I am a child of the 1990s and proud of it. I was there, front and center, through the boy band craze, the Spice Girls, the Mighty Ducks, POGs, the Persian Gulf War, etc. Well, maybe not front and center, but I was living through it! And sippin’ on Surge the whole time!
Being a child of the 90s means I’ve also come to accept a great fact of life: the St. Louis Cardinals will inevitably wiggle their way into relevance and sometimes the postseason every single fall.
That’s right. Every year over the last two decades or so, we’ve come into the season wondering whether the Cubs will break the curse, when Bartolo Colon will hang up his cleats, or whether or not we’re in a deadball, juiced ball, or steroid ball era.
No one comes into the season being like…hey watch out for the Cardinals! That’s a contender right there! So Taguchi shakes fear into me! And watch out for Mike Leake. No one says that. No one is afraid of Mike Leake.
On the flip side of that, no one is outspoken about how bad they’ll be every year either.
They’re just….the Cardinals. They’re as Midwest as it gets in baseball. Not the belle of the ball but not the wallflower either. Perfectly meh on paper. And yet…they still always seem to get it done. They always seem to trot out a group of okay pitchers and older, quad-A type hitters that somehow come together to create a team built for the home stretch.
It always seems to work in St. Louis.
Paul Sporer loves this phrase, and I’m stealing the phrase. Yes, my loyal readers (I see there’s 5 of you now!), the Cardinals engage in a special kind of sorcery: Cardinals’ Devil Magic.
To fully understand how Cardinals’ Devil Magic really works, we must understand the past. Figure out it’s origins. So let’s go back a few years.
Warning: If you are a Texas Rangers fan, you can skip this part. In fact, you probably should.
Prior to 1996, the Cardinals had been in a dry spell. They hadn’t been to the postseason since 1987, and they needed a change. Enter: three-time AL pennant and World Series winning manager Tony La Russa.
La Russa’s A’s had fallen on a string of bad seasons, and the future Hall of Famer took his talents to Busch Stadium before the 1996 season.
With La Russa came the beginning of what we have come to know as the Devil Magic. The Cardinals broke their playoff drought, won the division, and lost in 7 games in the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves. THOSE Atlanta Braves. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz. The whole 9 yards. Not bad for a team that hadn’t even sniffed the postseason a year before.
Since the beginning of the 1996 season, the Devil Magic has led the Cardinals to the postseason 12 times including 2 unlikely World Series titles. For comparison’s sake, 12 is how many times the Cardinals made the playoffs from 1931-1995. That’s quite a change in fortune for this long-standing franchise.
So, what changed? Was it all Tony La Russa just being THAT good? Sure, they had Mark McGwire and later Albert Pujols, but something was going on here. Something dark. Something sinister. Something akin to the plot of Damn Yankees. Let’s dig deeper!
We don’t have time to dissect all 12 playoff appearances since 1996 to point out every specific instance of Devil Magic, but we should hit a few. After all, this is supposed to be a fantasy article. We’ll get there, I promise.
I present the 2006 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
A perfect example that Tony La Russa (possibly) made a pact with the devil to ensure success. It’s our first, clear-cut, undeniable instance of Devil Magic simply because they won the whole thing.
You see, that year, the Cardinals only finished a game and a half ahead of the Astros to win the NL Central. They also had the worst record of any playoff team at 83-78.
In terms of their lineup, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen had great years with Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion posting “meh” 19 HR, 70 RBI years. Chris Carpenter was the ace with a 3.09 ERA, but it got worse in a hurry with Jeff Suppan’s 12-7, 4.12 ERA being the next best stat line.
This was an ok team. Not a great team. But…as something that can only be explained with Devil Magic…they never fell below .500 all season. They did just enough to get by as they headed into the playoffs.
After Yadier Molina’s thrilling 9th inning homerun against the Mets in Game 7 of the NLCS (he hit .216 that year…DEVIL MAGIC), they looked overmatched on paper against the 95-67 Tigers. Only Placido Polanco failed to hit double digit homeruns that year on a Tigers squad that included an in-his-prime Magglio Ordonez, a young Justin Verlander, peak Curtis Granderson, and future Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez. However, the Tigers were no match for the voodoo of the Redbirds as the Cardinals took it in 5 and David Eckstein was named World Series MVP.
Here’s his line that year…
68 R/2 HR/23 RBI/7 SB with a .292/.350/.344 triple slash. Sure, he crushed in the playoffs but DAVID ECKSTEIN.
Fast forward to the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals.
