The St. Louis Cardinals were a team that largely underwhelmed this season. However, they got hot in mid-September and propelled themselves into a Wild Card berth with a 17-game winning streak. While making the postseason after starting 71-69 is impressive, it wasn’t enough to save their manager’s job. After three-and-a-half seasons at the helm of the Cardinals, Mike Shildt was let go.
The Cardinals’ outlook is intriguing, as some of their key contributors, namely Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt are outside their prime. The former two may even be done with baseball after the 2022 season.
All of that aside, let’s recap this unorthodox playoff team.
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Manager: Mike Shildt
Position: Second in the NL Central
Postseason: Lost in Wild Card Game to Los Angeles Dodgers
MVP: Tyler O’Neill
The 26-year-old outfielder had a very bumpy first three seasons in the majors. In his first 450 plate appearances, he slashed .229/.291/.422 with a 92 wRC+. His top-notch defense, accumulating 13 defensive runs saved from 2018 to 2020, kept him afloat at times because he wasn’t cutting it with the bat.
However, that all changed in 2021, as he wound up slashing .286/.352/.560 with a 144 wRC+ and a team-high 5.4 fWAR (6.3 rWAR). His strikeout rate was slightly better than his career average, but he was hammering the baseball when he made contact; he had a career-high 52.2 hard-hit rate.
This season, he was easily the best player on the Cardinals, despite Goldschmidt hanging close in the fWAR/rWAR department.
Cy Young: Adam Wainwright
That’s right, 39-year-old Adam Wainwright was the best pitcher on a postseason roster. He was a true workhorse for a roster that featured only two pitchers with more than 100 innings.
In his team-leading 206.1 innings, Wainwright posted a 3.66 FIP, a 3.87 xFIP and a 4.13 SIERA. Additionally, he led the Cardinals staff in fWAR (3.8). He also started the Wild Card Game for St. Louis, allowing just one run on four hits in 5.1 innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After coming off of five straight subpar seasons post-Achilles injury, his 2021 was something to behold.
Reliever of the Year: Giovanny Gallegos
It’s not very close, either, for reliever of the year. Gallegos pitched 80.1 innings, which was third on the entire Cardinals pitching staff while posting a 2.75 FIP. On top of that, he led all Cardinals relievers in fWAR (2.2) while also ranking fifth in that category among MLB bullpen staff. Overall, Gallegos posted a 30.6 strikeout rate, a 3.01 SIERA and stabilized the bullpen while All-Star closer Alex Reyes struggled in the second half.
Offensive Player of the Year: Tyler O’Neill
O’Neill led the team in wRC+ (144), wOBA (.384), slugging (.560), base runs (4.7) and tied for the team lead in home runs (34). The only argument against O’Neill is that Goldschmidt was right on his heels in all offensive categories, and did so with a higher xwOBA (.394 versus .388).
Ultimately, that slight advantage Goldschmidt had in xwOBA doesn’t outweigh the advantage O’Neill has in the results on the field.
Defensive Player of the Year: Harrison Bader
This season, Bader spent some time on the shelf but still managed to lead the team in DRS (15), despite playing 218.1 fewer innings than second-place O’Neill. On top of that, he led all players (minimum 800 defensive innings) in UZR, UZR/150, Defensive value, OAA, etc. As a matter of fact, you name it; he led it.
Comeback Player of the Year: Tyler O’Neill
O’Neill didn’t get to where he is through consistent ascension as a player. In 2020, he was one of the worst hitters in baseball (71 wRC+). To improve one’s offense by 104 percent from the previous season, you’re going to get some recognition for the “comeback” you made. The 26-year-old ascended to near baseball stardom in 2021 after being a potential castoff following a couple of disappointing seasons in a row.
Not unlike to the San Diego Padres, St. Louis is looking for a new manager to begin their offseason. The surprising dismissal of Mike Shildt has created another problem that needs solving ahead of this aging roster.
Improving the Team
Equally important, they were middle of the pack in offense and pitching this season; they need to improve the roster. To address the latter, Marcus Stroman makes a lot of sense for the rotation. He generates a lot of ground balls, which plays right into the strength of the team. Additionally, they could buy low on Red Sox free agent lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez, who may look at the Cardinals as a destination following a season where his ERA was a run-and-a-half more than his FIP.
On the other hand, they posted a 75 wRC+ out of the catcher position (24th). While Molina will likely start for them in 2022, they need a viable offensive backup who can allow Molina to take a little bit of a back seat. Perhaps someone like Jason Castro or Gary Sanchez (if available) could make a lot of sense for the Cardinals.
Follow Jordan Leandre on Twitter: @JordanLeandre55
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