The NL Central is shaping up to be baseball’s toughest division in 2019. The Brewers, who had the best record in the NL last year, upgraded from Manny Piña and Erik Kratz at catcher to Yasmani Grandal. The Cubs, for all the hemming and hawing about their aging rotation and unflattering PECOTA projection for 2019, won 95 games last year and made at least the NLCS each of the three years before that. And unlike the AL East and NL East, the NL Central doesn’t have a single easy out: The Reds, who lost 95 games last year, are vastly improved heading into 2019. Even the Pirates, despite running a payroll that would barely crack the NHL salary floor, have put together a respectable on-field product.
That leaves the St. Louis Cardinals, who ran this division from 2000 to 2015. Over that 16-year span, St. Louis made the playoffs 12 times, won four pennants and two World Series, posted three 100-win seasons, and played the Dodgers in the NLCS roughly 40 times. The Cardinals were a fixture in the postseason for so long, it feels strange that they’ve missed the playoffs three years in a row, tying their longest postseason drought since the late 1990s. With the Cubs and Brewers soaking up headlines over the past three years, it’s been easy to forget the division’s longtime powerhouse.
For instance, that the Cardinals spent last season leaping from one disaster to another, dodging injuries, infighting, and unimaginably bad seasons from key contributors. And they won 88 games anyway. The Cardinals are looming in the NL Central like the goddamn Babadook, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a scenario in which they return the division to its previously established order.
Last year’s problems started from the top. Manager Mike Matheny, long derided by fans and analysts for his tactical mismanagement, also lost the clubhouse. Matheny’s relationship with outfielder Dexter Fowler deteriorated rapidly, and Matheny empowered veteran closer Bud Norris to pick on rookie reliever Jordan Hicks, among other relievers. Norris and Matheny described the relationship in terms of mentorship; Mark Saxon of The Athletic described it as “riding mercilessly” and reported that Hicks did not appreciate the treatment. On July 15, the Cardinals fired Matheny and replaced him with Mike Shildt. They improved immediately; going from one game over .500 at the point of Matheny’s departure to playing at a 96-win pace under Shildt.
Of course, they had plenty of problems on the field as well. Fowler, whom president of baseball operations John Mozeliak criticized last year, probably would have gotten along better with everyone if he hadn’t hit .180/.278/.298. And clubhouse dynamics aside, teams with the phrase “closer Bud Norris” attached to them tend not to be doing well. The Cardinals arrived in the land of “closer Bud Norris” after signing Greg Holland to a one-year, $14 million deal last March, but the three-time All-Star lasted just three months in St. Louis, failing to record a single save while posting an ERA of 7.92. The Cardinals released Holland in August and he signed with Washington, where he allowed just two earned runs in 24 relief appearances. (Holland’s performance in Washington didn’t, strictly speaking, affect the Cardinals, but the contrast to his numbers in St. Louis had to be annoying.)
Then there were the injuries. Shortstop Paul DeJong, the runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year in 2017, missed almost two months with a broken hand. Staff ace Carlos Martínez injured his shoulder in July, missed three weeks, and was only able to pitch out of the bullpen once he returned. Starter Michael Wacha was putting up numbers similar to Martínez’s through late June, when he suffered an oblique injury, then suffered multiple setbacks in rehab, and ended up sitting out the entire second half of the season. Top prospect Alex Reyes, who was supposed to pick up some of the slack in the rotation, made just one big league appearance before suffering a season-ending torn right lat tendon in May.
Before the 2017 season, Baseball Prospectus ranked Reyes the no. 1 prospect in all of baseball, but since then he’s pitched only 27 innings at any level, thanks to the lat injury and the Tommy John surgery that kept him on the shelf for the entire 2017 season. But while that injury history makes it far from a certainty that Reyes will last for 30 starts, and while Martínez is still sorting out his shoulder and is questionable for Opening Day, the Cardinals will have three of their best starting pitchers back in the rotation early for 2019.
There’s an old sports cliché about how a player returning from injury is like adding a player via trade or signing, but the Cardinals have also actually added two impact players this offseason: first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, acquired from Arizona in a December trade, and lefty reliever Andrew Miller, who signed as a free agent two weeks later.
For whatever reason—perhaps because of the then-looming free agency of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, or because it happened the same week as the Robinson Canó trade—the Goldschmidt trade went under the radar. But it’s hard to overstate Goldschmidt’s impact on the Cardinals. He is, in short, now the best hitter in their lineup, and is probably the best hitter the Cardinals have had since Albert Pujols left the club after the 2011 season.
Goldschmidt has made the All-Star Game each of the past six seasons, in which time he’s hit .301/.406/.541 while averaging 150 games played, 30 home runs, and 17 stolen bases per year. Last year, Goldschmidt hit .290/.389/.533, which marks the lowest batting average, lowest OBP, and second-lowest slugging percentage he’s posted since 2012. It’s next to impossible to find that level of consistency from a middle-of-the-order hitter.
And the Cardinals picked him up for relatively little. Carson Kelly is a talented young catcher, though his stock is down compared to a year or two ago, and he’d have been blocked in St. Louis as long as Yadier Molina enjoys a tenured professorship in pitch blocking. Luke Weaver, a 25-year-old right-hander, has shown promise but wasn’t among the Cardinals’ three best big league-ready young starters, and last year posted an ERA of nearly 5.00. The other two pieces in the trade, minor league infielder Andy Young and a competitive balance draft pick, are nothing the Cardinals can’t do without. This trade was a coup, particularly if the Cardinals sign Goldschmidt to an extension, as they are reportedly trying to do.
