St. Louis Cardinals
Overview (Present Rank: 11th | Future Rank: 6th)
The St. Louis Cardinals have been viewed as the role model franchise for MLB teams since the dawn of the 21st century. Only the high-spending New York Yankees have more wins since 2001, but even the Bronx Bombers are envious of the Cardinals’ two World Series victories in this millennium. While Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, and Yadier Molina have fueled St. Louis’ new-born success in the 2000's, it’s the front office that deserves credit for continuously scouting and developing the talent that has accomplished 15 winning seasons in 16 years.
Pujols is wearing a Los Angeles Angels jersey nowadays while both Wainwright and Molina are on the decline. Thanks to GM John Mozeliak's front office, the Cards are still stocked with future stars such as Matt Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, and Carlos Martinez. The Chicago Cubs have overtaken St. Louis as the MLB’s next dynasty under Joe Maddon, but Mike Matheny’s squad can never be counted out as five consecutive playoff appearances speaks for itself. Amongst the numerous National League teams capable of playoff contention in 2016, the Cards will need to see a lot of things go right for them to increase that number to six.
*Detailed analysis conducted April 3, 2016; rankings and charts updated throughout the season.
The St. Louis Cardinals have one of the most stable catching situations in the league with seven-time All-Star Yadier Molina leading the ship. Molina has earned the last eight National League Gold Gloves for a catcher as a defensive mastermind behind the plate. While Molina’s offensive production is going downhill, he remains the best defensive catcher in baseball. The 33 year-old still has three more years until his contract expires. Considering the Cardinals have no standout long-term alternatives, Molina will likely retire as a Cardinal extending the relationship past 2018.
While he’s not an elite performer, Carson Kelly could emerge as a viable candidate for the starting role if Molina were to depart elsewhere during free agency in 2018. Kelly hasn’t shown much at the plate yet, but he’s still just 21 years-old with a second round pick background. Kelly has raw power that he hasn’t yet tapped into. His strong arm helps him throw out baserunners at a high clip while his receiving/blocking abilities have gotten good reviews. Kelly could become Molina’s primary backup in 2018 giving the team a first-hand look at Molina’s possible replacement if they don’t extend the long-time Cardinal.
Future Outlook: No more “Name that Molina”
For years, the Molina brothers (Yadier, Bengie, and Jose) were all below average catchers that were only relevant because of their brothers. Once upon a time, Bleacher Report even created a game show trying to “Name that Molina!” Almost a decade later, Bengie and Jose’s name can’t even be said in the same sentence as Yadier. The youngest brother of the three has emerged as an elite defensive catcher that was also one of the most productive offensive players in the league for three straight years. He still puts up solid offensive numbers with excellent defensive skills behind the plate. As he gets the older, the Cardinals must decide to stick with their franchise catcher or move on to the next in line: Carson Kelly.
While catcher has been a stable position for St. Louis, first base has been a weakness ever since ‘The Machine’ Albert Pujols departed for LA five years ago. The Cards haven’t been able to win a World Series without Pujols and the drop off in first base production could be a reason why. Allen Craig put up good numbers as a part-time first baseman while St. Louis reached the NLCS in all three years after Pujols’ departure. However, he flamed out causing the Cardinals to rely on Matt Adams.
Adams is a great power hitter who can do some real damage in the middle of the lineup..against righties. When southpaws took the hill in 2015, Adams posted a miniscule .499 OPS. Adams will play the majority of the time since there are much more right-handed pitchers in the league than lefties, but Adams becomes a liability when facing left-handed pitchers.
That’s where Brandon Moss comes in. Moss also hits left-handed, but he actually posted better numbers against same-sided pitchers (.242/.325/.396) than righties (.219/.294/.413) in 2015. Moss gives the Cardinals a legitimate platoon partner for Adams. The duo could combine for 30-40 HR’s in 2016.
Future Outlook: Add to Adams
Nobody is going to be able to replace Albert Pujols, but St. Louis was still finding success while Allen Craig was delivering impactful production in his two years as St. Louis’ primary first baseman. Now that Matt Adams has taken over the position, the Cardinals are hoping they can find that same level of production. Platooning Adams with Moss could lead to the Cards getting solid performances at first base all year long. The problem is Moss hits free agency at the end of the year and the farm system offers no long-term solution in sight. GM John Mozeliak will need to add to Adams at first base for 2017 and beyond. Investing in a top draft pick in a first baseman would benefit the team in the future as well.
