And just like that, the St. Louis Cardinals are in a playoff position.
A week ago, the Cardinals were firmly in single-digit odds to make the postseason, trailing both the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds for the National League’s second Wild Card spot. And now, the Cardinals’ playoff odds, effectively staked entirely in the league’s #5 seed, stand at 41.0%, higher than the individual odds of both the Padres or Reds.
I will be the first to admit I didn’t see this coming. The San Diego Padres entered 2021 being picked by some (not me, but some) to win the NL West and by others (me, very much me) to run away with the National League’s first Wild Card spot, but with the exception of Joe Musgrove, whom the Cardinals will avoid in their upcoming three-game set against the Padres at Busch Stadium, the staff has been ravaged by injuries and ineffectiveness. The Cincinnati Reds were a minor surprise in 2021, and even if one does not believe firmly in their talent, their weak September schedule was supposed to allow them to coast, but starting on September 3, the Reds lost two of three each to the non-playoff bound Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers, then lost two of three to the Cardinals, and have lost their first two games to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The biggest obstacle to the Cardinals getting back into playoff position was never how many games out they were, a number which never exceeded 3.5 games, but the need to jump two teams in the standings. But both the Padres and Reds have struggled, while the Cardinals went a full month in which every series was a split, a mark of steady competence usually more befitting of holding a lead than establishing one. However, last night, the Cardinals completed a three-game sweep of the New York Mets, fringe contenders themselves, and while the race being a three-horse one makes no single team a prohibitive favorite, the math says that even if the San Diego Padres are on paper the best team in the race, you should go with the team in the lead. And that’s the Cardinals.
I have to admit that watching the Cardinals almost every day has given me a bias, but not the type of bias one usually associates with having a hometown team for whom you root–the bias is that I see, up close, the Cardinals’ flaws. I don’t see these flaws on a regular basis with the Padres nor the Reds–I see big names like Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Adam Frazier, Eugenio Suárez, and Luis Castillo and associate them with their peaks, a benefit of the doubt I would never grant to Yadier Molina or Jon Lester (even I am well past being in awe of the name “Jake Arrieta”).
But when you take a step back and look at the Cardinals through an objective lens, they aren’t a bad team. They aren’t a great team, certainly, but the National League’s second Wild Card spot will likely go to a team that wins 85 or so games. This is a team with two 5+ Wins Above Replacement players (Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill), a third with 4+ (Nolan Arenado), and four more with 3+ (Adam Wainwright, Tommy Edman, Edmundo Sosa, Harrison Bader). The Reds can’t boast two 5+ WAR players, nor can the Padres (who only have four total players above 3 WAR).
The Cardinals do not have an identical team to the one which won the 2019 National League Central and made it all the way to the National League Championship Series, which was unfortunately canceled and therefore no record of it exists, but the similarities are absolutely there. But if you set aside the holdovers from 2019’s everyday starting lineup–Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, and Harrison Bader (and mind you that while Molina is a bit of a push, Goldschmidt and Bader are having materially better 2021 seasons than their 2019s)–everything seems familiar. At second base resides a quick, slick fielder whose offensive production is not quite that of a big bopper in the heart of the lineup but who is hardly an automatic out, either. At shortstop resides a recent non-prospect who has shocked Cardinals fans with his overall solid production at the MLB level, and on the bench with the ability to spot either middle infielder in the lineup is somebody arguably overqualified for a bench position. At third base is somebody whose offense is lagging a bit from his previous seasons but is still very much an area of concern for opposing teams (which is arguably an unfair undersell of Nolan Arenado; while 2019 Matt Carpenter was far superior to 2021 Matt Carpenter, he wasn’t nearly as competent as the present-day not-quite-Colorado-good-but-still-very-good Arenado). In left field is a dangerous power hitter and former Gold Glove winner who arguably pressed at the plate too much early in his Cardinals career but who has evolved into one of the lineup’s most imposing threats. And in right field is a switch-hitter with a history of at least being able to fake competence in center field whose offense has rebounded nicely from his awful previous season but is probably not quite as eye-popping as one might have hoped. Oh, and the staff ace is a guy who had a decent first half of the season but has turned into an absolute behemoth in the second half, on his way to a sub-3 ERA and mid-3s FIP. But other than that.
Even if the Cardinals did manage to get past the (at this point) Los Angeles Dodgers in order to face the San Francisco Giants, a team against whom it is illegal for the Cardinals to win in the postseason in my lifetime, there are certainly questions about how the starting rotation would stack up. Adam Wainwright would be the top-choice starter, even if Jack Flaherty returns and is ostensibly healthy–I do still think Flaherty is the “better” pitcher, but coming straight off an injury, I wouldn’t take such a risk. But then, beyond Flaherty and with Kwang Hyun Kim relegated to the bullpen, the Cardinals could reasonably be stuck keeping their fingers crossed in hoping that two more late-aughts World Series champions, Jon Lester and JA Happ, can carry them in The Year Of Our Lord Twenty Twenty-One. That I at one point this week thought, “Hmm, is Jake Woodford going to be a playoff starter?” sure doesn’t seem like a great sign. But this is the way of modern baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays, the American League’s best team, has gone through 39 pitchers in 2021, and none have thrown more than 138 1/3 innings (and the top two by innings, Ryan Yarbrough and Our Old Friend Michael Wacha, have been terrible). Baseball isn’t played with staff aces pitching the overwhelming number of innings, or at least it doesn’t have to be. This means depending on the bullpen, widely derided for the Cardinals this year, but again, I have a bias against the team whose bullpen I’ve personally seen blow more late games than any other team. In practice, the Cardinals’ bullpen has been above the league median by both ERA and FIP this season. I wouldn’t call it a strength of the team, but it has been far superior to the unit of the Reds, with a similar FIP to that of the Padres. Every team has problems; you just may not always see them.
The Cardinals would be, and should be, underdogs in the National League Wild Card Game, the National League Division Series, the National League Championship Series, the World Series, and at that point we’ll probably still expect that they can’t even arrive on time for the championship parade. But for now, it feels like October. We’re already rankling the feathers of Michael Schur, the television writer/blogger whose favorite baseball team has won four World Series titles in the lifetimes of high school seniors, due to the supposed inevitability of it all (to be fair, in the Fall of 2011, he didn’t yet know how bad the post-Michael Scott Office was going to get, nor did he likely comprehend how poorly the Ron Swanson “lovable anti-government government guy who intentionally derails the public good” archetype would age, so I get why he wants to return to that era, of baseball internet and everything else), so I feel like this season has already achieved levels of satisfaction I did not anticipate a few weeks ago. But keep in mind that the Cardinals aren’t ruining anything for anyone. The San Diego Padres, who unlike Schur’s Boston Red Sox actually are an objectively more fun and exciting team and story than the Cardinals, still control their own destiny. But if they can’t overtake the Cardinals, they will not have earned it. And a team that is better than we act like it is will have.