NL Central Preview: Aided by a Lower Power, Cardinals are Team to Beat
2014 record 90-72, 1st in Central
2015 projection 89-73, 1st in Central (Based on PECOTA)
Matt Carpenter 3B
Kolten Wong 2B
Matt Holliday LF
Matt Adams 1B
Jason Heyward RF
Yadier Molina C
Jhonny Peralta SS
Jon Jay CF
Mark Reynolds 1B/3B, Peter Bourjos OF, Randal Grichuk OF, Pete Kozma SS/2B, Tony Cruz C
RHP Seth Maness, LHP Sam Freeman, LHP Tyler Lyons, RHP Matt Belisle, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, RHP Jordan Walden (one spot for a loser of the rotation battle)
Why they will win
Don’t they always win? The Cardinals have won the division two years in a row and have made the playoffs five of the last six years. Over the course of that time, they’ve averaged just slightly more than 90 wins per year. The Cards are adding Jason Heyward, who will be playing to earn a mega-deal with his pending free agency. They’re returning all of the everyday starters from 2014, and they have several good hitters in the middle of their lineup.
Yadier Molina missed significant time with an injury last season, but he’s the heart and soul of this team. He’s a solid hitter, having slashed .282/.333/.386 last year, but it’s all about the ability behind the plate with Yadi. He may no longer be as good a defender as his reputation would lead you to believe, but he’s still very good. Granted, he only played 110 games, but he only had three passed balls and caught 48% of attempted steals. He’s routinely near the top of the league in framing, as well.
Matt Adams had a strong season last year, posting a .288/.321/.457 slash line in 563 plate appearances. Kolten Wong had an up and down season, but flashed some of his potential in the playoffs against the Giants with home runs in games 2 and 4 of the NLCS. They have strong veteran leadership and players that have been there before, so nothing should phase this team.
The back end of the bullpen is fairly strong, with Rosenthal racking up the K’s and the addition of Walden. The bench is improved with the addition of a veteran hitter in Reynolds, and it should help that guys like Bourjos and Grichuk are now extra outfielders and not guys you are relying on to be in the lineup every day. With Yadi healthy, along with a fully healthy Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, the Cardinals roll into 2015 as a clear favorite to win the division.
Why they won’t win
Of the handful of established hitters in the Cardinals lineup, Molina will be 32 this year, Matt Holliday 35, and Jhonny Peralta 33. Molina was hurt a portion of last year, and Holliday has already begun to exhibit signs of a dropoff in production. After posting a .888 OPS from 2011-2013, he put up just .811 in 2014. Peralta is coming off a strong season, but it would be tough to expect him to replicate it as he moves past his prime years.
The Cards signed Matt Carpenter to an extension before last season after an excellent 2013, but that was his first full season as a starter and it was at age 27. He hit .318/.392/.481, but also posted a .359 BABIP. His BABIP dropped to a much more normal .318 in 2014 and his slash line adjusted accordingly, to .272/.375/.375. He had a solid season by most measures, but he’s a question mark going into his third full season because we don’t really know if he will bounce back, hold steady, or continue to regress.
Have you noticed I haven’t mentioned the pitching? The ace of the staff is Adam Wainwright, and he’s one of the best pitchers in the NL. But he’s going to be 33 this season, has some history with elbow issues, and has averaged 222 IP per year over the last three seasons. Lance Lynn got an extension this offseason after seeing his ERA improve from 3.78 in 2012 and 3.94 in 2013 to 2.74 in 2014. However, over those same years his FIP held even at 3.49, 3.28, and 3.35, respectively. You could make an argument that Lynn was pitching above his head.
The Cards also have, as of right now, a surprising lack of proven depth in the rotation. Other than Wainwright, Lynn, and 36-year-old John Lackey, no other healthy pitcher on the roster has started a full season in the Major Leagues. Jaime Garcia started a full season back in 2011, but it’s hard to expect a huge contribution there. Michael Wacha has some potential, but when he wasn’t being put in an unfair situation by his clueless manager he was riding the pine in the bullpen or residing on the DL. He needs to develop a third pitch or he won’t be anything more than a number 3 or 4 pitcher. The pitching on this team is very good at the top, but they’re one injury away from an ugly situation.
The bullpen is kind of the same story. While they have several good arms, they’d likely be in significant trouble if Rosenthal and Walden missed any stretch of time. While you could argue that any team losing their best two relievers would be doomed, I’d point out that you could remove any two relievers from the Cubs bullpen and still find enough power arms to get by. The Cards don’t have a lot of depth hiding behind the guys they will be relying on in 2015.
Player(s) to watch
Jaime Garcia has only started 36 games over the last three seasons due to shoulder problems. He’s going to get a chance to win the fifth starter job, and, because of reasons I’ve mentioned previously, they need him to do just that. Before the injuries started, Garcia put up a 3.36 ERA over 80 starts from 2010-2012.
Marco Gonzales should also get a shot at that final spot in the rotation, even if he’s somewhat of a dark horse candidate. The 22-year-old lefty is a top prospect and he may play a big role in the bullpen if that’s where he starts the season.
Kolten Wong has loads of talent and, as I mentioned before, he flashed that talent in the NLCS. I’d expect his overall numbers to improve and that he’ll develop into one of the best second basemen in the NL.
Fun with numbers
In 2014, the Cards were 62-47 in games that Yadier Molina started in 2014 and 28-25 in games that he sat.
Matt Adams had a .854 OPS against righties and .528 OPS against lefties.
The Cardinals only scored 16 more runs than they allowed, which creates an expected record of 83-79.
I hate predicting when it comes to the Cardinals, because I always feel like I overrate them intentionally. It’s probably some part coping mechanism, as well as knowing that if I pick them to finish in third place I’ll never hear the end of it when they win the division. That said, as currently constructed I think they have an 83-87 win roster. However, I like to use a scientific formula I call “The Devil Magic Algorithm,” which essentially takes the Redbirds’ expected record and adds five wins.
So I’ll say they win somewhere between 88-92 games and finish first in the Central division in 2015.