The 2010s have been, in the grand scheme of things, a glorious decade for the St. Louis Cardinals. The team won a World Series to start a franchise-record run of five consecutive postseason appearances. The team has had winning seasons in all nine of its concluded campaigns, and it is projected by most outlets to finish off the decade with another in 2019. For all of our in-the-moment grievances about the Cardinals, and many of them are valid criticisms of the team, most fan bases would roll their eyes at us, and be correct to do so.
No decade is complete without best-of lists, and this is a look at the best players at each position for the Cardinals in the 2010s. As the decade has not yet concluded, some current players have a chance to vault into the position lead, and those races will be evaluated. Other positions are pretty well concluded.
Unsurprisingly, the current leader is the guy who has been the starting catcher throughout the entirety of the 2010s, Yadier Molina. Entering the season, Molina stands at 29.4 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the most of any Cardinals position player during the decade, and if anything, this number probably underreports Molina’s value–those behind the metric themselves will acknowledge that catcher defense is one of the trickiest aspects of baseball to properly evaluate, and Molina is widely regarded as the best defensive catcher of his era. For reference, Baseball Prospectus, which even uses a higher threshold for Replacement Level, Molina has been worth 40.1 wins.
#2 at this time by FanGraphs is Matt Pagnozzi, who was worth 0.3 fWAR in 44 plate appearances in 2010. It is probably about a billion to one shot that somebody surpasses Molina on the leaderboard–his lead is so enormous that the most likely scenario in which this happens involves a radical configurement of the WAR calculation which concludes that, I don’t know, throwing out runners is a horrible thing to do. Again, that’s the most likely scenario. But I guess if any player is going to pass him, it’s Andrew Knizner, who will probably begin 2019 in AAA and certainly has more upside than Francisco Pena. If Molina misses the entire season and Knizner hits about .700 with 90 home runs and excellent defense…that still might not be enough.
The fWAR leader at first base is also the fWAR leader at third base, but the #2 first baseman ranks higher than the #2 third baseman, so Albert Pujols earns his way onto this team, despite only playing two seasons in St. Louis during the decade. But in one season, he nearly won an MVP award, and the other season, unquestionably his worst as a Cardinal, he was still a 4 WAR superstar.
The first baseman most likely to surpass Pujols is new acquisition Paul Goldschmidt, though this is highly unlikely. Pujols was worth 10.8 fWAR in the 2010s in St. Louis, and while 10.8 fWAR seasons do happen, they aren’t especially common–no player has reached it since 2004, when Barry Bonds pulled it off for the third time in four seasons (he was very good). It is particularly difficult to manage this without the benefit of a positive defensive contribution, which is very rare at first base–only two first basemen in history have cleared 10.8 fWAR, 1927 Lou Gehrig and 1932 Jimmie Foxx. Goldschmidt is more likely to pass Pujols than Knizner is to pass Molina, but that’s not saying much.
The early part of the 2010s were a revolving door of second basemen, with intermittent Daniel Descalso sighting mixed in with out-of-position square pegs in circular holes Skip Schumaker and Matt Carpenter. But unsurprisingly, the top second baseman of the decade has been the player who has held down the position for by far the longest time–incumbent Kolten Wong.
The #2 second baseman of the decade to this point, even if FanGraphs search parameters disagree, is Matt Carpenter. Carpenter’s 7.2 fWAR in his lone season at second base puts him within spitting distance of Wong’s 10.2 fWAR, and even though second base is probably Carpenter’s third most likely position in 2019, behind third base and first base, he has to be the most likely candidate to surpass Wong. The next player on the leaderboard is Greg Garcia, who is now on the San Diego Padres, and would require a trade back to St. Louis and a 2013 Carpenter-level season at the position to pull even with Wong. But in the event that, say, the Cardinals signed Mike Moustakas to play third base and traded Kolten Wong and slotted Carpenter to play second (side note: they shouldn’t do this), Carpenter would have a reasonable chance to clear 3 WAR next season–his defense would probably be pretty bad, but his offense should be well above league-average at the position. So while Wong is a fairly solid bet to be the second baseman of the decade, his odds probably don’t round up to 100%, as they do with Molina and Pujols (though they’re probably in the high 90s). Though, as you’ll see shortly, Carpenter wouldn’t actually be the second baseman on this team, as he’d be occupied elsewhere.
Third base is Matt Carpenter‘s most common position, and thus he slots in here. And while there are solid alternatives such as David Freese and Jedd Gyorko available, they don’t really hold a candle to Carpenter by quality nor quantity. He may always have a calvacade of weirdos who criticize him at every turn for drawing too many walks (?), but there isn’t much of a case for anybody else at this position.
Because the second-most likely 2019 third baseman, Jedd Gyorko, has a 6.1 fWAR cushion on Andrew Knizner, this is a more likely position than catcher to switch lead-holders, though it is less likely than Paul Goldschmidt passing Albert Pujols.
Finally, a close race. And this is a very close race, with Paul DeJong barely edging out Jhonny Peralta. The current Cardinals shortstop leads the former Cardinals shortstop by 0.1 fWAR.
