Even though this offseason has been less than action-packed, it is still hard to believe that pitchers and catchers officially report to Jupiter in less than a week. Of course, many Cardinals are already down there, but the pitchers-and-catchers-report date is always a true sign that baseball is really almost here. The first spring training game is two and a half weeks away and will be here before you know it.
There’s been a lot of grumbling this offseason with Cardinal fans. A team that struggled offensively throughout the year and historically on the biggest stage they had let their cleanup hitter walk and figured they were good with what they have. Some folks have let their discontent run away with them, claiming this is a bad team and it’s terrible what the DeWitts are doing to it. So let’s look at five reasons why 2020 could be another successful year for the St. Louis Cardinals. (If I had ads like our friends at Redbird Rants, I guess this would be one of those multi-click posts. You are lucky nobody wants to try to sponsor this stuff!)
- They made it to the NLCS last year. We talk about the lack of offense with this team, but that lack was there last year and it didn’t matter. If the Cardinals get a similar offensive level while getting a similar pitching and defense level, they are still going to be right there in the hunt. This team is not built to outslug people, just like those Whiteyball teams weren’t. Sometimes you can win a different way and the Cards have proven that they can do that.
- This ownership and front office, on the whole, knows what they are doing. The track record of the Cardinals is pretty remarkable since the DeWitts took over. We’re looking at the longest sustained success in club history. Granted, some of that is because of the way baseball is set up now with divisions and wild cards, unlike back in the ’40s and ’50s when only one NL team played in October. Still, they are doing things that no other team is doing. This organization hasn’t finished last since 1990 and there’s no expectation they will any time soon. They’ve not had a losing record since 2007, which means John Mozeliak hasn’t had one since he moved into the general manager’s role (and neither has Michael Girsch since he took the reins). So if they believe in Jeff Albert, if they have data that indicates the players will be able to respond better to the instruction in year two, that there are indications people like Matt Carpenter will be able to bounce back, you can’t completely discount that. This is what they do. The commitment to Dexter Fowler for 2019 paid off, at least in part.
- This team can pitch. While Jack Flaherty is not likely to put up a sub-1.00 ERA for the entire season, it still reasonable to expect that he’ll be the staff ace throughout the year. After all, in the first half of the season he had a 4.64 ERA and he’s not likely to do that again either. The rest of the rotation did fine last year and if Adam Wainwright struggles, Kwang-Hyun Kim could step in and be a reasonable fifth starter. (And Wainwright may not struggle–he seemed to have reinvented himself last year and could easily provide great value as the fifth starter.) The wild card is, of course, Carlos Martinez. If he can approach what he’s done in the past, the entire rotation gets a significant upgrade over 2019 and that should help cover any shortfalls. The bullpen continues to appear strong and will get stronger in the second half when Jordan Hicks returns to the mound. A full season of Ryan Helsley would promise to help as well and if the ball isn’t as lively this year, that would hopefully mean Andrew Miller‘s home run total would decrease and things would look better on that front as well.
- Bouncebacks aren’t completely unreasonable. Paul Goldschmidt had the worst wRC+ of his career last year at 116. He could easily hit 130 or so in 2019 and that would still be low for his career. Same with Matt Carpenter–he was at 95 wRC+ and his next-lowest in his career was 117+, so thinking he could be at 105-110 isn’t crazy. Harrison Bader spent this winter working with Tommy Pham and some adjustments could improve his overall line, at least somewhat. Paul DeJong had a hot April and then scuffled after that, but you could make the argument that a little more consistent rest, either using Tommy Edman or Edmundo Sosa here and there at short, could help him out. He might not hit 30 homers again but his overall offensive profile could improve. Even small gains by all four of these players could pay big dividends when it comes to the overall offense.