Kolten Wong is another cog in St. Louis’ system that has now established himself on the big league time. The 2011 22nd overall pick developed quickly through the minors out of the University of Hawaii, but his skills are still not refined enough. He has exhibited 20-20 potential, but has come up short in each of his two full seasons. Wong was slightly above-average in 2015, but with a top prospect pedigree, Wong could easily develop into a top-10 caliber second baseman. At only 25 years old, he has plenty of time to live up to the 5yr/$25.5MM extension he signed in Spring Training.
Just in case Wong doesn’t develop as planned, the Cards nabbed Jedd Gyorko from the San Diego Padres for their fourth outfielder Jon Jay. This could turn out to be a big win for St. Louis as Gyorko was once one of the game’s top prospects before underperforming the last two years. Still, his 23 home runs as rookie in 2013 were the most by any second baseman not named Robinson Cano. Gyorko has only combined to hit 26 home runs over the past two years, but he has the raw power to get back into the 20’s on an annual basis. Playing time will be hard to come by with Wong, Peralta, Diaz, and Carpenter in town, but if Gyorko starts to live up to his prospect billing, he could force GM John Mozeliak to make a move.
Future Outlook: Young enough to turn things around
While Kolten Wong is a homegrown Cardinal, Jedd Gyorko was just acquired from the Padres over the offseason. Like Wong, he was featured on both the 2012 and 2013 top-100 prospect list by Baseball America. After three years in the bigs, both are on the outside looking in at the top-20 second baseman in the majors. Both players are capable of emerging as quality starting options, but they’ll have to make the adjustments necessary. Only time will tell who will elevate themselves as a promising starter and who could possibly lose his roster spot altogether.
Shortstop quickly became the Cardinals’ most questionable position after Jhonny Peralta injured his left thumb forcing him to miss the entire first half of the season. St. Louis is looking to replace Peralta internally with Aledmys Diaz and Greg Garcia as the prime candidates assuming Gyorko stays at second base. Once Peralta returns mid-season, his slightly above-average play might disintegrate if he isn’t 100% healthy. This injury might not end Peralta’s 2016, but it could significantly damper his chances of remaining St. Louis’ starting shortstop in 2017.
If Diaz emerges as the frontrunner, manager Mike Matheny will be relying on a rookie who wasn’t even ranked within Baseball America’s top-10 Cardinals prospects heading into the season. Fangraphs did place Diaz in their top-10 based on the fact his strong fielding skills and contact abilities could make him a viable shortstop going forward.
Greg Garcia is an unknown backup with decent minor league production. Garcia will likely remain the team’s utility infielder for the foreseeable future. He’s capable of stepping up and producing quality at-bats, but his lack of power or speed will limit his overall success.
Future Outlook: Aledyms Diaz is quickly emerging
Most Cardinals fans view Jhonny Peralta as the unquestioned starting shortstop in St. Louis, but a thumb injury will change that for the first half of the 2016 season. That opens the door for the team’s No. 1 shortstop prospect Aledmys Diaz to get regular major league at-bats. If Diaz performs well, Peralta could be playing elsewhere come 2017. If Diaz goes through growing pains like most young major leaguers, the Cardinals will need to make sure Peralta is 100% to avoid a significant drop off in production.
Matt Carpenter isn’t a usual third baseman in today’s MLB. After relying mostly on his contact abilities and an advanced approach at the plate to get on base, Carpenter attempted to hit for more power in 2015. After only belting 25 home runs through the first full three seasons of his career, Carpenter mashed 28 home runs in his age-29 season last year. However, he also increased his strikeouts from 111 in 2014 to 151 in 2015. Experts aren’t quite sure what version of Carpenter shows up in 2016, but if he can find a way to balance his newly found power with his solid contact skills and plate approach, he could emerge as a top-5 player at the position.
