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St. Louis Cardinals outlook: After a rare playoff miss, did the Redbirds do enough to get back in contention?

St. Louis Cardinals
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

MLB Preview: 30 Teams in 30 Days

It’s not too often that the St. Louis Cardinals fail to make the postseason. Since 2000, they have made it to October baseball 16 times, winning two World Series, playing in four, and making it to the NLCS an astonishing ten times. During this stretch, the Redbirds have failed to make the postseason eight times, so that’s not necessarily new.

What made the 2023 season stand out was that they finished last in their division for the first time since 1990 — when they were in the NL East. For context, the Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Colorado Rockies weren’t even in existence yet. So it’s been awhile since the Cardinals had a season as bad as their 71-91 campaign last year. Oddly enough, they finished with 70 wins, just one game worse, in 1990.

Following the retirement of Yadier Molina after the 2022 season, the Cardinals’ pitching staff went from top-10 in ERA at 3.79, to No. 24 at 4.83. While Molina, the eleventh-best player in franchise history, didn’t magically improve the entire staff’s ERA by a full run, losing Molina seemed to leave the Cardinals doing what they had always done without adjusting for how special their backstop had been behind the plate.

Willson Contreras was signed last offseason as Molina’s successor, and while he was thrown under the bus just a month into the season and removed from catching duty for a time, he reclaimed his spot behind the dish for the majority of the season. Contreras even put up one of his better offensive seasons with a 124 OPS+, which lands eight points higher than his career average. His defense stayed fairly steady overall, though his framing stats took a hit, dropping from the 52nd percentile to the 13th. That said, Contreras always a bat-first catcher and asking him to become Molina overnight was a tad ridiculous.

This winter the Cardinals have made some moves to improve their pitching staff and may have actually put themselves back into the playoff picture. Let’s take a look at some of their key additions and subtractions, the team’s outlook for 2024, and one player to keep an eye on for the upcoming season!

St. Louis Cardinals additions and subtractions

st. louis cardinals
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The St. Louis Cardinals laid the groundwork for their offseason plans early on, signing Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, and Kyle Gibson in late November. They knew which pitchers they wanted, and they build up their rotation with three veteran arms. Gray is coming off one of the best years in his career, posting a 2.79 ERA with a 1.147 WHIP with the Minnesota Twins which earned him a second-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting.

Gibson and Lynn are less flashy signings, but they’re both guys that can go out there every fifth day, provide innings, and keep a team in the game. None of the three pitchers are big on allowing walks, and in Lynn’s case he’s a familiar face to the franchise, too. Lynn was also hit hard by the long ball in 2023, giving up a total of 44 round-trippers. The next-highest home run total in any season for Lynn has been 27, which itself was an outlier. From 2019-21 he finished top-six in the Cy Young voting, and in 2022 he held a 3.99 ERA, so there is reason to believe in a turnaround with St. Louis.

The St. Louis Cardinals also added an intriguing relief arm in Rule 5 pick Ryan Fernandez, who tops out at 97 with his heater and generates a ton of swing and misses with his slider and his cutter. He too has a knack for finding the strike zone, and assuming he sticks in the bullpen for St. Louis, could be an intriguing piece for them over the course of the season. St. Louis also added reliever Andrew Kittredge in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, and when he’s been on the mound he’s been great, but the past two seasons he’s totaled just 312/3 and has topped 50 innings just once in seven seasons.

On the way out there’s Tyler O’Neill, who was traded to the Boston Red Sox for a pair of minor-league pitchers, Adam Wainwright retired, and Dakota Hudson signed on with the Colorado Rockies. O’Neill was the best of the bunch last season, putting up 0.8 WAR, but his departure also cleared some room on the roster for Jordan Walker, while Tommy Edman looks to be the team’s centerfielder. Edman accrued 5 Outs Above Average in just 310 innings. Over the course of a full season, he could be one of the best defenders in the game. Edman’s new role also frees up shortstop for Masyn Winn.

St. Louis Cardinals 2024 outlook

St. Louis Cardinals
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Here is where things get interesting. Last season the team played exactly to their Pythagorean record, so their record was what it should have been. There is no regression coming, and we can’t expect luck to go their way any more or less than it did a year ago. The question now is whether the St. Louis Cardinals made enough moves to put themselves in contention for a postseason spot.

Baseball Prospectus released their projected standings recently, and they believe in the Red Birds, pegging them for 84.8 wins, which is good enough to win the NL Central. Their next-closest competition according to the projections is the Chicago Cubs at 80.8 wins. With Cody Bellinger still on the market, that gap could close, but for right now the fans in St. Louis have to be happy with where their team is ranked.

That said, there are a couple of caveats that should be made. The first is that the projection system isn’t 100% accurate, so while the Cardinals will likely be better, they may not win the division. The second is that St. Louis has more well-known veterans on their club, which makes it easier for the projection system to determine where they should end up because they have more of a track record. The Cardinals have some young guys on the roster that could jump out and surprise, but for the most part they have a stable core of veterans that need to produce around their career levels.

On the other hand, a team like the Cincinnati Reds is harder to project because of the amount of youth they possess. They’re projected for 78 wins, but they would appear to have a ton of upside on their club as well. That said, they did outperform their Pythagorean record by five games last season, and despite adding on Frankie Montas and Jeimer Candelario, they may still deal with some regression from those rookies from a year ago. They’re an interesting group to keep an eye on, and if they click they may be trouble.

That’s part of the fun of residing in the NL Central. You can finish last one season and potentially win it the next if you spend a little money. Unless you’re the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Player to keep an eye on

St. Louis Cardinals
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The player to keep a close eye on with St. Louis is shortstop Masyn Winn. He’s hardly an unknown. In fact, he was a top-50 prospect in baseball last season. With shortstop cleared for him, the Cardinals will be looking for Winn to take that next step at the big-league level in 2024.

Defensively, he should be fine. He has a cannon instead of an arm. It’s his bat that could have a big impact on the season the St. Louis Cardinals end up having. Last year he made his MLB debut and ended up hitting just .172 with a .230 OBP and a .467 OPS. Regardless of how good his defense is, those numbers won’t keep him in The Show for very long. Still, he’s just 21 years old and that was his first taste of the highest level. He also had a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of just .196, while the league average was 100 points higher.

Over at FanGraphs they have him projected for a much more respectable .247 average with a .307 on-base with 14 homers and an 89 wRC+. That line is still below league average, but it’s certainly an improvement.

If the St. Louis Cardinals can get some solid production from Winn and Walker in 2024, then with a trade deadline acquisition or two the team could go from hoping to win the Central to maybe dreaming a little further into the postseason. They’s still have to go through the Braves and/or Dodgers to make it to the World Series, but after missing the postseason last year, St. Louis should have some extra Devil Magic saved up.

Jason Burke covers MLB for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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