For all the ups and downs of St. Louis’ 2018 season, the team finished with an 88-74 record, fully in that 85-90 win-window that forms the team’s bog-standard result. The Cardinals made it interesting over the summer after the merciful guillotining of manager Mike Matheny, but a bleak September left them a distant third in the NL Central.
Some teams are wild gamblers, throwing caution and giant wads of money to the wind, hoping to end up as either spectacular successes or failures that are quickly forgotten as attentions shift to the next crazy scheme. The St. Louis Cardinals stand in opposition to that. They are the safe, sensible team that reminds you on nickel-shots night that you have work tomorrow and really should stop for the evening because the chair you’re talking to isn’t actually W.C. Fields.
St. Louis builds from within, signs reasonable players to reasonable contracts, and when a beloved franchise player hits free agency, won’t spend exorbitantly to chase crazy bids. Even Albert Pujols, the team’s soul for a decade, was allowed to move on when the numbers got too uncomfortably high.
That’s not to say the Cardinals don’t make moves, but rather, that they make reasonable ones. Marcell Ozuna, coming off a .312/.376/.548 breakout campaign with the Marlins, was the team’s big offseason pickup, one that didn’t demand the team’s crown jewels. And with Ozuna in tow, giving the Cardinals an easy Ozuna-Tommy Pham–Dexter Fowler outfield rather than the juggling act of recent years, the team felt comfortable enough to trade Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk to claw back some of the value given to the Marlins.
Another quiet move was the signing of former Padres relief prospect Miles Mikolas to a two-year, $15.5 million contract after he was reinvented as a harder-throwing Bob Tewksbury for the Yomiuri Giants. It was another sensible move compared to the prospect of overpaying for one of the multitude of third-tier starters otherwise found in a weak free agent market.
For a smart, well-run team with a knack for punching above their market size, there was always a worry on the horizon stemming from the team’s longtime rival, the Chicago Cubs. Being safe and sensible was a better playbook when the Cubs were in their Jim Hendry years or during the long rebuilding phase; there was no heavy in the division that could use cash to suffocate St. Louis’s measured approach.
But the Cubs happened, a team with the unfortunate tendency of being rich while also not being completely insane with their money. A Jason Heyward-size error would have really hurt St. Louis’s flexibility but the Cubs could seemingly say “Nah, it’s cool, bro, that wasn’t even our favorite Scrooge McDuck vault of gold coins.”
Even in a 2017 season when everything went wrong, the Cubs still won 92 games, enough to win the NL Central by six games. Could a high-floor, low-ceiling St. Louis team full of three-win players really provide a consistent threat to the Cubs? Or would the Cardinals be better served by taking a little more risk, given their division? That was the key uncertainty as the team entered 2018.
This question was precisely what worried ZiPS going into the season. With a 94-win projection for the Cubs, ZiPS only gave the Cardinals and Brewers about a combined one-in-three shot of catching Chicago. St. Louis’ 87 forecasted wins looked a lot like the typical Cardinals season; that aforementioned 85-90 wins that has led the team to consistent contend for a playoff spot while never really being spoken of as an elite team.
The team started the season with Adam Wainwright on the disabled list with a hamstring pull, but St. Louis had already moved on from the days when they counted on Wainwright being in the rotation. Jack Flaherty, the eventual fifth-place Rookie of the Year finisher, filled in. Wainwright struggled upon his return, but the rest of the starters pitched as well as could have been expected, combining for a 3.00 ERA through the end of May, the third-best in baseball behind the Astros and Nationals.
Until the final month of the season, when St. Louis struggled in a variety of interesting ways, the rotation held up admirably, with little fault attached during the year’s doldrums. Wainwright was back on the DL by the end of April with elbow problems and Michael Wacha’s oblique strain ended his season in June, though he was set to return in September before a setback. But Flaherty was already a superior option to Wainwright and John Gant and Austin Gomber picked up most of the rest of the missing starts; the starting pitching was never really a serious problem.
The offense, on the other hand, was a regular problem. Matt Carpenter started out heat-death-of-the-universe cold, but while he heated up to a blazing MVP-like level for the middle months of the season, other pieces who were expected to contribute, like Ozuna and Fowler, largely didn’t.
Except for a brief period at the top of the division in May, after a fun week in which they swept both Chicago teams, the team hovered around the .500 mark for most of the first half. Milwaukee was the team to take advantage of Chicago not putting away the division early, which resulted in a great deal of tension surrounding St. Louis, something that’s fairly unusual for a Cardinals team.
Pham had already expressed displeasure with his contract situation before the season — the unfortunate result of being a late bloomer scheduled to hit free agency right before his age-34 season. Fowler and John Mozeliak publicly traded barbs and while the latter clarified his comments in the press, there were indications bubbling to the surface that manager Mike Matheny had lost the team.
Matheny was always kind of an oddball fit for the Cardinals; an old-school style manager they hoped would embrace at least some analytics and handle the team, and especially the pitching staff, well. The latter characteristic matched his reputation as a veteran catcher.
The analytics-embracing never really happened and Matheny was a fairly poor in-game tactician, who generally ran his bullpen in a manner that could most kindly be described as slapdash. But he generally kept past teams together and had gotten results.
With the clubhouse melting down, Matheny fighting with the media, and incidents such as tacitly allowing Bud Norris to bully Jordan Hicks marring the season, the argument for keeping Matheny evaporated quickly.
I’m usually skeptical of the idea of managerial changes being a big reason for a team’s sudden improvement, but things in St. Louis calmed down quickly once Mike Shildt took over the job on an interim basis, performing well enough to lose the interim tag just six weeks after he inherited the job. The public infighting quickly stopped and the team went on a tear, going 28-13 through the end of August.
Gone was Pham, traded to the Rays at the deadline, a destination likely to please him even less from a financial perspective; Harrison Bader and his shockingly good glove were given centerfield. Also out was Greg Holland, who pitched so poorly in 2018 that even Matheny noticed and stopped using him in high-leverage situations.
In the midst of their best run of the season, Shildt showed little resistance to using the team’s secondary talents. Pitchers like Gomber, Tyson Ross, and Daniel Poncedeleon assumed more flexible roles, a drastic change from Matheny’s rigid pitcher usage.
September, though, was a tough one. The rotation had its first really weak stretch, with a 4.60 ERA and a 4.72 FIP, and the offense once again fell back to the middle of the pack, with a 90 wRC+ for the month. Carpenter dropped out of the MVP conversation almost completely, with a .170/.313/.245 line for the month. Ozuna was the only player on the team with an .800 OPS. The bullpen, though never the team’s strong suit, had shown some life tapping into the team’s Triple-A depth but regressed to a 4.99 FIP.
Going into the last week of the season, the Cardinals actually had a game-and-a-half lead over the Colorado Rockies for the second wild card spot. The team controlled their destiny, but then lost five of the last six games to the Brewers and Cubs by a 39-20 scoring margin.
What Comes Next?
One interesting thing about the Cardinals is that there’s a very real sense the team is willing to be more aggressive this winter, especially financially, than they have in the past. While they aren’t going to shout “Hey, we have $400 million, make us an offer,” I suspect that at a minimum, the team will contemplating entering the Bryce Harper or Manny Machado sweepstakes.
The Cardinals are a hard team to upgrade in that they’re just so solid in most places. The starting lineup is deep enough that, outside of Dexter Fowler, they really need to be exciting to justify the term. Taking a chance on Josh Donaldson is one of those moves that does have interesting upside, but the rest of the market’s second-tier should be rather uninteresting, at least as it concerns the lineup. It may seem a stretch for St. Louis to spend more than twice what they’ve ever spent on a player contract, but remember, they were a team connected with Giancarlo Stanton, and reportedly made a significant offer to David Price when the pitcher was a free agent.
Where second-tier free agents could prove more useful is the bullpen. While the pen has never really been as bad as advertised — many fans think the team’s relievers were Old Testament-bad — but the team could use a left-handed pitcher like Andrew Miller or Zach Britton and the stakes are high-enough that there’s an argument for overpaying a bit.
Early ZiPS Projection – Miles Mikolas
Given that Nippon Professional Baseball is a high-level league, Mikolas didn’t exactly come out of nowhere; he wouldn’t have been given a $7 million contract with a career 5.32 MLB ERA and no prospect pedigree if he had. But he’s also a pitcher who allows a lot of contact for someone who can hit 95 MPH with a slider that will be given a lot more respect the second go-around.
Despite the foreboding introduction, ZiPS is actually quite optimistic Mikolas’s regression still leaves him as a solid number two starter. A few more home runs come out in the projections, but ZiPS also sees a bump in his strikeout rate and top-notch control. Though not directly shown here, ZiPS also sees a lot more upside in his strikeout rate than downside; Mikolas obviously doesn’t throw as hard as Hicks, but he isn’t Jered Weaver either.
One last pedantic note: Mikolas will be a free agent after the 2019 season, not after 2022 as you would expect from a pitcher with his service time. Mikolas came to St. Louis as a pure free agent and the team agreed to him becoming a free agent at the end of his contract rather than entering the arbitration track like most three-year players. So the Lizard King gets to hit the open market fairly quickly after a terrific “rookie” season.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.