While Jedd Gyorko, Greg Garcia, and even Jhonny Peralta are capable of filling in at the hot corner if Carpenter were to get injured, neither Paul Dejong nor Bryce Denton figure to be a threat to start at third base anytime soon. Both players will likely settle in as utility infielders off the bench.
Future Outlook: Carpenter is getting into his 30’s
Many people are quick to overreact to a player’s age, believing every player instantly becomes worse once they hit the 30-year threshold. However, many players are still in their prime at age-31 or even age-32. Not to mention Big Papi who was one of the best hitters in the league last year at age-39. A player’s previous production and injury history is typically a better indicator of future success than his age. With that being said, the Cardinals have the now 30 year-old Carpenter locked up for the next four years. Considering he wasn’t a rookie until 26 years old and has played in at least 154 games in each of the past three seasons, Carpenter is a good bet to age well. He could be a top-5 third baseman for the next two/three years before starting to show signs of decline.
The year 2009 was a big year for St. Louis’ biggest competitor over the past few seasons as National League MVP Andrew McCutchen made his debut for Pittsburgh, and has batted .298/.388/.496 ever since. During that same season, the Cardinals acquired Matt Holliday in a blockbuster trade with the Oakland A’s giving up very little in return. After re-signing with St. Louis for 7yrs/$120MM, he became one of the few players to live up to a monster free agent deal with a .297/.385/.494 slash line in six years for St. Louis. Now look back at McCutchen’s career batting line again, they’re almost identical.
A quadriceps injury cut Holliday’s 2015 season in half so it’s hard to see him returning to his All-Star caliber form at age-36, but Holliday should remain a productive player if he can stay on the field. With a $17MM Club Option looming for the 2017 season, the front office must decide if they want to keep the seven-time All-Star for one more year at a premium price while the team is still in contention or turn it over to their young, promising players that can keep them competitive for years to come.
The two young players leading St. Louis in 2016 and beyond are Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. Piscotty (.853 OPS) and Grichuk (.877 OPS) each had impressive 2015 rookie seasons. Considering they were each top-5 prospects for the St. Louis Cardinals heading into the season, it’s reasonable to think they can both develop into All-Star caliber players some day. Cardinals fans are looking forward to these two roaming the confines of Busch Stadium for years.
Tommy Pham proved last year that not only could he be an adequate fourth outfielder, but he could keep up with the league’s average starters when in the lineup. Pham is a late bloomer who hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove he belongs in the majors. If he begins to get any extended amount of playing time, he could become a viable option in left field once Holliday departs.
Harrison Bader is the leading candidate to develop into the third above-average outfielder for St. Louis. The 22 year-old has a speed/power combination that could be lethal as an everyday center fielder. A third round pick from last year’s draft, Bader could develop quickly and reach the majors by as soon as 2017. He could be a major threat by the time 2020 comes around. Cardinals executives are dreaming a trio of Piscotty-Grichuk-Bader is among the best in the league a few years from now.
Charlie Tilson and Magneuris Sierra are two lower ceiling prospects. They could each fight for starting jobs some day, but they’d be just as lucky to be featured on the 25-man roster for the majority of a season. Sierra still has a few years before he’ll even be knocking on the door.
The Cardinals drafted Nick Plummer in the first round out of high school in Michigan last year. Plummer is full of potential, but got off to a terrible start in 2015. He’ll have to prove he can hit minor league pitching before anybody should believe he can hit major league pitching.
Future Outlook: Grichuk and Piscotty arrived just in time
Heading into the 2015 season, St. Louis had a bright outlook with Matt Holliday and Jason Heyward returning as established stars along with top prospects Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty coming in as a rookies. Heyward spurned the Cardinals for a fat 8yr/$182MM contract with the division rivals in Chicago. Now Holliday is possibly entering his last season with the club as his contract is set to expire at the end of the season if he doesn’t play well enough to force St. Louis to exercise his $17MM option for 2017. Grichuk and Piscotty are firmly entrenched as the future of the outfield while Tommy Pham or Harrison Bader could emerge as that third starting candidate. We won’t find out until the extremely productive Holliday is no longer in town.
