The transactions which the St. Louis Cardinals have made during the 2018-19 off-season point to an organization desperate to make it back to the postseason after three consecutive Octobers spent at home. The most obvious example of this is trading four long-term assets in exchange for Paul Goldschmidt, who is scheduled to become a free agent following the 2019 season, but the signing of Andrew Miller, a relief pitcher entering his age-34 season, also points in that direction. An older free agent signed to a multi-year contract is particularly expected to have the bulk of his contributions in the earliest years of it, and the Cardinals expect Miller to help guide the team back to the playoffs.
And aside from the players lost in the Goldschmidt trade, whose combined value to the 2019 team is likely lower than the value which Goldschmidt will contribute, the team didn’t lose very much from a squad which won 88 games in 2018 and played at a 96-win pace in the sixty-nine games following the implementation of Mike Shildt as manager. The team re-signed free agent-to-be Adam Wainwright, leaving departing free agents limited to Bud Norris, who capsized down the stretch last season, and lower-tier mid-season acquisitions such as Matt Adams and Tyson Ross. The team was expected to entertain trade offers for Jose Martinez, but Saturday’s announcement that the team had signed him to a two-year contract (since nobody at the site wrote about this particular transaction, here’s a quick analysis: it’s fine) suggests that this is unlikely to happen now that Spring Training has begun. The roster is similar to the roster it fielded in 2018, except with a deeper infield and an improved bullpen (even if Miller repeats his 2018 mediocrity, this is a marked improvement over 2018 bullpen signing Greg Holland).
And luckily for the Cardinals, the perpetual NL Central favorite Chicago Cubs have had a mostly quiet off-season. While fans of the Cubs have clamored for Bryce Harper for years now, their biggest moves of the off-season have been re-signing Cole Hamels and, like the Cardinals, acquiring an Arizona Diamondbacks infielder, but unlike the Cardinals, it being Daniel Descalso. And while the defending division champion Milwaukee Brewers improved at catcher with the signing of Yasmani Grandal, they enter Spring Training with a questionable infield situation (lifelong third baseman Mike Moustakas is currently slotted to play second base) and a rotation which remains shaky (although the team was much-celebrated for its inventive bullpen usage in 2018, much of this was out of necessity rather than desire). As it currently stands, the Cardinals are within striking distance of their first division crown since 2015.
With that said, the Cardinals are one free agent signing away from clearly establishing themselves as division favorites. And it doesn’t even have to be Bryce Harper.
For as much as can truthfully be said about the Cardinals lacking certainty in the outfield, they are in a reasonably good position to have a more productive outfield than in 2018. While breakout center fielder Harrison Bader had an unexpectedly productive 2018 and is a leading candidate for some regression, this makes him unique among the team’s likely 2019 outfielders. Marcell Ozuna had a disappointing first season in St. Louis as he battled shoulder injuries, but he improved throughout 2018–offensively, he was 11% below league-average in the first half of the season, while in the second half, he was 31% above-average. Despite a walk rate below 5% and a strikeout rate above 40%, neither of which comes close to his minor league norms, Tyler O’Neill exhibited enough power to be above-average in 142 MLB plate appearances. Jose Martinez, with the acquisition of Goldschmidt, should be available to play far more often in the outfield. And Dexter Fowler really has nowhere to go but up from his disastrous 2018.
But the starting rotation doesn’t have quite the same upside, and what upside it does have is looking increasingly shaky. Early in Spring Training, John Mozeliak has expressed concern over Carlos Martinez’s shoulder, a particularly concerning development given that Martinez battled injuries throughout the second half of 2018, to the point that he was relegated to relief duty when he returned to St. Louis from the Disabled List. The antidote to last week’s Martinez developments was news that Alex Reyes could return to the starting rotation in 2019, but depending on a pitcher who has thrown precisely four Major League innings in the last two years because of various arm injuries is not exactly a safe bet.
