With the Major League Baseball owners’ lockout officially in the rearview mirror of the baseball world, and Opening Day now just over a week away, the St. Louis Cardinals enter the 2022 season in a familiar place. Coming off of their third consecutive playoff appearance and second straight 90+ win campaign in seasons where Covid was not heavily involved, the Cardinals seem well-positioned to be, at the very least, playing October baseball again.
But not everyone sees it that way. Multiple projection systems such as Fangraphs and PECOTA have pegged the Cardinals as a fringe playoff team, a sentiment which John Fleming echoed on this very blog earlier this week. Even outside of the projection industry, there is a palpable pessimism if not outright discontent among the Cardinals fan base, a feeling that the organization has once again fallen short of doing what needs to be done to make the team a true World Series contender.
Which is odd, because although the Cardinals do enter 2022 with plenty of concerns, this still has the makings of a very good team.
The Cardinals return virtually everyone from last season’s roster that went 90-72, a record that was made possible by an offense that was arguably the best in the National League during the second half of the season, not just the 17-game winning streak the team embarked on in September. This year, the lineup (at least the top half of the order) looks pretty strong:
- Tommy Edman (2B)
- Dylan Carlson (RF)
- Paul Goldschmidt (1B)
- Tyler O’Neill (LF)
- Nolan Arenado (3B)
- Albert Pujols/Corey Dickerson (DH)
- Harrison Bader (CF)
- Yaider Molina (C )
- Paul DeJong/Edmundo Sosa (SS)
Goldschmidt put up his best offensive season since leaving Arizona in 2021, while Tyler O’Neill exploded in the second half of 2021 and ended up finishing 8th in NL MVP voting. If Dylan Carlson can continue to develop as a hitter in his second full MLB season, there could be some serious power in the heart of this order. Pujols and Dickerson figure to be a useful platoon at DH provided that nostalgia doesn’t get in the way of Oli Marmol’s lineup construction.
In the field, the Cardinals won a combined five Gold Glove Awards in 2021, and figure to once again be a very strong defensive team in 2022, particularly in the infield. Run prevention has been at the core of the Cardinals’ roster construction for years, and with the additions of Steven Matz and Dakota Hudson (returning from Tommy John surgery) to a starting rotation that was already above the Major League average in inducing ground balls, the Cardinals’ infield defense will be even more pivotal to the team’s success in 2022.
The obvious concern with the 2022 Cardinals is the starting rotation, which was wobbly before Jack Flaherty underwent shoulder surgery in spring training and now carries even more risk that could’ve been mitigated had the team signed another free agent starting pitcher in the offseason, but that would’ve required Bill DeWitt to spend money on something other than Ballpark Village. Of course, there is the possibility that the team could still trade for another starting pitcher in the near future, but everything we know about how the Cardinals operate tells us that they are content to begin 2022 with pitching options that are currently in-house.
With Flaherty set to miss at least the first couple weeks of the season, the Opening Day Cardinals rotation figures to consist of Adam Wainwright (who was absolutely outstanding in 2021, but will turn 41 later this year and can only defy Father Time for so long), Miles Mikolas (who has started exactly nine games since 2019), Matz (who is coming off of the best season of his career but has never been anything more than a 4th starter in his career thus far), Hudson (a player a lot like Matz who is also coming off of injury), and one of the team’s pitching prospects, presumably Matthew Liberatore.
Again, there’s really no excuse for the team not doing more to stabilize the starting rotation before Flaherty’s shoulder issues were known. In spite of this, the Cardinals believe that they have the gloves along the infield to bolster a ground ball-heavy rotation, and as much as we may like to complain about their lack of urgency in the free agent pitching market, they do have a defense perfectly designed to compliment a pitching staff like this.
If the offense and defense aren’t enough to convince you to buy stock in the 2022 St. Louis Cardinals, I invite you to take a look at their division rivals. The Pittsburgh Pirates are entering another year of Bob Nutting’s quest to have a negative payroll, the Cincinnati Reds have entered a full tear-down mode after exactly two years of trying to compete for the postseason, and although the Chicago Cubs could have a solid rotation with the surprising addition of Marcus Stroman, I still have no idea how this team plans to score runs. The defending NL Central champions, the Milwaukee Brewers, absolutely have the pitching strength to get back to October, but I don’t see their lineup having the firepower of other contending NL teams, particularly if Christian Yelich cannot get back to his old form.
To be clear, no sane person (and that includes this writer) considers the St. Louis Cardinals as they are constructed right now to be a World Series favorite (or even a National League favorite) in 2022. That said, between expanded playoffs, a weak division that has only gotten weaker, and a roster that was already strong both offensively and defensively, it’s not difficult to see the Cardinals winning the NL Central this season. Reader, I would go as far as to say that this is the best shape the Cardinals have been in at the start of a season since 2015.
Are there weaknesses with this Cardinals team? Absolutely. Should the front office have done more over the winter to address these weaknesses? I think so. But there are still plenty of reasons to be excited about the Redbirds as we head back to the ballpark for the 2022 MLB season, reasons that have nothing to do with sentiment or nostalgia, and I’m just thankful that we’ll get to experience a full season of this team in the first place.