Back on Top: Cardinals Kings of the NL Central Once Again

After starting the season behind the Brewers, the St. Louis Cardinals dominated the division down the stretch to clinch the NL Central.

ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Nolan Arenado #28 of the St. Louis Cardinals congratulates Paul Goldschmidt #46 of the St. Louis Cardinals after Goldschmidt hit his second home run of the game against the Detroit Tigers in the third inning at Busch Stadium on August 25, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Cardinals have returned to the top of the NL Central. 

After winning the division nine times between 2000-2015, the Cardinals have been atop the Central just once since (2019).

Now, as the 2022 champs, the Cardinals look like they might just be the team to beat for the foreseeable future in what has proven to be one of the weaker divisions in baseball. 

From Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt putting up over 14 combined fWAR with two weeks still to go to Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina turning back the clock, the Cardinals have been one of the most exciting teams in MLB since Opening Day. 

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After trailing the Milwaukee Brewers for most of the season, the Cardinals went 45-25 since a certain tweet was sent out, running away with the division while the Brewers struggled. 

Outside of the Brewers, no other NL Central team proved to be any competition for St. Louis all season. The Cards posted a winning percentage higher than .630 against all three of the Pittsburgh Pirates (.769), Chicago Cubs (.684) and Cincinnati Reds (.632).

The MVP Frontrunners

There is no debating just how valuable Goldschmidt and Arenado have been to the Cardinals this season. They both have 7.1 fWAR — the two highest marks in the NL — both have hit 30 or more home runs and have driven in more than 100 runs. 

Goldschmidt has been the best hitter in baseball this year, not named Aaron Judge. He leads the NL in wRC+ (179) by over 20 points. He’s also in the top-five in home runs, RBI, runs, average, OBP and is first in slugging. 

Despite struggling throughout September — struggling being a 109 wRC+ — Goldy’s body of work still has been incredible for a player that’s had the career he’s had. 

While Goldschmidt looks like the favorite to win MVP, Arenado should be in line for a top-three finish himself. 

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Arenado has been at the top of his game this year. He’s posted a career-best 152 wRC+ and will likely win the Gold Glove yet again, proving to be one of the most impactful two-way players in the game. 

The Breakout Stars

While Goldschmidt and Arenado have been the headliners in St. Louis, the supporting cast has played a huge role in helping the Cardinals to the division title. 

There may be no player who broke out more this season than Tommy Edman. 

Edman has been another two-way contributor on a team full of defensive stars. He ranks fourth in the majors in stolen bases (31) and has hit a career-high 13 home runs so far. 

His defense has been the most valuable part of his game, driving his high WAR totals no matter where you look. But his offense has been coming together at the perfect time for the Cardinals. Since August 1st, he has posted a 125 wRC+ with 20 extra-base hits. 

If he can keep up his strong final two months, he could be an X-factor type play for St. Louis in the playoffs. 

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Another player whose play may prove to be a difference-maker in October is Miles Mikolas. You could argue that Mikolas has been the best pitcher in St. Louis’ rotation this season. He’s one start away from 200 innings, has a 3.30 ERA and has brought some stability to a group of starters that desperately needed it. 

Finally, perhaps the biggest breakout reliever in all of MLB holds the closer spot in St. Louis. Ryan Helsley has been lights out since taking over ninth-inning duties. 

Helsley has a 1.28 ERA and is striking out over 13 hitters per nine. If it weren’t for Edwin Diaz’s ridiculous season in New York, Helsley might be considered the best closer in baseball. 

The Timeless Trio

Albert Pujols has been stealing all the attention of the MLB world on his way to 700 home runs. 

The 42-year-old is positing his best season since 2011 with a 139 wRC+ and 21 home runs. His second half has been the stuff of legends. He’s hit 15 home runs and been a valuable member of the Cardinals lineup as they separated themselves from the Brewers down the stretch. 

As impressive as it has been seeing Pujols’ march to 700, he’s not the only Cardinal who turned back the clock this season. 

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Adam Wainwright has the most fWAR of any St. Louis pitcher and it looks like he might get the ball in Game One of the Wild Card series. 

After looking like he might be over the hill from 2016-2019, positing four-straight seasons with an ERA over four, Waino has been fantastic the past three seasons

This year he looks like he will fall just short of the 200-inning mark, but the 41-year-old has posted a 3.51 ERA despite having the slowest average fastball of his career (88.2 mph). 

And of course, last but not least, Yadier Molina. While Yadi may not have had the headliner seasons of his co-40+-year-old teammates, he has made his impact like he always has defensively. 

Again as one of the top defensive catchers in the league, Molina threw out 43% of runners in just 30 attempts — as teams seemed to universally agree to stop running while he’s behind the plate. 

Just to show how valuable he was while he was catching, he earned 0.4 fWAR while positing a -17.3 offensive WAR in 2022. 

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If this is the last we see of Pujols, Wainwright and Molina in the bigs, we saw them all at their best and hopefully, we can get some magic from the three in the postseason. 

All stats courtesy FanGraphs and Baseball Savant and from before play on September 28th.