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2021 NL Central Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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St. Louis landed one of the biggest acquisitions of the offseason, but will it be enough to contend

St. Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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 fourteen times, gone to the World Series four times, and won two World Series Championships.

The Milwaukee Brewers don’t hold a candle to the success and history of the St. Louis Cardinals. However in recent years, the Brew Crew have challenged the Cardinals, and in many ways, outplayed them. Since 2017, Milwaukee is 36-31 against St. Louis. The Brewers have made the playoffs each of the last threes seasons and was one game away from going to the World Series in 2018.

Yet the Cardinals always seem to challenge for the N.L. Central crown, and could be Milwaukee’s biggest nemesis (Cubs might have something to say about that). They are apt to contend again this season, although there are challenges they will face.

Additions:

Outside of the Francisco Lindor trade, the acquisition of Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies is probably the biggest addition to a team in baseball. St. Louis traded for the All-World third baseman earlier this offseason for Austin Gomber, Mateo Gil, Elehuris Montero, Tony Locey, Jake Sommers, and significant cash considerations. While the Cardinals gave up a lot of quantity, many in the industry believe St. Louis won this deal, and that the acquisition propels the Cardinals as favorites in the N.L. Central.

Since the trade, Milwaukee has made a couple significant moves of their own, and PECOTA’s projection systems had the Brewers winning the N.L. Central even after the Arenado trade and before the acquisions of Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. by Milwaukee. Nonetheless, the Cardinals got one of the best third basemen in baseball, and it will result in good things for St. Louis.

Over Nolan Arenado's career, his offensive numbers have been prolific. His career slash of .293/.349/.541 over an eight year career is amazing. He is also thought of as the best defender at his position in the game by many. The Cardinals are getting a player that consistently produces an 5-6 fWAR. Along with Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals have a very dangerous 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup.

Subtractions

The players mentioned in the Arenado trade are subtractions from the system, but only one had any kind of major league track record, Austin Gomber. Gomber looks to be a decent pitcher. He even posted a 1.86 ERA over 14 appearances and 4 starts for the Cardinals last season.

The real loss came in the form of Kolten Wong, and his loss was a double whammy since the Brewers signed him to play second base for them. Wong won a couple of gold gloves while with them, but the Cardinals decided not to bring him back. Instead they will use Tommy Edman at second base, while achieving heightened defense at the hot corner with the aforementioned Nolan Arenado. The Cardinals front office likely believes they can get similar production out of Edman as they did with Wong for less expense.

The Cardinals also traded Dexter Fowler and cash to the Los Angeles Angels for a PTBNL. Once a good player who once produced a 4.6 fWAR season, Fowler is not what he once was. The only year the Cardinals got significant production out of him was their first year with him in 2017. During that season he had a 122 wRC+. He was atrocious at the plate in 2018 and somewhere around league average in 2019 and 2020. The loss of Fowler likely does not move the needle for the Cardinals one way or the other, except their outfield is very young and offensively vulnerable.

Brad Miller and Matt Wieters were also not brought back the Cardinals. Both are veteran players that were role players for St. Louis in 2020. Miller is now with the Philadelphia Phillies. Wieters has yet to sign.

Infield:

The infield is the strength of this team, especially on the corners. They have two big bats who play their position at a high level defensively manning first and third bases. Obviously the most attention goes to Nolan Arenado. The perennial All-Star is among the best in the game at his position, and the position has a lot of talent around MLB.

The Cardinals are going get outs they would not have gotten from Tommy Edman or Matt Carpenter at third. They are also going to get production from his bat that no one in the 2020 version of the Cardinals was apt to produce outside of an aging Paul Goldschmidt. This was the only significant move the Cardinals made beyond bringing back Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Nonetheless, that single addition will improve this team.

The other player of note is Paul Goldschmidt. He came over from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019. His first season with the club was not Goldschmidt-worthy, but 2020 saw him return to form as he put up a 146 wRC+. Goldschmidt turns 34 in September, so his best years are probably behind him. Yet he probably hasn’t fallen off any cliffs yet in terms of baseball performance. He will still be dangerous, and the addition of Arenado will probably help him offensively.