The St. Louis Cardinals have always operated with a righty-heavy rotation under GM John Mozeliak. Since the 2008 season, only one left-handed pitcher has started more than six games in a Cardinals jersey with Jaime Garcia totalling 117 starts in his seven-year career. No other lefty has had a prominent role in St. Louis’ rotation during their run of success. Even since 2004, only Mark Mulder has more than six starts (racking up 53 starts in his four years with the Cardinals). It’s incredible that St. Louis has been able to attain so much success by relying on right-handed starters almost exclusively.
Garcia’s start total hasn’t increased as much as the team initially believed it would when they signed him to a 5yr/$38.5MM extension in the 2011 season. Tommy John surgery limited Garcia to only 16 starts between 2013/2014. The 28 year-old made a successful recovery in 2015 with 130 quality innings. With only one more year left on his deal (before St. Louis likely picks up his $12MM Club Option for 2017) Garcia will be motivated to pitch well. It was looking as if Garcia could one day fill a frontline starter role, but after TJ surgery, he’ll likely settle in as a mid-rotation piece going forward.
Tim Cooney’s six starts in 2015 and Marco Gonzalez’s six starts in 2014 indicate the Cardinals are open to having more left-handed contributors in their rotation. Unfortunately for Gonzalez, he was already trending the wrong way before he suffered a Tommy John injury himself. That could be the last straw in projecting Gonzalez to be an impactful major leaguer.
While Gonzalez could be down for the count, Tim Cooney is alive and well. His six impressive starts in 2015 could be a sign of things to come from the promising 25 year-old. Baseball America thinks so highly of Cooney, they ranked him as their No. 2 prospect in St. Louis entering the 2016 season. Cooney receives praise for his polished command as well as the potential for four above-average pitches. If the 2012 third round pick can get over the appendectomy that prematurely ended his season, he could provide a full season of starts in St. Louis rotation giving them another reliable lefty to go along with Jaime Garcia.
St. Louis also has Austin Gomber making solid improvements in the lower levels of their farm system. The 2014 fourth round pick has succeeded in both levels he’s faced thus far in his professional career. Some scouts believe he could move to the bullpen because of his high-effort delivery, but he keeps the ball in the zone enough with three average or better pitches giving him a fair chance to stick in the rotation. He won’t make his debut until at least 2018. Ian McKinney is also looking to make his debut in 2018, but his ceiling is much lower and the 21 year-old will have a hard time cracking the big league rotation in the future.
Future Outlook: Garcia finally has another lefty
For years, Jaime Garcia was the sole lefty in the Cardinals’ rotation. After six successful starts in 2015, Tim Cooney could finally emerge as a second viable option from the left side. Cooney has the look of a mid-rotation starter that could mesh well with Garcia if the Cardinals decide to keep him in St. Louis longer than this year. While Marco Gonzalez no longer looks like a future impact starter, Austin Gomber is elevating himself into the conversation of top-10 prospect in St. Louis’ system. Of course if Garcia isn’t retained, Cooney would just replace him in the rotation and leave the Cardinals back to square one with a lack of left-handed starters.
Leading the Cardinals’ pitching staff for the majority of the last decade has been Adam Wainwright. Before an achilles injury shortened his 2015 season, the 34 year-old was looking to have another Cy Young-caliber season. Wainwright has become a model of consistency, however injuries keep derailing his success. With three years and $58.5MM still left on his deal, the Cardinals are just hoping he can stay on the field. It’s unlikely he gets back to what he once was, but even a shell of himself would be better than most pitchers in the league.
Complimenting Wainwright in the rotation are two future aces themselves. Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have both flashed dominant stuff, but they went in slightly opposite directions last year. While Martinez began the year by giving up seven runs in the first two games of the season, Wacha was cruising with a 15-4 record and a 2.69 ERA through August. However, Wacha was disastrous (7.88 ERA) over his final five starts and Martinez was outstanding after the early season rough patch. The Cardinals looked like they had two more right-handed aces ready to join Wainwright, but right when Martinez had begun to kick it into gear, Wacha took a significant step back. St. Louis is hoping Wacha can rebound in 2016 while Martinez continues his ascension to being among the top-10 pitchers in the league.
