Playing Pepper 2019: St. Louis Cardinals

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

St. Louis Cardinals
88-74, third in NL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

We’ve gone around and checked out the other 29 teams but the series just wouldn’t feel complete if we didn’t check in on our favorite team.  If you are a regular reader here or subscribe to one of my many podcasts, you have a pretty good idea what I think and feel about this team.  Which means I’ve got to spread a wider net and bring in a few viewpoints.  Not only do we have a few of my fellow bloggers, but also some media folks, many of which don’t get to sit around and opine just on the Cardinals very often.  One last time, let’s play some pepper.

Writer Site Twitter
Tara Wellman Birds on the Black tarawellman
Heather Simon Viva El Birdos lil_scooter93
Will Leitch The Will Leitch Experience williamfleitch
Larry Borowsky VEB founder
Joe Schwarz The Athletic stlcupofjoe
Drew Silva Rotoworld drewsilv

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Tara: Sign Harper? Oh, wait. What was the question again?

The obvious answer is, the Cardinals had chances to bring a generational talent to St. Louis, and they opted not to. They could have, “Payroll flexibility” and all. But they didn’t. Much like last season’s Marcell Ozuna trade seeming less-than in the shadow of Giancarlo Stanton, even Paul Goldschmidt seems like a bit of a let down. That’s a bit unfair, in my mind, because Goldy is a legitimate superstar and underrated in a lot of ways. He can significantly reshape the offensive identity of this team… even without new hitting coach Jeff Albert retooling everyone else’s approach!

And, as risky as a pitcher with health concerns might be, the potential upside of Andrew Miller is an enormous boost, too, if for no other reason than that the Cardinals enter the season with more than two relievers capable of getting outs. So, that’s good.

As for what else they should have done? I’m not sure, outside of a big splash like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Maybe pick up a Dallas Keuchel type to add some more predictability to the starting rotation, or offer a contract to Craig Kimbrel to provide even more back-end bullpen depth. But, the Cardinals seem as bullish on their young arms as ever, and we’ve often complained about the young prospects not getting a real shot at establishing their place in the Big Leagues, so maybe this is for the best, after all. (Or maybe I’m just conditioned to believe this, because anything else would be too complicated!)

Heather: oh boy, my thoughts on the offseason… overall i think the cardinals had a good offseason. could they have done more? of course – there is almost always more do be done. i think i would like the cardinals to sign another starter, especially with the latest setback for carlos martínez. the cardinals have already accomplished a lot this offseason, though. they added perhaps the best first baseman in the national league in paul goldschmidt and signed a proven, albeit previously injured, reliever in andrew miller. the team is certainly better than it was the season before. 

Will: I was one of those people frustrated that they didn’t go stronger after Harper, though after seeing how all that played out … I understand. I do think they could use a Dallas Keuchel more than they’re letting on, and the bullpen is starting to look a little thin, but honestly, Paul Goldschmidt plays for the Cardinals right now, and they didn’t give up anything they’re really going to miss for the privilege, so it’s difficult to think of the offseason as anything other than a roaring success.

Larry: Paul Goldschmidt looks like a terrific one-year band-aid, but extending him through age 36 would not feel like a great victory to me. The decision not to add a starting pitcher — especially after Carlos Martinez’s injury surfaced early in camp — concerns me. The sustained failure to add a decent left-handed hitter mystifies me. They’ve assembled a team that’s old (7 of 13 position players age 30 or over), dangerously thin in the rotation, and alarmingly dependent on bounceback years from injured veterans. IMO their best hopes of returning to the postseason are these: competent managing, reliable defense, and better bullpenning — the latter of which has a chance to be spectacular.

Joe: The offseason, as a whole, was mostly fine. During any regular offseason, I would be ecstatic about the additions of Paul Goldschmidt (for largely depth; yes, Andrew Knizner is better than Carson Kelly) and Andrew Miller. However, this offseason was far from “regular” with both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado being available for cash only (large amounts of cash, sure, but no prospects or anything else attached). I wish the Cardinals would have made a serious run at Harper. Yes, even now knowing the terms (13 years, $330MM) he received from Philly because he is the face of baseball, and having the face of baseball in your city is a home run for your baseball brand. Yes, Mike Trout should be the face of baseball, but for whatever reason (probably due to playing in LA), he isn’t yet.

