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2018 MLB team preview: The St. Louis Cardinals are as consistent as ever

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The Cardinals stayed within their means last winter, which is their M.O., but frustrating for fans.

St Louis Cardinals v Houston Astros Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Has the Devil Magic run out in St. Louis? It certainly seems that way after baseball has gone two full postseasons without the Cardinals winning a series or two in such miraculous fashion it wouldn’t look out of place in a 1990s sports movie. They looked as non-threatening as any Cardinals team in memory last season, winning 83 games without ever really challenging for a playoff spot.

Or maybe they have just been paying off their debts for the last two years, biding their time until they can pull another well-rounded division winner out of whatever cloning factory they own in rural Missouri. Despite having just one top-15 pick since 2000, the Cards have won more games than any other National League team. They have won two titles and four pennants. They were just two wins from another championship in 2013 while boasting the best farm system in baseball. The idea of #CardinalsDevilMagic didn’t come out of nowhere, and it felt like that good fortune had to end sometime.

It seemed to last year, when the Cardinals were actually quite unlucky. They underperformed their pythagorean win expectancy by four games, which would have put them in a tie for the second NL Wild Card spot. They did so without top prospect Alex Reyes, who missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. They basically lost former ace Adam Wainwright, who threw 123 13 replacement level innings after an impressive rebound season in 2016. Wainwright, Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk, Trevor Rosenthal, Tyler Lyons, and Jedd Gyorko all spent time on the disabled list last year, and only two position players played in more than 130 games.

Between simple regression to the mean and a few savvy additions — including former Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna — the Cardinals could return to form in 2018. If the Cubs slip up at all atop the division, we might even get our next dose of Cardinals magic in October.

Team at a Glance

2017 record: 83-79 | 2017 pythag: 87-75 | 2018 farm ranking: 13
Manager: Mike Matheny (7th year)
SB Nation site: Viva El Birdos
Key additions: OF Marcell Ozuna, RHP Miles Mikolas, RHP Luke Gregerson, RHP Dominic Leone, RHP Bud Norris
Key departures: RHP Lance Lynn, RHP Seung-hwan Oh, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, OF Stephen Piscotty, OF Randal Grichuk, SS Aledmys Diaz

Lineup

The Cards paid a pretty penny for Marcell Ozuna, but for good reason. The 27-year-old Ozuna is coming off his best season, a 5.8 rWAR campaign. Ozuna hit .312/.376/.548 with career-high home run (37) and RBI (124) totals. While his BABIP and home run rates were a bit unsustainable, he should still provide a stable base for the Cardinals lineup. Right fielder Dexter Fowler should do the same, even if his defense doesn’t get much better after moving to a corner. He’s coming off his third season in four years with an OPS+ over 120, and hasn’t been below average since his age-24 season in 2010. He might not hit 18 homers again, but he’ll get on base and score a lot of runs. Taking Fowler’s place in center will be Tommy Pham, a late bloomer who put up an incredible (and mostly unnoticed) 6.2 rWAR in left last year. He posted an excellent 144 wRC+ in 2017, but that might be above his true talent level. His .368 BABIP is a bit high, and he probably won’t hit 23 home runs again with such a ground ball heavy profile. Pushing all three is Jose Martinez, who put up an .897 OPS in 307 plate appearances.

Martinez could also see some time at first base, where Matt Carpenter is currently dealing with a back injury. The 32-year-old Carpenter has been all around the infield in his career, but settled in as an average defensive first baseman last season. He is still playing at third base some, though, improving St. Louis’ defensive flexibility. Former 22nd round pick Luke Voit, who had a monster season at Triple-A last year, might also see some starts at first. Across the diamond, converted second baseman Jedd Gyorko will get the lion’s share of starts at third (but will also move around the diamond). Gyorko has found new life since arriving in St. Louis, hitting .258/.324/.483 in two seasons with the Cards after failing to eclipse the .700 OPS mark in his final two years in San Diego. He has transitioned nicely in the field too; Gyorko finished second to only Nolan Arenado among third basemen with +16 defensive runs saved last year.

Both Gyorko and Carpenter will see the occasional start at second, but Kolten Wong will get most of the playing time (provided he stays healthy). Wong dealt with multiple injuries last year, which limited him to just 108 games. To his credit, he was able to work around the injuries and find some consistency. His .788 OPS and 109 OPS+ were a career-bests, but his typically above-average defense took a small step back. Wong will once again partner with shortstop Paul DeJong, who surprised everyone and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last season. The 24-year-old DeJong didn’t enter with any prospect hype — he didn’t even crack the top 10 list on Baseball Prospectus last year — but this is just what the Cardinals do. DeJong hit 25 home runs and put up a 121 OPS+ in 108 games for the Cards last year while providing average defense. There’s some concern he will become another Aledmys Diaz this season, especially since he struck out nearly seven times as often as he walked last year.

Behind the plate, the Cardinals are still riding Yadier Molina for all he is worth. The 34-year-old played 136 games last year, the eighth time he has topped the 130 games mark in nine seasons. Molina was still an above-average player overall, but isn’t quite shutting down the run game like he used to. The Cards handed him a three-year extension last April, which will likely cut into playing time for prospect Carson Kelly. The 23-year-old Kelly has been Molina’s heir apparent for a few years now, but has struggled in a handful of big league plate appearances. He has hit well enough in the minors to maintain the prospect hype, and is good enough defensively to carve out a career as a backup if the bat ultimately fails.

