First, the positive: Because all we have to go on right now are computer projections, FanGraphs forecasts that the Cardinals will pull off a dramatic worst-to-first climb in the National League Central, outlast the rival Cubs and win the division for the 13th time in the past three decades.
Now, the slightly less thrilling notion for Cards diehards: FanGraphs has their win total projected at 84 -- which would be good for a runner-up tie with the D-backs in the NL West, but not even in the same Ronald Acuña Jr. home run radius of the sweet-swinging Braves.
As it turns out, winning the division might be the equivalent of being the tallest dachshund. The Brewers traded their best pitcher (Corbin Burnes) and let their manager (Craig Counsell) waltz to their rivals (the Cubs). Chicago still hasn’t signed its most dynamic player (Cody Bellinger), and if history is any guide, it might still be 100 years away from its next World Series title. And while the blossoming Reds and Pirates should be better, both could still be two years away from being two years away.
FanGraphs gives the Redbirds a 35.4 percent chance to win the division, a 54.2 percent chance to return to the playoffs and a 2.7 percent chance to win the World Series. While St. Louis figures to be better following a furious offseason of revamping its pitching staff, plenty of questions persist. Here are three key storylines to keep an eye on as Spring Training gets underway Wednesday and the Cardinals churn toward Opening Day in Los Angeles against Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the Dodgers on March 28:
1. How much improvement has the Cardinals pitching staff made?
The pitching staff had its fingerprints all over the club’s worst finish in 33 years in 2023, so the front office acted swiftly and aggressively throughout the offseason to address the pitching problems. Did they offer more than $200 million to Yamamoto, bring back Jordan Montgomery for a reunion or make a splashy signing by landing two-time Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell? No, no and also no. But they did ink a long-term deal with Sonny Gray, the runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award last season and a tough-minded battler. Fans have been critical of the signings of 36-year-old right-handers Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, but both bring reputations of toughness, durability and leadership.
Where the Cardinals might have made the biggest gains was in the bullpen. Adding AL All-Star Andrew Kittredge and 2023 revelation Keynan Middleton to complement Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos and JoJo Romero could give the Cards lots of late-inning options in tight games.
2. Can the Cards and manager Oliver Marmol navigate a tremendously difficult start to the season?
The Dodgers spent more than $1 billion with the splashy signings of Ohtani, Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow, Teoscar Hernández and James Paxton, and the Cardinals get them for four games at Dodger Stadium to open their season. From there, Marmol will be facing the manager he replaced in Padres new skipper Mike Shildt for three games in San Diego. Then, St. Louis plays its next nine games against the Marlins, Phillies and D-backs -- all playoff teams in 2023.
Marmol and the Cardinals can hardly afford a slow start. The 37-year-old skipper, who has full support of the front office and ownership, is heading into the final year of his three-year contract, and he is aware that the pressure is on to win and get back to the playoffs.
Potentially complicating matters is the fact that franchise icon and potential future MLB manager Yadier Molina has rejoined the team as a part-time advisor to president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, but also as someone who has deep roots in the sport and will be working primarily out of the dugout during certain games.
Can the Cardinals weather their tricky start and set the stage for a bounce-back season? Or will the daunting early slate have them playing from behind -- something that sent the franchise never recovered from in 2023? Get through those first 16 games with a winning record, and the Cards could be well on their way to reclaiming the NL Central and Marmol could lock up the contract extension that should firm up his standing within the organization.
3. How are shortstop Masyn Winn, center fielder Tommy Edman, outfielder Dylan Carlson and rising prospect Victor Scott II intertwined?
The Cards have full belief that the 21-year-old Winn -- the top prospect in the organization, per MLB Pipeline -- will adapt to Major League pitching and become their highlight-making fixture at shortstop for years to come. However, if Winn struggles to hit -- as he did late last season during a 37-game cameo at the big league level -- that could set several other moving parts into motion.
Ideally, the Cardinals will start on Opening Day with Edman in center field -- the spot the Gold Glove second baseman shifted to last season and played 42 error-free games. Edman, who signed a two-year, $16.5 million contract extension on Jan. 22, is considered the break-glass-if-necessary shortstop if Winn is deemed not ready for the MLB level. That would bring Carlson and Scott -- arguably the two best defensive center fielders in the system -- into play.
Carlson, 25, is coming off left ankle surgery and is eager to show why he was a 2016 first-round pick and formerly the top prospect within the organization. The speedy Scott, 22, is the fastest-rising prospect in the Cardinals' system after stealing 94 bases between High-A Peoria and Double-A Springfield last season and winning a Gold Glove Award for his play in center field.
With Edman still recovering from surgery on his right wrist in October and expected to be brought along slowly during Spring Training, will the door of opportunity open for Scott to race his way onto the Opening Day roster? Will it give the uber-talented Carlson the reps needed to show that he can drive the ball from the left side of the plate as well as he does from the right?
Keep an eye on the Cardinals’ center field and shortstop slots this spring because of how they are deeply interwoven on this roster.
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