The Cardinals are like a hydra. Cut off on head and ten more take its place. You may try to defeat them, but they will win. Always. Without fail, the Cardinals will be better than you. They cannot be killed by even the mightiest of mortal warriors. It took a demigod to defeat the mythological hydra, and unfortunately, neither Mike Trout nor Bryce Harper play in the NL Central. Abandon all hope, ye who enter Busch Stadium. No matter what happens to the Cardinals, they always find a way to win. They have the devil magic in their blood.
One has to wonder just how much Cardinal Devil Magic they can conjure up this season, however. St. Louis lost both John Lackey and Jason Heyward to the Cubs, of course, but those players being located on another good team in the same division isn't the main problem. Lackey probably won't replicate his 2.63 ERA from 2015, but the Cards still need to replace his production. Relying on a suddenly resurgent and healthy Jaime Garcia to repeat 129.2 innings of 2.43 ERA ball isn't the safest bet either. Then of course, there's the 6.0 fWAR of Heyward's production that just walked out the door.
It's not that the Cubs are going to deploy these players against St. Louis in April. The division was always going to be a three-way dogfight. It's that the Cardinals haven't adequately beefed up this winter, and for the first time in a while, may lack that Devil Magic depth that's always been their saving grace. The Cardinals might not make the playoffs.
The main additions to the St. Louis big league roster this winter were Mike Leake, Jedd Gyorko, Brayan Peña, and Korean reliever Seung-hwan Oh. While there was already a sizable amount of preexisting talent on the roster, much of it lies in aging and recently injury-prone players such as Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, and Garcia. In the likely event that Holliday (who only played in 73 games last year and is 36) misses time again, it'll be someone like Tommy Pham who replaces him. Pham performed admirably in limited action last year, but the Cardinals would be asking a lot of an outfield composed of Pham, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty.
Grichuk in particular could be a source of trouble. He posted a strong 3.1 fWAR in just 103 games and hit an impressive .276/.329/.548. He's going to be the Cardinals' starting center fielder. However, a .365 BBAIP suggest that some regression is in order. The high figure wasn't a result of simple proclivity for hard contact either. Grichuk actually made hard contact less often than he did in 2014, according to FanGraps' batted ball figures. Steamer projects him to carry a meager 101 wRC+ this year.
Craig Edwards of Viva El Birdos is a great and wise man. He wrote yesterday that no, the St. Louis core is not too old, and even if it is, the cavalry is coming to the rescue. Yet the cavalry has already arrived, and their horses are tired.
In the past, the St. Louis would have been able to turn to their limitless supply of prospects for salvation. The first line of defense is currently composed of left-handers Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales, who both project as back-end starters at best, defensively-oriented infielder Aledmys Diaz, bat-first catcher Michael Ohlman, and perhaps speedy outfielder Charlie Tilson. There isn't the raw firepower here that once characterized the high levels of the St. Louis system. Most of the raw talent is situated in the lower minors, or in the case of top pitching prospect Alex Reyes, suspended for an extended period of time for a positive marijuana test. Reyes could easily prove to be a nasty weapon out of the bullpen down the stretch, but he's only thrown 34.2 innings at Double-A. His suspension eats into valuable developmental time.
The Cards could always use their considerable strength in the lower minors to deal for a great player or two, of course. Yet as currently constructed, St. Louis looks positioned for a third place finish in the NL Central. Third place was good enough for the Cubs to make the playoffs in 2015, so why not for the Cardinals?
The second Wild Card probably won't be coming out of the Central. With the way that both the Giants and Diamondbacks have beefed up over the offseason, it seems as though at least one of the top three teams in the West (the Dodgers being the other) will capture a Wild Card. That'll leave the third place team in the Central out in the cold, and that team very well could be St. Louis.
It should be noted that this kind of article has been written before, and time and time again, the reports of the Cardinals' demise were greatly overstated. The Devil Magic is strong, far stronger than many of us realize until it's too late and David Freese of all people is winning championships. Don't be surprised when Cooney or Gonzales (or both!) get Cy Young Award votes. It's just how the Cardinals operate. They make you cry and then they destroy you, and they laugh while they do it.
This could finally be the year that
justice is served the trend is bucked. If they do in fact miss the playoffs, though, be afraid. They'll be back the next year, and the year after that, and many years following that one. The St. Louis farm is incredibly well stocked at the lower levels, and the Cardinals draft as well as any franchise. An absence from the postseason would be a temporary inconvenience for the most well-oiled machine in the league. Regardless of the results in 2016, the long-term view is bright.
Or they could win 100 games again. It's one of the two. That's just how the Cardinals roll. They make you cry and then they kill you.
Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also covers the Yankees at BP Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.