Drew: In terms of good, you obviously have to start with the Paul Goldschmidt trade. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball, with a .301/.406/.541 slash line (.947 OPS) over his last 899 games dating back to the beginning of the 2013 season. And from where we sit here in March 2019, it doesn’t feel like the Cardinals had to give up all that much to pull it off. Hopefully they can sign him to a reasonable extension at some point, though you have to consider that he’s going to be 32 years old this time next spring, and turns 33 next September. A five-year deal is probably as long as I’d go, with an AAV of around $25 million. Maybe that won’t get it done. I also loved the Miles Mikolas extension. He certainly passed the test in his first year back from Japan. Andrew Miller doesn’t excite me nearly as much, but I’ll put him in the “good” category too and hope that he can bounce back from a down 2018. I don’t think they made any particularly bad moves. I’m sure they shopped Jose Martinez, but what’s the point of trading a really good pre-arbitration hitter without receiving a significant return? Even with the good-faith two-year, $3.25 million contract extension and the current depth chart clouding his potential playing time, he’s a valuable and inexpensive bench bat. I wanted Bryce Harper, but their hands are probably tied in right field with Dexter Fowler still owed $49.5 million. They can and probably should spend more money — flex that “payroll muscle” — but getting Harper would have required eating pretty much every cent that remains on Fowler’s contract. So we’re talking 13 years, $379.5 million, in essence. They could have done it, but I understand why they didn’t.

C70: How optimistic are you that a change in manager and a change in mindset can create a bounce-back season for Dexter Fowler?

Tara: There are two players in particular I think will be impacted most by the managerial change – Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong. Both players seemed to have come to an impasse as far as communication and understanding of their roles. Fractured trust is hard to repair. But even with that said, I think the biggest change for Dexter Fowler is far more internal. He went through a lot last year, and had to learn how to deal with it, how to get the necessary help, and how to move past it. That goes far beyond Mike Matheny or a foot injury. I’m hopeful that the work he’s been able to do on himself as a person will reflect in the way he goes about his work… and that that will result in a stat line he can be proud of and a relationship with the city that he can enjoy.

Heather: dexter fowler had a horrendous 2018. while i am not sure what to expect from him in 2019, i feel confident he will not repeat that level of performance. without making any changes, i would expect him to improve in 2019. with the changes you made, while i do not think the dexter fowler of 2016 will be returning, i am hopeful he will return closer to the level of production we saw in 2017. 

Will: Not optimistic … but still hopeful. It’s possible that he just fell apart completely and will never recover from last year: We’ve seen it happen. But I think it’s more likely that injuries and bad vibes from the former manager combined to just spiral the whole thing out of control. He looks alert and sharp and athletic this offseason. They don’t need superstar Cubs Fowler. Simply 2017 Cardinals Fowler will be just fine. And the good news is: They have backups if he really has crapped out. I love the guy. Everything works better if he’s getting on base.

Larry: Those changes won’t make him younger or healthier. The rationale for Fowler’s signing — to play center and bat leadoff, so Randall Grichuk could shift to a corner and Matt Carpenter could shift to the #3 spot in the order — was flawed from the outset and has long since been canned. His defense has gone from bad to worse. Even if he bounces back with the bat, he’ll be a lesser hitter than Jose Martinez, whose lifetime wOBA is .365 — a figure Fowler has topped only twice in his career and only once outside Coors Field. His value to the roster starts and ends with the fact that he switch hits.

Joe: I do not believe the change in manager will play a role in Dexter Fowler’s 2019. He is in physical decline, so his physical health is what matters most when determining a bounce-back season or not. He claims to be in a good spot with his swing, with approval from Barry Bonds, one of the greatest hitters baseball has ever seen, so I am cautiously optimistic. I’d still rather have Bryce patrolling RF on opening day, though.

Drew: I don’t have an insightful answer to this question. To me, the situation doesn’t have much of anything to do with the manager or the player’s mindset. It’s about the ability of the player, and about health. They greatly overpaid Fowler two offseasons ago and their best hope for him moving forward is that he can at least bounce back in the OBP department. Platoon him with Tyler O’Neill or Jose Martinez and hope for the best. Fowler does seem happier under Mike Shildt, but he was mostly hurt last year in Shildt’s first two-and-a-half months on the job. We’ll see how the relationship holds up if Fowler again bats .180 with a .576 OPS.