- Most of the rest of the division hasn’t gotten better. Yes, the Reds have done a lot and they should be considered a threat, but they’d also have to improve by 15 wins to get to 90 and have a real shot at the divisional title. The Cubs have spent the winter crying poverty and waiting on the Kris Bryant grievance hearing, so their moves have been limited and their pitching staff is that much older. The Brewers have made moves around the edges but it’s hard to tell if they have done more than change faces. (Though you know Jedd Gyorko will wind up burning the Cardinals at least once.) Everyone is going to pile up some wins against the Pirates, but at least on paper the Cardinals still appear to be the head of the class in the NL Central.
All that is well and good and there are definitely reasons for optimism around this team. However, we can’t completely look at the upcoming season with red-tinted glasses. There are flaws, there are issues, and not everything is going to go the way we think as a certain Jedi Master would say. So here are five reasons why you–and the front office–should be concerned about 2020.
- That’s a lot of relying on hope. I’ve said a lot that rebellions may be built on hope but it’s not the best strategy for building a baseball roster. There’s the hope that players will bounce back. There’s the hope that they’ll pick up what Albert’s laying down. There’s the hope that the young outfielders will be able to pick up the slack that Marcell Ozuna left behind. There’s the hope that a major injury won’t derail everything. As Derrick Goold likes to say on his podcast, there’s value in certainty but the Cardinals, at least in their actions, don’t appear to agree.
- There’s a nonzero chance the pitching, defense, and baserunning will take a step back. I expect all of those things to still be good, but given the thin margins from last year, it wouldn’t take much for things to be not-quite-good enough. If Wainwright does struggle and they are not quick to address things, if Dakota Hudson is more like his FIP than his ERA from 2019, if the Cardinals don’t have five Gold Glove nominees, the little things could add up.
- Speaking of stepping back, some 2019 performances may not be repeatable. Kolten Wong may have had his career year. There’s a lot of questions about whether Wainwright can be that productive again. Yadier Molina had an 85 OPS+ and will be 37 to start the season, which means it’s not unreasonable to think his offense (and his defense) could take another slight step back. As for Fowler, he rebounded to a 98 OPS+ last season but it remains to be seen if he can improve on that or will wind up more in a midpoint between that and 2018. Edman was much better in the majors than he ever was in the minors. And, as we’ve mentioned, Flaherty isn’t going to be Bob Gibson again. We’ve heaped a lot of (deserved) praise on Flaherty this winter and there’s a great chance he’s just starting what will be a wonderful career, but he’s also only thrown two full years in the big leagues. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the league to adjust to him again.
- Bouncebacks aren’t completely guaranteed, either. Carpenter has struggled since the end of August 2018. Goldschmidt will be entering his Age 32 season. While some improvement over 2019 wouldn’t be a surprise, neither would it be a shock if this is the new normal. Age catches everyone sooner or later. Bader always profiled as a fourth outfielder coming up, so until we see if the adjustments make a difference, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’ll struggle offensively again.
- There is a limited margin of error. It feels like we say this every year, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not true. It’s the way of most teams, I guess, because if a key person goes down there’s no guarantee that the club can pick up that slack. But how do you feel if someone in the rotation comes up lame in spring? Are we good with Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, or Jake Woodford being potential long-term solutions? Who fills in if a non-outfielder goes down? It’d be different if this team was expected to win the division by 10 games or more–which, with some additions, they might have well been–but right now it’s looking like a four-team race with only a handful of games separating them. Injuries are going to be even more impactful in that situation.
Listening to the last Best Podcast in Baseball, Goold and Ben Fredrickson made the point that this front office seems to look at the team as a team that was just four wins away from the World Series, not as a team that–had things gone a bit differently in Chicago at the end of the season–might be still in a playoff drought. They weren’t the juggernaut you often associate with the NLCS and they haven’t changed the dynamic at all.
As I noted above, the front office usually knows what it is doing and hopefully the hitters will bail them out like the rotation did after the trade deadline last year. If they don’t, the hard questions about whether their approach is still a viable one will only increase.