by Harry Silverman
2018 Record: 88-74 (3rd in NL Central)
2018 Payroll: $163,784,311 (8th)
Projected 2019 Lineup:
- 3B Matt Carpenter, .251/.373/.459, 3.6 WAR
- SS Paul DeJong, .254/.311/.449, 3.1 WAR
- 1B Paul Goldschmidt, .277/.385/.489, 4.3 WAR
- LF Marcell Ozuna. .289/.346/.492, 3.6 WAR
- C Yadier Molina, .267/.317/.415, 2.8 WAR
- CF Harrison Bader, .246/.308/.399, 2.1 WAR
- RF Dexter Fowler, .239/.341/.390, 0.7 WAR
- 2B Kolten Wong, .262/.342/.406, 2.0 WAR
Projected 2019 Rotation:
- Miles Mikolas, 198 IP/4.04 ERA/1.24 WHIP, 2.7 WAR
- Jack Flaherty, 164 IP/3.69 ERA/1.24 WHIP, 2.8 WAR
- Michael Wacha, 100 IP/4.20 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 1.0 WAR
- Adam Wainwright, 110 IP/4.20 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 1.3 WAR
- Austin Gomber, 27 IP/4.33 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 0.2 WAR
- Carlos Martinez, 139 IP/3.92 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 1.7 WAR
After finishing 3rd in the NL Central in 2018 and missing the postseason for the third consecutive season, the Cardinals looked to make major improvements to their roster for 2019. St. Louis moved quickly to acquire six-time All Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, sending reliever Luke Weaver, backup catcher Carson Kelly, prospect Andy Young, and a Compensation Round B pick in the 2019 draft to Arizona in exchange. This package sacrifices some roster depth, but is a small price to pay for a franchise player who has finished top 3 in NL MVP voting in three of the last six seasons. Goldschmidt is also a three-time Gold Glove winner, and while first base is not a premier defensive position, it will at least slightly improve a Cardinals defense that committed more errors than any other team in the Majors last year.
The biggest problem for St. Louis following the 2018 campaign was undoubtedly their bullpen: the team’s relievers finished 22nd in K/9 (8.31) and 24th in LOB% (71.1), and had the second-highest BB/9 (4.34) as well as the eleventh-highest ERA (4.38). The bullpen posted a measly 0.5 combined fWAR in 2018, good for 25th in the league and more than two wins behind any NL team that made the playoffs in 2018. As such, the team made a productive move in signing lefty reliever Andrew Miller to a two-year deal. Coming off of a down year plagued by injuries, Miller will look to return to the dominant form he showed in 2016 and 2017, earning All Star honors in each and finishing both seasons with his FIP under 2.00 and ERA under 3.5.
The Cardinals also made moves in an attempt to secure their starting rotation, such as tying down surprise star Miles Mikolas on a four-year extension and resigning longtime Cardinal Adam Wainwright to a one-year deal. However, injury concerns will warrant doubt for this rotation going into the season (more on this later), and with names like Gio Gonzalez still on the free agent market at the time of this article’s writing, this rotation might not even be fully set yet.
2019 Season Preview:
The NL Central will be one of the more competitive divisions in baseball this year: between the moves made by St. Louis, Cincinnati’s blockbuster trade with the Dodgers, and the various improvements made by playoff incumbents Milwaukee and Chicago, the fight for the top spot will be fierce. Despite a few question marks heading into the season, the St. Louis Cardinals will have a more legitimate shot at winning the division than they have the past three years.
The first issue the Cardinals will face will be the health and durability of their starting pitchers. The team will most likely be without two-time All Star Carlos Martinez to begin the season, as he has been dealing with injuries dating back to last May. Former top prospect Alex Reyes is currently in the process of returning from surgery, and whether or not he will even be on the Major League roster for opening day is still uncertain, let alone if manager Mike Shildt will use him as a rotation or bullpen piece. Without Martinez or Reyes as options, the Cardinals will likely have the inexperienced Austin Gomber slot in as their fifth starter. The injury woes do not end there: 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha was sidelined in late June, and Adam Wainwright spent significant time on the DL.
However, in spite of three of their established starters and their top pitching prospect combining for just 42 total appearances in 2018, the Cards still managed to get good production out of their rotation. The team’s starters finished 2018 with the 5th-lowest ERA (3.52) and 7th-lowest FIP (3.78) in the league, astounding numbers for a team that started Luke Weaver in 25 games. Miles Mikolas earned every penny of the $68 million extension he signed in February, throwing just over 200 IP with a 2.83 ERA, and rookie Jack Flaherty showed promise with a 10.85 K/9. If those two can build upon their success in 2018, and injuries are not a concern down the stretch, the Cardinals rotation will be formidable; otherwise, starting pitching will be a priority for St. Louis at the trade deadline.
The next problem St. Louis must resolve in 2019 is how effective the bullpen will be, and how Andrew Miller will be used. With his injuries firmly in the rear-view mirror and a more pitcher-friendly home stadium than he’s ever had, Miller is poised for a comeback in 2019. The lefty will synergize well with right-handed reliever Jordan Hicks, who will look to improve on his productive rookie season. If Reyes returns and is used out of the bullpen, he will provide another effective righty option later in games. The rest of the Cardinals bullpen is patchwork at best: names such as Chasen Shreve and Brett Cecil do not exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing batters. Mike Shildt will have quite the task in managing this bullpen, especially if the starters break down early in games.
