“A New Day” – A St. Louis Cardinals preview

The times, they are a-changin’.

It was less than a half-decade ago that it was obvious that the St. Louis Cardinals had the very best organization in baseball. From 2000-2015, the Cardinals made the playoffs in 12 out of 16 seasons. That was on the strength of their player development and savvy front office moves; the Cardinals spent above the league median during that time frame, but not excessively so. The Cardinals were nearly constant contenders and almost always had a well-regarded farm system. Whenever a hole was punched in their roster, some guy you’ve never heard of was ready and waiting to fill the gap and was often better than the guy who either got hurt or left the team. The Cardinals were baseball’s well-oiled machine, a consistently good team that never had to mortgage their future to maintain that status.

So, what’s changed about the Cardinals? Honestly, nothing really.

What’s complicated matters is that baseball landscape has changed significantly in just the last four seasons. In addition to other teams just plain getting smarter, they’ve had to deal with the Chicago Cubs not only procuring the services of Theo Epstein, but the sheer strength of a complete rebuild when it winds up working. A team that strives to be good every year is going to face an uphill struggle against an organization that deliberately nukes its chances for four straight years for a chance to subsequently dominate and executes every step of that process to perfection. The Cardinals are just as well-run as they always have been, but the increasing polarization of the league has presented some challenges for their business model.

You can see evidence of the same old Cardinals everywhere on the 2018 roster. Tommy Pham was an adequate bench player for several seasons until getting regular exposure in the St. Louis outfield for the first time last season and blossoming into your run-of-the-mill 6-WAR player. Pham is massacring the baseball again this season and as of this writing, leads the National League in fWAR. When Aldemys Diaz’ bat disappeared in 2017, the Cardinals promoted Paul DeJong, a fringe top-10 prospect in their system. DeJong homered in his first major league at-bat and never stopped slugging. The guy’s now a bona fide all-star who provides great power from a premium position. Righty starter Luke Weaver was more highly-regarded and got his chance late last season. He didn’t disappoint in the least, as he befuddled major league hitters with his changeup. Perhaps most ridiculous of all, first baseman Jose Martinez bounced around the minor leagues for more than a decade before finding regular playing time last season with the Cardinals. All of a sudden, Martinez proved capable of bringing attractive numbers to all three components of the triple-slash line. All four of these guys broke through in the last calendar year. If there was any question as to whether the Cardinals were still the Cardinals, the emergence of this quartet pretty much quashes it.

The Cardinals haven’t had to test their depth too much just yet, but righty Miles Mikolas stands a good chance at being their next breakthrough story. Mikolas washed out of the majors after the 2014 season and joined the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, where the control artist had three very successful seasons. The Cardinals signed him prior to this season and he’s limited runs on the strength of his low walk rate. That’s a pretty cool redemption story in of itself, but there’s two additional neat factoids here. Mikolas’ wife, Lauren, used her time in Japan to become a social media celebrity, and Mikolas himself is known as the “Lizard King” for eating a live lizard in the bullpen during a 2011 Arizona Fall League game. Here’s hoping this guy sticks.

The two other active Cardinals’ starters (while Adam Wainwright heals up) are Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, both of whom the Sox will face in this two game set. Martinez is a legitimate ace, as a hard-throwing groundball pitcher who gets plenty of whiffs on his frequently-used slider and his newly-added cutter. Wacha has been a strong innings sponge when healthy and typically maintains a FIP in the mid-to-high 3’s, though the walk rate has spiked a bit this season and his xwOBA of .377 suggests that there’s been plenty of hard contact and line drives that aren’t showing up in his attractive ERA. The starting pitching hasn’t exactly been helped much by the Cardinals’ bullpen. Bud Norris is apparently a lights-out closer now, but the bridge to him has been rocky, as established additions like Luke Gregerson and Greg Holland have been disastrous this season.

On the position player side of things, the Cardinals have made a couple higher-profile moves of late to try to keep pace with the Cubs and the surprisingly aggressive Brewers. They inked Dexter Fowler before the 2017 season to a big contract and he was more or less worth it last season, but a horrid start that’s been part bad luck and part legitimate decline has raised concerns over whether the 32-year-old is settling in as a payroll drag earlier than St. Louis had hoped. The Cardinals also brought in Marcell Ozuna who absolutely crushes baseballs, but has slumped to begin the season. Statcast suggests that Ozuna is still hitting the ball pretty well and has been unlucky, but a miniscule walk rate has led to an on-base percentage of .268 despite a respectable batting average.

