The 2020 St. Louis Cardinals are by no means a bad team. Roughly the same group of players won 91 games a year ago. Their rotation is headlined by a top-25 starter, and the bullpen is solid. It’s tough to find a better infield in baseball. The Cardinals certainly have a lot going for them, but like every other team in the NL Central, they aren’t without their holes.
For one, the outfield could be just fine, or it could sputter and stall. In the universe where the Cardinals outfield is perfectly cromulent, Matt Carpenter gets back on track which allows Tommy Edman to spend most of his time in left. Harrison Bader follows the Kevin Pillar school and plays spectacular defense while hitting just enough doubles to occasionally be a threat at the plate. Tyler O’Neill’s makes up for his extremely low contact rate by hitting the snot out of the ball when he finally connects. Dexter Fowler will prove that 2018 was just a blip. Maybe even the 21-year-old Dylan Carlson comes up freshly anointed with Cardinals Devil Magic and has a three-win season right out the gate.
None of those things are all that unlikely. With the exception of Carlson, each outfielder has shown they can succeed at the major league level. Of course, they’ve also shown that they can struggle. Carpenter could repeat his 2019, giving Edman fewer opportunities to start in the outfield. Edman himself could regress. O’Neill’s strikeouts could catch up with him. Bader could just be a glove-first center fielder. Fowler is 34 and doesn’t have to improve. Carlson could simply spend most of the year in Triple-A. Though he’s havening a strong spring, he only has 79 plate appearances in Triple-A and he might not be entirely ready for major league pitching.
Simply put, the outfield could perform as they did in 2019. Last season, they ranked 18th in fWAR at 6.8 and over a third of that came from Marcell Ozuna who signed a one-year deal with the Braves. The difference between the two outfield scenarios may only be a handful of wins, but in the NL Central, each win is vital.
FanGraphs projects the top-four teams in the NL Central to finish within four games of each other, and the Cardinals to wind up at the bottom of that pile with 81 wins. PECOTA agrees that the Cardinals are an 81-win team and is only slightly more impressed with the Reds, putting them five games ahead of the Cardinals. By both projections, the division is up for grabs. All it will take for any team to come out on top is to be slightly better than their projections while everyone else meets or falls short of theirs.
The Reds, of course, are favored because they’ve been the most proactive about getting better. The Cardinals haven’t been completely inactive, but they’ve done little to shore up their weak points. They added Kwang-Hyun Kim to a top-heavy rotation and trading José Martínez and Randy Arozarena for Matthew Liberatore didn’t make them much worse in the short term. Swapping in Carlson for Martínez is probably a net positive, but that’s the only addition to the offense aside from Austin Dean and Brad Miller. These reinforcements are especially underwhelming considering none of those players are locks for Opening Day.
If the Cardinals are to repeat as the worst team to make the playoffs, they’ll do it with pitching and defense. ZiPS projects Jack Flaherty for the ninth-most fWAR in the majors at 4.9. In 2019, Flaherty threw 196 1/3 innings to a 3.46 FIP and 2.44 DRA. That latter mark was the fourth best in the majors among qualified starters. Flaherty is precisely the sort of pitcher that can carry an average team through a Wild Card game or the divisional series.
Miles Mikolas will start the season on the IL, but he shouldn’t miss much time. Mikolas might not reach the highs he did in 2018 again, but he’s a reliable arm assuming he’s healthy. Beyond him, things are less certain. Dakota Hudson hasn’t been able to get the walks under control, and who knows what Adam Wainwright has left at the end of an excellent career.
Then there’s Kwang-hyun Kim who is a relative unknown. Last season in the KBO, Kim posted a 2.53 ERA over 190 1/3 innings with 180 strikeouts and 38 walks. Kim has impressed so far in Spring Training. He hasn’t allowed a run in eight innings while striking out 11. Spring stats are hardly telling, but the lefty has shown that he can hit 95 mph with the fastball and drop in a slow curve at 68 mph and all with good command. That seems promising.
Anyone the Cardinals put on the bump is going to look better with St. Louis’s defense behind them. In 2019, the team ranked fourth in the majors in DRS and third in OOA. Most of that value came from the infield who also carried the offense.
It looks like it’s up to them to do that again. Paul DeJong likely won’t hit 30 home runs again, and Kolten Wong might have fewer hits drop in. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to get more out of Paul Goldschmidt or Matt Carpenter.
Though St. Louis had a relatively quiet offseason, there’s still a path for the Cardinals to make it to the playoffs. That path just might have been clearer had they made a few more moves.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.