C70: There’s a lot riding on 2019. How surprising is it to you that this front office has seemingly pivoted to such a short-term focus?

Tara: It’s an interesting position their in, to be sure. I keep going back to something Derrick Goold said in an offseason podcast, comparing this current phase of the Cardinals organizational plan to someone drawing on an Etch-A-Sketch. Basically, they’ve crafted a scenario where they could be remarkably successful this year. Paul Goldschmidt could be the MVP of the league. Kolten Wong is on an up-swing. Paul DeJong made great strides last year. Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler should be healthy. Matt Carpenter has been one of the best hitters in the league, and there’s no reason to believe that will change. If anyone can catch lightening in a bottle – again – it’s Harrison Bader. And all of that is without even mentioning the fire power of José Martínez and Tyler O’Neill! Plus, Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty make a great one-two punch, and Carlos Martínez and Alex Reyes – when healthy – have some of the best stuff in the game. And if games get shorter and shorter with strong seasons from John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, Jordan Hicks and Andrew Miller? Sounds like the makings of a triumphant return to the postseason, doesn’t it?

The problem is, a lot of those things are nearly impossible to count on. And there’s not much guaranteed hold-over. There are currently (Editor’s note: this was before Miles Mikolas signed his extension) 10 players with contracts that carry over to 2020, and only four that continue to 2021 (Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martínez, and Paul DeJong). All that means is, the Cardinals are in a position to basically wipe the slate clean and start over if this season falls flat. It’s an interesting take on the Front Office’s longterm appreciation of “flexibility.” Now, though, with Nolan Arenado also off the table, it makes the option of re-signing Paul Goldschmidt seem more significant… and with the St. Louis tendency to sign guys they already know and love, perhaps this is what they were expecting all along.

That said, we’ve also seen this team’s disinterest in large and/or longterm contracts. So, should they take the 2019 Etch-A-Sketch drawing of a plan and decide to shake it up and start over for 2020, what might that look like? Money will have to be spent. Prospects will have to be traded. The term “rebuild” will be tossed around. None of that sounds like the typical Cardinals process. So, it’s hard to see how this short-term plan ends for such a forward-thinking organization.

Heather: i am not sure i would say they have pivoted to short term focus. the team is still flush with young talent. the new acquisitions the team has made do not appear to have sped up the team’s timeline. i think the team’s window to contend remains open. there definitely seems to be more pressure to win this season after missing the playoffs for three straight seasons. fans are becoming restless and the team does not want to see that trickle down to sales. i also think the cardinals have adjusted their plans somewhat. more teams have caught on to what they are doing. it might be time to shift the formula a little bit: while a lot of other teams are backing off free agency, now might be the time to become a little more aggressive in the market, while still remaining cool and calculated, of course.

Will: Part of me wonders if it’s still a bit of a public relations gambit, but all told, even if it is, they really DO need to make 2019 work. I’m surprised, I guess, that the ceded to the inevitable. Or I guess just the overtly obvious.

Larry: That pivot began when the Cubs won the World Series — the Cards have been more reactive than proactive ever since. If you’ll forgive the morbid analogy, the Cards over the last two decades have been like a 737 — durable, adaptable, built for the long haul — but they’ve lately reached the Max 8 stage of design. The team has so many contrivances engineered into it that we can no longer take its fundamental stability for granted. Every off-season the front office yanks back harder on the stick to maintain altitude, but they’re only able to gain temporary loft — never a sustainable trajectory. This year marks the 5th in a row with a new incumbent centerfielder, 4th in a row with a new closer, and 4th with a new #3 hitter. Matt Carpenter has received his umpteenth defensive reassignment, ending up back where he started as a full-time third baseman. And of course the dugout leadership has been completely overhauled. Mozeliak and Girsch spent another winter doing what they had to do to keep the thing airborne, but the downward pressure on the nose is still there. Alarms are flashing.

Joe: I live in St. Louis. I used to go to 20+ games per season. I went to, maybe, three last year? They tout attendance numbers (based on ticket SALES, though), and rightfully so, but there is no denying that Busch Stadium was EMPTY for many games last season. Empty during prime time, nationally-televised games, too. The front office knows that if they fail to reach the postseason AGAIN in 2019, there will be uproar within the fan base.