The three most established Cardinals in the batting order, namely Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Yadier Molina, have struggled to keep the line moving this season. Carpenter’s calling card is drawing a truckload of walks, but he’s been one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball this season and logic would denote that players with an xwOBA north of .400 (!!!) probably won’t hit .155 for long. Wong’s sub-Mendoza batting average is probably more legitimate, as weak contact is holding back his BABIP more than anything else. Yadier Molina’s walk rate has been about as small as Ozuna’s, but at least he’s an asset behind the plate and in the power department; he’s hit six homers already this year.

***
So far, it looks like a tough year for a team to be a contender in the National League. Surprisingly hot starts from the Pirates, Mets, Phillies, and Braves will probably complicate matters in the Wild Card race, because presumptive favorites like the Cubs, Dodgers, and Nationals have yet to truly assert themselves. There’s enough talent on this St. Louis roster to grab a playoff slot, but the same could be said about the majority of National League teams at this stage and the Cardinals are no longer a unicorn, just another logo in the crowd of teams stepping on each others’ toes to try to grab that Wild Card slot. Such is life for a brilliant management team looking around and suddenly realizing that it’s a new day in the National League, and most of the competition has become just as savvy.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Probable Lineup

  1. Tommy Pham – CF
  2. Matt Carpenter – 3B
  3. Jose Martinez – 1B
  4. Marcell Ozuna – LF
  5. Yadier Molina – C
  6. Dexter Fowler – RF
  7. Paul DeJong – SS
  8. Kolten Wong – 2B

Pitching

  • SP1: Carlos Martinez – RHP
  • SP2: Luke Weaver – RHP
  • SP3: Michael Wacha – RHP
  • SP4: Miles Mikolas – RHP
  • SP5: Adam Wainwright – RHP
  • CL: Bud Norris – RHP
  • RP1: Matt Bowman – RHP
  • RP2: Dominic Leone – RHP
  • RP3: Tyler Lyons – LHP
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Patrick Nolan
Patrick Nolan
Articles: 88
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Greg Nix

Nice write-up, pnoles.

In other news, the Braves just called up their top pitching prospect and now have the three youngest players in MLB. Get a move on, Rick!

Ted Mulvey

“Well-oiled machine” is an apt description. The organization’s ability to just call up *a dude* and plug-and-play is/was uncanny.

Greg Nix

Especially Jose Martinez, who washed out of the Sox minor league system approximately 15 years ago.

lil jimmy

Always looked good. Always hurt.

Michael Kenny

How could we forget a name like Jose Martinez?

Greg Nix

Yeah, he was a pretty solid prospect but blew out his knee and then couldn’t hack it at AA.

https://www.minorleagueball.com/2008/12/22/699896/chicago-white-sox-top-20-p

lil jimmy

2000-2015. They got to play the hapless, Brewers, Cubs, Pirates, and Reds 70 or so times a year. Also as it turns out (they cheat)

Smclean09

Is anyone else going to be among the “BFIB” tonight?

jorgefabregas

I’m here with my daughter. Wearing a purple Cori Bush for Congress shirt and my daughter is wearing a Cards shirt and a White Sox hat alternating with or on top of a Cards hat.

jorgefabregas

Saw a guy with a 2020-2022 championship shirt. It listed key players, up to and including Puckett. Optimistic!

jorgefabregas

Trayce was chatting quite a bit with Ozuna while warming up. Also, the PA announcer pronounced his name “Tracy.”

Smclean09

Laurie garcia

itaita

I think the best stat for the well oiled machine that is the Cardinals is they have not had back to back sub .500 seasons since 94/95. And if you dont want to count that due to the strike you have to go back to 1958-59.

Its also why i believe the whole “Cards fans best in baseball” stuff is nonsense. Not difficult to root for a team thats never had to be really bad for a long stretch.

yinkadoubledare

TANK FOR BEER
am i doing that right

Ted Mulvey

That’s so 2017. It’s sing for Madrigal, now.

Right Size Wrong Shape

This year’s draft order is already set. It’s play like sh*t for Witt.