If you missed it, Chuck Brownson wrote a very somber piece looking at how it could all fall apart for the Cardinals this year. He brought up some VERY thoughtful points, as he always does when writing a piece. That's just who he is - a great writer with a great mind. (Damn you for giving me pause on what I think will be a wildly successful season.) Some points he entertains when writing the piece surround the rotation, the aging core, asset management,
As the eternal optimist that I am, especially at this time of the baseball season, I thought I would take the other viewpoint.
My projections, as I currently have them set, have the Cardinals winning approximately 90 games per their Pythagorean W-L percentage when I input team runs scored and runs allowed. I still have some small tweaks to go when it comes to my projections (for instance, I still have Martinez throwing ~200 innings. That's not happening.)
I feel like my projections are fairly 50th percentile, however. So what happens if the Cardinals get some improvement? What happens if the Cardinals get a career year out of a guy? What happens if the Cardinals land on the right side of the injury bug for once? What happens if they Cardinals land on the "normal" side of the injury bug for once? Let's look at a few scenarios.
If we're assuming that the Cardinals are one of the deeper teams in the league in terms of not having a "stars vs. scrubs" approach as they did in 2006, but instead a deeper, less-stars-but-much-more-depth-and-many-more-above-average-players-on-the-roster approach - as Chuck talks about in his article - then 1) injuries should not affect them as much as other teams. Let's take a look at that.
Potential starting pitcher injuries
Chuck rightly points out that the Cardinals could have two of their best, if not their two best, starters NOT in the rotation in Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes. This is due to injuries, not stupidity on their part.
My projections' 5 starting pitchers are the Cardinals starting 5 at the moment - Mikolas, Flaherty, Hudson, Wacha, Wainwright.
My projections don't see much difference between Wacha and Wainwright and the "next up" quartet of Martinez, Gant, Gomber, or Ponce De Leon this year in terms of FIP and in terms of ERA, the latter 4 all are projected better than Wacha and Wainwright (who are both currently in the rotation.
Studies have shown that there is approximately a 23.2% chance that any given pitcher will go onto the DL during the course of a season. The current 5 Cardinals starters, by my projections, will be making 143 of 162 starts on the year. If those 5 miss 23.2% of the 162 starts for the Cardinals this year, they'll make just 124-125 starts instead. If those 5 miss 23.2% of the projected 143 starts I have projected instead, then they'll make just 110 starts on the year. That means that we're looking at somewhere between 19-52 starts by some pitcher other than the 5 starters I currently have in the rotation.
Other Depth Options (aka The Improvement Across the Board Option)
Jedd Gyorko and Yairo Munoz were considered options to start every day last year down the stretch. They are both glorified infield backup plans this year with the addition of Goldschmidt and movement of Carpenter to third base. The team really prefers to have Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong take over the middle infield and become the every day defensive middle infield so long as others are hitting.
An older, run down Matt Wieters should be much better equipped to take on a month of playing time than Francisco Pena if Yadier Molina were to go down this year.
If Dexter Fowler is as ineffective as last year, the Cardinals manager seems to have much more faith in Tyler O'Neill than last year if we base this on spring training plate appearances (and O'Neill leading the team, if I remember correctly). He also has more faith in Jose Martinez because of the type of bat that Martinez has in at the plate - a guy who makes a lot of solid contact - as well he should.
The Cardinals have already exercised some options that show their depth. With Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, and Carlos Martinez on the IL (not DL for disabled list now, but IL for injured list...gah, that'll take some getting used to) to start the year, they are already starting with three pitchers on the roster that wouldn't have otherwise made it. They also designated Chasen Shreve for assignment, essentially cutting him to AAA if he's not signed by someone else or doesn't choose free agency. That's 1/3 of their pitching staff that has been turned over already this year prior to a single inning being pitched and 3/4 of those changes (not Martinez, as he might be the team's best pitcher) very well could be for the betterment of the ball club.
Notice: I'm not saying that the Cardinals won't get injured, especially at SP. However, I'm saying that they could be as good or better depending on to whom the injury occurs!
The Career Year Option
The Cardinals aren't likely to get a career year out of Marcell Ozuna, as he already had one in 2017. They may get his 2017 again, however, which would be a huge coup. That's what they were hoping for when they traded more for Ozuna than the Marlins got for Giancarlo Stanton. What if they get that .900+ OPS season from the 4 hitter that they were really thinking they could get?
The Cards also aren't likely to get a career year out of a 33-year old Matt Carpenter (like Chuck suggests), nor are they likely to get one from the 31-year old Paul Goldschmidt, who is moving from a typically RH hitter friendly Chase Field to the unfriendly (to RH hitters) confines of Busch Stadium III, nor the ageless Yadier Molina entering his age 36 season, nor Dexter Fowler trying to make his way back from a season marred by injury, depression, and ineffectiveness.