Drew: The short-term focus thing is self-created with their lack of long-term offensive assets, so I don’t know if it’s so much a strategy as it is a necessity. That said, if they were really going all-in for 2019, wouldn’t they have been more aggressive this offseason? Eaten the Fowler contract, upgraded right field, perhaps brought in a veteran starter. They do appear to be in great shape pitching-wise, for the present and the future, and can maybe get aggressive on the trade market this summer to add another bat — one locked in beyond this season.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Tara: This may just be me basking in the “Baseball is back!” glow, because I always seem to be a bit more optimistic after pitchers and catchers report, but I like a lot of what this team has to offer. Is it perfect? No. But no team is, right? I like their potential, in spite of the plethora of question marks attached. I’m excited to see the continuation of the Mike Shildt era. I think the coaching staff could have a significant impact over the course of a whole season. The communication is already miles ahead of anything we’ve seen in recent years, and for some guys, that has been (more than) half the battle. I like the chances of some bounce back years, and I think even the limited additions can cover for some down years. Plus, the division outside of the Reds didn’t go crazy with upgrades, either. It’s nice to feel competitive again!

Speaking of the division, I think it’s going to be a battle royal right until the bitter end. There’s a lot of common ground and parallel questions about other teams in the Central, and that just means the Cardinals have a great chance of taking back the division if they can play up to their obvious potential. Right now, I see the biggest competition being the Brewers, but the Cubs can’t be counted out just yet. And my bold prediction is that the Reds actually help keep things interesting within the division all year. Yasiel Puig is going to terrorize NL Central pitching, and even if Cincy doesn’t get close enough to be a “contender,” they can absolutely play spoiler to those top three teams.

How’s that for a vague prediction?

Heather: i always pick them to win! realistically i could see the cardinals anywhere between first and third place. the top three teams – the brewers, cubs, and cardinals – are projected to be very close. the brewers are the biggest threat at the top, especially if they pick up a pitcher. the cubs have talented players, but did little to improve their team this offseason. i am going to take a leap and say the cardinals win the division with 93 games, but it is close. i think it should be fun!

Will: I think this is the best team in the division. I have bullpen worries, but every team, even the Brewers, have bullpen worries. I think Goldschmidt is going to make a huge, massive difference. How could he not?

Larry: I’d feel a lot better if CMart were healthy. Given that he still hasn’t thrown off a mound, I’m not bullish. 84 wins, 3rd place. Grumble, grumble.

Joe: In general, I am positive about the 2019 season, but that is mainly because the Cubs did not do much this offseason (they’re expecting bounce-back seasons from Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and Yu Darvish), and the most exciting offseason came from the Reds, who will be better, but still not division contenders, in my opinion. I think the Cardinals will win the division in 2019, despite not even attempting to sign Harper (no, the dead horse has not been beaten enough yet).

Drew: With the pitching depth and Goldschmidt’s presence upgrading the middle of the lineup, this definitely looks like a postseason contender to me. It’s going to be a heated battle in the National League Central, but if enough things go right for them, and enough goes wrong for the opposition, the Cardinals have the goods to win the division for the first time since 2015.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Tara: Pitching. Which is weird, because they have oodles and oodles of it. The problem I see is that there’s very little about their pitching puzzle that is predictable. Sure, “There’s no such thing as too much pitching” is a common refrain, of course. But there’s something to be said for quality of that pitching, not just the quantity. That’s where I think the Cardinals are leaving (too?) much to chance. Their starting rotation is one injury away from being extremely vulnerable. And even at full strength, there are questions about all five penciled in starters, much less the guys who’ll come in behind them if necessary. Their bullpen is dependent on some returning to form and others not regressing to the mean. Even now, there will be tough decisions to be made at the end of the spring, but to borrow a line from my favorite Brewers blogger, “Bullpens gonna bullpen.” There has to be a plan in place for that.

This team’s lineup is built to score runs. Does that mean they’ll lead the league in scoring? No. (Although Baseball Prospectus does project them with the highest DRC+ — Deserved Runs Created — in the league, which is something.) It does, however, mean that the key is going to be run prevention to play a supporting role to all those (theoretical) runs.

