This doesn’t even seem possible.
The St. Louis Cardinals should easily have a better team in 2021 than the total sum of their former players. It would be one thing if the Cardinals had spent the last several years trading away their best players for prospects who may never come to fruition. But the Cardinals haven’t truly rebuilt, even if you have a loose definition of the term, in over a decade. When players leave via free agency, it is supposed to be because they are past their prime and being replaced by younger, better players. When players are traded, it is to acquire better players. If the former Cardinals are better than the current ones, what does that say about the Cardinals’ front office? Maybe it speaks to the franchise’s ability to produce top players, as a disproportionate number of former Cardinals came through the organization originally, but it sure seems like an indictment of their ability to make trades and navigate free agency. Or maybe it isn’t. But it’s still a bummer.
So who would win a game between the 2021 Cardinals and the 2021 Non-Cardinals? I took a look at each team’s lineup and weighed each player’s projections by ZiPS. I did have to make a few (I think) reasonable calls to fit guys in terms of positionality (mostly in terms of who played the outfield positions). I’ll give you a WAR score update at the end of each position. The answer may delight or depress you!
As has been the case since before I could drive, the Cardinals’ starting catcher is Yadier Molina. His backup is Andrew Knizner, who inherited the “this guy might take over for Yadi if he ever took a day off” mantle from Carson Kelly, who is now the starting catcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. And Kelly projects to be a solid, mid-tier MLB starting catcher, with his above-average 2019 at the plate translating to a projected 88 wRC+ with solid defense. Molina’s defense projects to, even at his advanced age, be even better, but at the plate, his 74 wRC+ would be his worst mark since 2006. I don’t really buy why his offense would crater so badly, but I also don’t think I’d say having his best defensive season since 2017 is exactly the probable outcome, either. But I must abide by the WAR numbers, lest my subjectivity take over. The edge goes to the non-Cards. Non-Cardinals: 0.4 WAR.
The good news for the Cardinals is that they have Paul Goldschmidt. The bad news is they had Luke Voit. It’s a tough spot for Goldschmidt, whose acquisition has turned out reasonably well for the Cardinals (even if Carson Kelly is now projected to be superior to Yadier Molina, he wouldn’t actually end up seeing the field) and who still projects to be a top ten first baseman, including projecting higher than defending AL MVP Jose Abreu. But the problem is that Voit took his offense to an even higher level in 2020, hitting 22 home runs in the abbreviated season, and while he isn’t projected to go that nuclear again, ZiPS prefers him to Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt is probably the safer choice and might even be the better one–I could certainly see the argument–but Voit wins out by the same margin as with the catchers. Non-Cardinals: 0.8 WAR.
For some reason, Tommy Edman isn’t listed as a second baseman on the projections, but I slotted him in here regardless. The likely reason he isn’t listed as one is because Kolten Wong held down the position for the seven seasons prior to this one, and while ZiPS likes Edman, who has surpassed his prospect projections in the Majors, just fine, Wong projects to flash a superior glove and be one of the ten best overall second basemen in the sport. Non-Cardinals: 1.4 WAR.
Good news: The Cardinals finally win a position, and while the non-Cardinals edges up to this point aren’t that enormous, this one is so large that it flips the script on this exercise. Despite a very clearly down 2020 season, Nolan Arenado still projects as the sport’s sixth-best third baseman, with his elite glove enough to overcome an expected dip in offensive production off his career norms. And since the most notable active former third baseman is still on the team in Matt Carpenter, I had to dig for Jedd Gyorko, who is still a free agent but played in MLB, and well, last season. Gyorko is a fine player, but he’s no Arenado. The overall lead has switched hands. Cardinals: 1.1 WAR.
ZiPS believes in Paul DeJong to bounce back, ranking him just outside their top ten of shortstops for 2021 (in full disclosure, the gap between 10 and 11 is larger than the gap between 1 and 10). Aledmys Díaz, on the other hand, is viewed as a solid backup and nothing else–even with projections giving him material playing time for the Houston Astros, he is projected for good power but lousy on-base and fielding skills. The Cardinals expand their lead as they brace for the worst unit on their team. Cardinals: 2.6 WAR.
Really, Tyler O’Neill could play anywhere, but instead he has the indignity of taking the biggest L in this lineup. Because while O’Neill projects for a pretty mediocre plate performance, former Cardinals left fielder Marcell Ozuna projects to be a offensive juggernaut. While his 179 wRC+ of 2020 is almost certainly not replicable in a full 2021, his projected 126 wRC+ is well within the realms of possibility. I don’t think the gap is quite what ZiPS forecasts, as O’Neill is a substantially superior fielder, but the overall verdict siding with the non-Cardinal is reasonable. Non-Cardinals: 0.8 WAR.
Now we get to Randy Arozarena, whose ZiPS projection…seems fair! I’ve been banging the “come on guys, Arozarena isn’t THAT good” drum since October, but if you aren’t upping his projection at least a bit from what was already that of a top-100 prospect, that seems rather stubborn. I do have to cheat his position a little bit (though his playing left field probably has more to do with the excellence of Kevin Kiermaier with the Tampa Bay Rays than Arozarena having newfound shortcomings at it), but Arozarena projects as a moderately above-average center fielder, largely on the strength of his bat, while Harrison Bader projects as a moderately below-average center fielder, largely on the strength of his glove. Non-Cardinals: 1.2 WAR.
Another slight position cheat, as I’m putting Tommy Pham in right field over notably Jason Heyward (who only projects for 0.1 fewer WAR), but players who are trusted in left field can generally be trusted in right, especially if they also find playing time in center field. ZiPS likes Dylan Carlson quite a bit more than his rough rookie season might suggest, and his defensive metrics might end up getting an artificial bump with his likely to spend most of the first month of the season in center field with Harrison Bader out of commission, but Pham wins out on WAR (as would Heyward). Carlson certainly has the higher upside over the guys in their thirties, but this also makes him the riskiest. Non-Cardinals: 1.6 WAR.
The Cardinals get another win here thanks to Jack Flaherty, but is it enough to close a 1.6 WAR gap? Well, it depends. Literally speaking, no–Flaherty is projected for 0.9 more WAR than Marco Gonzales (and Zac Gallen, but I decided to give the nod to Gonzales since he, like the rest of his fake teammates, also played with the Cardinals in the Major Leagues). But should a pitcher count for more? After all, in a single game, wouldn’t Flaherty be worth five times more than WAR suggests, since he only pitches in 20% of his real games but 100% of games in this dumb hypothetical? But on the other hand, isn’t this nominally a question about lineups, and are pitchers really parts of lineups? Who is on the bench? Who serves as DH in the event of a DH? How does such a dumb hypothetical contain such multitudes?
I’m going with the straight WAR formula again. The non-Cardinals have the depth edge, anyway–a rotation of Marco Gonzales, Zac Gallen, Lance Lynn, Luke Weaver, and Sandy Alcantara is projected for a full win and a half more than Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Kwang-hyun Kim, Carlos Martinez, and Adam Wainwright. By only counting Flaherty, I’m arguably being generous to the current Cardinals. Non-Cardinals: 0.7 WAR.