Miller struggled with injuries in 2018, but over the previous five seasons he averaged 58 innings pitched a year, with a 234 ERA+ and a K/9 ratio of 14.5. Miller’s versatility—he can get both lefties and righties out, and is willing to pitch for multiple innings at any point in the game—made him one of the best relievers in baseball over that time. Even if he’s not the same guy who single-handedly took the Indians through the American League playoffs in 2016, Miller is a significant improvement over Norris and Holland.
Apart from the additions of Goldschmidt and Miller; the return of Martínez, Reyes, and Wacha to the rotation; and replacing Matheny with Shildt, there are other reasons to expect the Cardinals to improve. For instance, Fowler, who was at worst a league-average player every year from 2010 to 2017, according to Baseball-Reference, almost certainly isn’t going to post a 59 OPS+ in 2019. And if he does, the Cardinals aren’t going to give him 334 plate appearances while they wait for him to figure everything out again. Left fielder Marcell Ozuna also underwhelmed in 2018, shedding 51 points of OBP and 115 points of SLG from his last year in Miami to his first year in St. Louis. While his down year wasn’t as extreme as Fowler’s, Ozuna also has potential to bounce back.
What’s more, while last year’s Cardinals benefitted from a few pleasant surprises, most of those breakouts look pretty sustainable.
Foremost among those surprises was Miles Mikolas, a former career minor leaguer who returned from a stint in Japan and, at age 29, posted the best win total and walk rate in the NL, and was one of just 13 pitchers in either league to register 200 innings. There are a couple things not to like about Mikolas. First, he once ate a live lizard on a bet, which is gross. Second, Mikolas’s strikeout rate last year, 18.1 percent, was 51st out of 57 starters who qualified for the ERA title. But the lizard thing doesn’t impact his pitching, and his other underlying numbers are good enough to offset the lack of strikeouts. According to BP’s ERA estimator, deserved run average (DRA), Mikolas only outpitched his peripherals by about half a run last year. If Mikolas’s 2019 ERA ends up about where his 2018 DRA was, 3.38, the Cardinals will probably be quite pleased. St. Louis indicated its confidence in Mikolas this week by signing him to a $17 million-a-year extension that will keep him with the team through 2023.
Fellow right-hander Jack Flaherty took a more traditional path to the top of the rotation—a former first-round pick, Flaherty was a consensus top-100 prospect with a long track record of minor league success when he joined the Cardinals’ rotation full-time last year. Flaherty made 28 starts in his age-22 season, posting a 3.34 ERA and striking out 182 in 151 innings, good enough to place him fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting, and according to DRA he actually underperformed his underlying numbers slightly. If Flaherty is healthy in 2019, he should be quite good.
We can also most likely trust Matt Carpenter’s power surge. Last year, the then-32-year-old Carpenter, previously more of an on-base guy than a power threat, hit 36 home runs and 42 doubles, setting a new career high with a .523 slugging percentage. But Carpenter’s approach and batted ball profile have changed over the years; he’s pulling the ball more and putting the ball in the air more than ever, rather than sneaking a few more wallscrapers over the fence on windy days. Those changes suggest that his new power stroke will stick.
There are, however, three holdovers from last year’s Cardinals who appear less likely to repeat their eye-catching 2018 seasons. The first is John Gant, an unheralded former Mets and Braves prospect who posted a 112 ERA+ in 114 innings for the Cardinals last year. Gant will probably fall off some if he doesn’t improve one or both of his strikeout rate (7.5) or walk rate (4.5), but his DRA last year was 4.05, which would still make him a satisfactory back-end starter. That’s if he’s even needed—if Martínez, Reyes, and Wacha return to the rotation, Gant will find starts hard to come by.
Rookie reliever Dakota Hudson, however, wildly outperformed his underlying numbers. Hudson posted a 2.63 ERA in 27 1/3 innings last year, and is in line to join Hicks and Miller in pitching high-leverage innings for the Cardinals. However, he struck out 19 and walked 18 in those 27 1/3 innings, and his DRA was north of 6.00. That being said, Hudson’s time in the majors last year was so short that it’s hard to trust either his ERA or his DRA more than the scouting report on him, which is quite good: His hard sinker-cutter combination sure looks like the stuff of a future closer-quality reliever.
But neither Gant nor Hudson is as important as center fielder Harrison Bader, who replaced Tommy Pham as the Cardinals center fielder when Pham was traded to Tampa Bay in July, and hit .264/.334/.422 with 12 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 427 plate appearances. The 24-year-old Bader was never really a standout prospect, and he struggled in a 32-game cameo with the Cardinals in 2017, hitting just .235/.283/.376. Bader’s overall value last year was buoyed by exceptional defensive numbers; DRS rated him as plus-19 runs, FRAA at plus-10.8, in a partial season, it bears repeating. If that’s Bader’s true talent level, then he’s a Jackie Bradley- or Kevin Kiermaier-level defensive center fielder. And maybe he is, but we can’t know for sure until he’s been around longer. (For what it’s worth, in November 2017 FanGraphs lead prospect writer Eric Longenhagen wrote that Bader’s “speed allows him to play center field competently.”) If Bader does struggle, on offense, defense, or both, the Cardinals don’t have a lot of center field depth. Ozuna and Fowler have played there in the past, though both are better suited to a corner at this point in their careers, and apart from utilityman Drew Robinson, who hit .183 with the Rangers last year, the rest of the Cardinals’ potential center fielders are career minor leaguers.
But as spring training question marks go, “Is our 24-year-old center fielder actually a Gold Glove-level defender?” isn’t that bad. The Cardinals have stars in the middle of their lineup, the top of their rotation, and the back of their bullpen, and plenty of solid players elsewhere. They are, on paper, just as much of a contender as the Brewers and Cubs, even if they’re not a particularly trendy pick to win the division. The Cardinals might have been out of the race for a few years, but they were never as far gone as they seemed, and they’re definitely back in it now.