The Cardinals come into the 2018 season with sky-high expectations. While they missed the playoffs last season, the combination of their additions and other teams’ losses puts them on many preseason playoff maps.
It’s hard not to look at St. Louis’ roster and instantly point to Marcell Ozuna. Coming over from Miami this offseason, Ozuna is expected by many to have another season on par with his breakout one from last year.
Ozuna slashed .312/.376/.542 last season, totaling to a 142 wRC+. Ozuna hasn’t had a season anywhere near that caliber early in his career, which is concerning, but even a little regression from Ozuna keeps him in the upper echelon of outfielders.
The same can be said of Tommy Pham, who broke out last season for the Cards. Pham surpassed all expectations last season, hitting for a 148 wRC+. Pham has quietly had a more consistent career than Ozuna has, so massive regression is a lot less likely for him. If Pham is worth close to the 5.9 WAR he was worth last year, the Cardinals have one of the best duos in baseball.
Dexter Fowler, the hero of the Cubs World Series run in 2016, quietly had a solid season for the Cards in 2017. He was moved away from the leadoff spot midway through the season, but he still managed to put up a 121 wRC+. While he may not be an MVP candidate, Fowler is an incredible player to be touted as a team’s worst starting outfielder.
As for the infield, not much is changed from 2017. Paul DeJong, the rookie sensation from last season, was rewarded for his contributions with a 6-year extension, locking him in St. Louis long term.
DeJong was worth 3.0 WAR last season, slashing .285/.325/.532. He doesn’t draw any walks, but DeJong does have pop in his bat, connecting for 25 homers last season. DeJong also has a slightly above-average glove and looks to be a guy the Cardinals can count on in the future.
The Cardinals also know what they are getting with Matt Carpenter at first base. Carpenter is a career 131 wRC+ guy, and last year was Carpenter’s first below that number (123) since 2014. That being said, Carpenter is still a great player, and if it wasn’t for the insane talent at first base, he would likely be an all-star.
Second base and third base are a bit rockier for the Cardinals. While Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, they are the weak links on a considerably strong roster. Barring injury, I would expect the Cardinals to look to bolster these two positions before the July 31st trade deadline.
The catcher situation the Cardinals are in is sticky. The Yadier Molina fan club is bordering on cult-like status, with parts of the fan base ready to set fire to John Mozeliak’s office should anything happen to him.
However, the realistic view is that Molina is losing his competition with Father Time, and more natural regression puts him at less than 2.0 WAR. Molina still does a great job behind the dish, but his bat has suffered of late.
The backup catcher for St. Louis is Carson Kelly, the MLB’s 46th rated prospect (per MLB Pipeline). Like Molina, Kelly excels behind the plate, but there is a very good chance he can contribute at the plate better than Molina can. It’s highly doubtful the Cardinals bench Molina, but expect him to start getting less and less playing time as the season winds down.
The Cardinals lineup is really good. It may not quite be at pennant-level yet, but if they are aggressive at the deadline, they could reach that level.
Their pitching staff, however, is a question mark. The Cardinals hired former Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux, a sensational hire for a team which has a question-laden pitching staff. Led by Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals pitching staff has plenty of potential, but also a ton of question marks.
Miles Mikolas, the second most hyped player to come from Japan this offseason, is one of three major wild cards. Mikolas didn’t light the world on fire during his first stint in America, but evaluators think he is a better pitcher now than he was with the Rangers back in the day.
If he pitches like he did last year, Luke Weaver could skyrocket up the rotation. Weaver had an xFIP below 3.00 in 61 IP last season, totaling 1.4 WAR. Weaver is going to strike people out, and with his high-90s fastball, could be Maddux’s next Stephen Strasburg.
So much of this Cardinals season, however, lies on whether or not Adam Wainwright can regain his Cy Young form. Wainwright wasn’t good last year, posting a 4.40 xFIP in 123 innings. However, with Maddux now at the helm for the Cardinals pitchers, a better season is expected from Wainwright. The million dollar question is just how much.
Two other names to keep an eye on are Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty. St. Louis’ top two prospects, Reyes and Flaherty could be huge pieces for the Cards.
Reyes missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery but has one of the deadliest fastballs one will ever see. Graded as a 75-grade pitch by MLB Pipeline, Reyes mixes it with a deadly curveball, a repertoire which pins him perfectly for a late-inning bullpen role. However, if he doesn’t respond well after his injury, he could blow up in St. Louis’ face.
Flaherty doesn’t have that great pitch, but rather has command of a repertoire of 4 pitches. Flaherty is a starter by trade, but with the Cardinals’ rotation pretty much filled up, Flaherty will either have to go to long relief or become trade bait. The ladder is probably much more likely.
While the Cardinals have tons of raw potential up and down the roster, it’s unlikely that everyone lives up to expectation. That isn’t a knock on the Cardinals, but rather the reality of baseball.
If the Cardinals do land the big fish in the pond, Josh Donaldson, at the deadline, they will be in a lot better shape than they are right now. However, as it stands currently, they will be in plenty of “Contender or Pretender” discussion come October.
Record Prediction: 90-72