Paul DeJong continues to play shortstop for the Cardinals, and once again everyone should expect a very good player. In 2019, DeJong popped 30 home runs, and in his rookie campaign of he put 25 over the wall. While his only season as a significantly above average hitter was 2017, he is generally regarded as a strong defender at his position. Thus is consistently a 3-4 fWAR player. Having three players around the infield above 3 fWAR (Arenado 5-6 fWAR) is a major plus for the Cardinals.

The loss of Kolten Wong will be taken up by Tommy Edman. Edman quietly put up a 3.2 fWAR season in 2019, but like a lot of players around MLB, fell off in 2020. It will be interesting to see what Edman is able to accomplish hitting a top the Cardinals’ lineup and playing primarily second base, which seems to be his best position defensively. Knowing how the Cardinals roll, Edman will likely contribute a lot to their team. Matt Carpenter may also see time at second base, but he will probably be at third, first, and in the outfield as well.

Outfield:

The outfield is a huge question mark for St. Louis. There just is not a lot to be confident about offensively across the three outfield positions. That, of course, could change if the Cardinals’ top prospect, Dylan Carlson, is able to take over one of the corner outfield spots.

Carlson, who is a switch hitter, was a first round pick in 2016. He showed well in limited action in his first stint as a major leaguer in 2020. According to his scouting report, he is supposed to be pretty good.

Carlson has excelled against advanced competition at every stage of his career since the Cardinals took him 33rd overall in the 2016 Draft. He opened 2019 as the Double-A Texas League’s second-youngest position player but went on to garner MVP honors as a 20-year-old after ranking second in the circuit in home runs (21), OPS (.882), extra-base hits (51) and runs (81). Carlson continued to rake after a mid-August promotion to Triple-A to become the first Cardinals farmhand to record at least 20 home runs (26) and 20 stolen bases (20) since Terry Evans (22-26) and Tyler Greene (20-33) in 2006. He reached the Majors for the first time in 2020, debuting on Aug. 15 at age 21, but was demoted to the alternate training site after just 23 games. Carlson looked every bit like an impact player when he returned two weeks later. After batting .286 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs over his final 11 regular-season contests, he posted a 1.016 OPS as the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter against San Diego in the Wild Card Series.

Carlson’s five tools are average to plus across the board. He’s blossomed as a left-handed hitter in the pro ranks, making harder contact and improving his launch angle while tapping into more power each year, while the natural loft in Carlson’s right-handed swing makes him a power threat from both sides of the plate. Carlson’s knowledge of the strike zone and pitch recognition have been constants throughout his career, giving him on-base skills to go along with the power potential and natural hitting ability. He knows how to steal a bag and earns high marks for his baserunning, combining above-average speed with veteran-like instincts.

In essence, Carlson might be a major difference maker for the Cardinals in 2021. If he has a strong rookie campaign, the Cardinals could be very good. They will certainly be better offensively with the addition of Carlson as well as Arenado to this lineup.

The Cardinals will be really good defensively in centerfield. Harrison Bader is projected to return to that spot, and he generally puts up elite level defense. Offensively, he holds his own generally. He does strike out a bit (32% in 2020), but he has posted an above average wRC+ in 2018 and 2020.

The other final spot in the outfield is probably up for grabs. Tyler O’Neill is the name most familiar to Brewers’ fans. Still just 25 years old, the Cardinals hope his 70 raw power grade turns into in-game power at some point. His slash of .173/.261/.360 in 2020 is pretty awful, and 2019 he was a below average hitter.

Lane Thomas and Austin Dean could also be in the mix. Don’t be surprised if Tommy Edman sees time in the outfield if there are struggles among any in this group. Matt Carpenter could play in the outfield as well.