Let's look at what ifs with them, though. What if Carpenter's new found power is real? What if Goldschmidt has a typical Goldschmidt season garnering MVP votes with Carpenter on base in front of him 38% (or more) of the time? What if Dexter bounces back to even his career averages? (That's basically gaining 4-5 WAR!) What if Yadier Molina defies father time again and has yet another .750+ OPS season, but doesn't have to be the 2 hitter or 5 hitter?!?!?
Many prognosticators will argue that Harrison Bader may have just had his best potential season and that he cannot improve, but would anyone really be shocked to see him improve his contact rate just a little bit and put up an .800 OPS season while still being a very good defensive center fielder.
If Tyler O'Neill gets to play every day, the Cardinals power potential increases exponentially.
Kolten Wong has long had the potential of a 600 plate appearance, .300/.380/.425/.805 type, 15+ SB, 10+ HR type of season in him. What if this is that year? What if he does that while playing gold glove defense again this year? Could he be both the NL Gold Glove and NL Silver Slugger at 2B?
What if Paul DeJong stays healthy and puts it all together this year? Dude hit .285/.325/.532/.857 as a 23-year old rookie in 2017. Then in 2018, he started hitting .260/.351/.473/.824 as a 24-year old second year player prior to an injury that knocked him out for 1.5 months of the season. What if he combines his 2018 walk rate with his contact and power of 2017? That's a .285/.376/.532/.908 guy! And that's not out of the realm of possibility is it?
Notice, I'm not saying saying that the Cardinals NEED all of these things to happen to be a division leader. What if ONE of those major seasons occurs? What if two of them do?
The New Manager/Coaches Option
Mike Shildt took over with 69 games left in 2018 and won at a 96-win full-season pace. While he did that on the back of a tremendous August, that was his pace for the entire 69-games, not just August. August was a 127-win full-season pace.
What if Shildt is just that good of a manager in comparison to what we had before that players relax and play more at ease and he gets much better performances?
What if Jeff Albert's and Mark Budaska's hitting advice really takes root and the hitting this year keeps up really well with the pitching, which I believe should be quite good?
What if Mike Maddux, in year 2, really gets more out of the group?
What if Mike Shlidt's presence, which he is exerting early by asking for (and receiving) the "best arms" as opposed to having the options that are made by the easiest choices, continues to expand into every day decisions and the team flourishes even more?
What if the "buy in" is there by everyone this year rather than just by pockets of the club?
Notice: I'm not saying that the Cardinals WILL continue the 96-win pace, nor extending that to the August pace, but simply presenting that as an option...and potentially better as an option since the Cardinals have likely improved their team over last year's.
The Intangibles Option
What if all of the youth from AAA just knows winning more than some at the MLB club? The team brought in some players from teams who had never won anything and the team faltered a bit the last few years. The team failed to focus on fundamentals the last few years.
These youngsters coming up have won two straight PCL regular season titles and made it to two straight PCL title games in Memphis. They simply find the will and way to win within themselves. What if that is the prevailing notion in this clubhouse this year when the team comes North?
Now let's move on to the semi-outlandish:
Know what else I could see happening? Yes, this would take a crap ton of luck and skill.
Take for example that the Cardinals are still in it near the end of the year. Throutout the season, the Cardinals have effectively managed the innings workload of all of their starters and we see the following in September and October:
a Michael Wacha similar to the 2013-2015, 2018 one...but with more pitches to give at the end of the year
a Miles Mikolas doing 2018 Mikolas things
a Jack Flaherty still throwing 5-6 innings an outing in which he's near-dominant
a Carlos Martinez finally back at full strength going 6 innings a pop with #1 stuff
an Alex Reyes becoming ALEX EFFING REYES and he's the best of the bunch as his potential (1 plus plus pitch with three more plus pitches) states he can be.
If this comes to fruition just for September/October, then we have those 5 aces that Mike Shildt purports having. If only 4 of them are dealing in October, that's okay. All you need is 4 starters in the playoffs with all of the off days.
I feel like not only is the opportunity simply there to flourish and for the Cardinals to win more than the ~90 wins my projection system believe (is a 50th percentile outcome for the Cardinals), but I believe that not much has to go right for that to happen - and if a lot goes right for once (because I really don't feel like much has "gone right" for the Cardinals since about 2015), then the team could be a lot better than that.
Maybe I'm just an optimist and rainbows and unicorns are coming out of my fingers onto the keyboard and thus your screen. Maybe I'm crazy. But maybe, just maybe, this is the year that it all comes together for the Cardinals, again.