Polls and more polls! Plus my predictions on what will happen this season.
It’s Opening Day! The Cardinals are set to open the season in Cincinnati against the Reds. It seems as if there are mixed vibes out in Cardinals’ Nation. There was a great deal of shock and excitement about the acquisition of Nolan Arenado. That seems tempered by discouraging projections, injuries, and spring training performances.
Are the 2021 Cardinals good? Are they bad? Are they legit contenders? Will they finish below .500? The range of outcomes for this team seems as broad as any in the last twenty years.
I want to hear from you. This article has a series of polls ranging from final team record to possible award winners. With each poll, I’ll provide a little context and my own opinion. You will provide the voting and your own commentary in the comments section. Get your predictions in so you can brag about how right you were when we bump this post at the end of the season!
Poll: Final Team Record
I have no idea where this team’s final win total will land. Projections for the club are very discouraging. Fangraphs’ Steamer and Depth Charts systems have them at 79 wins. That would be the Cardinals’ lowest win totals since a rebuilding 2007 year. Are they really THAT bad? Glancing through that 2007 team, I can’t figure out how Steamer thinks this iteration of the Cardinals is as bad as a team that featured Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes, and Braden Looper in its rotation. ZiPS is a little more optimistic, placing the 2021 Cards in the 83-85 win range, pretty much right in line with their typical projections. ZiPS also admits that they always come up short with the Cardinals.
One thing these projections universally do is heavily regress defense. They also have trouble with teams that consistently outperform their FIPs – Fielding Independent Pitching. The defense factor is largely unaccounted for in projections but it is the Cardinals’ strength. There’s a decent chance that we will see one of the best infield defenses in generations from this Cardinals team. The pitching will be good because the defense will be outstanding and because Busch stadium represses hitters. I think the offense will be better than projections believe. That’s not saying much, but I like Carlson to dramatically outperform his basement-level projections and I think Tyler O’Neill will be ok. Arenado, Goldy, and DeJong will be at worst pretty darn good.
My prediction: Cardinals will win 88 games.
Poll: Finish in the Division
The Cardinals aren’t alone with discouraging projections. The rest of the NL Central is just as bad. Fangraphs has the Brewers set to take the division crown with a whopping 81 wins and a +2 run differential. The Cardinals are next, followed by the Cubs and Reds at 78 wins. I’m not sure how a division that will play each other so frequently can be a collective 46 games under .500. It’s probably a safe bet that someone – or several someones – will outperform these projections. Who will it be?
After surveying some of the national sites, it seems the Cardinals are the popular choice. The Brewers would be next in line. The Cubs are probably better than they are getting credit for. The Reds might be a little worse. The Pirates will lose a lot of games. A sub-90 win team hasn’t won the NL Central since 2007. Will it happen again?
Cardinals – 88 wins
Brewers – 86 wins
Cubs – 83 wins
Reds – 76 wins
Pirates – 60 wins
Poll: Cardinals Postseason
While there might be a broad range of possible win totals and division finishes for the Cardinals, I’m not sure that’s true about their postseason chances. Sure, some fans will always pick the Cardinals to win the World Series. Why would we actively root for anything else? That’s what fandom is all about.
Realistically, though, does this team have a chance at a long postseason run? With the Dodgers, Padres, Braves, and probably the Mets ahead of them in talent, it seems very unlikely. Then again, the marathon of a baseball season weeds luck out of the system. The postseason injects it right back in. It was just 2 years ago that the 2019 Cardinals – a team that’s not all that different from the current club – reached the NLCS.
The Cardinals’ best – and maybe only – shot at the postseason is as the division champions. The Braves and Mets should each win a lot of games in the East. The Nationals could challenge, too. In the west, the Padres and Dodgers could both eclipse 100 wins. With no expanded playoffs, it is going to take more than 80-something wins to sneak into a Wild Card berth. It seems like this year’s postseason chances starts and probably stops with the Cardinals in the Divisional round.
My Prediction: Cardinals make the Division Round and lose.