The odds that Jhonny Peralta ever plays again, much less at a better-than-Replacement Level quality, are nearly zero, but he could still surpass DeJong by fWAR by DeJong having a below Replacement Level season. DeJong is coming off back-to-back 3+ fWAR seasons, so this doesn’t feel likely, but he’s also a relative non-prospect who hasn’t spent that much time in MLB. Or, more likely, he could get off to a rough start and then wind up on the Injured List. Yes, I feel bad putting this into the universe. And if this does happen, maybe Yairo Munoz pulls off a 6.2+ fWAR season to pass Peralta, or a 6.3+ fWAR season to pass DeJong. Maybe the Cardinals go crazy and sign Manny Machado and he puts up a 6.3 fWAR season (he has done this twice, and nearly did it again last season). If I had to rank players most likely to be atop this leaderboard at the end of 2019, I’d go DeJong, Peralta, Machado, and Munoz, in that order.
It was always going to require Marcell Ozuna to have a Bonds-ian couple years in St. Louis to top this list, because of the lead which Matt Holliday built over the first seven seasons of the decade. At 24.2 fWAR, Holliday has a considerable edge over now-former Cardinals Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk, and an even more considerable edge over the fourth place Ozuna, who accumulated 2.7 fWAR in 2018.
Even if you disregard concerns about Marcell Ozuna’s health, no player has ever put up a 21.5 fWAR season in the history of baseball, and he probably isn’t going to be the first. Ozuna is more likely to clear the bar than Andrew Knizner by virtue not only of his upside but of Matt Holliday, whose on-balance below-average defense in left field leaves him more susceptible to a dramatic FanGraphs re-evaluation than Yadier Molina. But still, while it wouldn’t shock me to see Holliday docked, say, a win by the end of 2019, it would be unprecedented for him to be docked enough to make this a close battle.
Matt Holliday played a ton, and he was for the most part excellent, so he was an obvious pick for left field. Center field brings a competition between a player who was solid for a (relatively) long time and a player who was excellent for a much shorter period of time. And while Tommy Pham, who also finished in second place among qualified left fielders, managed 9.5 fWAR concentrated primarily in 2017, the 9.6 fWAR of Jon Jay make him the leader. Incumbent center fielder Harrison Bader stands at 3.7 fWAR.
Between Jay and Pham, both of whom are still MLB players, Jay is more likely to become a Cardinal again–he’s on a worse team (an entertaining theory is that the Chicago White Sox only signed Jay to entice fellow Miami native Manny Machado) that is more likely to be selling off useful players at the trade deadline (also, he’s only under contract for one year), and he is further removed from the Cardinals having traded him away. The odds that Pham gets a crack at passing Jay are low anyway, but knowing that it’s (slightly) more likely for Jay to expand upon his lead makes the odds even longer. The real player to watch is Harrison Bader, who needs a good but hardly impossible 5.9 fWAR year to equal Jay. Bader, at his surprising 2018 pace, wouldn’t be able to reach 5.9 fWAR, but if he comes into 2019 with better offense against right-handed pitching, you can squint and see it. But Jon Jay will probably remain the decade’s best by the time the decade concludes.
Right field is a strange hodgepodge of players who either weren’t in St. Louis very long or were more identified with another position. #4 and #5 are one-season and de facto one-season wonders in Jason Heyward and Lance Berkman. #3 was Carlos Beltran, who played two seasons that most baseball fans outside of St. Louis seem to have forgotten. #2 is Allen Craig, whose only season as a more-or-less full-time right fielder was the 2014 one in which he fell off a cliff. And #1 has come up already–current Toronto Blue Jay Randal Grichuk.
Several current Cardinals are within spitting distance of Grichuk, whose 6.9 fWAR could be realistically reached with one awesome (fine, one nice) season. Jose Martinez, at 2.7 fWAR away, is probably the most realistic, though he also isn’t expected to be a starter. Harrison Bader is 3.2 fWAR away, but in a universe where this happens, he probably plays too much center field to be right field eligible. Dexter Fowler and Tyler O’Neill each stand 5.6 fWAR away from Grichuk–I would guess that between the two, O’Neill probably has the higher upside, but neither is especially likely to reach that level. And there’s a non-zero chance that Bryce Harper signs with the Cardinals (though he has only cleared 6.9 fWAR once, and that was in 2015). Grichuk is the favorite to retain the title, but there are enough players vying for the title that this is an intersting position.
With a 12.2 fWAR lead over Lance Lynn, with Jaime Garcia not too far behind, active Cardinals Adam Wainwright holds a solid lead that would require an incredible campaign to surpass. Three current Cardinals starters area in the top ten–#4 Carlos Martinez, #5 Michael Wacha, and #10 Miles Mikolas, but they’re quite some distance away from Wainwright.
Carlos Martinez not only leads the pack, but has upside that Wacha, who doesn’t trail him by much, doesn’t have (Mikolas might, but he trails Martinez by 9.5 fWAR, never mind the 22.8 he would need to reach Wainwright). But even so, closing the 13.3 fWAR gap will be next to impossible. It would probably require a catastrophic Wainwright campaign (which is unlikely, as his contract incentivizes the team to put him in the bullpen pretty quickly), so let’s just assume Wainwright has a -2.0 fWAR season. An 11.3 fWAR pitching season has occurred one time in the last century. On the bright side, the one time it happened was with a pitcher to whom Carlos is often compared, Pedro Martinez (they’re both short Dominican guys who throw hard and have the last name Martinez; it’s not the most scientific comparison). It’s not likely, but it’s more likely than some of these positions.
The final ranking
These are the players, in my subjective opinion, most likely to lose their position as an All-Decade Cardinal, from most to least likely.
- Randal Grichuk
- Jon Jay
- Paul DeJong
- Kolten Wong
- Albert Pujols
- Adam Wainwright
- Matt Holliday
- Matt Carpenter
- Yadier Molina