The last major question mark for the Cardinals in 2019 surrounds one player: right fielder Dexter Fowler. After the 2016 season, the Cards inked Fowler to a five-year deal worth $82.5 million hoping he would continue the All Star-caliber production he displayed as a member of the 2016 World Series-winning Cubs. His first year was decent, but he completely fell off in 2018, slashing .180/.278/.298 and posting -1.4 fWAR with poor defensive numbers. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak called into question his effort level during the season, but Fowler still recorded 334 plate appearances in 2018 and projects to be the team’s starting right fielder for opening day. Hopefully Fowler can shake off the down year, but if he hits below the Mendoza line and plays subpar defense for so much as the first month or two, do not be surprised if he is benched in favor of another outfielder like Tyler O’Neill.
With that being said, it must be noted that the lineup is now one of the best in the NL, arguably in all of baseball. The Cards have added the best first baseman and one of the top hitters in baseball by acquiring Paul Goldschmidt, who has recorded over 5 fWAR in five of the last six seasons. St. Louis’s key acquisition from last offseason, left fielder Marcell Ozuna, regressed in 2018 from the previous season, but has already demonstrated his upside at the plate in his monster 2017 season. Third baseman Matt Carpenter can be streaky, but has yet to post an OBP below .365 in his career, making him effective as a leadoff hitter. Veteran catcher Yadier Molina will continue to defy age, and second baseman Kolten Wong should improve after a middling 2018. With big names on the roster as well as young talent, such as skilled defender Harrison Bader and 2017 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Paul DeJong, the Cards will boast a very formidable lineup going into the 2019 season.
A final thought about the Cardinals heading into the 2019 season is that they will have a full season with Mike Shildt as their manager. Rephrased, the Cardinals will no longer have to suffer through Mike Matheny managing the team in 2019. At the All Star break last season, the Cards were on pace for an 82-80 record and fired Matheny, naming Shildt as the interim manager. After the break, the Cardinals were one of the hottest teams in baseball, going 40-28 to close out the season; a full season at that pace would lead to a 95-66 finish. The numbers speak for themselves here. Matheny was cited as a poor tactician with no concept of how to manage his bullpen, and also had a poor rapport with some of the younger members of the team. A full season with a significantly better manager at the helm is certainly something to look forward to for Cardinals fans.
The St. Louis Cardinals have made a concerted effort to improve after a disappointing finish to the 2018 season, and appear ready to do serious damage in the NL Central. FanGraphs projects that the Cards will nab one of the highly-coveted, hotly-contested Wild Card spots, beating out teams that made the playoffs in 2018 like the Braves, Brewers, and Rockies. Whether or not they do remains to be determined, but one thing is for certain: watching the Redbirds vie for a return to the postseason in 2019 should be even more entertaining than it has been in recent years.
Record Prediction: 90-72
Player to Watch #1: 1B Paul Goldschmidt
The trade may have garnered less attention than it deserved in the shadow of the Machado-Harper sweepstakes, but it cannot be overstated how significant of an addition Goldschmidt is, as he steps right into a role as the team’s superstar. For perspective, the four-time Silver Slugger had a higher OPS (.922), wRC+ (145), and fWAR (5.1) than any qualified Cardinals hitter in 2018. Scarily, last season was only a decent one by Goldy’s standards, whose career highs in the previously-specified categories are 1.005, 163, and 7.2 respectively. It is worth noting that Busch Stadium is much less hitter-friendly than is Chase Field, and seeing how Goldschimdt will adjust should be interesting. The 31-year-old has one year left on his contract, and watching how the extension talks between him and the Cardinals progress will also be interesting.
Player to Watch #2: SP Jack Flaherty
After picking up stray votes for Rookie of the Year in 2018, the young righty will serve as a formidable second starter behind Mikolas. The 2019 season will be Flaherty’s first full season in the Majors, after being optioned back to AAA multiple times early last year. He showed flashes of excellence throughout the 2018 season, picking up 182 SO in 151 IP and finishing with a solid 3.34 ERA and 3.86 FIP. Flaherty will be relied on heavily to perform well in 2019, given all the concerns surrounding the Cardinals starters. Flaherty also was not perfect in 2018: he had a rather high HR/FB% at 15.2, as well as a high 3.52 BB/9. If he can resolve his issues with the long ball and keep his walk rate down, Flaherty will earn the notion of a high-end starter.
Player to Watch #3: 3B Matt Carpenter
Carpenter has shown great fluctuation in his numbers from season-to-season, but 2018 was a breakout year for him specifically in terms of his power numbers. A mechanical change along with some magic salsa led him to career highs in HR (36) and SLG (.532), while still keeping his OBP (.374) and walks (102) numbers on par with his career averages. If Carpenter can carry this power surge into 2019, he will be a force to be reckoned with in the leadoff spot. The acquisition of Goldschmidt will force Carpenter to play more third base than any other position. Carpenter’s -2 DRS at third is at least comparable to his 1 DRS at first, but his -12.0 UZR is noticeably worse than his -0.1 UZR at first. In a Cardinals defense that was quite poor in 2018, hopefully Carpenter can hold his own in the hot corner.