Tomorrow, the St. Louis Cardinals will begin a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers, a team with no motiviation. The Brewers clinched the National League Central on Sunday and are mathematically locked into the NL’s second seed. Because Brewers manager Craig Counsell is a fairly smart guy, you can rest assured that if the Brewers sweep the Cardinals this week, it will be an accident. And if the Cardinals can win any of the three games, or any of the three games this coming weekend against the hapless Chicago Cubs, or even just have the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds lose a game, they will secure the second Wild Card in the National League.
This seemed impossible a few weeks ago, but a sixteen-game winning streak, the National League’s longest since the sport’s integration, has a way of turning things around. Despite the Cardinals’ incredibly hot hitting, they will likely be underdogs to the Max Scherzer-led Los Angeles Dodgers in a one-game playoff, but also, it’s the playoffs and that’s a thing I didn’t expect before the season, much less entering September.
It is now time for the St. Louis Cardinals to make decisions on how to arrange their roster for the postseason. They will get to reset their roster for each round, which means that their Wild Card roster will vary slightly because, for instance, they will probably refrain from putting their starter for next Sunday on the roster (given that they will likely have nothing to play for by the start of their series against the Cubs, the Cardinals are more likely to give me the Sunday start than anyone who figures significantly into their October plans, but nevertheless). But I want to arrange a 26-man roster for the hypothetical NLDS. The variance between this roster and the Wild Card game should be minimal–I just want to be clear about what I’m attempting here.
Catchers–Yadier Molina and Andrew Knizner: These are obvious spots, of course. Yadier Molina will need to be dragged kicking and screaming away from the lineup for any postseason game in which he is able to stand up, and probably some games where he is able to at least lay comfortably behind home plate. And for all of the reasonable critiques one can have of Andrew Knizner, catchers other than Molina or Knizner have a combined four plate appearances in 2021. The Cardinals will surely hope they do not have to play Knizner, but having a backup for Molina is essential.
First Base–Paul Goldschmidt: It wasn’t too terribly long ago that Goldschmidt was viewed as a semi-bust–a failed attempt to give the Cardinals a Albert Pujols-esque middle of the lineup bat who was merely a fine player. But Goldschmidt is having easily his best season as a Cardinal and is going to find himself collecting MVP votes in a month. Given Matt Carpenter’s struggles, you could make a case that Goldschmidt is the single least replaceable player in the Cardinals’ lineup.
Second Base–Tommy Edman: Tommy Edman is a league average-ish hitter with strong defense, which makes him an extraordinarily logical successor to Kolten Wong. And for all of the re-litigating of the Cardinals’ choice to let Wong walk in the off-season, it’s not fair to blame Edman too much–I have said from the day it happened that letting Kolten Wong go to Milwaukee was a mistake not because Edman isn’t worthy of starting, but because it’s an extraordinarily notable flex to have a player as good as Edman on your bench. Anyway, Edman is a well above-average second baseman by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement and a somewhat above-average one by FanGraphs WAR (a number which is weighed down by his far-too-often starts in the outfield, where he can’t hit well enough to be a star; he can absolutely hit well enough for second base).
Third Base–Nolan Arenado: Sorry for anyone who thought I would steer super hard into my relative Nolan Arenado cynicism–the 4+ WAR starting third baseman should start, actually.
Shortstop–Paul DeJong(?): I’ve spent most of the Edmundo Sosa surge being a little lukewarm on the experience and more than a bit perplexed how quickly the Cardinals seemed to sour on DeJong, who is still hitting home runs every twenty plate appearances but seems to have fallen victim to unconscionably poor luck with regards to batting average on balls in play, with just a .216 mark. Edmundo Sosa has had superior offensive statistics, and they have been strong enough to accept him as a utility infielder, but given DeJong’s track record of strong defense (while Sosa has made more eye-popping plays and has solid metrics, DeJong’s still hold a decisive advantage), I still generally prefer him in the lineup. That said, Max Scherzer could be a rough matchup for the strikeout-prone DeJong, so assuming Sosa comes back healthy (he missed the last three games after being hit by a pitch), I’m fine playing the matchups and giving the start to Sosa. That said, spoiler alert for a little later, they both easily make this roster.
Left Field–Tyler O’Neill: The jacked guy with elite speed is cool, it seems.
Center Field–Harrison Bader: Remember how into Peter Bourjos people who were really into Peter Bourjos were? Bader has basically become what everyone’s wildest fantasies for Bourjos were. He can be a little below-average at the plate and still be very playable due to his best-in-the-game center field defense, but now it seems he’s awesome at hitting baseballs too.
Right Field–Dylan Carlson: He’s sort of become the boring guy in the lineup lately, but Carlson is still an above-average hitter on the whole and is going to finish the season around league-average. Given how fatalistic many were about the Cardinals were a few months ago about the outfield, it’s quite the glow-up.
Others–Lars Nootbaar, José Rondón, Edmundo Sosa: As a relentless Matt Carpenter stan, this one breaks my heart, but I just can’t imagine a scenario where I would actually want the Cardinals to deploy him. He’s a Cardinals luminary and a worthy team Hall of Famer, and by all means give him a prime spot in the dugout like he’s 2011 Adam Wainwright, but a 71 wRC+ for a guy whose defense is, at best, passable is not going to cut it. Sosa is a lock, and I would argue that so is Lars Nootbaar, who is now above league-average in 114 plate appearances and has been a worthy backup for Dylan Carlson. Nootbaar may never escape his meme status but he has shown promise of becoming a Professional Hitter type off the bench. And while I can’t pretend José Rondón inspires a ton of confidence, he has been a league-average hitter in 2021, and while I am not sold that he is actually this good of a hitter long-term, his ability to play multiple positions makes him a more intriguing option than Matt Carpenter, who is defensively versatile in some ways but is made increasingly redundant by Edmundo Sosa.
Starter #1–Adam Wainwright: His somewhat shaky last start aside, Adam Wainwright has been the team’s most consistent starter in 2021 by far and will easily be the team’s top choice to start games come October. He is the only pitcher who has shown even a remote ability to go late into games, which has some diminishing value in October with expanded bullpen and whatnot, but he is clearly the staff’s trusted leader.
Starter #2–Jack Flaherty: He is coming off an injury and looked shaky in his start on Friday, but Jack Flaherty is easily the most talented starting pitcher the Cardinals have. I certainly do not trust Flaherty to go deep into games, but sandwiched between more conventional starters, I am willing to lean heavily on upside.
Starter #3–Miles Mikolas: Speaking of guys coming off injurires, Miles Mikolas has had a mixed return to the Cardinals’ rotation, but he has had two reasonably effective starts in a row, and honestly, that’s good enough for me. It’s hard to describe how tenuous the starting rotation of a team with a sixteen-game winning streak is, but if the Cardinals just keep hitting as a team like Paul Goldschmidt hits regularly, they should be okay.
Starter #4–Jon Lester: As much as the Jon Lester Reinvention Tour is transparently based on him getting a ton of luck, it’s not as though the Cardinals are swimming in options for the fourth starter role. Also, he hasn’t given up more than three earned runs in a start in over a month, so even if he’s profiting off a solid defense, that defense will still be around in the postseason.
Bullpen (The Obviouses)–Génesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos, Luís Garcia, T.J. McFarland, Alex Reyes: Despite bumps in the road, notably from Alex Reyes, the Cardinals are still weighing heavily on their big-three relief core from throughout the season, and it’s not as though a particularly trusted reliever is being left off the roster. Meanwhile, while I remain highly dubious that thirtysomething journeymen Garcia and McFarland will remain true bullpen saviors throughout October, I’m not going to get too cute here.
Bullpen (The Less Obviouses)–JA Happ, Dakota Hudson, Kwang Hyun Kim, Kodi Whitley: Admittedly, Whitley is starting to venture more into the obvious territory. A sub-3 ERA and mid-three FIP will inspire some confidence, even among those of us who viewed him as an afterthought throughout most of his prospect tenure. Happ, Hudson, and Kim are all starters by trade and choosing them over, God help me, Andrew Miller or Brandon Waddell, it is built at least somewhat on a leap of faith that starters get a boost in the bullpen. Kim in particular is a curious case, because he was a solid starter who simply couldn’t get further in games. Hudson was a FIP-beating monster as a starter in 2019, and while I am not sold on him in the rotation, I am willing to concede that he is a likely candidate to eat innings. And JA Happ is also a pitcher who exists.