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Cardinals’ devil magic may yield more fruit in 2021

In a mediocre NL Central, the mediocre Cardinals can potentially sneak in a deep playoff run. 

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are right in the middle-of-the- pack in a crowded National League Central.

Other than the Pirates, each team has a half-decent-chance to win the division with the Brewers and Cubs projecting to be the close contenders with the Cards this year. The Cardinals’ addition of All Star Nolan Arenado positions them well in the division, as they gave up little current value, and showed they were interested in actually improving their roster (novel concept).

Recently the Cardinals success has relied mostly on good pitching and good defense. They have not been anywhere near an offensive powerhouse, but have been fairly successful with a pitching/ defense-first mentality. The addition of Paul Goldschmidt did not garner the expected results on the offensive side of the ball, as his first full season (2019) in St. Louis yielded one of the worst years of his career. The Arenado trade sought to help move their offense from league-average to slightly above league-average.

St. Louis has a pretty strong infield cast, with Arenado and Paul Dejong making for a well-above-average left side, and Goldschmidt still performing like an above-average player at first base. It’s possible Goldschmidt returns to his pre-Cardinals peak-form, but that may be unlikely considering his age and performance the last two season. Tommy Edman is the weakest infield player, but even he had a good 2019, posting a 123 wRC+. There’s certainly upside in the infield.

Death, taxes, and Yadier Molina serving as the Cardinals backstop are all as reliable as the sun coming up each morning. The everyday catcher since 2004, Yadi is back for another season in a Cardinal’s uniform. At this point, we know exactly what type of player he is...a strong defensive catcher who can get the most out of a pitching staff, while also posting offensive numbers well-below league average. His ~.300 OBP is bottom-of-the-barrel for most catchers,

In the outfield, the most exciting player is 22 year old Dylan Carlson. Carlson was nothing special in the COVID-shortened 2020, but the upside and pedigree is there; Carlson was Baseball America’s number ten prospect in all of baseball in 2020.

The Cardinals have mostly gotten by recently with good pitching, and 2021 they bring back mostly the same rotation they’ve had over the last couple years. Adam Wainwright is returning, as is Miles Mikolas, who missed all of 2020 with a shoulder injury.

25-year-old righty Jack Flarhety is projected to be among the Cardinals’ top pitchers as well. He has better swing-and-miss stuff than veteran Wainwright and significantly better strikeout rate than Mikolas or Kwang Hyun Kim.

Looking at the rotation writ-large, it’s the lack of strikeout stuff that is behind the projection that the Cardinals will give up a significant amount of runs. If their defense is strong, and with a little bit of luck, St. Louis could potentially end up with a win total in the high-80s.

The NL Central is wide-open, and anyone who has been around baseball for the last 20 years knows that it is unwise to ever count out the Cardinals. Their culture of winning, adaptability, and success as a franchise (read: Cardinals Devil Magic) positions them well going into 2021. The head-to-head record against the Milwaukee and Chicago will likely determine who takes the Central.

The winner of the NL Central is likely to take on the NL East winner, since we’re likely projecting the Dodgers to have the best record in the National League. Despite being a mediocre team on paper, the Cardinals could potentially sneak their way into the 2021 NLCS.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano