The Cardinals Look Cooked

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

One of my menagerie of cats, a black cat named Cassiopeia, has a mortal enemy. Not the vacuum cleaner or an empty food bowl like my other cats, but a bright red cardinal that has been hanging around my backyard for quite a while. Cassie’s bête noire survives because she’s an indoor cat, but if for some reason Cassie ever gained access to the cardinal, that bird would be toast. The St. Louis Cardinals are in a not-dissimilar position. A stable, secure franchise for two decades, their careful planning and prudent measures have kept them away from the cat. But as things have gone wrong for the Cardinals over the last year, they’ve found themselves on a precarious perch, short of options other than unpleasant ones.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I talk positively about the long-term stability of the Cardinals. Before last year’s dreadful 71-91 campaign, the franchise had not been under .500 since 2007, and to find a season with more losses, you have to go all the way back to 1990, when this grumpy aging Gen X’er was a grumpy 12-year-old. Last year’s 4.54 ERA doesn’t sound particularly unusual for a lousy team, but it was for the Cards. The pitching staff’s 114 ERA- was the worst for the franchise in a full season (1994 was an even worse disaster, but a truncated one) since 1913.

All in all, this is an organization that even in rough years could never be described as a dumpster fire. And then last year happened. If we go through the Cardinals’ history of ZiPS projections, we can see a team that was a titan of above-average competence.

ZiPS Projected Wins – St. Louis Cardinals
Year Projected Wins Actual Wins
2005 98 100
2006 94 83
2007 84 78
2008 78 86
2009 87 91
2010 91 86
2011 83 90
2012 85 88
2013 85 97
2014 90 90
2015 86 100
2016 86 86
2017 85 83
2018 87 88
2019 86 91
2020 31 30
2021 86 90
2022 89 93
2023 91 71
2024 83 79 (Proj.)

This year, the Cardinals were projected to have a bit of a bounceback from 2023, but 83-79 should have served as a bit of a red flag, as only once had ZiPS projected a Cards team to finish with a worse record. The NL Central is one of the weakest divisions and the Cards are not a team in the middle of a rebuild, but one trying to win now. This was an organization that tried to go back to its usual playbook and retool carefully and conservatively. Sonny Gray was the highlight of the winter, signed to a three-year, $75 million contract, but the other signings were one-year stopgaps, either to patch holes in the rotation with no. 4 starters (Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson) or fill out the back of the depth chart (Brandon Crawford, Matt Carpenter, Keynan Middleton).

Staying the course may work as a long-term strategy when you’re dependably winning 87-93 games a year and your farm system is steadily reinforcing the parent club’s depth with unheralded prospects that end up being real contributors, like Lars Nootbaar, Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan, and Harrison Bader, among others. This strategy basically involved pretending 2023 didn’t happen, and it ignored a key aspect that also needed addressing: the team’s offense. While the lineup didn’t collapse as drastically as the pitching staff, the team finished 10th in the National League in runs scored, with three of its key contributors in their 30s (Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Willson Contreras). Yet the most significant move the Cardinals made with their position players this offseason was a subtraction, when they traded left fielder Tyler O’Neill to the Red Sox. The Cardinals certainly couldn’t have counted on the oft-injured O’Neill to stay healthy enough to be one of the most productive power hitters in the league, as he is right now with the Red Sox (.255/.366/.540, 11 HR, 146 wRC+, 1.1 WAR in 38 games entering Tuesday), but just to shed $6 million in salary, the trade cost St. Louis depth and upside that it no longer had to spare.

It was certainly within the realm of probability that the pitching triage would be effective and Arenado and Goldschmidt would play more like they had in 2022 than last year, but so far, that hasn’t been the case. And now the Cards face a serious problem: The expectations of their talent are simply a lot lower than they were a year ago, or even two months ago. To try to demonstrate this in a straightforward manner, I started with everyone projected to make one plate appearance or throw one inning in the majors the rest of the season. To me, that’s a realistic definition of the short-term talent a team intends to use. Then, I grouped each of these players by team. From there, using these groupings, I looked at each of the 30 teams’ projected WAR for 2025, as of Tuesday morning, and compared it to the 2025 outlooks from before the 2023 season and before the 2024 season. This list doesn’t make any accounting for free agents; I’m simply trying to get a feel for the trajectory of the talent each team has access to at this moment.

2025 Team Outlook by Projection Period
Team Before 2023 WAR Before 2024 Now Change, Before 2023 to Now Change, Before 2024 to Now
Arizona 52.1 61.6 62.5 10.4 0.9
Baltimore 55.6 60.7 65.5 9.9 4.8
Atlanta 57.6 64.8 67.2 9.6 2.5
Chicago (N) 50.8 58.4 59.0 8.2 0.6
Milwaukee 44.8 53.0 52.9 8.1 0.0
Pittsburgh 49.0 57.3 56.7 7.7 -0.6
Houston 57.7 61.8 64.1 6.4 2.3
Boston 43.6 49.1 49.9 6.3 0.9
Oakland 33.3 38.3 39.3 6.0 1.0
Miami 38.1 46.1 43.5 5.4 -2.5
Tampa Bay 48.9 57.2 52.5 3.7 -4.7
Minnesota 52.0 55.9 55.6 3.6 -0.2
Texas 53.9 57.9 56.7 2.8 -1.2
Cleveland 58.8 61.6 61.4 2.6 -0.2
Detroit 50.2 53.5 51.2 1.0 -2.3
San Francisco 51.3 52.2 52.3 1.0 0.0
Seattle 53.1 53.0 53.6 0.6 0.6
New York (A) 60.5 59.8 60.7 0.2 0.9
Cincinnati 45.1 48.8 45.3 0.2 -3.5
Los Angeles (N) 63.3 59.8 62.7 -0.6 2.9
Toronto 57.9 54.9 57.2 -0.8 2.3
Philadelphia 52.9 46.3 50.9 -1.9 4.6
San Diego 52.5 48.0 50.3 -2.2 2.3
Colorado 31.0 31.9 28.5 -2.5 -3.5
Kansas City 44.3 36.6 39.8 -4.5 3.2
Washington 35.8 31.2 31.1 -4.7 -0.1
Los Angeles (A) 39.0 33.0 33.6 -5.4 0.6
St. Louis 58.3 55.3 50.8 -7.5 -4.5
New York (N) 55.1 44.0 43.7 -11.5 -0.3
Chicago (A) 44.5 35.3 29.3 -15.2 -6.0

The absolute numbers don’t really matter here, so don’t read too much into them. Few teams, if any, will use the same number of players this season, so these projections are based on a varying amount of players for teams, depending on how each club deploys its roster. What does matter is the change in these numbers.

And, as you can see, the Cardinals have the third-largest dropoff in baseball, from before the 2023 season and before Opening Day this year to now. What’s going on here? The simple answer is that many of the players the Cardinals are relying on the most (Arenado, Goldschmidt, the injured Contreras, Gray, Lynn, and Gibson, among others) are in the decline stage of their careers.

Meanwhile, quick reinforcements from within are unlikely. Of the 11 pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings at Double-A or Triple-A, only Connor Thomas has a translated ERA in ZiPS under four. Perhaps more concerning, Thomas is the only one of the 11 whose projected 2025 ERA is better now than it was before this season began.

2025 ZiPS Projections – Cardinals Minor League Pitchers
Player 2025 ERA (Before 2024) 2025 ERA (Now) Difference
Connor Thomas 4.16 4.11 -0.05
Tink Hence 4.19 4.21 0.02
Trent Baker 4.98 5.05 0.07
Gordon Graceffo 4.34 4.45 0.11
Michael McGreevy 4.20 4.32 0.12
Ian Bedell 5.11 5.23 0.12
Sem Robberse 4.11 4.25 0.14
Victor Santos 4.33 4.49 0.15
Adam Kloffenstein 4.56 4.73 0.17
Max Rajcic 5.18 5.38 0.20
Tekoah Roby 4.21 4.42 0.21

The story is the same for the hitters. Entering Tuesday, 21 players in the high minors have at least 60 plate appearances, and even in that really small sample size, only two of them (José Fermín and Jimmy Crooks) have a translated OPS north of .750. More than half the players (12) have OPS translations below .600.

2025 ZiPS Projections – Cardinals Minor League Hitters
Player 2025 OPS (Pre-2024) 2025 OPS (Now) Diff
José Fermín .666 .700 .034
César Prieto .648 .674 .026
Nick Dunn .643 .662 .019
Bryan Torres .633 .652 .019
Matt Lloyd .512 .531 .019
Jeremy Rivas .546 .558 .012
Jared Young .691 .692 .001
Nathan Church .620 .613 -.007
Jimmy Crooks .671 .663 -.008
Nick Raposo .642 .630 -.012
Luken Baker .727 .710 -.017
Thomas Saggese .693 .676 -.017
Victor Scott II .644 .625 -.019
Jacob Buchberger .619 .600 -.019
Chris Rotondo .445 .423 -.022
Matt Koperniak .684 .661 -.023
Noah Mendlinger .664 .635 -.029
Alfonso Rivas III .692 .652 -.041
Moises Gomez .676 .632 -.044
Chandler Redmond .649 .605 -.044
R.J. Yeager .686 .641 -.045

Two-thirds of the hitters have seen their projections for 2025 get worse. Even more troubling is how few of these projected numbers are actually useful to a major league club. Only two hitters project with a .700 OPS in the majors in 2025, and only then just barely.

Further complicating matters is that the diminished projections haven’t been limited to veterans like Goldschmidt. Rather, they’re also the case for pretty much all of the core hitters on the roster who were expected to be “the next generation” of Cardinals. The departed O’Neill may have resuscitated his career with his 2024 so far, but after two injury-affected seasons, he had dropped in status from a player who was eighth in the NL MVP balloting in 2021 to one the Cardinals were happy to see go to save a little cash. Jordan Walker was demoted to Triple-A Memphis before the end of April, and while he’s hit somewhat better since then, a wRC+ of 111 down there is not impressive for a player whose contributions will almost entirely come on offense. Nolan Gorman’s hits this year have been softer than an erotic thriller edited for network television, resulting in 10 points shaved off his projected 2025 wRC+ (115 to 105). Dylan Carlson bears less responsibility for 2024 given the shoulder injury that cost him a month, but after bursting into the majors with a solid rookie season in 2021, he now looks like a fourth outfielder — if that.

Here’s what makes things even trickier for the Cardinals: Despite their 21-26 record and third-place standing, they’ve won six of their last eight games entering Wednesday — their game Tuesday night against the Orioles was suspended due to rain in the sixth inning with the score tied, 1-1 — and have an 19.1% probability to make the postseason, per our Depth Charts playoff odds. That certainly isn’t a great chance, but considering the lack of options to turn things around in time for short-term future seasons, it might be more appealing for the organization to stay the course with the hope of making an unlikely, but hardly impossible, playoff push than it would be to make a drastic decision now that might be more beneficial in the long run.

It’s worth mentioning that, as of Tuesday morning, ZiPS projected St. Louis to have a 15.3% playoff probability because ZiPS is normally more optimistic about the Cardinals than is Depth Charts. ZiPS generally factors in organizational depth more than DC does, and the Cardinals typically have excellent depth. This year, that is not the case. Additionally, even with the expectation that Goldschmidt and Arenado are likely to better the rest of the way than their early season performance, as well as the assumption that Contreras will come back strong from his brutal arm fracture, ZiPS projects the Cardinals to have the 11th-best offense in the National League for the remainder of the season. And the rotation projects no better, at 12th of the 15 NL teams. Amusingly, the bullpen may be the team’s strongest asset, a reversal of fortune from previous years.

In other words, the Cards could very well win 85 games and sneak into a wild card spot. But that’s the hope of a mediocre team, not a top contender. It’s a risky one, too; the prospect of having some chance of making the playoffs may keep the team willing to tread water, again trying to filibuster the decision of whether to push in all their chips or to fold their hand. If the Cardinals decide to punt, some of their players would still have value to other teams in a trade. Closer Ryan Helsley, lefty setup man JoJo Romero, Nootbaar, and Goldschmidt, assuming he starts to hit again, all could fetch significant prospects for the farm system. The 33-year-old Arenado would also net a nice return so long as the Cardinals would agree to pay a chunk of his remaining salary. (After this season, he’ll make $52 million over the final three years of his contract.) Or, if St. Louis wants to double down and try to win in 2025 without selling before the deadline, there are some enticing players who will be free agents after the season, such as Corbin Burnes, Max Fried, Pete Alonso, and – dare I say – Juan Soto. But the organization’s track record suggests that neither of these approaches is likely; the Cardinals don’t tear everything down, and they don’t play at the top of the free agent market.

As things stand, time is not on the organization’s side. When I project the results for the NL Central in 2025 and 2026, using each team’s in-system talent and therefore not accounting for potential future moves, the Cardinals continue to slide relative to the other teams in the division. In fact, St. Louis is the only one of the five teams that has a worse projection for 2026 projection than it does for 2024. The system-only projection for 2025 pegs the Cardinals to win only 79 games, followed by 77 wins for 2026. In these projections, the young pitching in the high minors would replace the team’s current starters, except for Gray, but Hence is the only one who projects to have a high ceiling. Meanwhile, on offense, ZiPS projects the team to continue to get almost nothing from the farm. That’s a problem for many reasons, but one of the most immediate ones is that Goldschmidt, who turns 37 in September, will be a free agent after the season. Even if he isn’t as bad as he’s looked so far this year, it’s unlikely that he’ll be as good as he once was in the future; recognizing this, it would make sense for the Cardinals to move on from him. Except, because of their uninspiring hitting prospects, the Cardinals don’t have a good option to replace even a diminished version of Goldschmidt. Walker and Gorman are natural third basemen, so one of them could take over for Arenado if the Cardinals trade him, but that would open up a hole somewhere else on their roster that would need to be filled by players who aren’t good enough to replace the lost production.

The Cards have long been one of the most competent organizations in the league. But at the moment, steadiness looks like indecision and conservatism looks meek. My cat Cassie will never get the chance to catch her cardinal, but there’s a very real possibility that the predators in the NL Central have successfully captured theirs.





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.

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markjdmember
23 days ago

What a clincher! I give it an A.