With Lance Lynn scheduled to miss the entire 2015 season with a Tommy John surgery of his own, GM John Mozeliak reacted by signing Mike Leake to a 5yr/$80MM contract. Leake has spent the last three years consistently being an effective, yet unspectacular performer on every fifth day. The 29 year-old righty went from spending his entire six-year career with one team in Cincinnati to wearing both a Giants and a Cardinals jersey over the past year.
Lance Lynn has become comfortable with that same sort of continuity during his five-year career with St. Louis. Now that he’ll miss a year with Tommy John surgery combined with the fact that the Cardinals have Wainwright under contract for two more seasons, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha are close to becoming established frontline starters, and Mike Leake is now signed on with the team for five more years, Lynn could be on his way out.The 29 year-old Lynn has been a terrific starter for the team since his debut, but a Tommy John surgery could take him a while to recover from, and considering his contract is set to expire after 2017, the Cards will only get one year to evaluate the post-surgery Lynn.
Even if Lynn performs well upon return, he’ll only be boosting his stock for when the Cardinals decide to trade him. Wainwright, Martinez, Wacha, and Leake clearly aren’t going anywhere. Lynn and Garcia will be battling for that last spot before Tim Cooney and Alex Reyes take it for themselves. Best of luck to Cooney, because Reyes is coming, and he’s coming fast.. Like 100 MPH fast. Reyes consistently gets his fastball in the upper-90’s but the radar guns will flash triple digits on occasion. It’s scary to think that might not even be his most impressive pitch.
Reyes also throws a curveball that appears completely unhittable at times. He also has a slider and changeup that could each be above-average offerings as well. Reyes has a demeanor about him that he’s going to strikeout every batter he faces. His confidence likely stems from the fact his 13.4 K/9 from the past season which would already be the highest among all Major League starters. He was recently suspended 50 games for marijuana, but considering marijuana won’t negatively affect his abilities on the field, he should still emerge as one of the best pitchers in the game. He might begin his career in the bullpen like recent Cardinals pitching prospects, but he’ll cement himself as an electric starting pitcher soon enough.
The Cardinals could have another intriguing arm with ace-potential in their 2020’s rotations. Unlike Reyes, he won’t be ready for major league action until right before the new decade. However, John Flaherty already has much better command than Reyes. He doesn’t have to get over that hurdle in order to be successful. All Flaherty needs to do is add strength to increase his velocity as well as get a better grip on his offspeed pitches. Reyes might have more potential, but Flaherty is actually the safer bet to become an All-Star for St. Louis.
If Martinez, Wacha, Reyes, and Flaherty weren’t enough, the Cardinals could have yet another ace-caliber pitcher in their rotation come 2019. Luke Weaver has turned some eyes around the league with his projectability. He already features a fastball that hits mid-90’s, a strikeout pitch in his changeup, and two more promising pitches with a curve and slider. Weaver consistently hits his spots and could be ready for the bigs as soon as 2017.
Junior Fernandez, Jake Woodford, and Ronnie Williams add to the collection of right-handed pitchers in St. Louis’ farm system. This trio might not make an impact until 2019 or later, but the contributions could be significant. Jake Woodford has the highest potential of the three as a first round pick from 2015. He comes right at the hitter attacking him from the very first pitch and never backing down. Fernandez and Williams don’t have as high of a ceiling, but they could be valuable starters if they reach their potential. Fernandez has seen his velocity increase recently which has improved his lack of strikeouts while Williams has a nice, smooth delivery with a solid repertoire of pitches.
Future Outlook: 'The best rotation in baseball' coming soon
Adam Wainwright has anchored this rotation for the better part of the last ten years. He’s always been complimented by outstanding pitchers in their own right whether it was Chris Carpenter or Kyle Lohse or Lance Lynn or even Michael Wacha over the last two seasons. Right when Wainwright is starting to get into his upper-30’s, the Cardinals will have a collection of promising young righties emerging as potential frontline starters. A combination of Reyes, Martinez, Wacha, Flaherty, Weaver, and Woodford could be unstoppable in a few years. Throw in Ronnie Williams and Junior Fernandez who have shown promise in their own right, and GM John Mozeliak will have a plethora of options to choose from in trades to find better upgrades in the infield or elite relief pitchers.
