Shuffling the Cards: 2021 Cardinals season preview

With+Nolan+Arenado+now+sporting+the+Birds+on+the+Bat%2C+St.+Louis+now+has+one+of+the+best+hitters+in+baseball+to+boost+the+batting+lineup+and+probably+the+best+defensive+player+in+baseball+to+reinforce+the+team%27s+defense.+Art+by+Genevieve+Francois.

Genevieve Francois

With Nolan Arenado now sporting the Birds on the Bat, St. Louis now has one of the best hitters in baseball to boost the batting lineup and probably the best defensive player in baseball to reinforce the team’s defense. Art by Genevieve Francois.

*Opinion

Ten years ago the Albert Pujols-led Cardinals won the World Series. That offseason, Pujols left St. Louis for the Los Angeles Angels. Since then, the Cardinals’ front office has made only semi-enthusiastic attempts to address the lineup’s blatant lack of an MVP-caliber slugger — Carlos Beltran, Marcell Ozuna, Paul Goldschmidt. But there has not been a Cardinal with 40 home runs in a season since Pujols. 

It took a decade, but the Cardinals now have a legitimate slugger in Nolan Arenado to bolster the robust and talented roster. This is the best Cardinals team we’ve seen in years.

Roster changes

Arriving

We can only speculate what inspired the Colorado Rockies’ general manager to make the Nolan Arenado trade. The Rockies traded the centerpiece of their franchise, along with $50 million toward Arenado’s contract, in exchange for table scraps (an average starting pitcher in Austin Gomber and a handful of unmemorable prospects). As favorable for the Cardinals as it was, the deal was quickly made official, and Arenado said in his introductory press conference that he expects to be in St. Louis for a long time.

In terms of performance in recent years, Arenado is up there with any hitter in the league. He has driven in the most runs (RBIs) and jacked the second-most home runs in baseball since 2015. However, Arenado may not just be arguably the best hitter in baseball in the last five years, but the best defensive player, too. He has won the Gold Glove among National League (NL) third basemen in each of his eight seasons, while receiving the Platinum Glove — awarded to the best defender in each league — in each of the past four seasons.

Departing

If there is any drawback of the Arenado trade, it is the sizable financial obligation to Arenado’s contract which may influence decisions on other potential Cardinals players, now and in the future. For example, the Cardinals could not reach a deal with defensive standout Kolten Wong, who eventually signed with the division rival Milwaukee Brewers. Wong secured the NL second baseman Gold Glove in 2019 and 2020, but unfortunately the Brewers won him over with a surprisingly light $18 million over two years. 

In a mutually beneficial transaction, the Cards traded outfielder Dexter Fowler to the Angels for cash considerations. Fowler will have more consistent opportunities in Los Angeles while the Cardinals lessen some of the financial burden of his contract and give more playing time to younger guys.

Returning

Genevieve Francois

Any Cardinals fan should be glad to pay $17 million to keep veteran mainstays Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina ($8 million and $9 million, respectively) around for what may be their last season. Wainwright orchestrated a strong 2020 campaign, with his best earned run average (ERA) in a full season since 2014. Molina’s offensive output is waning, of course, but is impressive nonetheless, given he is approaching 40 years old and playing on knees that have endured 17 years of catching day after day. Regardless of their statistical production, these two provide intangibles to the team as wise, experienced leaders.

Division competition

The Milwaukee Brewers added Wong and former All-Star Jackie Bradley Jr. to an already-solid starting lineup. Bradley Jr., Lorenzo Cain and 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich make up one of the best outfields in the league. 

The Chicago Cubs should trend downward in the win column after losing big-name pitchers Yu Darvish and Jon Lester. The lineup is not as strong as it used to be either, not helped by the decline of superstar third baseman Kris Bryant.

The Cincinnati Reds made the playoffs in 2020, but the Reds’ ace and 2020 NL Cy Young award winner Trevor Bauer chased big money from the Dodgers, while their offense did not improve.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are the division’s furthest team from being a postseason threat, as no one on their roster could reasonably be deemed a “star” player.

General overview

In a satisfying and welcomed change of approach, the Cardinals have developed their offense effectively to wield one of the strongest lineups in the MLB. The Cardinals’ strategy in recent years relied more on the pitching rotation while hoping a middle-of-the-road batting order would suffice.

The narrative has shifted now, with the Cardinals making a good case to have the best group of starting infielders in the MLB. Arenado and Goldschmidt are unequivocally the best corner infield pair in all of baseball, while Paul DeJong continues to produce solid numbers at shortstop and second baseman Tommy Edman makes the strongest case for the leadoff spot.

A weak area within the offense, though, is the trio of outfielders — Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson — who have an average of 479 career at-bats (equivalent to less than a full major league season) and a combined career batting average of .230. Sending Fowler away made sense logistically, but the outfield was already subpar.

Although the Cardinals mainly upgraded the batting lineup this offseason, the pitching rotation remains strong. Despite an uncharacteristic 2020 campaign, Jack Flaherty should return to his 2019 form and contend for the NL Cy Young award, while former All-Star Miles Mikolas is returning from Tommy John surgery after missing the entire 2020 season. Wainwright will provide consistency in the middle of the rotation, and Kwang Hyun Kim exceeded expectations as a rookie last year and will build off of his eight games of MLB experience. The fifth starting pitching spot is up for grabs — Carlos Martinez, John Gant and Alex Reyes each have a shot at it — but whoever earns the role would be a solid fifth starter for any team. 

How many wins will the Cardinals have in the 2021 regular season?

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The relief pitching unit was slightly better than average in 2020 (10th in the MLB with a collective 4.00 ERA), but that was without a bona fide closer. Jordan Hicks will fill that role after opting out of last season due to safety concerns with diabetes. In addition to Hicks, Andrew Miller, Gant and Reyes — if they do not earn the fifth rotation spot — are expected to be the most effective relief pitchers.

Projections

2021 record: 94-68

2021 result: Eliminated in the NLCS by the Los Angeles Dodgers