Heather: the biggest question for me is the starting pitching. carlos martínez’s setback has me concerned he will not be true to form in 2019. alex reyes is a big question mark – at this point any production from his a bonus, in my opinion. miles mikolas has a great first season with the cardinals, but with more exposure in the league, will he stumble? jack flaherty is a promising young pitcher, but he is young. it is tough to factor in michael wacha too much with his shoulder; when healthy he is a strong member of the starting staff, but that seems to account for only half the season. adam wainwright is the veteran of the staff, and while i do not expect the wainwright that finished second in cy young voting, last year looked like he may be near the end of his career. there is a lot of volatility on how this rotation’s season could go. it makes me nervous. there are safety measures in place. the cardinals have several young pitchers that could step in should a starter go down. it would be nice to add a little more depth. there are a few starters still available in free agency that would help with a lot of these concerns.

Will: Can they figure out the bullpen? More to the point … do they have the innings to get through the season with the bullpen and still peak in September and October? (I’m thinking the 2013 model.) If they figure that out — and the talent is all there, it’s just a matter of health and timing — then yeah, this could be something great.

Larry: How many of their potentially dominant relievers will dominate? Miller, Hicks, Reyes, Leone, and (presumably) CMart could make the Cards’ bullpen a game-changing force a la Kansas City v2015 or Milwaukee v2018. If the Pick 5 pays off, they could go far.

Joe: The starting rotation. Yes, it has the potential to be great, but I am confident in the floors of 1.5 starters in 2019. Miles Mikolas being the one, and Jack Flaherty being the one-half. I am the biggest fan of Flaherty, and I truly think he will be great (as does Vegas apparently), but there is something about sophomore slumps that scare me. I hope he shakes free from that narrative and builds on a terrific 2018 season. Wacha hasn’t pitched a full season in forever. Neither has Waino. Hudson, while I love his ability, was exclusively used as a reliever in the majors last year. Gant walks too many guys. Gomber got lit up in spring (I still have faith in him, though). There are a lot of question marks there. Hope they can “weaponize the depth.” If they need help with pitch technology — primarily Rapsodo data — they know how to reach me.

Drew: I think the biggest question revolves around Marcell Ozuna. Can he be the guy they thought they traded for last winter — the guy who hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and 124 RBI for the Marlins in 2017? If he is, these Redbirds will absolutely soar. But if he’s the guy we saw last year, with a compromised shoulder and a .758 OPS, the offense could again lack punch. This spring has not been very encouraging in that regard.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Tara: It’s hard to get more joyful than John Brebbia and José Martínez. But I hope that the real answer to this is Alex Reyes. Should he finally get to pitch significant innings at the Major League level (*knock on wood*), he’ll rival Paul Goldschmidt as the most exciting thing to happen to Cardinals baseball in years. I can’t wait.

Heather: i am very excited to see paul goldschmidt in a cardinals uniform. i am also excitedsomewhat dreading watching waino pitch to yadier molina. i really want waino to pitch well, more than i think i want any other player to play well. if this is waino’s last year, i want it to be great. i can’t wait to actually see alex reyes. i am still nervous about him, but i really want to see what he can do. if i had to pick the most joy, i think it might be from jordan hicks. he seems to have really found his stride. also, in case you did not know, he throws 105. this winter seems to be taking forever. i just want some baseball back!

Will: Honestly? Truthfully? What will make me happiest and most optimistic about the Cardinals? Not a single reaction shot in the dugout of Mike Matheny. Hey, you asked.

Larry: Harrison Bader. Kolten Wong’s defense. Adam Wainwright’s guile — even though I wouldn’t have brought Waino back and I don’t think he’ll be very good. He will have flashes of effectiveness, and I will savor those.

Joe: The development and proliferation of Jordan Hicks’ repertoire. Along with Paul Goldschmidt being Paul Goldschmidt. He must be re-signed. Period.

Drew: My first thought is Jack Flaherty. With better control, Jordan Hicks. With better health, Alex Reyes.

Appreciate everyone taking the time to chat with me about our favorite team.  It’s all about to start again and let’s hope this time, it goes past game 162!

Series Navigation<< Playing Pepper 2019: San Francisco GiantsPlaying Pepper 2019: Tampa Bay Rays >>

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers3931.557 -
Cubs3931.5570.0
Cardinals3534.5073.5
Pirates3139.4438.0
Reds3038.4418.0

Last updated: 06/16/2019

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