MLB Team Roundup: St. Louis Cardinals

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St. Louis Cardinals

2021 Record: 90-72
Second Place, NL Central

Team ERA: 3.98 (12th in MLB)
Team OPS: .725 (15th in MLB)

What Went Right

They went on an incredible 17-game winning streak between September 11 and September 28, the longest winning streak in the 140-year history of the franchise. They won their final 11 road games in the regular season, the first MLB team to do that since the 1887 Philadelphia Quakers. It was a resounding late surge by the Cardinals, who leapfrogged the Reds, Phillies, Padres, and Mets to claim the second National League Wild Card spot. Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Tyler O’Neill each hit 30-plus home runs, becoming the first trio of St. Louis hitters to reach the 30-homer threshold since Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen in 2004. Adam Wainwright, at age 39-40, delivered a 3.05 ERA across 206 1/3 regular-season innings, the third-most innings of any pitcher in 2021. He threw three complete games, tied for the most in the majors. Wainwright probably has a seat waiting for him in a broadcast booth at FOX or Turner, but he signed a one-year, $17.5 million contract extension on October 4 and will be back as the team’s workhorse in 2022, what will be his 17th big league campaign.

What Went Wrong

The ride came to a screeching halt on October 6 when Chris Taylor hit a walk-off home run against Alex Reyes to down the Cards in the NL Wild Card Game at Dodger Stadium. Something really must have gone wrong in the organizational meetings that followed, as manager Mike Shildt was suddenly fired on October 14. Shildt had overseen a 252-199 regular-season record -- .559 winning percentage -- since taking over in July 2018. That’s the best winning percentage of any of the Cardinals’ last four managers: 2012-2018 Mike Matheny: 591-474 (.555), 1996-2011 Tony La Russa: 1408-1182 (.544), and 1990-1995 Joe Torre: 351-354 (.498). Into the gig steps 35-year-old Oliver Marmol. Jack Flaherty made only 15 starts while battling a severe oblique strain and then a shoulder issue. Tommy Edman stole 30 bases, tied for fourth-most in the majors, but he slashed just .262/.308/.387 in 691 plate appearances while mostly batting out of the leadoff spot. Bad health and lack of depth was an issue all year long in the starting rotation.

Fantasy Slants

** O'Neill might go as a top-50 overall pick in 2022 after batting .286/.252/.560 with 34 home runs, 80 RBI, 15 stolen bases, and 89 runs scored over 138 games this season. The 26-year-old left fielder finished in the 97th percentile of all major league hitters in barrel percentage, 94th percentile in average exit velocity, and 98th percentile in sprint speed. The only other players who were 90th percentile or better in both hard-hit rate and sprint speed in 2021: Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuna, and Fernando Tatis Jr. It’s safe to say that O’Neill has fully arrived as a five-category fantasy stud.

** Dylan Carlson should carry post-hype appeal next season. The locked-in right fielder for St. Louis, he just turned 23 years old and registered an .847 OPS in the second half of the 2021 campaign. There’s both power and a bit of speed in his short-term and long-term profile. He hit fifth behind Edman, Goldschmidt, O’Neill, and Arenado in the NL Wild Card Game against the Dodgers. Harrison Bader is a threat for a high steals total and showed bursts of five-category production this summer. He’s a worthy late-round flier. It’s a relatively young and intriguing overall outfield group.

** There was heavy focus on home/road splits when Arenado was traded to the Cardinals last December. Colorado’s Coors Field is among the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball, and Busch Stadium in St. Louis is the opposite of that. Some of the concerns were warranted, as the star third baseman posted the lowest full-season OPS (.807) of his career, but he did manage to reach 34 home runs nonetheless and also logged 100-plus RBI for the sixth time in his nine years as major leaguer.

** Flaherty will probably still be selected as the first Cardinals pitcher off the board in drafts next spring, through Wainwright might not be too far behind. Flaherty has logged only 118 2/3 innings over the last two seasons due to a variety of issues -- it was COVID-related stops and starts in 2020 -- but he still has the goods to be a top-flight fantasy arm when healthy. And it’s encouraging that he was active down the stretch this season. The 26-year-old boasts a career 3.34 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 10.5 K/9.

** Reyes flourished as the Cardinals’ primary closer in the first half and made the NL All-Star team, but he crumbled down the stretch and there’s talk of him possibly moving back into a starting role in 2022. Jordan Hicks is also expected to audition for a rotation spot next spring, leaving Giovanny Gallegos as the best bet for saves. Gallegos, 30, owns a 2.74 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 211 strikeouts in 170 2/3 innings since being acquired from the Yankees in mid-2018.

** Molina was already a borderline fantasy option at catcher, but he’s probably not worth a draft pick in a standard league in 2022 for what will be his farewell campaign. He usually batted between the No. 4-6 spots in the lineup under Shildt -- mostly fifth -- but that could change as the Cardinals presumably look to add more offense this offseason. Andrew Knizner should get an increased amount of looks behind the plate, as he did in the closing months of 2021.

Key Free Agents: Carlos Martinez, Kwang-Hyun Kim, Matt Carpenter, Andrew Miller, Jon Lester, J.A. Happ, T.J. McFarland, Luis Garcia

Team Needs: A little bit more on multiple fronts -- offense, rotation, and bullpen. This winter could present a buyer's market for shorstops given all the prominent names available, and the Cardinals seem likely to explore that landscape. They could also get creative in adding another bat via the anticipated arrival of the DH in the National League.