolas and his family already made their home. In 2018, he sported an 18-4 record and pitched to an 2.83 ERA and 3.67 xFIP. He will look to build on that success in 2019 after signing a four-year contract extension.
One would think Carlos Martinez would be back at the head of the rotation in 2019. Unfortunately for Martinez, he has been sidelined with shoulder weakness. Unlike Milwaukee, St. Louis tends to “call out” their players about their attitude and preparation, and that always makes for a healthy clubhouse culture, right? They are doing that right now with Martinez. Will such a thing derail the 27 year old flame thrower will be a question? If it does, and the Cardinals fail to make the playoffs again in 2019, John Mozeliak may be on the hot seat.
Coming into 2017, Alex Reyes was the #1 ranked right handed pitching prospect by MLB.com. He still is the #1 rated prospect in the Cardinals’ system. Injuries have derailed him over the past two years. His stuff is electric. The question is, can he stay healthy enough to develop into the pitcher the Cardinals envision? Both Reyes and Martinez could end up in the bullpen.
Dakota Hudson may earn a spot in the rotation at some point this season. He is the #4 rated prospect in the Cardinals’ system. He got a taste of the big leagues in 2018, going 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA over 27.1 innings. Jon Gant will probably start some games for the Cardinals as well.
The bullpen could include Martinez, Reyes, Hudson, and even possibly Wacha or Wainwright, depending on who doesn’t make the rotation. As mentioned previously, Andrew Miller was one of the big additions coming to the Cardinals in the offseason. If he is able to return to form, he will provide the Josh Hader (formerly the Andrew Miller) role for the red birds.
Jordan Hicks will look to take his 102 mph fastball and become a dominant closer. Other possibilities include John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, Chasen Shrive, and Mike Mayers. Once healthy, Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil will be in the fold.
Alex Reyes and Dakota Hudson constitute two big prospects to potentially impact the team in 2019. Another is catching prospect, Andrew Knizner. He may get the call to back up Molina, but the potential of bringing Wieters onto the team suggests the Cardinals may think he needs more time in the minors or they want him to get regular at bats so as not to hinder his development. He did slash .313/.368/.430 across AA and AAA last year. His performance looks to have made Carson Kelly expendable.
Pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon will probably be up and down between AAA and the majors this year as might Connor Jones and Genesis Cabrera.
The first four-game series between the Brewers and Cardinals will be one of the more important and anticipated in MLB. Hopefully the Brew Crew take that series. Whether the Cardinals win, lose, or split that opening series, they are going to be extremely competitive in 2019. The additions of Goldschmidt and Miller as well as a potentially resurgent Ozuna, and strong starting pitching might be enough to ensure it. I expect the Brewers and the Cardinals as well as the Cubs to fight it out for the NL Central title. Cardinals finish second in the division to the Brewers and win 93 games.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference