So far this offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals have pinned their hopes for the 2024 season on two things. First, faith that veteran arms can rebuild a rotation that was in shambles last season as the Cardinals stumbled to a stunning last-place finish in the National League Central with a 71-91 mark. Second, another year of progression from young core players who have star potential in the near future.
If that’s the plan under the Gateway Arch, the latest ZiPS projections from Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs shine favorably on it. After all, if (and, of course, it is an if) the numbers hold true for the individuals that St. Louis has assembled (so far at least, with potentially more moves to come this winter), president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and the Cardinals have, according to Szymborski, “patched up enough of their immediate problems to return to winning 85-90 games, depending on what, if anything, the rest of the NL Central does this winter.”
As my friend and colleague Renee Dechert pointed out in her look at the ZiPS projections for the Colorado Rockies, “ZiPS provides a good starting point because the model contains a great deal of data, and there are some intriguing insights to tease out.” However, it certainly isn’t a perfect science.
After all, last season’s ZiPS projections for the Cardinals were more enthusiastic about the chances for St. Louis to have a division-winning season than even this year’s numbers. Sometimes, however, not even data can predict head-scratching single-season dropoffs from everyone from Nolan Arenado (projected to put up 5.8 fWAR in 2023 but produced just 2.6) to the now-retired Adam Wainwright (posting a minus-0.4 fWAR following a 2.0 projection).
Cardinals fans can tell you first-hand all of the issues that the team suffered through last year. This, however, is about the dawning of a new season and the chance for St. Louis to shrug off 2023 as simply a year when everything that could go wrong actually did.
Here are a few key takeaways:
Nolan Arenado — I mentioned Arenado above, and there is likely no one in the Cardinals clubhouse who is more motivated to bounce back from last season than the icon at third base. After all, last season saw Arenado struggle to that 2.6 fWAR (his lowest since being acquired by the Cardinals before the 2021 season), but also lose his grip on the National League Gold Glove at the hot corner for the first time in 11 seasons.
Entering his age-33 campaign, ZiPS projects Arenado to log 3.8 fWAR, which would lead all Cardinals players. It’s certainly an improvement over last year, but it would still be his second-lowest total of his four-year stint in St. Louis. With age, could this simply be the “new Arenado?”
That is a realistic worry. After all, last season Arenado was projected for 5.8 fWAR, but fell well short of that. However, personally seeing the work Arenado put in during his time in Colorado and knowing how he performs and often thrives with a chip on his shoulder, I expect “Nolan being Nolan” to be a thing again this season, in the field and at the plate.
Paul Goldschmidt — After Goldschmidt and Arenado both finished in the top three in NL Most Valuable Player voting in 2022, with Goldschmidt winning the honor, both also came back to earth in a big way in 2023.
Goldschmidt is in the final year of a five-year, $130 million deal and, at age 36, his future in St. Louis is a bit murky. There has been plenty of talk about Goldschmidt potentially being on the trade block if St. Louis stumbles in the first half of the season.
With a projected 3.1 fWAR in 2024, Goldschmidt is expected to produce less this season than last year’s 3.7 and put together his lowest amount in a 162-game season since his first impactful campaign with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012.
Like Arenado, Goldschmidt underperformed projections (4.5) last season. Unlike Arenado, the veteran first baseman may well not reach projections again in 2024.
Jordan Walker — While the two stars above are in the latter years of their careers, there is plenty of hope for what lies ahead for the St. Louis outfielder who turns 22 in May.
Last season, Walker made the Opening Day roster but was sent back to Triple-A, where he spent all of May. Once he returned, however, he showed flashes of who he could be in a full-time role, slashing .276/.342/.445 in 420 at-bats over 117 games. That resulted in a 0.2 fWAR, leaving plenty of room for growth in 2024 … and it is projected Walker will do just that, putting up 1.6.
Walker has all of the tools to be a superstar, and that 1.6 certainly seems not only reachable, but passable as well.
Masyn Winn — Just like there was buzz around Walker and what he could do in 2023, the possibilities surrounding Winn in 2024 have Cardinals fans salivating.
Winn recorded just 122 at-bats in 2023, slashing just .172/.230/.238 and posting minus-0.8 fWAR. Those numbers are expected to go up dramatically in 2024 as Winn is expected to take over the shortstop position and earn 1.7 fWAR.
If Winn earns the position in spring camp and doesn’t struggle early, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t top that projection.
Note: The ZiPS projections above were out before the Cardinals signed veteran Matt Carpenter to a one-year deal. Carpenter struggled mightily with the San Diego Padres last season, putting up an OPS+ of 81, and there are hopes that any production he can muster (in what is expected to be limited playing time) will look more like his first stint in St. Louis (2011-21) than last season.
The success (or lack thereof) for St. Louis this season on the mound will likely fall on how well veteran newcomers Kyle Gibson, Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn perform. Throw in Miles Mikolas and St. Louis is rolling the bones on a group of starters who are in their mid- to late-30s.
As discussed in this article, it’s the very definition of a gamble in baseball. So how do the ZiPS projections look?
Gibson — Last season in 33 starts for the Baltimore Orioles, the right-hander posted 2.6 fWAR. This year in St. Louis, that number is expected to slip to 1.8. While the Cardinals need pitchers to eat innings, they also need their newcomers to do that successfully. Now 36, Gibson outperformed projections (1.9) last season in Baltimore, so back-to-back projections value him as roughly the same pitcher before the campaign begins.
Gray — Arguably the crown jewel of the offseason signings in St. Louis, Gray is projected to far and away be the leader of the rotation at 3.6 fWAR. Last season while finishing second in American League Cy Young voting as a stalwart for the Minnesota Twins, Gray logged 5.3 fWAR over 32 starts (way outperforming his projection of 2.5).
Lynn — The right-hander, who turns 37 in May, is projected to be one of the biggest fWAR gainers by ZiPS this season for St. Louis. If the data plays out, Lynn could rebound from a 0.5 season in 2023 to a 1.9 campaign to kick off his second stint in St. Louis. This, however, could be the biggest ask (and stretch) of all of the projections for the newcomers on the mound.
Mikolas — While there is reason for optimism with Lynn, the opposite could be said about Mikolas, who turns 36 in August. In 2023, Mikolas was stronger in the first half (4.23 ERA in 112.2 innings over 19 starts) than the second half (5.48 ERA in 88.2 frames over 16 starts), resulting in 3.1 fWAR. The ZiPS projections seem to think the second-half struggles carry over for Mikolas in 2024, forecasting a 2.1 fWAR.
A season that trends downward for Mikolas feels like a solid possibility.
Last season, St. Louis finished 23rd out of MLB’s 30 squads in bullpen ERA (a combined 4.47 ERA). While there were plenty of struggles for Cardinal relievers in 2023, Ryan Helsley was arguably the MVP of the bullpen, posting a 2.45 ERA/2.25 FIP/1.064 WHIP and ERA+ of 178. His 14 saves led the Cardinals, and his 1.5 fWAR set the pace as well.
Projections have Helsley with roughly the same impact for the 2024 Cardinals bullpen, which should have plenty of new looks.
Outside of Helsley, here are three names to watch in the bullpen.
Andrew Kittredge — Acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, the right-hander turns 34 on St. Patrick’s Day. He returned from Tommy John surgery in August and saw action in just 11.2 innings over 14 regular-season games. The lack of time on the mound saw Kittredge rack up just 0.1 fWAR, and projections have him going just above that (0.3) in 2024.
For a pitcher who was an All-Star in 2021 and now healthy, it feels like that is light, which would be a positive development the Cardinals would take.
Giovanny Gallegos — In the final year of a two-year, $11 million deal, the 32-year-old right-hander is similar to Kittredge in the fact that projections lay out an increase in 2024 (0.6 fWAR) that will double his 2023 production in the St. Louis bullpen (0.3).
Depending on any other moves made by the Redbirds this winter, and with a team option available in 2025, this feels like an opportunity for Gallegos to return to the bigger fWAR numbers of years past (2.3 in 2021 and 1.4 in 2022).
John King — Brought to St. Louis in the Jordan Montgomery trade to the Texas Rangers, the southpaw was impressive in his 20 games in St. Louis after the swap, posting a 1.45 ERA but 3.84 FIP (and 1.339 WHIP) in 18.2 innings.
With both Texas and St. Louis last season, King totaled 0.2 fWAR. This year, he is projected for 0.3. The number isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but having a dependable left-hander in the bullpen who can contribute all season would be a plus for the Cardinals.
In a race for the NL Central crown that still feels very open, the Cardinals have said all of the right things this offseason to try to convince their fans (and perhaps themselves) that 2023 was a one-year blip among a string of solid seasons.
The ZiPS projections say that 2024 will be an improvement over that disappointing 2023 performance. However, the pitching plan still seems to be built on a shaky foundation. How sturdy that foundation proves to be in April and beyond will likely determine just how relevant the Cardinals will be in 2024.