Pitching staff

It felt like 2017 was a breakout season for Carlos Martinez. Well, to me, anyway. The reality is that he has been a very good pitcher for the past three years. He has made at least 29 starts in each of them, and has a 3.24 ERA in 580 innings. Ironically, 2017 brought about his highest ERA of those three years, but he finally crossed the 200-inning plateau and made his second All-Star team. He also posted a career-best strikeout rate. If he can go back to suppressing homers, he might take another small step forward. Weirdly, former ace Adam Wainwright might be the reason for my misguided perception of Martinez. The 36-year-old Wainwright has been a rock atop St. Louis’ rotation for the last decade, but is coming off the two worst seasons of his career. He put up a 4.62 ERA in 2016 before coughing up a 5.11 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 123 ⅓ innings last year. His velocity dipped into the mid-80s last September, but he is currently enjoying a strong spring. Cards fans still aren’t ready to believe yet, though.

Righthander Michael Wacha has fallen on hard times over the past couple seasons. Opponents tagged him for a 5.09 ERA in 2016 despite decent peripherals. He lowered his ERA by nearly a full run last year, but only logged 165 ⅔ innings in 30 average-ish starts. He generated more whiffs last year than he did in 2016, but hasn’t quite replicated the swing-and-miss stuff he displayed in his first couple seasons. Despite his velocity actually getting a little better, opponents are still squaring him up well. Free agent signee Miles Mikolas put up some bonkers numbers in Japan over the past few years, but it remains to be seen if the strikeout touch he found in his last couple seasons over there will follow him back to the states. The 29-year-old had a fairly standard four-pitch mix in the minors before he left for Japan, and can reach the mid-90s with his fastball. He has struggled so far this spring, but turned in a solid performance in his last start.

There is currently a competition for the fifth spot in St. Louis’ rotation, but righthander Luke Weaver might be walking away with the job. Weaver has been dynamite so far this spring, posting a 0.68 ERA and 0.68 WHIP in four starts. He also fanned over 10 batters per nine innings in a 60 ⅓ inning audition with the Cards last year, but a modest regression shouldn’t hurt him much so long as he maintains his low walk rate. Prospect Alex Reyes may eventually push Weaver for playing time, but the hard-throwing righty is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. Former first round pick Jack Flaherty will also be in the Cardinals’ rotation someday, but will likely start the season down in the minors. He had an excellent season last year, but only has 15 Triple-A starts on his ledger.

The pitchers that will be in St. Louis’ bullpen are largely set, even if their roles are not. Veteran Luke Gregerson is expected to start the year as the team’s closer, but we’ve seen him lose that job before in other cities. He is also currently dealing with an injury that left him out of action for the past week. New signee Bud Norris will also see some late-inning action after a fairly promising 2017 season in Los Angeles. Young-ish righty Dominic Leone might be the closer of the future after striking out 29 percent of hitters for the Toronto Blue Jays last year. Mike Mayers has impressed in spring training, but might get cut because he has options remaining. Tyler Lyons and Brett Cecil will be the primary lefties out of the ‘pen.

Down on the farm

We are a few years removed from St. Louis’ No. 1 ranked system, but the Cards still have plenty of talent in their coffers. Righthander Alex Reyes is still their top player, but should graduate from prospect-dom this year when he returns from Tommy John surgery. Behind him is a quartet of 50-grade prospects (per FanGraphs) on the cusp of the big leagues. The Cards acquired outfielder Tyler O’Neill from the Mariners last year, and the powerful righty looked good after making some minor adjustments in St. Louis’ system. Catcher Carson Kelly is the heir to Yadier Molina’s throne… if Molina ever decides to retire. Adolis Garcia might not be as good as FanGraphs’ rankings — he’s not on Baseball Prospectus’ top 10 list — but is having a monster spring. Righthander Jack Flaherty is competing for a rotation spot. There are a couple of high upside talents further down the list, including 2016 first round pick Delvin Perez, but their system lacks some ceiling, especially after the Marcell Ozuna deal. But there’s still a stable of the high-floor talents that St. Louis has endlessly churned out over the past two decades.

Player to watch: RHP Alex Reyes

Perhaps the most devastating moment of the Cardinals’ disappointing 2017 was one that occured before it even began. Alex Reyes, the top prospect in all of baseball last season according to Baseball Prospectus, was diagnosed with a torn UCL last February. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. While the Cards’ rotation logged the fourth-most innings in the NL and finished with a respectable 4.13 ERA, one wonders if Reyes might have helped move St. Louis a little closer to Wild Card contention. That’s a lot to put on a rookie pitcher, but Reyes might have been (and still be able) to handle it. He stands a sturdy 6’3 and has a pair of plus-plus pitches in his fastball and curveball. The 23-year-old will be brought along slowly this year — he hasn’t been used in game action this spring and will only throw about 100 innings — but the hybrid role St. Louis wants to use him in actually makes me more excited to watch. Letting Reyes air it out for an inning or two will give us a chance to see how truly dominant his stuff can be, while a few outings in the rotation should give him a chance to work on his secondaries, including a potential plus changeup.

Outlook

The Cardinals looked to be in a great position this offseason, at least until the Cubs signed Yu Darvish. St. Louis refused to push more chips in, instead relying on the steady approach that has kept them on top of the NL Central for the last 20 years. While their results speak for themselves, one wonders if their dominance will continue in this data-driven age. Chicago and Milwaukee have undergone efficient rebuilds recently, while the Reds might be a year or two away from their own breakout. St. Louis isn’t anywhere close to needing a rebuild — and they might never have to — but they’re fighting from behind without all those top draft picks their division rivals have been accruing recently. The 2018 Cardinals feel the same way: good, but a step below the star-studded Cubs. If St. Louis is to win the division and/or make a postseason run, it will take significant development from some of their younger players.

Or maybe just a little more of that Cardinals magic.