The 2004 St. Louis Cardinals have the most wins in franchise history among seasons where most of the league’s top players were not on active duty during World War II. If the 2022 Cardinals, a team which is already in good position to make the postseason, were to win the final twenty-four games of their regular season, they would merely tie the 2004 Cardinals by victory total. And while the 2004 team had a number of very good baseball players, it is impossible to not immediately conjure up memories of the trio at the heart of the Cardinals’ everyday lineup dubbed “The MV3”. Due to Scott Rolen injuries and Jim Edmonds aging, their reign of terror on National League pitching alongside Albert Pujols did not last as long as it might seem like it did, but in 2004, the Cardinals Death Star was fully operational.
2004 was a relatively mediocre year for Albert Pujols, by which I mean “he had an MVP-caliber season but did not go quite as Psycho Mode as in a handful of other seasons”, but for Jim Edmonds and especially Scott Rolen, it meant the best seasons of their careers simultaneously. And yet Rolen and Edmonds were outdone by other peers of theirs by Wins Above Replacement; Scott Rolen was out-WARed by Adrián Beltré, who himself was having easily the best season of his future Hall of Fame career (although later sabermetrics narrowed the gap, Beltré still held a small edge by both wRC+ and Defensive Runs Above Average, so it’s hard to not objectively go with Beltré); Jim Edmonds, although the best center fielder in baseball by WAR, was not a top-three outfielder (the parameter used by Major League Baseball today for their All-MLB teams) by a combination of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs WAR (which is a metric I will use a lot going forward, though if you went by the former, which is the more frequently cited of the two, this remains true)–the top outfielders that year were Barry Bonds (.609 OBP), recent Edmonds teammate J.D. Drew, and Ichiro Suzuki, who broke the all-time single-season hit record. Albert Pujols outpaced Todd Helton for the crown of Top MLB First Baseman, but he was the only Cardinal on this hypothetical all-MLB team. It’s a bummer for the other two-thirds of the MV3, who ran into a gauntlet of competition, but that’s how it shook out.
The St. Louis Cardinals haven’t had a position player finish at the top of his position (or in the top three of outfielders) by hybrid WAR since 2013, when two Cardinals, catcher Yadier Molina and second baseman Matt Carpenter, were the kings of their position. The Cardinals had more than their fair share of second-teamers–Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill in 2021, Tommy Pham in 2017, Jason Heyward in 2015, Jhonny Peralta in 2014–but the barrier for entry is extraordinarily high for the first team. Having two players make the first-team is a major accomplishment–the Toronto Blue Jays, courtesy of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien, pulled this off in 2021. Having three make it is extremely rare, though the San Diego Padres, via Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Trent Grisham, did it in 2020 (yes, shortened season, but it was shortened for everybody, it’s fine). And the Cardinals, for all of their accomplishments as a franchise, have never had more than two players on the top team of Major League Baseball in one season. Here’s the list of duos to have accomplished this feat so far.
- 2013: Yadier Molina (C) and Matt Carpenter (2B)
- 2002: Scott Rolen (3B*, though most of the season was spent with the Philadelphia Phillies) and Jim Edmonds (OF)
- 1985: Ozzie Smith (SS) and Willie McGee (OF)
- 1967: Tim McCarver (C) and Orlando Cepeda (1B)
- 1963: Bill White (1B) and Dick Groat (SS)
- 1956: Stan Musial (1B) and Ken Boyer (3B)
- 1953: Red Schoendienst (2B) and Stan Musial (OF)
- 1952: Solly Hemus (SS) and Stan Musial (OF)
- 1946: Whitey Kurowski (3B) and Stan Musial (OF)
- 1925: Jim Bottomley (1B) and Rogers Hornsby (2B)
- 1918: Mike González (C) and Rogers Hornsby (SS)
This accomplishment of having two all-MLB position players became objectively harder than ever before in 1998, when Major League Baseball expanded to thirty teams (though the implementation of the designated hitter in the National League this season did make things a bit easier for NL teams), so that it has only happened twice should not be a surprise. But it looks increasingly likely that the Cardinals will at the very least match the accomplishment of eleven previous seasons in 2022, and they have a very good chance of eclipsing it.
Paul Goldschmidt will almost certainly be the sport’s top first baseman in 2022. The gap between Goldschmidt and most of the field is so pronounced that only two other first basemen are within half of Goldschmidt’s composite WAR, and Christian Walker of the Arizona Diamondbacks trails by such a wide margin that even if Goldschmidt missed the remainder of the season, it is extremely unlikely Walker (who, to be clear, is having a very good season, but ain’t Paul Goldschmidt) could catch him. The only player even in the neighborhood of Goldschmidt at first base is Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, and “in the neighborhood” is arguably a bit generous–Goldschmidt leads Freeman by 1 FanGraphs WAR and 2.5 Baseball Reference WAR. Despite his reputation at the position, Goldschmidt’s defensive metrics at first base have lagged a bit this season behind Freeman and especially Christian Walker, but Goldschmidt has been the clearly superior hitter. While Freddie Freeman has been incredible at reaching base, and Christian Walker has been a superior power hitter, Goldschmidt has combined the two and exceeded both players’ terrific seasons. See below from FanGraphs.
Thanks to Manny Machado and to some extent Austin Riley, the gap at third base is less pronounced, but Nolan Arenado leads both by bWAR and fWAR over the field. Although Riley has led the group in terms of power and Machado has a slight edge by on-base percentage, Nolan Arenado has a slight overall lead by wRC+ and a pronounced lead by Defensive Runs Above Average. While his inflated raw numbers in Colorado may look a little bit better, adjusting for offensive environment, this has easily been the best season of Nolan Arenado’s career. See below, again from FanGraphs.
At this point, it would be surprising if either Goldschmidt or Arenado did not make the All-MLB Team, much less the All-WAR Team. But the factor which could make the 2022 Cardinals team historic is Tommy Edman. Edman has played enough at both second base and shortstop to qualify for either position, and in either spot, he is a legitimate contender.
I will start with second base, as this is the cleaner position to cover. As of right now, Tommy Edman is tied for the Major League lead in both bWAR and fWAR with Andrés Giménez of the Cleveland Guardians (though the competition for Goldschmidt and Arenado has been serendipitously confined to the National League, the American League is very much eligible). Here’s another FanGraphs snapshot.
These are two fairly different players. Giménez has been the undeniably superior hitter between the two; even if you can attribute some of this to BABIP luck, he has hit for undeniably more power than Edman. But Edman has a nearly 100 plate appearance advantage, which matters from the perspective of sheer productivity, and he has been a truly superior fielder and base runner.
But as it stands right now, you would not need to decide between Giménez and Edman, as both would make the all-WAR team. While Tommy Edman trails four more conventional, full-time shortstops by FanGraphs WAR–Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson, Francisco Lindor, and Trea Turner–Edman leads all four by bWAR, leading Bogaerts by a 0.9-win gap that fully closes the 0.6-win edge that Bogaerts has on the FanGraphs side. And Edman holds his own in a side-by-side comparison with Bogaerts. Edman has more home runs (well, one more home run), an offense not being propelled by a .377 BABIP, a 26-8 stolen base lead and freakishly efficient numbers both on the base paths and on defense (and consider that Edman hasn’t received the positional benefit that comes with being a full-time shortstop).
Tommy Edman may be having the quietest great season for the St. Louis Cardinals in my lifetime. The only four position players in the sport who have been more valuable this season by Baseball Reference WAR are Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Mookie Betts. And Edman is succeeding in a replicative way–he isn’t succeeding by virtue of outrageous batted ball luck, but rather by expanding upon the decent offense and solid base running and defense of years past. On an MVP ballot, he will and should rank below Goldschmidt and Arenado, but this is hardly an indictment of Tommy Edman.
I don’t know a Cardinals fan who would straight up call Tommy Edman a superstar, but based on the numbers, maybe we should call him one–since he made his MLB debut on June 8, 2019, he has been the 19th best position player in baseball by fWAR, which mind you is the version of Wins Above Replacement that likes Edman less. He has been more valuable than Carlos Correa or Corey Seager or Matt Chapman or Matt Olson or Yordan Alvarez or Trevor Story. And he may be less than a month away from joining his more acclaimed teammates to make St. Louis Cardinals history.