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Forecasting The NL Central: 5-Year Outlook For St. Louis Cardinals

Carlos Martinez is expected to front the Cardinals’ rotation for a long time to come
Photo via AP

Over the next few weeks, The Point of Pittsburgh will be evaluating the 5-year outlooks for each team in the National League Central.  Next up are the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Cincinnati Reds’ outlook and Milwaukee Brewers’ outlook can be reviewed at your leisure.

For the Cardinals, I’ve enlisted the insights of Craig Edwards, writer at Fangraphs and managing editor of SB Nation’s Viva El Birdos.  

I’ve long considered the San Antonio Spurs to be the model franchise in all of sports.  Their general manager and coach are either near or at the top among their colleagues in all of sports.  Their stars have been humble, wildly productive, and long-tenured.  They win consistently and do so in a manner that causes other teams and fanbases to be lulled into a sense of inevitability, that their teams have to climb the mountain just to have a chance to beat the Spurs.

The Cardinals are as close to the Spurs, for me, that exists in baseball.  A few times in recent years I’ve predicted that the Cardinals were going backslide or have a down year, but it hasn’t happened yet.  Sure, they didn’t make the playoffs last year, but after making the playoffs 12 of the 17 seasons in this new millennium and winning the World Series twice (and getting to the World Series and losing two other times), I’d say they’re entitled to some props.

Last 3 Opening Day Payrolls (via Cot’s Contracts)

  • 2014 — $111.3M (90-72)
  • 2015 — $122.1M (100-62)
  • 2016 — $145.6M (86-76)

In a somewhat frustrating fashion of being able to have one’s cake and eat it too, the Cardinals are regularly in the mix for Competitive Balance draft picks, even though their payroll is top half of the league and they have a robust fanbase to draw from.  With consistent playoff appearances and deep runs in those playoffs, the Cardinals have able to roll postseason revenues into next year’s budgets without missing a beat.  Essentially, they’re buying a new free agent every offseason with the previous year’s postseason revenues.

Current Cornerstones

Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are long-time warhorses, but time is catching up to both of them.  Molina may not be in Saint Louis after this season and Wainwright’s last guaranteed year is 2018.  In terms of veterans, Matt Carpenter will continue to lead the charge for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals recently made a big commitment to Carlos Martinez (5 year/$51M, options in 2022 and 2023), so he’s clearly tagged as a cornerstone.  The Cardinals are hoping that Stephen Piscotty can replicate a portion of prime-year Matt Holliday’s production.  They’re also waiting to see if Aledmys Diaz will continue his amazing production from his debut season last year and be considered a key block, as well.

Kolten Wong signed a contract extension last season that sure looked team-friendly at the time (5 year/$25.5M), but one big down year in 2016 made this potential cornerstone contract into a millstone contract.  If Wong can’t get it back, those escalating salaries ($4M in 2018, $6.5M in 2019, $10.25M in 2020) are going to mentioned as a bad contract swap candidate.

2017 Top 100 Baseball America Prospects

  • RHP Alex Reyes (#4, projected level in 2017 — DL)
  • RHP Luke Weaver (#50, projected level in 2017 — AAA/MLB)
  • C Carson Kelly (#65, projected level in 2017 — AAA)
  • SS Delvin Perez (#86, projected level in 2017 — short-season)

Here’s the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Top 10, as per Baseball America.

Reyes is widely considered the consensus top pitching prospect in the minors and to be a future #2-level pitcher (or greater).  The fly in the ointment is that he just underwent Tommy John surgery and will be out until probably mid-2018.  The Cardinals definitely had him in their plans for this year, but especially for beyond, as Lance Lynn is a free agent after 2017 and Reyes would have slotted right in.

Craig Edwards:  In terms of prospects, the Cardinals strength continues to be pitching.  Luke Weaver is the most likely to make an impact in the bigs this year. They are making some progress on the position player side, as Jack Flaherty, Sandy Alcantara, and Junior Fernandez could all take steps forward to solidify their prospect standing and move way up. Most already have Delvin Perez around the top-50, but he probably has the best chance to be one of the top prospects in baseball. Carson Kelly is ready to caddy Yadier Molina at some point, and Harrison Bader could hit his way to the big leagues this season.  I’d go CF Magneuris Sierra or RHP Junior Fernandez if you are looking for a guy not in anybody’s top-100 who could break through.