Martinez and Reyes are prominent bounce-back candidates, but if the other pitchers on the Cardinals perform as they did in 2018, it may not matter too much if they don’t return to form. But this means depending on Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty to return to 2018 form. And while Mikolas and Flaherty pitched, by any standard, well, they outperformed their fielding-independent ERAs by 0.45 and 0.52 runs, respectively, with Mikolas being impacted even more by SIERA, a batted-ball quality related pitching metric. By SIERA, Mikolas is said to have “deserved” a 3.93 ERA. And while expecting the team’s 2018 ace to revert to a 3.93 ERA-level pitcher in 2019 is probably a bit overly pessimistic, expecting regression toward pre-2018 expectations (he began the year as the team’s fifth starter, with many wondering if he would eventually find himself in the bullpen) isn’t unreasonable.
Mikolas and Flaherty weren’t the only Cardinals starters who were susceptible to fairly pronounced ERA-FIP differentials. Michael Wacha, who comes with his own host of injury concerns, was over a full run worse by FIP in 2018, suggesting a far more average pitcher than his 3.20 ERA implies. John Gant had a 4.11 FIP in 19 starts, in contrast to a sharper-looking 3.61 ERA. Austin Gomber actually underperformed his FIP, which suggests his 4.26 ERA was a bit inflated by bad luck, but a 3.70 mark (as was his FIP) in 57 innings as a starter from a mostly unacclaimed prospect doesn’t exactly inspire confidence if he is called upon to make a material number of starts. By the same token, Daniel Ponce de Leon had impressive numbers in his four starts, but again, it was four starts.
Aside from Wacha, this is mostly an exercise in noting that a bunch of sixth and seventh starters aren’t assured to be consistently good MLB starters, which isn’t too surprising. These are the kinds of pitchers most good teams have waiting in the wings, and the hope is that you don’t have to count upon these guys because everybody stays healthy. But among Martinez, Reyes, Wacha, and Adam Wainwright (coming off a season in which he alternated between being injured and having an ERA, FIP, and xFIP over 4), there is a lot of risk here. The team might be able to withstand that if Mikolas and Flaherty can repeat their 2018 seasons, but the odds that both do are not particularly high. The current rotation could be fine, and even very good, but there are a lot of questions marks.
Dallas Keuchel is a free agent. The 2015 American League Cy Young winner has only reached those elite heights in one season, but has nevertheless been a consistent performer in the Houston Astros rotation. Over the last half-decade, Keuchel has a 3.28 ERA, a 3.45 FIP, and while he has had some time missed due to injury, has averaged over 190 innings per season during that time. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Keuchel has been the 16th best pitcher in baseball during that time frame. Last year was a down year for Keuchel, and yet he still ranked 22nd in fWAR among MLB pitchers.
Expecting Keuchel to be a shutdown ace is unreasonable, and entering his age-31 season, it’s not likely that he will suddenly ascend to a new level. But at his projected 3.2 fWAR by the Steamer projection system, he would be the best pitcher on the 2019 Cardinals. Tied for 21st with Robbie Ray, Keuchel would be a middling to low level ace, if you define ace as being a pitcher capable of being the best in an MLB rotation, but Flaherty and Mikolas also rank in the top 30. The Cardinals would be one of three NL teams, along with the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers, to have three projected top-30 starters. This move would solidify the Cardinals as having the best rotation in the NL Central.
As Bernie Miklasz of The Athletic noted in his piece advocating for Keuchel last week, this is not a Bryce Harper situation, in which the team would be obligated to pay the player for the next decade. The Cardinals could likely secure Dallas Keuchel’s services for the next three or so years, and while he would certainly be the most expensive pitcher in the rotation, the extra wins which he could provide to the Cardinals would likely be extremely valuable, as they could make the difference between missing and making the playoffs. And not that defensive free agent signing is itself a very wise strategy, but signing Keuchel now would keep the Milwaukee Brewers, typically bargain hunters in free agency, from adding him, and given their rotation woes, Keuchel presents enough of an upgrade that he might vault them to division favorites.
The Cardinals have a position of need, and a player which fits that need could fall right into their laps. The Cardinals could really use a pitcher capable of throwing 200ish above-average innings. The Cardinals could really use Dallas Keuchel.