Last year, I wrote a moderately silly post on here about a funny thing I had noticed on Baseball Reference–that the St. Louis Cardinals had, from 2011 through 2020, never had the same Wins Above Replacement (the Baseball Reference variant) leader twice. Not twice in a row–twice. Of course, the guy who led the Cardinals in 2011, Albert Pujols, also led in it a bunch of times, before this run, but for a decade, the Cardinals lived up to their reputation as a well-rounded, fairly star-less team.
When I posted that, the Cardinals had the second-longest active streak in baseball, trailing only the San Diego Padres, and were tied for their own longest streak in history. And by the end of the 2021 season, thanks to Fernando Tatis Jr. having his second Padres WAR leading season in the last three years and thanks to Tyler O’Neill breaking out in a monster way for the Cardinals, the Cardinals got to 11 consecutive seasons with a different WAR leader and sole possession of the sport’s longest active streak.
Reaching twelve consecutive seasons would be a big deal for this streak. Only two streaks ever–the fourteen of the 1937-1950 Philadelphia Phillies, and what I consider an absolutely untouchable record of 23 by the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics from 1950 through 1972–are longer than twelve. And twelve is very much a possibility.
Here is where I rank the ten players that I think are the most likely to extend this streak through 2022 for the St. Louis Cardinals. Please note that this is not a list of the ten players whose average or median projection should be the highest, but rather guys with the potential to break through to a reasonable level–after all, if said player isn’t at least within reasonable proximity of a 5-win season, it’s highly unlikely he would lead a team that should be competing for a postseason berth, hence my hesitance to put relief pitchers on the list. Also, just a friendly reminder that the following players have already led the Cardinals in WAR during this span and are thus ineligible–Jack Flaherty, Paul Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas, Yadier Molina, Tyler O’Neill, Adam Wainwright. I also am rendering Albert Pujols ineligible, even though his leading the team would not snap the streak but rather postpone it (as it would now run from 2012 through 2022), but also, well, you know.
10. Nolan Gorman–Gorman is quite obviously inhibited by not presently being on the 40-man roster, but he could easily be with the big club by late April after ~working on his defense~ while having defensive versatility at relatively significant positions on the defense spectrum and an acclaimed bat. There is a world in which Nolan Gorman has a 2013 Matt Carpenter season and, frankly, the guy I had to squeeze off the list to put Gorman on was Frankie Montas, a guy who is not on the St. Louis Cardinals, probably will not be on the St. Louis Cardinals this season, and has a career high WAR of 3.6 that almost certainly wouldn’t be enough to reach this list if he repeated it anyway.
9. Juan Yepez–The thing that really gives me pause about Yepez isn’t even that he’s never swung a bat in the Major Leagues–it’s that if he gets enough plate appearances to challenge for this, it will likely be at first base and designated hitter, and he would probably have to absolutely, positively rake in order to reach the upper levels of this list. That said, his minor league batting numbers look very promising, so even if I don’t think the odds are great, they aren’t zero.
8. Edmundo Sosa–I am admittedly and openly not a huge believer in Edmundo Sosa, but he put up 3.2 WAR in what was effectively half a season’s worth of starter plate appearances last year. And this was without any sort of absolutely wild BABIP luck either–if he could work some more walks into his 2021 stat line, Edmundo Sosa could be a really viable player. The big problem for him is that he is blocked from a starting role in either middle infield spot, but if he can replicate his 2021 rate for 2022, Sosa might be able to withstand having a bench role for the early part of the season.
7. Steven Matz–Matz has had multiple WAR seasons in the twos, and while most view him as more of a high-floor guy than a high-ceiling one, and not unfairly, a guy who will undoubtedly be in the Cardinals’ starting rotation if healthy is a necessity on this list. Matz was also a hyped pitching prospect (though to be fair, what New York Mets pitcher isn’t?) and I’m willing to buy some “Steven Matz late bloomer breakout” penny stocks as the #7 pick, why not?
6. Dakota Hudson–The Cardinals very clearly view Dakota Hudson as indispensible to the rotation, sacrificing any semblance of depth to leave no doubt that Hudson will be in the rotation if healthy. “If healthy” is a big part of the equation, but if Dakota Hudson can get his walks under control, which he did in 2020 and 2021 (in limited time, granted), the ground ball pitcher could get solid results with the Cardinals’ sterling infield defense behind him (note that this title is about the Baseball Reference WAR leader, which more heavily factors in earned run average than fielding-independent statistics where Hudson has tended to struggle).
5. Tommy Edman–Between 2019 and 2020, Tommy Edman had 576 plate appearances at the Major League level and he was worth 5.1 WAR. Last season, in 691 plate appearances, he was worth 3.7 WAR. Wins Above Replacement models famously loved Ben Zobrist beyond his more widely held reputation, and Tommy Edman, a second baseman by trade but someone who can play straight up anywhere with switch-hitting ability to boot, is something of a poor man’s version of this. Edman’s offense dipped last season–it wasn’t horrible, but a .695 OPS with a .308 OPS is worrying if you’re banking on a guy to be his team’s best player–but if he can simply get to his career numbers–a .736 OPS and .321 OBP, he’s a lot closer to contending for this than his reputation might suggest.
4. Paul DeJong–A solid glove at shortstop can get you really far. In 2019, despite being a below-average hitter by OPS+, Paul DeJong was worth 5.3 WAR, a number which in a vacuum can be enough to lead a playoff team–in fact, he was only 0.3 WAR from Jack Flaherty’s team-leading mark that year. Over the last two seasons (during which DeJong has had fewer plate appearances than in 2019 alone), DeJong has been a worse hitter and he hasn’t quite replicated his Gold Glove-worthy 2019 metrics (though these statistics can be pretty noisy, and his defense has been far from calamitous), which is cause for concern. But as far as DeJong’s best case scenarios go, we have seen him be an above-average hitter for seasons and a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop for seasons, and he’s only 28 years old, so a fully-formed 2022 is not out of the question.
3. Harrison Bader–Speaking of guys who can go really far with their glove alone, Harrison Bader is probably the best defensive center fielder in baseball today. Bader is a streaky hitter, but despite his reputation as an offensive enigma, he has really only had one truly below-average season at the plate (2019, where he was still the team’s sixth most valuable player despite being regularly benched), and despite only reaching 401 plate appearances last year due to injuries, Bader was still a nearly 4-win player. There are a few cases on this list where I’m asking an awful lot out of guys, but “do what you did last year but over six months rather than essentially four” is not too absurd.
2. Dylan Carlson–Dylan Carlson was a 3.2 WAR player last year and expectations were so high that, despite being a Rookie of the Year finalist, it still felt a little bit underwhelming. A solid defensive corner outfielder with a bat that made him a top-10 prospect in baseball, Dylan Carlson may actually be a bad sign for the long term health of this WAR streak because he should have so many opportunities in the future. Carlson needs to take another step to reach this level of performance, but the 23 year-old is as good of a candidate as any to do so.
1. Nolan Arenado–By far the safest pick of the candidates to be in the upper reaches of the WAR leaderboard, Arenado is the only candidate with a demonstrated record of the required level of success–he once had a 5.9 WAR season that was his worst in a five-year stretch. Although Arenado finished decently behind Tyler O’Neill and Paul Goldschmidt last season, one could argue in either direction that 2022 bodes well for Arenado–either he won’t be pressing after enormous expectations were placed on him in 2021 in St. Louis, or he will be motivated to cause havoc so that he can opt out of his contract and make even more money going forward (or you could say “well, everyone else on this list also finished way behind O’Neill and Goldschmidt”, which is also true and probably the easiest approach). Arenado will be 31 for most of the 2022 season–he could be in moderate decline, but also I’m not exactly banking on a guy with 4.1 WAR in 2021 to turn into a pumpkin in 2022.