Picking the team that will surprise us in the upcoming season is difficult. Trying to predict which team will reach the playoffs after missing the previous year is often a whim and a coin flip and hoping not to look foolish seven months later.
This year, the National League has grown even more challenging, and though five teams will reach the postseason, there are probably somewhere around 10 with a strong chance to take one of those spots. But among the group that missed the playoffs in 2018, the team most likely to get back to October baseball is the Cardinals.
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St. Louis has been almost perennially in the postseason since 2000, but the Cards have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons. That hasn’t happened since 1997-1999. The Cardinals have posted winning records in each of the past three seasons, but in a division dominated by the Cubs and Brewers since 2016, a winning record hasn’t been enough.
The NL Central is not going to be much easier in 2019, but the Cardinals have made the right kinds of changes and are set to end their playoff dry spell. Here’s how they’ll do it.
Item one is Paul Goldschmidt. In an offseason when attention was dominated by Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, the Cardinals trading for Goldschmidt in early December didn’t get nearly as much attention as it should’ve. The first baseman, who debuted in 2011 and has been with the Diamondbacks his entire career, has 36.3 fWAR so far and has yet to show any real signs of slowing down, despite being 31. The consensus among projection systems seems to be that Goldschmidt will be worth somewhere around 4 or 5 wins above replacement this year. Even at the low end, this represents a significant upgrade for the Cardinals because of the depth it creates in allowing Matt Carpenter to shift to third base on a more full-time basis, and for Jose Martinez to spend more time in the outfield. It helps, too, that Goldschmidt has hit .353 in his career against the arch-rival Cubs and .337 with a 1.011 OPS at Wrigley Field.
A few weeks after trading for Goldschmidt, the Cardinals also added reliever Andrew Miller in free agency via a two-year, $25 million deal with an option for 2021. There’s more risk involved in signing Miller, even though he was arguably one of the best relief pitchers in baseball just a year or two ago. They’re banking on his best years not being behind him. Hamstring, knee and shoulder problems limited him to just 34 innings in 2018 and probably hindered his performance when on the active roster. His ERA hadn’t been much above 2.00 since 2013, and then last season it bloated to 4.24 thanks to a decreased strikeout rate and a hard contact rate that jumped from 24.4 percent in 2017 to 41.4 percent last year. But assuming that Miller stays healthy in 2019, he can play a major role in getting St. Louis back to the postseason.
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Otherwise, the Cardinals will likely benefit from resurgent years from outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler. Ozuna, who they acquired in a December 2017 trade with the Marlins, played reasonably well in 2018, hitting 23 home runs and batting .280, but his OPS of .780 was a sizable drop from the career-high .924 he posted with Miami the previous season. Even if Ozuna can find a happy medium between his 2017 and 2018 performances, the Cardinals will benefit mightily.
As for Fowler, any increase on what he did last season will be a victory. After performing small wonders for the Cubs in 2015 and 2016 in the leadoff spot, Fowler signed with the Cardinals before the 2017 season and hit .264 with a .363 on-base percentage for St. Louis. And then last season he disappeared. Fowler hit .180 and was done for the season in early August. His work ethic was questioned by Cardinals president of operations John Mozeliak in early July, and weeks later Fowler was placed on the disabled list and eventually shelved for the remainder of 2018. This offseason, he has worked with Barry Bonds and comes into the season with fresh optimism. The Cardinals will need him to make good on that.
The rest of the offense will also benefit from the continued production of outfielder Harrison Bader and shortstop Paul DeJong. Bader played his first full season in 2018 and was worth 3.5 fWAR, and even with a normal dip in production, he will remain a key piece this year. DeJong is in a similar spot, having spent almost all of 2018 with the Cardinals and worth 3.3 fWAR in that time. DeJong’s bat and defense at shortstop will be an important part of the St. Louis lineup.
The starting rotation has some questions, namely with the health of Carlos Martinez’s shoulder and whether 37-year-old Adam Wainwright can stay healthy enough to be the back end of the starting corps, but 23-year-old Jack Flaherty looks poised to hold up the top of the rotation this year. The bullpen looks to be more of a strength in 2019 with Miller and fireballer Jordan Hicks as anchors.
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Make no mistake, though, the NL Central is not going to be easy. Projections have varied on what the Cubs might do in 2019, but at their best they remain a menace. And the Brewers, who missed a trip to the World Series last year by one game, have improved — at least on paper — and will likely continue to be a threat. Oh, and the Reds had a rather dramatic offseason. Probably not enough to make a real run at the playoffs, but plenty enough to make the division even more of a crucible.
But with the concentration of power in the National League set between the Central and East divisions, look for the Cardinals to grab a wild-card spot in 2019 and end their brief playoff drought.
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