Note: My apologies. This is coming a day later than I wanted it to because I'm battling the flu. Don't get the flu. It's even worse than you remembered. - AC
Baseball Prospectus released their 2019 PECOTA projections on Thursday, which felt like a godsend given that it rescued a lot of otherwise reasonable people from incessant arguing over the designated hitter. The Cardinals have almost famously out-performed these initial projections every season going back to 2013, the longest such streak in Major League Baseball.
Making that seven years in a row could be tough. PECOTA sees the Cardinals winning 86 games, their highest-projected win total since 2015, I believe. On the other hand, 86 wins - or anything short of that - would represent a colossal disappointment to a majority of the fan base, and confirm what many have been screaming all offseason, which is that more improvements to this roster are not only possible but necessary.
Remember that when it comes to projection systems like PECOTA, they're designed to be conservative. Minus crazy circumstances, it's never going to foresee a team winning 108 games and another team just 47, even though that very thing happened in 2018. Algorithms can tell us a lot but only within the confines of the opposing extremes. To wit, I don't have the 2015 PECOTA projections handy but I'm guessing they weren't expecting the Cardinals rotation and bullpen to put up the run prevention numbers that they did because no reasonable person would have and, as it turned out, it's safe to say that was an over-performance to an impressive degree. And no one has ever argued that this is a perfect science, which is why other projection systems have been way more bearish on Milwaukee, to give one example.
But what is it about the Cardinals? Why do they constantly beat PECOTA? It's the unexpected outliers. Here's Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus striking a familiar tone just as he did last year in his annual Why PECOTA Hates Your Favorite Team post.
PECOTA can’t account for Cardinals Devil Magic. Aledmys Diaz? Paul DeJong? Miles Mikolas? It seems that every year, St. Louis gets half a dozen or so WARP from guys you have to look up in the Annual to find out who they are. PECOTA lacks a gold-from-dross function.
If I had to guess, Mains is not a true believer in Devil Magic. Rather, I think a case is slowly being made that the Cardinals really do excel at player development, and that they've perhaps been on the receiving end of more good luck than most. Certainly nothing wrong with that.
Here are some other Cardinals-related notes from 2019 PECOTA that caught my eye.
The NL Central is going to be a grind
PECOTA thinks the Cardinals should probably forget about feasting on the likes of say Cincinnati or Pittsburgh in order to keep their head above water in the division. Excluding the NL Central, at least 22 games separate first to worst in every other division, so says these projections. In the NL Central there's a separation of only eight games, with the Cardinals' 86 win total coming in second behind Milwaukee. The Pirates and the Reds are projected to finish at the bottom with an even 81-81 record.
And the rest of the NL isn't a joy ride either. There's only three teams projected to finish under .500 (MIA, SDP, SFG), and the NL East could give the NL Central a run for it's competitive money if we all envision a perfect world in which the Marlins do not exist.
To put it another way, the National League is going to be a lot more fun than the American League in 2019.
Right field is expected to be a weak spot
Per 600 plate appearances, the Cardinals are expected to be weakest in right field than anywhere else on the diamond, with Dexter Fowler and Jose Martinez combining to be worth right around two wins above replacement. In any other offseason I'm not sure I would consider this notable. But when we're close to pitchers and catchers reporting and Bryce Harper is still available, well, I find this notable.
PECOTA believes in Jack Flaherty
Jack Flaherty is projected to be the best pitcher on staff, and throw close to 170 innings with an ERA of 3.28. I am a Miles Mikolas believer, I think he should have the ball on Opening Day, but those are numbers we absolutely accept from Flaherty in his sophomore campaign.
The Cardinals could have their first MVP since Albert Pujols left
PECOTA sees Paul Goldschmidt with the highest WARP (5.4) among position players in the NL, with usual suspects Joey Votto and Nolan Arenado right behind him. No one should strictly use a WAR leaderboard when determining league MVP, but it's worth remembering that the Cardinals do have one of the three-to-five elite bats in baseball on their roster this year. Given he's a newcomer, if the Cardinals are able to win the uber-competitive NL Central this season, or at least squeak into extra baseball via the Wild Card, Goldschmidt would seem like a natural MVP choice if he can put up the same type of numbers we've come to expect (and what PECOTA expects) from him going back to 2013.
What's going on with the Cubs?
The Cubs reign of terror in the NL Central is over. Maybe. Who really knows. Personally, I don't believe it, and would still pick them to win the division if forced to choose - why anyone would be an optimist in the year 2019 is beyond me - but the much-smarter-than-me people behind PECOTA believe it and that's what matters here. For a more in-depth look at why they are down on the Cubs, you can revisit Mains's piece that I linked to earlier or take a look at this more detailed account from BP writer Matt Trueblood. But a too long/didn't read version is that basically their pitching is old and the lineup is rather pedestrian once you get past Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
1. We are going to enjoy Paul Goldschmidt.
2. Winning the NL Central is more important than ever given how tough the in-division competition will be, which will result in a deflated win total and possibly hurt the club's Wild Card chances.
2a. Therefore, maybe try to sign Bryce Harper.
2b. On that end, given that so many prominent free agents remain unsigned, consider these projections very fluid.
3. Keep an eye on the Cubs.