Poll: Best Offensive Player (WAR)
There has been so much concern about the Cardinals’ offense this offseason that it’s easy to forget that they have several players with very high production in the recent past. Paul Goldschmidt had between 4.9 and 7.2 fWAR every season from 2015-2018. 2019 was a down season for the slugging first baseman, but the shortened 2020 brought a return to form. His 2.1 fWAR over 231 PAs translated to a 6+ fWAR over a normal amount of at bats. (Incidentally, if you want to know one of the reasons why the Cardinals’ projections are so low, ZiPS and Steamer only project Goldy to have a 2.2 and 2.7 fWAR respectively, despite that recent level of consistent productivity.)
Moving from offensive paradise Colorado to the stadium where homeruns go to die (i.e Busch) has brought Nolan Arenado’s offensive outlook into question. That’s kind of silly. Sure, his counting offense will drop but hard-hit balls are still hard-hit balls. Arenado had between a 4.5-6 fWAR every full season since 2015. Last year he was down to .9 fWAR, which translates to a 3 WAR. Most of that is due to injury and small samples. ZiPS and Steamer think he’s conservatively a 3.5-4.0 fWAR. With his combo of good offense and world-class defense, he’s pretty much a lock for 4 WAR even if his offense doesn’t translate as hoped.
Paul DeJong has been a consistent 3.1-4.0 fWAR player, despite suffering from injuries and fatigue. It seems like a lot of fans are discounting him after COVID stole his 2020 season. Then there are the outfielders to consider. Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill don’t have projections anywhere close to the established stars in the lineup. However, both have the right combination of power, on-base skills, and defense to rack up serious WAR totals if things break right.
My predictions: I’m tempted to be ridiculous and go with Dylan Carlson (who could pull this off), but I can’t overlook Arenado. Arenado will lead the team with a 5.2 fWAR season. Goldschmidt will be the best pure hitter (wRC+).
Poll: Best Starting Pitcher (WAR)
This morning a friend of mine asked me if I thought Adam Wainwright had a chance to win the Cy Young. I love the excitement around Waino in what will likely be his final season. He was tremendous last year. He had an unbelievable spring. His curveball is allowing him to continue in the league at an age when many other elite starters have taken up golf. He will not be the best starter on the team.
That will be Jack Flaherty, who has the best pitching ability (read that as stuff + command) I’ve seen from a Cardinal starter since Chris Carpenter. Flaherty was brilliant in 2019, having one of the best half-season runs that we have seen from any pitcher in fifty years. Recency bias has his stop-and-start 2020 season fresh in fan’s minds. Last season, despite all the craziness surrounding COVID, he had one “take it for the team” 9 run start and was otherwise really good. He should be poised for a dominant season.
I don’t want to consider the possibility that anyone on the rest of this list could lead the staff in WAR because it would mean an injury to Flaherty. I think Martinez will be fine. Kim will take a significant step back, but no further than his projections, which have him as a 2 WAR player. The rest of the rotation will be plug-and-play.
My prediction: Only cautious innings control will keep Flaherty from a 5+ fWAR season.
Poll: Which Award Is Most Likely to Happen?
The last category has some awards predictions for you to choose from. It’s possible that none happen. It’s possible several do. They all seem about equal levels of unlikely. Dylan Carlson is one of the favorites to win the Rookie of the Year award. Now that the first third of his season will come with a center field WAR bump, his odds are probably on the rise.
Molina might seem like the safe choice here, but he has not won the Gold Glove for several years and his innings caught totals have been consistently dropping as his age rises. It’s very difficult for a late-30s catcher to stay healthy. It’s even more difficult for them to stay healthy and out defend much younger competition.
Flaherty certainly has Cy Young talent, but he has steep competition in the National League.
Nolan Arenado is a strong contender for the MVP if his offense from Colorado translates. Since it probably won’t, he’ll need some help from sabermetrically astute voters.
Even with weak projections, it’s no surprise when the Cardinals perform well and make the playoffs. Shildt is a good manager. He’ll have to be great to have a shot at any recognition.
My prediction: Dylan Carlson wins rookie of the year.
I’m sure you all agree with me on all of these. On the off chance that you don’t, let me know in the comments! That’s your space to tell me I’m an idiot and to make your own predictions. Have fun. I don’t care. It’s Opening Day. Baseball is back. Let’s play ball!