Monday, July 20, 2020

St. Louis Cardinals 2020 Season Preview


       The Cardinals had a big offseason entering 2019, and acquired themselves a six-time all-star, and they still weren't the favorites to win the NL Central. Now, the Cardinals have some separation in the division after an NLCS visit, but it is still a long way from the end of the season, and the Cards could easily regress.

       Offseason additions: IF Brad Miller, OF Austin Dean, LHP Kwang-hyun Kim

       Offseason subtractions: OF Marcell Ozuna, OF Jose Martinez, RHP Michael Wacha, IF Yairo Munoz, RHP Dominic Leone, OF Randy Arozarena, LHP Chase Shreve.

       Rotation
The best part of the season last year for the Cardinals might have been Jack Flaherty's transformation into a bona fide ace. Flaherty had a 4.17 ERA entering the final two months of the season, but he had a 0.71 ERA in August, and a 0.82 ERA in September to lower his final ERA to 2.75 on the year, finishing 4th in Cy Young voting. Flaherty led the league with a 0.968 WHIP and a 6.2 H/9, and he had 231 Ks in 196 innings. Flaherty's slider had a .153 xBA against, plus a whiff rate of 46.1%. After signing a four year, $68 million extension, Miles Mikolas regressed, as he allowed seven more hits than he did in 2018, but pitched in 16.2 less innings. Mikolas went from leading the NL in wins with 18 in 2018 to leading the league in losses with 14 in 2019. His ERA also dropped off from 2.83 to 4.16. Mikolas struck out 144 batters in 184 innings pitched. Mikolas has a career BB% of just 3.9 percent. Dakota Hudson had a very good rookie season, finishing 5th in NL Rookie of the Year voting, with a 3.35 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 174.2 innings. Hudson does have a walk issue, allowing a league-high 86 base on balls in 2019. Adam Wainwright is back for his 15th season as a Cardinal. Wainwright's 2019 might have been his best season since he was a Cy Young finalist in 2014. Wainwright, who will turn 39 during the season, had a 4.19 ERA with 153 strikeouts in 171.2 innings, although his 1.2 HR/9 was the highest of his career. Wainwright's infamous curveball is still potent, and while it had an improved 2749 rpm spin rate, it got less swing-and-misses (percentage, not total number) and had a worse average than it did in Wainwright's eight starts in 2018. The Cardinals could move Carlos Martinez back to starter, without a definitive 5th starter, but he is needed at closer after Jordan Hicks opted out. However, they signed Japanese veteran Kwang-Hyun Kim to a two-year deal, and Kim will likely win out the job. Kim, who will be 32 by Opening Day, had a 2.51 ERA with 180 strikeouts in 190.1 innings for the SK Wyverns, his KBO team since he was 18.

