2018 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals were one of the teams benefiting from the Marlins’ latest fire sale, acquiring outfielder Marcell Ozuna in a trade in December. The Cardinals sent prospects Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra, Zac Gallen, and Daniel Castano to the Marlins. The first three now rank third, seventh, and 14th in the Marlins’ system, respectively. The Cardinals also signed veteran reliever Luke Gregerson to a two-year, $11 million contract, Bud Norris to a one-year, $3 million deal, and Miles Mikolis to a two-year, $15.5 million deal. Are those moves, adding to a core that won 83 games last year, enough to help the Cardinals keep pace with the Cubs in the NL Central?

Ozuna is a great addition. The 27-year-old had a career year last year, batting .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and 124 RBI in 679 plate appearances. He’ll be sharing an outfield with Tommy Pham, who broke out by hitting .306/.411/.520 with 23 home runs, 73 RBI, 95 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases in 530 PA this past season. And Dexter Fowler had another great season, batting .264/.363/.488 with 18 home runs and 64 RBI in 491 PA. As far as outfields go, the Cardinals’ ranks among the best in baseball.

In the infield, 35-year-old Yadier Molina returns for his 15th season in the majors, handling things behind the plate for the Red Birds. Across 136 games, Molina hit an adequate .273/.312/.439 while maintaining his defense and handling the pitching staff. He signed an extension with the Cardinals last April, which kicks in this year and lasts through 2020. He’s in no danger of losing his job anytime soon. Carson Kelly will back him up.

The versatile Matt Carpenter will return to first base. In the past four years, he’s been the club’s starting third baseman, second baseman, and first baseman. Along with his versatility, the 32-year-old still hits as he compiled a .241/.384/.451 triple-slash line last year along with 23 home runs and 69 RBI across 145 games.

Kolten Wong will play to Carpenter’s right at second base once again. He has been something of an enigma since debuting in 2013. He has some speed, he plays solid defense, and as his performance last year indicated, he can hit occasionally as well. But he’s averaged just about two Wins Above Replacement over the last four seasons, per Baseball Reference, which is equivalent to a league average player. A breakout performance from Wong would go a long way towards gaining some ground on the Cubs.

Paul DeJong will serve as the everyday shortstop, fresh off of signing a six-year, $26 million extension earlier this month. In his debut season last year, DeJong batted .285/.325/.532 with 25 home runs and 65 RBI in 443 PA. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting behind Cody Bellinger.

Rounding out the infield, Jedd Gyorko returns to the hot corner. He has put together two solid seasons with the Cardinals after coming over from the Padres, posting an OPS above .800 both years. Last year also saw him save 17 runs above average defensively according to Baseball Reference. During the offseason, some thought then-free agent third baseman Mike Moustakas fit well with the Cardinals, but the club ultimately passed in favor of Gyorko.

Carlos Martinez will lead the starting rotation. The two-time All-Star, now 26 years old, finished with a 3.64 ERA and a 217/71 K/BB ratio in 205 innings this past season. He had posted ERAs just barely above 3.00 in the previous two seasons, so his results in 2017 were a little disappointing in that regard. Martinez has terrific stuff and is clearly the ace of the Cardinals’ staff now, and no one would be surprised if he pitched himself into Cy Young contention.

The rotation behind Martinez is a different story, however. It is comprised of Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Luke Weaver. Wacha has a 4.56 ERA and veteran Adam Wainwright has a 4.81 ERA across the past two seasons. Mikolas hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 – he pitched in Japan over the last three years — and owns a career 5.32 ERA. The 23-year-old Weaver, meanwhile, was solid in 10 starts and three relief appearances last year, compiling a 3.88 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 17 walks in 60 1/3 innings. Martinez aside, the Cardinals’ rotation is unreliable and has a realistic chance to be really bad. There’s a less likely chance it could be really good if Weaver is able to sustain his success over 30 starts, if Wainwright can put together one more solid year before drifting off into the sunset, and if Mikolas can repeat the success he had in Japan.

Gregerson, who turns 34 years old in May, will have the responsibility of closing games out. The veteran right-hander recently sustained an oblique injury in spring training but is expected to be ready for Opening Day. Last season, he posted a career-high 4.57 ERA with a 70/20 K/BB ratio for the Astros. While his strikeout rate was quite good, he also posted his highest walk rate since his rookie season in 2009. Needless to say, he’ll need to cut down on the walks if he has any hope of prolonged success in the ninth inning for the Cardinals.

Behind Gregerson, the Cardinals will entrust Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons, John Brebbia, Matt Bowman, Brett Cecil, Sam Tuivailala, and Bud Norris. That’s a pretty solid bullpen as Leone, Lyons, Brebbia, and Tuivailala each posted a sub-3.00 ERA last year. Bowman and Cecil also had decent years. Bridging the gap from the starter du jour to Gregerson should be the least of the Cardinals’ worries in 2018.

Overall, the offense should be decent, but starters two through five may create some bumps in the road as might Gregerson if he has another year like last year. This is a good roster with some flaws, leaving it a bit behind the division rival Cubs.

Prediction: 85-77, 2nd place in NL Central