Over the last two years, Trevor Rosenthal has solidified himself as the Cardinals’ closer. The former top prospect was originally pegged for the rotation; however, with a wealth of starters and a hole in the back of the bullpen, the team made the smart move in keeping Rosenthal for when it matters: at the end of the game. St. Louis is about to have an exorbitant amount of quality starters anyways, so Rosenthal brings more value to the team by cranking it up to the upper-90’s and fooling batters with a powerful curve that effectively shuts down opposing teams and caps off yet another victory for St. Louis.
Kevin Siegrist and Jorden Walden might be the best two candidates St. Louis has to set up games for Trevor Rosenthal. Siegrist started to come into his own last year proving he can be an effective southpaw in St. Louis’ bullpen for years to come. Walden was once one of the game’s top closers, but he has descended into “just” a reliable setup man nowadays. If Rosenthal were to get injured, Walden could step up at any time and fill the closer role once again in his career.
Seung-hwan Oh and Jonathan Broxton are two other players that could hear their names being called in high-leverage situations during the 2016 season. Broxton is a former closer himself, but is only a shell of his former All-Star self nowadays. Oh has a lot more uncertainty surrounding him considering the fact that he will be a 33 year-old rookie import from Japan. St. Louis has gotten production from previously unknown relievers before, so it appears they’ll be relying on that method once again in 2016. As Korean’s most dedicated closing pitcher, Oh’s three-pitch mix should translate to the MLB forcing St. Louis to pick up his $5MM Club Option for 2017.
Matt Bowman, Seth Maness, and Tyler Lyons could fill out the rest of the bullpen in 2016. None of them stick out as potential closers, but they could each become reliable middle-relievers. Dean Kiekhefer and Ryan Sherriff are on the path to join them as middle relievers in 2017.
Sam Tuivailala and Miguel Socolovich stand out among the rest as potentially lethal pieces in the back of the bullpen. Tuivailala has an impressive fastball/slider combination to match his extreme success in the minors. He was even pitching well for the big league club last year in a small sample size (15 IP). Socolovich is another strikeout artist with the arsenal needed to succeed in the back of a major league bullpen. These two have a promising future that should begin in the majors pretty shortly.
(EDIT: The Cardinals were quiet at the trade deadline, but they did make a move to strengthen the team's bullpen as Jordan Walden has still not thrown a single pitch for the Cardinals yet in 2016. St. Louis acquired LHP Zach Duke from the Chicago White Sox for OF Charlie Tilson. Click here to read more about what Duke will bring to the Cardinals' bullpen [7/31/16]).
Future Outlook: Rosenthal emerging as one of the best
Three years after Trevor Rosenthal headlined a loaded group of Cardinals prospects in 2013, he’s established himself as one of the best closers in the game. The 26 year-old still has time to improve before he hits free agency after the 2018 season. With a solid, yet unspectacular bullpen behind the flamethrower, the Cardinals would be wise to extend Rosenthal as soon as they can. The longer the team waits, the more money he could demand as he gets closer to free agency.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: MLB’s model franchise keeps doing their thing
The St. Louis Cardinals have only experienced one losing season since the beginning of the 21st century. The front office has consistently done a terrific job of developing homegrown players and putting a competitive team on the field year in and year out. Heading into 2016 with Jhonny Peralta (free agent signing in 2013) out for half the season, seven of St. Louis’ eight starting position players have all started their professional careers with the Cards. This isn’t 2013 anymore, where St. Louis constructed the No. 1 farm system in the Majors (according to Baseball America) while simultaneously holding the best record in the major leagues. However, the Cardinals are still a playoff contending team with numerous talented players in their minor league system.
St. Louis might never score the most runs, but they’re pitching is among the best in the league while they possess a wealth of young, productive players under team control for a while. They have a solid infield and a young outfield that’s trending upward. Right now, the rotation is among the best in the game, and it could be filled with even more explosive arms in the coming years. Whether they look the best on paper or not, the Cardinals have proven they’ll always be a contender thanks to a winning culture. Anyone claiming the Cardinals are preparing for a steep decline should look at the facts, because St. Louis is primed to continue their exceptional run of success thanks to a collection of the best, young starting pitchers in the game.