“Their victories don’t have the same air of economic determinism as those of the Yankees. They’re not the small market underdog that their apple-cheeked, where-did-you-go-to-high-school asking fans imagine them to be, but they’re not economic behemoths, either. The Cardinals tend to rank right smack in the middle of the pack for team payrolls. The Cardinals recent victories, specifically their two uncanny World Series runs, don’t feel like an expression of brute economic reality. In some ways, they are an expression of the team’s unparalleled and inarguable and (ugh) actually admirable organizational brilliance.”
Without any major advantage in payroll or media market or really any other structural factor, the Cardinals continue to churn out major leaguer after major leaguer, competitive team after competitive team, and BABIP god after BABIP god until they squeak their way into another World Series win.
So while the Cardinals didn’t add Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, and they very well could have, they still have brought two stars into the fold over the last two seasons without really touching the checkbook.
The first one has yet to bear its true fruit, as they capitalized on the Marlins’ tear-down to snare Marcell Ozuna, the price being a total of a top one-hundred pitching prospect in Sandy Alcantara—and its not like the Cardinals don’t spit out those, which we’ll get to—and a top-ish prospect in the light-hitting Magneuris Sierra, whose profile looks more or less like a fourth outfielder at best. Ozuna had a “mere” 106 wRC+, but that also constituted a 131 wRC+ in the second half and what was, still, a nearly-three-win season.
Then they went out and added who is easily the best first baseman in the game in Paul Goldschmidt, who just had his sixth-straight season of more than 4.3 fWAR. Ho hum. The price for him was actually real in a way Ozuna wasn’t, as they gave up Carson Kelly, a promising catching prospect, and Luke Weaver, who has had some issues with results but has a pitch mix that looks incredibly, incredibly promising.
The two of them join, as I said, an existing crew of almost completely, quality players churned out from the ether. Harrison Bader, a 2015 third-rounder who looks like a Fallout NPC, put up a 3.5 fWAR season buoyed by excellent hitting against lefties and great outfield defense. And nothing sums up Cardinals excellence better than Matt Carpenter, a 13th rounder who filled in at first base after Albert Pujols and immediately became an important piece; he’s hit better than a 115 wRC+ every full season, and he had an incredible stretch last year where he hit .312/.414/.660 from May 1st to August 1st.
The pitching, as would be expected, follows that same Cardinals model. Miles Mikolas, the MLB-to-NPB-to-MLB wonder who crashed back on to the scene has now signed a $15.5 million extension after his 2.83 ERA season. Jack Flaherty looks to top his 85 ERA- rookie year, and they’re surrounded by a largely similar cast of characters including Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, who should be about one-to-two-win players in their own right. Carlos Martinez will miss the start of the year with shoulder issues, and former top prospect Alex Reyes will likely make the team as a reliever, so a lot does hinge on health there.
FanGraphs puts this squad as an 85-win one. That was enough to miraculously win a World Series in 2006, and it could very well be enough today. They are in a tight division with a stagnant Cubs, non-spender Pirates, the returning pennant winner Brewers, and Reds who could be bad or could be mediocre, so this is all, like most of the teams in the division, up for grabs. John Mozeliak churned out yet another contender, as he is so often wont to do, and if they don’t, it’s not like they didn’t put all of the right pieces in place.