       Bullpen
The pen was St. Louis' strong point in 2019, although after Jordan Hicks opted-out and John Brebbia had Tommy John surgery, it has been weakened. Martinez is the best option to close, and he did so while Hicks was out for a good portion of 2019. Last year was the first year in that Martinez did not start in a game in his seven year MLB career. Martinez had a 3.17 ERA, and struck out 53 batters in 48.1 innings, and made 24 saves. Martinez's fastball was up to an average of 96.6 mph, his highest since 2016. Giovanny Gallegos made the Luke Voit trade not as bad last year, becoming a set-up man with a 2.31 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 74 innings. Gallegos also had a 0.811 WHIP, and while he may not be ready for Opening Day after COVID-related concerns, Gallegos will be welcomed, especially after a season with a .187 xBA against. Andrew Miller has closing experience with the Yankees and saved six games last year, so he could be an option to close if Martinez starts. Miller's 1st season with the Cardinals was his worst since 2011. He had an ERA of 4.45 with 70 strikeouts, and he also allowed a career high 11 home runs. It was the first time in his career where Miller was often used as a one-out reliever, pitching in 54.2 innings despite appearing in 73 games. Miller had an xSLG of .288 over the past five years. The Cardinals moved John Gant to the bullpen full-time, and he had another successful season, with a 3.66 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 66.1 innings. Gant's 6.9 H/9 and 8.1 K/9 were both improvements on his previous two seasons in St. Louis. He had a barrel allowed percentage of just 2.9%. Tyler Webb continued his strong end to 2018 with a nice 2019, pitching in a career high 55 innings, with a 3.76 ERA and 48 strikeouts. Webb allowed an average exit velocity of just 86.6 mph. Ryan Helsley, a 26 year old with a fastball averaging nearly 98 miles per hour, debuted in 2019, with a 2.95 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 36.2 innings. Helsley's fastball had a 2509 rpm spin rate last year. Daniel Ponce de Leon has started games for the Cardinals over the last two seasons, but he will come out of the bullpen in 2020. Ponce de Leon had a 3.70 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 48.2 innings in 13 games (eight starts). Batters were 1-for-17 in at-bats ending with Ponce de Leon's curveball. Lefty Brett Cecil missed all of 2019 with a wrist injury. While Cecil was productive from 2013 to 2017, his 2018 was his worst year, finishing with a 6.89 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 32.2 innings. Even then Cecil's fastball velocity was under 90 miles per hour, and it is even more concerning now. Another lefty who did not pitch in the majors last year is Austin Gomber. In 29 games (11 starts) in 2018, Gomber had a 4.44 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 75 innings. In the minors last year, Gomber was limited to just 11 starts due to injury, but he did strike out 52 batters in 45.1 innings. Junior Fernandez is ranked as the club's 10th best prospect. Fernandez debuted last year, with 16 strikeouts in 11.2 innings, allowing seven earned runs. Fernandez had 80 strikeouts with a 1.52 ERA in 65 innings in the minor leagues last season. Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes are both unlikely to be healthy for Opening Day, but should return soon. Cabrera, who is just ahead of Fernandez as MLB Pipeline's 9th best Cardinal prospect, throws a high-90s fastball and made his debut last year, even after a disappointing AAA season. Reyes was once a top prospect in the major leagues, but multiple injuries have led to Reyes pitching in seven major league innings over the past three years. Reyes was awful in his short AAA stint last year before getting hurt again, with a 7.39 ERA in 28 innings. Almost 26 years old, time is running out for Reyes to be the elite pitcher he was projected to be.

       Catchers
Yadier Molina is still a big part of the Cardinals team. While he has only hit 20 home runs twice and has a career .738 OPS, Molina is a nine-time all-star, because he has won nine Gold Gloves. Entering his 17th MLB season, the future for Yadi is uncertain, as he is a free agent after the season, but the Cardinals will bring him back if he wants to play, and the catcher who has never played in under 110 games (not counting 2004, when he wasn't called up until June) will want to play. Molina hit .270 with 10 home runs last year, and even stole six bases. Molina struck out just 12.8% of the time. Prospect Andrew Knizer will likely take over the backup job eventually, but for now, Matt Wieters still has it locked down. In his first year with the Cardinals, the four time all-star hit 11 home runs in 67 games.

       Infielders
Paul Goldschmidt's first season with the Cardinals can be seen as a disappointment. Goldschmidt did hit 34 home runs, but for the first time since 2012 he was not an all-star. Goldschmidt's 78 walks were his lowest since his 109 game 2014, and he saw a 30 point drop-off in batting average, down to .260, and his OPS of .821 was a 101 point difference from his 2018 mark. It isn't too concerning yet, and Goldschmidt is still a really good defensive first baseman, with five outs above average. Kolten Wong finally showed what the Cardinals were looking for over the past five years. Wong hit 11 home runs with 24 stolen bases, plus a .285 average and a .784 OPS. Wong repeated his 11 outs above average from 2018, and won his first Gold Glove. Wong doesn't hit the ball hard, with an average exit velocity of 86.2 mph last year. Paul DeJong hit 30 home runs, and most people did not notice. That could be due to the fact that DeJong didn't have any other stats that really stood out, with a .318 OBP, and a .762 OPS. Like Goldschmidt and Wong, DeJong is a great defender, with 13 outs above average, a major improvement from his -5 in 2018. Matt Carpenter has showed his flexibility over the years, moving from second base to third base, to first base and then back to third. Carpenter regressed offensively after a 36 home run 2018, finishing with only 15, plus a .226 average and an OPS of .726. Carpenter's six stolen bases last year was a career high. Carpenter has always walked a lot, with a 14.4 BB% over the past five years. Although he is a good fielder like the other Cardinals infielders, Carpenter could see time at DH with utility infielder Tommy Edman needing a spot in the lineup. Edman had a very successful rookie season, with 11 home runs, 15 stolen bases, a .304 average and an .850 OPS in 92 games. Edman had five outs above average combined, mostly between second and third base, plus right field. Edman had a great sprint speed of 29.4 ft/s. Veteran infielder Brad Miller hit 13 home runs with an .894 OPS for the Indians and Phillies last year, and he can play all four infield positions, and probably the outfield if the Cardinals need him to. Miller had an average exit velocity of 92.6 mph last year. The final spot is between Rangel Ravelo and Edmundo Sosa. Ravelo could replace Jose Martinez as the power hitting pinch hitter. Ravelo, who can also play first base, hit two home runs in 29 games last year. Ravelo hit 12 home runs with a .299 average and an .856 OPS in AAA. For two weeks, he could be more valuable than Sosa, an infielder who has played in the MLB in the last two years, but has made just 10 at-bats. Sosa hit 17 home runs with an .801 OPS for AAA Memphis.

       Outfielders
After an awful 2018, with a .180 average in 90 games, Dexter Fowler rebounded, hitting a career high 19 home runs, with eight stolen bases, his most in his three years in St. Louis. Fowler had a .754 OPS, and -1 DRS, an improvement from the last two seasons. Harrison Bader is a good defender, with 14 defensive runs saved in center field last year. At the plate, Bader was below average, with an OPS of .680. He hit 12 home runs with 11 stolen bases. Tyler O'Neill has great AAA numbers, but he has never been a great MLB player. In 60 games last year, O'Neill hit five home runs with a .262 average and an OPS of .723. He is fighting with Lane Thomas for the starting left field job, and O'Neill could also see time at third base. Thomas debuted in 2019, and was a pleasant surprise, playing all three outfield positions, and hitting .316 with an OPS of 1.093. Thomas is younger than O'Neill by almost exactly two months. The Cardinals acquired Austin Dean from Miami during the offseason. Dean hit six home runs with a .665 OPS. Dean has been great at the AAA level, hitting 18 home runs with a .337 average and a 1.036 OPS in 73 games for New Orleans last year.

       Projected Opening Day Lineup
2B Kolten Wong (L)
SS Paul DeJong (R)
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
DH Matt Carpenter (L)
RF Dexter Fowler (S)
C Yadier Molina (R)
LF Lane Thomas (R)
3B Tommy Edman (R)
CF Harrison Bader (R)

       Projected Rotation
Jack Flaherty (R)
Miles Mikolas (R)
Dakota Hudson (R)
Adam Wainwright (R)
Kwang-Hyun Kim (L)

       Projected Bullpen
Carlos Martinez (R)
Giovanny Gallegos (R)
Andrew Miller (L)
John Gant (R)
Tyler Webb (L)
Ryan Helsley (R)
Daniel Ponce de Leon (R)
Austin Gomber (L)
Brett Cecil (L)
Junior Fernandez (R)
Genesis Cabrera (L)

       Projected Bench
C Matt Wieters (S)
IF Brad Miller (L)
1B Rangel Ravelo (R)
OF Tyler O'Neill (R)
OF Austin Dean (R)

Baseball-Reference OOTP Simulator Stats
60-41 record, 1st in NL Central
Most home runs: Paul DeJong (21)
Highest batting average: Tommy Edman (.317)
Highest OPS: Paul DeJong (.854)
Best ERA, starters: Jack Flaherty (2.70)
Best ERA, relievers: Ryan Helsley (2.89)
Most innings pitched: Jack Flaherty (130.0)
Most strikeouts: Jack Flaherty (170)
Best K/9: Jack Flaherty (11.8)

Record through 60 games, last five seasons:
2019: 31-29
2018: 33-27
2017: 28-32
2016: 32-28
2015: 39-21

       Prediction
The Cardinals' bullpen is what got them to the playoffs last year, with Jack Flaherty in the rotation being an automatic win for the final two months. The defense helped them as well, but the lineup and the end of the rotation is what lost them games. The rotation, now with Kim, is more complete after Michael Wacha brought it down. The lineup isn't much better, but it is serviceable, and almost everyone can be a starter or at least a bench player on every team. The Cardinals will dominate a weakened NL Central, but fall in the NLDS to the Dodgers.

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