5-Year Outlook

  • 2017 ($144.5M committed salary) — The Cardinals are built to win this year.  The rotation of Wainwright-Martinez-Leake-Lynn-Wacha is very strong from top to bottom.  The rotation looks good at the back end with Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Seung-hwan Oh in some configuration.  Wainwright has shifted from a front line ace to more of an inning-eating #3, but he’s still up for the challenge.  The offense was bolstered with Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter is still on hand, but the Cardinals need to ensure there’s no major regression from SS Aledmys Diaz and that Randall Grichuk and Kolten Wong rebound from down seasons.  They’ll be in the high-80’s, low 90’s range of wins and a prime Wild Card contender.  Something will probably be done with 1B Matt Adams in the 2017 offseason, whether it’s a trade or non-tender.
  • 2018 ($96.7M committed salary)– Lance Lynn may have departed the rotation for greener pastures and this is Adam Wainwright’s final year under contract, so there’s some potential for flux in the rotation.  As Craig wrote to me, “[t]he Cardinals should continue to compete but they are still looking for stars to replace the Wainwright, Molina, Holliday production from several years ago. Carlos Martinez should step forward as an ace. Alex Reyes should return at some point in 2018, but they need guys like [Carson] Kelly and Perez to be better than just average regulars if they want to keep contending.”  If Carson Kelly appears to be a capable replacement, Yadier Molina and his mutual option for 2018 may be allowed to leave, as well.  Jhonny Peralta will also not be here, most likely, at the start of the 2018 season, especially if Wong can at least bounce back as a functional 2B in 2017.  I would also add the Cardinals to the mix for a team that could get a star free agent in the absolutely loaded 2018 offseason free agent bonanza, specifically on the pitching side.
  • 2019 ($83.2M committed salary)– Outfielder Stephen Piscotty enters arbitration for the first time in 2019.  If he continues to show well in 2017 and 2018, I could see the Cardinals trying to lock him up with an extended contract to buy out a couple of free agent years, prior to the start of the 2019 campaign.  It’s possible that a short-term extension is done with Grichuk, who doesn’t seem to be a candidate for a 5+ year deal.  There’s a lot of money off the books with Wainwright and his $19.5M gone, so the Cardinals may start to assemble their next core of homegrown stars.  The Cardinals hope that one of Reyes or Weaver have established themselves as front-end rotation options by this point, as Wainwright/Lynn are presumably gone, with Michael Wacha entering his last year of team control.  Dark horse rotation candidate Marco Gonzales will hope to have fully recovered from his own TJ and be considered as a contributor, as well.  RHP’s Jack Flaherty and Junior Fernandez could debut this season.
  • 2020 ($63.7M committed salary) — Assuming that Alex Reyes has returned and is pitching to his projected standards, I could see the Tommy John survivor wanting to lock in some future earnings with an extended deal.  The Cardinals would get front-end production at reduced rates, while he gets financial peace of mind.  This season is Matt Carpenter’s option year, so unless there is a drastic dropoff in his production, this will be picked up but will act as his potentially last year in a Cardinals uniform.  The 2020 season is also Randall Grichuk’s last year of team control, so unless he’s already locked up, he could be on the move at some point in this campaign.  This is Mike Leake’s last guaranteed year.  He’s definitely the type of pitcher that I don’t think is going to age well, so I can’t see his 2021 option being picked up.  This is a big inflection point year for the franchise, as there’s some hint of cracks developing with the current core of star producers.
  • 2021 ($34.2M committed salary) — Dexter Fowler and Carlos Martinez are the only guaranteed contracts at this point, so the slate is relatively clean.  SS Delvin Perez is tracking to debut this year full-time, so he could be a natural replacement for Aledmys Diaz, who will be a free agent after 2021 (if he has not been extended by this point).  As I don’t see the Cardinals having a full-on downswing, the minor league development machine that has churned out studs for all these years will need to continue to replenish the team.  The Cardinals definitely have the financial wherewithal to wade into free agency, so if not in 2020 then in 2021 there will be some major additions to the team via free agency.


Like a metronome, the Cardinals keep on producing with quiet efficiency.  They’re frustrating to compete against, but you have to respect the system they’ve set up and continue to manufacture talent out of players that did not receive a ton of hype in the minors.  For at least the next three years, I see the Cardinals being right in the playoff mix.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

2 Comments on Forecasting The NL Central: 5-Year Outlook For St. Louis Cardinals

  1. Steven Cross // March 25, 2017 at 8:16 PM //

    If you have watched the Cardinals this spring training, you will have noticed that they have a boatload of young players that should be major league ready in two to three years. I don’t see them making a big down turn.

    • Kevin Creagh // March 26, 2017 at 12:00 PM //

      I have not watched them. It wouldn’t surprise me if 2-3 years from now they have a whole new crop. But will they be impact — that’s the question.

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