St. Louis Cardinals 2021 Season Preview

 

       When they acquired Paul Goldschmidt in December of 2018, the Cardinals showed that they were not afraid to make a blockbuster deal. St. Louis practiced that again this offseason, as they brought in another star corner infielder from a middling NL West team, in Nolan Arenado. With Arenado in to boost what was a bad lineup in 2020, the Cardinals are ready to try and dominate a very weak NL Central division. 

Offseason additions: 3B Nolan Arenado, C Tyler Heineman, OF Matt Szczur, C Ali Sanchez.

Offseason subtractions: 2B Kolten Wong, IF Brad Miller, OF Dexter Fowler, LHP Austin Gomber, C Matt Wieters.

2020 Trade Deadline summary

Acquired: None.

Traded: None.

2020 record: 30-28

2020 placement: 2nd

2020 WAR leader (batter): Paul Goldschmidt

2020 WAR leader (pitcher): Kwang Hyun Kim

Starting Pitchers

Jack Flaherty looked like he could be a top-3 pitcher in baseball someday after he dominated in 2019, with a 2.75 ERA and 231 strikeouts plus a league leading 0.968 WHIP. Unfortunately, Flaherty took a big step back in 2020, finishing with a 4.91 ERA while striking out 49 in 40.1 innings. He walked 9.4 percent of batters, a sizable increase from 7.1 the previous season. Flaherty also had a 5.07 xERA. One good thing with his 2020 was his slider, which batters had a .314 slugging against with a 49.5 percent whiff rate. Kwang Hyun Kim came over from Korea as a 32 year old MLB rookie, and was great in eight games. He had a 1.62 ERA while allowing just 28 hits in 39 innings. Kim did strikeout just 24 batters, for a 15.6 K rate. Despite averaging under 90 miles per hour, his fastball was pretty good, as batters hit .182 with a .303 slugging against it. Adam Wainwright is back, and I mean that as both him re-signing with the Cardinals, and him having his best season since 2014 last year. Wainwright had a 3.10 ERA through 10 starts, and had two complete games. He struck out 54 batters in 65.2 innings, with just a 5.7 percent BB rate. Wainwright\’s famous curveball had an increased whiff rate of 33 percent, plus a 2791 rpm spin rate. Batters hit just .191 with a .245 slugging against the pitch. Dakota Hudson finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, and had a 2.77 ERA in eight starts last year. Hudson will miss the 2021 season with Tommy John surgery. Miles Mikolas got a big contract after a great 2018, but struggled in 2019, before flexor tendon surgery cost him all of 2020. Mikolas is still recovering, and will probably miss the start of the season. When we last saw him in 2019, Mikolas had a 4.16 ERA in 32 starts. One thing that he is great at is limiting walks. He led the league in BB/9 in 2018, and had a 1.6 BB/9 and a 4.2 walk rate in 2019. Former ace Carlos Martinez was pretty good as the team\’s closer in 2019, but made just five starts last year, and was terrible. Martinez had a 9.90 ERA while striking out 17 in 20 innings. Batters had a .428 wOBA plus a .295 xBA against him last year. Daniel Ponce de Leon made eight starts (and had one relief outing) last year, and while he had a 4.96 ERA, he struck out 45 batters in 32.2 innings. Ponce de Leon did walk 14 percent of batters, but also held them to a .221 xBA. I could see him joining the St. Louis bullpen. 

Relief Pitchers

The Cardinals have a great bullpen, and they will probably have to cut a decent pitcher. Jordan Hicks is back after missing the end of 2019, and opting-out in 2020. In 2019, Hicks\’ sinker somehow averaged 101.1 mph, which does not seem fair. His secondary pitch is a slider, which had a 57.8 percent whiff rate. Overall, Hicks had a 3.14 ERA with 14 saves, 31 strikeouts and a 67.2 groundball rate in 28.2 innings. While he was the closer when he last pitched, it is unclear if Hicks will take that role back. The Cardinals did set have a set closer last year, as six different players had saves. Andrew Miller and Giovanny Gallegos were the only with multiple, as each had four. The 35 year old Miller had his best season since 2017, striking out 16 with a 2.77 ERA in 13 innings. Batters had just a .138 xBA against him. Miller\’s 2.04 xERA was his best since 2016, when he dominated with the Yankees before going to the World Series with the Indians. Gallegos also played for the Yankees, but did not debut until 2017, right after Miller left. He was elite in 2019, with a 2.31 ERA and 93 strikeouts. But, like Miller, he was limited in 2020. Gallegos struck out 21 in 15 innings, with a 3.60 ERA. In his career, he has walked just six percent of batters. Alex Reyes was once arguably the top prospect in all of baseball, but numerous injuries have limited him to the bullpen. Reyes pitched in 19.2 innings, which was his most since he debuted in 2016. Reyes struck out 27 batters with a 3.20 ERA. He also limited batters to a .186 xBA with a 28.9 hard hit percentage. Reyes\’ fastball averaged 97.5 mph, and both his curveball and slider had high whiff rates. John Gant could join the rotation if Mikolas is hurt, but he has succeeded in the bullpen. Gant struck out 18 batters in 15 innings last year, with a 2.40 ERA. He has a 3.55 ERA over four seasons as a Cardinal. Gant allowed just one barrel out of 36 batted balls all season. He also limited batters to a .193 xBA and a .272 xSLG. His best pitch in 2020 was definitively his changeup, which batters went 1-for-12 against, and it had a 51.6 percent whiff rate. Tyler Webb has a 3.03 ERA since joining the Cardinals in the middle of 2018. He pitched in 21 games last year, striking out 19 with a 2.08 ERA. Batters had just a 3.3 barrel percentage and an 85.7 mph average exit velocity. His slow changeup\’s whiff rate raised by nearly 20 percent from 2019 to 2020, ending up at over 47 percent. Young lefty Genesis Cabrera was amazing last year, and his one major flaw was a 16.7 percent walk rate. Cabrera had a 2.42 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 22.1 innings. Batters had an 84 mph average exit velocity, and all three of his main pitches were successful, and at-bats finishing with curveballs had just one hit out of 24. Ryan Helsley had a 2.95 ERA in 24 games in his rookie season of 2019, but had a 5.25 ERA with 10 strikeouts in 12 innings last year. While his fastball\’s average velocity decreased by one mph, it was still very high, at 96.9 mph. Thanks to a lot of competition, Helsley actually may not make the Cardinals. Sinkerballer Seth Elledge has an outside chance at the roster after striking out 14 in 11.2 innings last year, although he did allow six runs. 

Catchers

While he went into free agency and may have given some Cardinal fans a scare, Yadier Molina is back for his 18th season in St. Louis. The nine time all-star will probably be a Hall-of-Famer one day. He is no longer a good hitter, but Molina, the nine time Gold Glover, is still a great defensive catcher. He hit four home runs with a .662 OPS last year, and only walked 3.8 percent of the time. Molina also had a weak 84.7 mph average exit velocity, and his 23.1 ft/s sprint speed was one of the league\’s slowest. The Cardinals trusted Andrew Knizer enough to give him the backup job without much competition. He has played in just 26 MLB games, with a .642 OPS. At AAA Memphis in 2019, Knizer hit 12 home runs with an .821 OPS. Another option is Tyler Heineman, who had a .990 OPS at AAA in 2019, and has 20 games of MLB experience. 

Infielders

While Cardinals fans and baseball fans in general want to hype up Arenado, you need to at least recognize that 2020 was his worst year since he was a rookie. Will his 84 OPS+ remain, probably not. But, as he turns 30 next month, we at least have to realize that he is not perfect. Arenado hit eight home runs with a .738 OPS, while his average exit velocity dropped. He had just a .241 BABIP, which is pretty low and should go up. Still, Arenado struck out just 10% of the time, which was an improvement for him, and with six outs above average, he won his 8th Gold Glove in eight MLB seasons. After hitting 30 home runs and making his first all-star team in 2019, Paul DeJong took an odd step backwards, finishing with just three homers in 45 games. DeJong had a .671 OPS, with a career worst 28.7 K rate. He made some big defensive improvements in 2019, but that was lost as well, as DeJong had -3 outs above average at shortstop. As Kolten Wong left for the rival Brewers, Tommy Edman will get a starting chance after playing a super-utility role. Edman stole 15 bases with an .850 OPS in 2019, but had a .685 OPS in 55 games last year. He only stole two bases, but his average sprint speed of 28.9 ft/s was elite. Edman had three combined outs above average between both corner outfield positions, second base, and the left side of the infield. Five-time 30 homer hitter Paul Goldschmidt hit just six in 58 games last year, but hit .304 with a team-leading .883 OPS. He walked 16 percent of the time, his best since 2015, with a 10.7 barrel percentage and a .509 xSLG. Goldschmidt is a three time Gold Glover, and had four outs above average at first base. It is kind of insane how fast Matt Carpenter fell. He hit 36 home runs and got MVP votes in 2018, but had a .726 OPS in 2019 before becoming even worse in 2020. Carpenter hit four home runs with a .186 average and a .640 OPS in 50 games. He still walked at a 13.6 percent rate, but Carpenter also had an increased K% of 28.4. He also had a depressed xBA of .214 and a .404 xSLG. 25 year old Edmundo Sosa has just 11 games of MLB experience, but he can be a utility backup infielder, while Carpenter is a bench bat. Sosa\’s last full season was at AAA in 2019, when in 118 games he hit 17 home runs with a .291 average and an .801 OPS. First baseman John Nogowski made his MLB debut in 2020 after posting an .889 OPS in AAA the season before.

Outfielders

The outfield is by far the weakest and most inexperienced group of this team, and the inexperience got worse when Dexter Fowler was traded to the Angels. This should be the year that we get a good look at Dylan Carlson, who is one of the league\’s top prospects. Carlson played in 35 MLB games last year, but did not look MLB ready, hitting .200 with a .616 OPS and striking out over 29 percent of the time. Carlson spent 2019 in AA and AAA (but mostly AA), and dominated, hitting 26 home runs with 20 stolen bases and a .914 OPS. Harrison Bader was the worst offensive outfielder on the team in 2019, but after posting a .779 OPS in 2020, he was actually the best one. Bader walked 10.4 percent of the time to elevate that OPS, although he had an 86 mph average exit velocity and a .199 xBA. To make up for that, Bader did what he does best, which is run fast and play great defense. He had a 29.4 ft/s sprint speed, and had four outs above average in center field. Tyler O\’Neill was a big prospect entering the majors after hitting 26 home runs with a 1.078 OPS in 64 AAA games in 2018. He has a lot of power, but has struggled to hit in the majors. He hit seven home runs with a .621 OPS and a .193 xBA. O\’Neill has really underrated speed, with a 29.6 ft/s sprint speed, and had four outs above average in left field. Lane Thomas had a 1.093 OPS in 34 games in 2019, but went just 4-for-36 in 2020. Thomas hit 10 home runs with 11 stolen bases and an .812 OPS in 75 AAA games in 2019. Another fourth outfielder option is Austin Dean, who has a .664 OPS in 101 MLB games. Dean was amazing at AAA in 2019 in the Marlins system, hitting 18 home runs with a 1.036 OPS in 73 games. 

Projected Rotation
Jack Flaherty (R)
Kwang Hyun Kim (L)
Adam Wainwright (R)
Miles Mikolas (R)
Carlos Martinez (R)
Projected Bullpen
Jordan Hicks (R)
Andrew Miller (L)
Giovanny Gallegos (R)
Alex Reyes (R)
John Gant (R)
Genesis Cabrera (L)
Tyler Webb (L)
Daniel Ponce de Leon (R)
Ryan Helsley (R)
Projected Lineup
2B Tommy Edman (S)
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
3B Nolan Arenado (R)
SS Paul DeJong (R)
RF Dylan Carlson (S)
LF Lane Thomas (R)
C Yadier Molina (R)
CF Harrison Bader (R)
Pitcher
Projected Bench
C Andrew Knizer (R)
IF Matt Carpenter (L)
IF Edmundo Sosa (R)
OF Lane Thomas (R)

Projection

The Cardinals are not a perfect team, and their young but flawed outfield shows that. But, compared to the rest of their division, they have little holes, and can beat you with their rotation, bullpen, and now with Arenado on board, maybe their lineup. As the Cubs, Reds and Brewers will fall off, the Cardinals will win the NL Central, and make the playoffs. 

Published by carterhud

Carterhud.com. SI Kids Kid Reporter, Prime Time Sports Talk writer

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