Catcher:

There was a moment this offseason where it looked as if Yadier Molina might not be back in a Cardinals’ uniform (not really). The redbirds signed him to a 1-year, $9 million deal. Molina is no longer an All-Star level player, but he is still a presence. Even going into his age 38/39 season, Molina should be quite good on the defensive side of the equation. Andrew Knizner should serve as the backup in St. Louis, or newly acquired Ali Sanchez.

Rotation:

Year in and year out, the Cardinals seems to have a good rotation. With Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals have an ace-level pitcher, although he did have a 4.91 ERA in 2020. Most that inflated ERA came from one start against Milwaukee on September 15. In that start he lasted three innings and gave up nine of the 22 runs he gave up over the entire season. Otherwise, Flaherty pitched pretty much like he always does.

Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun-Kim are thought not to be ready for Opening Day, but will slide into the rotation once they are back from injury. Hyun-Kim posted a 1.62 ERA in 2020, and looked more than competent on a MLB mound. Hyun-Kim came to St. Louis from the KBO.

The Cardinals signed Miles Mikolas after a stint in Japan a couple of years ago. His first year with the team was really good. Since then, he has been mediocre in 2019 and injured in 2020. He is dealing with a sore shoulder now.

The Cardinals also re-signed Adam Wainwright. Once a legitimate ace, Wainwright is still a quality pitcher, at least that was the case in 2020. He will turn 40 during the regular season, and 2021 looks like it will be a full 162 game season. From 2016-2019, he posted ERAs above 4.00, sometimes well above 4.00, in each of those seasons.

Others that could get starts include Carlos Martinez, John Gant, and Daniel Ponce de Leon. Everyone of this group have had success as a starter with Martinez being the most successful. Unfortunately Martinez career has stumbled a bit, and he is not having a very good Spring. Gant and Ponce de Leon are generally solid.

What has been a strength of the Cardinals is less of one coming into 2021. Flaherty is still going to be great, but after that the question marks are numerous. Will Hyun-Kim pitch well over a 162 game season? Will Miles Mikolas come back from injury and perform like his 2018 version or will he be the 2019 version? Can Carlos Martinez return to some semblance of what he was? Does Adam Wainwright have enough left in the tank? The answer to some of those questions could very well be “no.”

Bullpen:

The bullpen could be a strength of this ball club. With Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes, they have the potential to shut down things in the late innings. Both are still young, and both still have to take another step. Yet they both have the stuff to be really effective. If they can take that step, the Cardinals will be in good shape.

Carlos Martinez could return to the bullpen as well, but whatever ails him as a starter would likely ail him as a reliever too. Gant and Ponce de Leon will serve middle relieve when not starting. Andrew Miller will return, but he is not the dominant reliever he was. Can he be effective...the answer is definitely, “yes.” Giovanny Gallegos, Tyler Webb, Kodi Whitley, Genesis Cabrera, and Ryan Helsley should all see time in the bullpen.

Prospects:

The big prospect is Dylan Carlson, and he is apt to get his shot in 2021. Others that might make an impact for St. Louis in 2021 include Kodi Whitley, Ali Sanchez, and Justin Williams. None of those are top level prospects, however. Johan Oviedo would be the only other top 10 prospect likely to see time with the major league club. Oviedo signed out of Cuba and has been really good in the minors. Command is a question mark for him, and COVID-19 delayed his development. Yet he could be a force for the Cardinals as soon as 2021. Matt Liberatore, Nolan Gorman, and Ivan Herrera are on the horizon, but probably more likely to come in 2022.

Prediction:

With the acquisition of Nolan Arenado, the St. Louis Cardinals immediately improved their offense and defense at the hot corner. Much depends on how good Dylan Carlson is in 2021. If he plays really well, the Cardinals could challenge for the N.L. Central crown. But he is one of many question marks that need to be answered, and to expect all of those questions marks to be answered positively is unlikely. Nonetheless the Cardinals will be good, and they will get a Wild Card spot in the playoffs while finishing second in the N.L. Central. The Cardinals will finish 90-72.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs