In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals’ best player by Wins Above Replacement was Albert Pujols–WAR is not perfect, but it is a decent, objective proxy for player ability. The next season, after Pujols left town, the team’s leader was Yadier Molina. And in the subsequent decade, an additional ten different players led the team: Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jason Heyward, Carlos Martínez, Tommy Pham, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and last year, Nolan Arenado.

Last year, I successfully (though this was hardly a unique take) identified Arenado as the most likely Cardinal to extend the streak. At twelve consecutive unique WAR leaders, the Cardinals are now tied for the third-longest streak in MLB history–they are within striking distance of #2, the 1937-1950 Philadelphia Phillies (who were undoubtedly assisted by the extreme roster instability that came during World War II), though I am on the record of believing that the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics record of 23, from 1950 through 1972, is unbeatable. But unlike last season, when the Cardinals still had a perennial MVP candidate hanging around with the chance to extend the streak, the list of credible candidates has grown smaller.

There are six current St. Louis Cardinals that cannot lead the Cardinals in WAR if the streak is to continue: Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and Nolan Arenado. While this represents less than a fourth of the Cardinals’ projected 26-man roster, the list includes the team’s projected WAR leader by ZiPS (Arenado) and the defending National League MVP (Goldschmidt). But it is still fully within the realm of possibility, if less likely than in either of the last two years, for the streak to continue. Below are the ten players who have the best chance of leading the St. Louis Cardinals in Wins Above Replacement for the first time (since 2011–I suppose, like, Scott Rolen is eligible).

10. Matthew Liberatore–I don’t really know what to expect from Matthew Liberatore in 2023–there’s a pretty decent chance he doesn’t even crack the Cardinals’ starting rotation, given that they have six starting pitchers already making money that the Cardinals would probably, all other things being equal, prefer not to put in the bullpen (the aforementioned Wainwright, Mikolas, and Flaherty, plus recent free agent signing Steven Matz, third-year arbitration Jordan Montgomery, and second-year arbitration Dakota Hudson). There are a ton of safer bets to out-WAR Liberatore–say, Ryan Helsley or Giovanny Gallegos out of the bullpen–but Liberatore has higher potential–he projects long-term as a starting pitcher and was until recently a pretty acclaimed prospect. Let’s put it this way–I think Liberatore is far less likely to accumulate 2 WAR than Adam Wainwright, but I would say an uncertain youngster like Liberatore is more likely than Wainwright to accumulate the 5 or 6 WAR needed at a minimum to lead the team.

9. Brendan Donovan–How, you may ask, is the guy with the second-most 2022 WAR among eligible players only ninth on this list? The issue is that Donovan, who was not considered a particularly significant prospect entering his 2022 rookie season, is not assured of playing time–his best path forward would be at second base, with Tommy Edman shifting to shortstop, but even if he earns the starting job, Nolan Gorman and Paul DeJong will likely factor into the mix. The Baseball Reference WAR calculation does seem quite high on Donovan–based on my memories of 2022, I wouldn’t guess him as a 4.1-win player–but this only works if he reaches 468 plate appearances, a thing I don’t suspect will happen again. Even if I am too low on Donovan and that he is a truly super-utility revelation, though, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he is the leader on the team–his being #9 doesn’t mean that another top-five team finish is out of the question.

8. Willson Contreras–You know how Brendan Donovan reached 4.1 WAR last year? 4.1 WAR is also Willson Contreras’s career high for a season. Because they play less often than other position players and because Baseball Reference WAR doesn’t factor in pitch framing (not that this is particularly beneficial to Contreras), leading a team is an uphill battle for catchers (2012 is really the only year where Yadier Molina came particularly close), particularly on teams that are assumed to be good. Outside of probably Nolan Arenado, Willson Contreras might be the safest #4 through #8 type player on the Cardinals, but topping the team would be a bad sign for the Cardinals–while Contreras did lead his team in WAR in 2021, that is more of a reflection on the fire-sale nature of that year’s Cubs than Contreras as a true WAR God.

7. Nolan Gorman–It was streaky, but Nolan Gorman had the most memory-holed 313 plate appearance, above-average hitting mostly at a premium defensive position season I (and few others) can remember. Gorman tied for fourth on the Cardinals in home runs, behind three guys who are not eligible for this list (one of whom is retired), and if he can improve even incrementally while playing regularly at second base, Nolan Gorman could wind up hitting 30 home runs while getting a huge bump by virtue of the difficulty of his defensive position. Like Donovan, the uncertainty of his playing time suppresses Gorman’s chances at making a run, but his upside is way up there.

6. Paul DeJong–I assume this is the pick of mine that will make people the angriest, but hear me out–Paul DeJong finished second on the team in WAR just four years ago, and in 2019 he demonstrated that he can (by virtue of the fact that he did) hit thirty home runs while playing Gold Glove-finalist-level defense at shortstop. Unlike Gorman or Donovan, whom the Cardinals can theoretically stash in the minors, the Cardinals are paying Paul DeJong over $9 million and will assuredly try to make sure he’s definitely cooked before cutting bait. Picking DeJong over Willson Contreras is like picking a team with a complete unknown at quarterback to win the Super Bowl instead of a team with, like, Kirk Cousins at quarterback–I know that Cousins is decent but I also know his limitations, while the unknown could turn out to be Kurt Warner, even if he probably won’t.

5. Lars Nootbaar–The memeified Cardinals (probably) right fielder has become a fashionable breakthrough candidate among appreciators of Statcast and unusual name likers alike. At a 600 plate appearance pace, Nootbaar’s 2022 comes out to 3.8 WAR–quite good, though certainly not a premier WAR player. But Lars Nootbaar has given fans reasons to dream–he improved dramatically throughout the 2022 season and the Cardinals have made room for him in their outfield. Nootbaar had a 140 wRC+ after the Harrison Bader trade that made Nootbaar a semi-permanent fixure in the Cardinals outfield–this mark, along with competent-to-decent corner outfield defense, could make him a fringe contender anyway, but this is merely assuming that a guy who has improved beyond expectations basically every year ceases to do so anymore.

4. Jordan Walker–Jordan Walker probably has the highest odds, outside of the ineligibles, of having a straight-up galactic, MVP season, which is why he has to be on this list. We kind of just don’t know what Jordan Walker is going to be, or even if he is going to be on the team. He is playing a relatively foreign position, corner outfield, and not one which would give him a dramatic bump in his WAR total. For Walker to lead in WAR, he would almost certainly need to absolutely rake, and while he has been a good minor league hitter, expecting a guy with a 128 wRC+ in AA last season to make that significant of a jump in one year seems difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.

3. Jordan Montgomery–The highest projected pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals for 2023, Jordan Montgomery looked like a legitimately changed pitcher for his first month in St. Louis last season, with a sub-2 ERA and sub-3 FIP and xFIP in August. This didn’t last, and in September he declined enough that he did not pitch in the postseason for the Cardinals despite being seemingly healthy. Even if in flashes, Montgomery was the pitcher for the Cardinals who showed 6+ WAR potential at one point or another last year, and even though he has been a useful but hardly phenomenal pitcher throughout his career, that potential is the thing worth betting on.

2. Dylan Carlson–For all of the Jordan Walker hype in 2023, that is what Dylan Carlson was three years ago. And in 2023, while a bit of an offensive disappointment on the whole, Carlson showed real signs of improvement–he struck out less (while preserving his decent walk rate) and significantly, he became a regular center fielder, a sure-fire way to bump his WAR totals. Imagining a scenario where Dylan Carlson combines serviceable defense at an up-the-middle position and even just his 2021 offensive production would make him a 4ish win player right away; given his hype and the fact that he is still just entering his age-24 season, hoping on a Dylan Carlson 2023 breakthrough is hardly absurd.

  1. Tommy Edman–With 6.4 WAR in 2022, Tommy Edman was as valuable as Mookie Betts, and more valuable than a majority of the players who received at least a down-ballot MVP vote in the National League last season. In 2022, Edman drew more walks, hit more home runs, and stole more bases than ever before, and defensively, he may receive a bigger WAR bump than ever before by virtue of likely becoming a full-time shortstop for the first time in his career–while this may hurt his chances of winning a Gold Glove, there is far more room for huge defensive value numbers at shortstop than at second base. ZiPS projects Tommy Edman for 4.4 WAR, more than any Cardinal other than Nolan Arenado–among the eligible streak continuers, Edman is certainly the safest bet to reach the 5-6 WAR necessary for this title.

My apologies in advance for my disrespect of the Steven Matz Cy Young season.

One thought on “Projecting the next unique Cardinals WAR leader

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