During the 2021 Major League Baseball season, Yadier Molina will turn 39 and Adam Wainwright will turn 40. About a month after the World Series, Matt Carpenter will turn 36. None of these three players are under contract for 2022, and considered along with Albert Pujols, whose ten-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels ends after this season, it is possible that the four greatest active St. Louis Cardinals in 2021 will not be playing in 2022.

Aside from the aforementioned trio of Cardinals legends, only one active St. Louis Cardinals player, Carlos Martínez, has ever appeared in an NLCS or World Series victory for the Cardinals. The last such victory was in 2014, when now-Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Kolten Wong hit a walk-off home run to recover from a blown save in the top of the ninth inning by now-Oakland Athletics reliever Trevor Rosenthal, ultimately salvaging a solid start by now-Chicago White Sox starter Lance Lynn.

That the Cardinals only have four players remaining from the 2014 team is hardly abnormal–the Los Angeles Dodgers, the most consistently great team since then, only have three. That the Cardinals still have two players who were on the team in 2005 is itself a major anomaly–outside of the Cardinals, only Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals has been with his current team since 2005, and the fourth-most grizzled veteran, Joey Votto, debuted with the Cincinnati Reds in September 2007.

It’s not as though the presence of Molina, Wainwright, and to a lesser extent Carpenter is purely nostalgia farming. Yadier Molina, while certainly not the MVP-caliber player he was last decade, is still closer to a median MLB catcher than an outright unemployable one. By FanGraphs’s estimation, Adam Wainwright has been tied for the 57th best pitcher in baseball since 2019–while this sounds a bit uninspiring, it could easily be rephrased as “in a thirty-team league, he’d be a low-end #2 pitcher who would certainly be serviceable as a third or fourth starter”. And while Matt Carpenter’s struggles are well-documented and the Cardinals are likely just running out the clock on his contract, the contract was signed after an MVP-caliber season; the contract may not have worked out on baseball terms, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t signed under the expectation that it would.

No rational, semi-serious baseball observer believes that any of these three players are among the best players on the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals, but Molina and Wainwright in particular are certainly the most famous members of the Cardinals. The core of the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals are Nolan Arenado, Jack Flaherty, and Paul Goldschmidt, in some order, but the core of the team’s public identity is arguably the same as it has been since Albert Pujols left. Even if Molina, Wainwright, and/or Carpenter return in 2022, it is very unlikely their Cardinals careers would extend far beyond that, so the question becomes what the new team identity will be.

In three of the last four offseasons, the Cardinals attempted to forge a new identity by acquiring somebody else’s. The trades for Marcell Ozuna, Paul Goldschmidt, and now Nolan Arenado were attempts to give a jolt of energy to a stagnant lineup, but the folly in this logic is that each of these players became expendable because the nature of baseball is that one player alone cannot carry a team to grand success. If they could, the mediocre-to-bad teams from which they were acquired wouldn’t be in a position where they felt the need to trade away their star players in the first place. The best player in baseball, Mike Trout, has never won a playoff game. The second-best player in baseball, Mookie Betts, has won the World Series with two different teams, but that’s not because he has some kind of intangible Winner Sauce that Trout lacks–it’s because the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers were not counting on him to go beyond the physical limitations of the baseball individual. They needed him to be a great player, something Mookie Betts is more than qualified to do, so it worked.

Nolan Arenado is not quite a Mookie Betts-level player, but he has nevertheless been a very good one. But there is a reason the Colorado Rockies averaged just 75 wins per 162 games since Arenado made his debut–this was a team that, for the most part, lacked starting pitching depth and which despite surprisingly good production from its middle infielders, occasionally would trot out some frankly embarrassing outfields. In other words, Nolan Arenado should fit right in with the Cardinals.

This is overly glib, I’ll admit–the Cardinals were already a better team than the Rockies back when the Rockies were the team with Nolan Arenado. But the 2021 Cardinals are a fundamentally flawed team. It doesn’t mean they are a disaster waiting to happen, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean they can’t be a good team, but the holes on this team can be seen from another galaxy. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus predict that the Milwaukee Brewers will win the National League Central with the Cardinals finishing well outside of Wild Card contention. If the Cardinals do indeed miss the playoffs, an outcome I would agree is more likely than not, if not quite as likely as the 90%+ Baseball Prospectus odds seem to believe, there is a good chance that, with Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright nearing retirement, Matt Carpenter a pending free agent, and Carlos Martínez subject to a $16.5 million team option for 2022, next year’s Cardinals will be, for the first time since 1982, devoid of a player who had participated in an NLCS game victory for the Cardinals. While this is a bit of a cherry-picked fun fact, it is also a telling one.

The acquisition of Nolan Arenado, though a player about whom I have been openly lukewarm for years, is certainly a step in the right direction for the Cardinals. While not quite the Troutian or Bettsian level of player that he is occasionally purported to be, Arenado is indeed a quite good player, and at the risk of getting too bogged down in sophisticated mathematical concepts, acquiring a player who is projected to be among the top 40 position players in baseball is better than not acquiring one. While I was adamant in offseasons past that trading a Dylan Carlson or, Heaven forbid, Jack Flaherty for Arenado would be a catastrophic mistake, trading a handful of disposable prospects for somebody who is instantly one of your two or three best players is a move worth making. But the nature of his contract presents St. Louis with one of the most complicated emotional fan dichotomies that I can imagine.

If your primary hope for baseball is that the St. Louis Cardinals succeed at baseball, you should be hoping that at the end of the 2021 season, Nolan Arenado opts out of the remaining six years and $164 million of his contract. Realistically, no matter how much Arenado loves or hates St. Louis, he is going to act in his own economic best interest, and if, at the conclusion of a season defined in large part by revenues limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, Arenado believes he can do better than 6/164 as he begins to exit the prime of his career, that means he must have had a great season. The closest analogue to Arenado last off-season was George Springer, who signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for less money while being projected for more value in 2021 and, by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, being the superior player over the last two seasons. If Arenado has a lousy season, he won’t opt out. If he wins National League MVP, he will.

And yet I am certain there is a certain type of Cardinals fan who would, even if subliminally, prefer the former situation. So much of the Nolan Arenado acquisition is based on the idea of the Cardinals having heirs apparent to the Molina and Wainwright generation. There is a growing sense, somewhat valid and somewhat alarmist, that Jack Flaherty is as good as gone at some point in the near future–while I reject the increasingly pervasive premise that his political outspokenness will impact his value in any way in the eyes of an ownership group that may disagree with him on some issues but which is first and foremost concerned with employing productive employees, it is fair to ask if the Cardinals will be willing to pay Flaherty something in the neighborhood of what he could command as a free agent following the 2023 season. Realistically, with regards to both Flaherty and Arenado, we should just live in the moment and hope both are awesome players, and if and when they become too rich for the DeWitt family’s blood, we can be excited that we got what we got and then re-direct our angst towards the DeWitts (or at the very least, for the love of God, stop treating the Rockies’ chunk of payments due to Arenado as something worth celebrating as a fan of the Cardinals).

I’ll admit, nearly 1500 words in, that this has been a fairly lousy season preview post, so I guess I should make some sort of predictions.

  • I predicted in February that the Cardinals would win exactly 85 games. I said this mostly as a joke but I think I’m in. I think the Cardinals are marginally worse than they were in February due to starting pitching injuries, but I think most of the division is as bad or worse than they were in February. While the Chicago Cubs or Cincinnati Reds making a division run wouldn’t shock me, I think this will mostly be a two-horse race between the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, with me giving a slight edge to the Brewers. And I think both the Brewers or Cardinals will finish several games behind either the San Diego Padres or New York Mets for a Wild Card spot.
  • I predict that Yadier Molina surpasses his bearish ZiPS offensive projections for 2021 and winds up with a wRC+ around 90, but that his defense declines to a point of being functional but well removed from his prime. I predict that Adam Wainwright will more or less hit his projections of a mid-fours ERA and FIP and that he will have a brief IL stint but reach 150 or so innings on the whole. And I predict that the duo will ride off into the sunset and retire at the end of the 2021 season. And in a Cardinals-adjacent prediction about which I am far more certain than any of my others, I predict that Albert Pujols retires at the end of the season as well.
  • I predict that Nolan Arenado bounces back from his brutal offensive 2020 and ends up with a wRC+ around 110. I predict that there will be a bit of a backlash to him when instead of hitting his typical Coors Field-fueled upper thirties to lower forties home runs, Arenado settles in around the low-to-mid-twenties, but that his defensive production will continue unabated and that he will still be a valuable, if not MVP-level, player. I predict that Arenado will not opt out after the 2021 season, keeping his options open for a post-2022 opt-out but happy to make $35 million in 2022 in what will still be a somewhat fickle environment for free agents.
  • I predict that Matt Carpenter bounces back somewhat at the plate, but to more like 2019 levels of production than his numbers prior to that. He won’t come anywhere close to the plate appearances needed for his 2022 vesting option, and with Arenado (and Goldschmidt) coming back, the still-positionless Carpenter will head to some bad (probably AL, provided the NL doesn’t get the designated hitter just yet) team where he can actually get playing time and maybe bounce back enough to get traded to a contender for middling prospects at the 2022 trade deadline.
  • I predict that Carlos Martínez is exactly solid, noticeably better than his mid-4s ERA projections and closer to 4.00, perhaps slightly lower. The Cardinals will have a tough decision on whether to pick up his option but the two sides opt to restructure and add a year to the contract to make it effectively something along the lines of a three-year, $42 million contract, thus giving the Cardinals a heavily discounted 2024 but also assuring Martínez of his 2022 and 2023 paydays.
  • I predict that Jack Flaherty will be electric to 2019 levels (note that I said 2019 levels and not “second half of 2019 levels”). He will pick up some down-ballot Cy Young votes and, given the somewhat middling nature of the Cardinals’ season, there will be some rumors that the Cardinals might sell high on Flaherty as he enters his second season of salary arbitration. But the Cardinals will ask for a package headlined by somebody along the lines of C.J. Abrams, a top-ten MLB prospect at shortstop in the San Diego Padres organization, the Padres will say no, and Flaherty will be a Cardinal in 2022.
  • I predict that by late June, Busch Stadium is back to full capacity, and that demand after the last year is going to soar. And maybe it’ll be two years in a row I don’t go to a Cardinals game, and that’ll be fine, because I’ll at least be able to safely watch games with friends, and after 2020, that’s good enough for me.

One thought on “The end of the road

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