A better Cardinals team who finished 90-72, but they didn’t even win the division as the Brewers took the crown. Again, past Pujols and Lance Berkman, this is not an intimidating lineup. Where the Cardinals really flexed their Devil Magic was in their ragtag rotation. Chris Carpenter anchored a staff that featured a young Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, and Edwin Jackson. What?!
Like 2006, this team barely even made the playoffs finishing 1 game ahead of Atlanta. But the Devil Magic was just getting started. You see, the real story of the 2011 Cardinals was the fact that they were 1 out away from elimination in Game 6 against Texas when David Freese hit a game-tying triple in the bottom of the 9th.
Of course, as no one in Texas or St. Louis can forget, Freese would smash the game-winner two innings later to force a Game 7. It’s Devil Magic, so we all know what would happen from there.
Those are certainly the most extreme examples, and now that we have some historical context, let’s talk about this year’s Devil Magic and put a fantasy perspective on the whole thing.
This year, the Cardinals sit at 50-52, which has them tied for 3rd place in the NL Central with the bumbling Pirates. They’re only 4.5 games behind the division-leading Cubs, and there is plenty of baseball to be played.
Adversity struck the 2017 Cardinals early this season as they lost Alex Reyes for the year before the season and have no timetable for the returns of Dexter Fowler (wrist) or Stephen Piscotty (sucks). They’ll also be without Adam Wainwright (old) until at least early August.
HERE’S THE ACTUAL FANTASY ANALYSIS.
But…this is the Cardinals we’re talking about. We know better than to count them out. In fact, here are a few guys who are stirring up some good ol’ fashioned Devil Magic as we speak…
OF Tommy Pham
He has the highest WAR of any player on the team period. He was also not even on the Opening Day roster and didn’t get called up to the Big Show until May 5th.
However, Devil Magic knows no bounds. True to typical Cardinals form, this 29 year-old AAAA guy currently leads the team in HRs (14), SBs (13), and he only has 4 less RBI than Matt Carpenter in almost 150 less at-bats.
Oh, and his triple slash is a .312/.400/.534 over 295 plate appearances. He is currently the #9 OF in ESPN scoring, and he’s only 65.6% owned. Normally, I would say don’t trust a 29-year-old “breakout,” but this is the Cardinals. We are dangerously close to the final stretch of the season, he fits the profile of a Cardinals contributor, and we’ve learned this is no time to turn your back on Devil Magic!
He’s been red-hot in the month of July (.447 OBP this month), he’s hit safely in 15 of his last 16 games, and recently he’s been hitting out of the 2 hole in the lineup. This is the most Devil Magic player of them all! Grab him now if he’s still available, and get a piece of the voodoo.
IF Paul DeJong
While the stats are not nearly as eye-popping as Pham’s, DeJong has done DeDamage when given the opportunity. Sorry guys that was a stretch.
Since getting the call on May 28th, DeJong has tied Pham for the team-high 14 HRs to go along with his 31 RBI. He has a triple slash of .290/.303/.590, but the real story is all the dongs he’s been jacking this month.
Since the beginning of July, he’s hit 8 HRs with 4 coming in the last 7 games. He’s been bumped up as high as 3rd in the lineup this week, and he’s eligible at 2B, 3B, AND SS. 52.6% owned. I know for a fact there are teams still in the race in fantasy that could use a utility guy like that.
I trust Pham way more than DeJong rest of season, but I would ride this wave until it breaks.
IF Jedd Gyorko
You know those times where you feel like you know a person so well? You’ve known them for years, but something happens that makes you question how well you really know them. Suddenly, you feel you don’t know them at all.
That’s Jedd Gyorko this year. We thought we knew who this guy was. Lots of power. Low average. Low OBP. Dong or bust.
Well, the 2017 Cardinals Devil Magic is unpredictable, and while Gyorko has only donged 14 times this season, he’s slashed a shockingly good .280/.347/.481 with 6 STEALS! That’s more steals than Gyorko has ever had in the majors. Combined.
He’s a career .244 hitter giving us a career triple slash year, and even though he’s down in power, he’s contributing in other categories for the first time ever. Naysayers will say…naysay?…that regression is coming, but it’s the Cardinals so who knows what’s in store. He’ll probably be the World Series MVP. DAVID ECKSTEIN?!
OF Randal Grichuk
Though it hasn’t been a great year for Grichuk, he’s caught fire all of a sudden. He’s hit safely in 6 of 7 games since returning from AAA this month, and he’s now put together a 13 HR, 37 RBI season to go with his 5 SBs.
He’s risky in terms of average and OBP, but he’s always had the power profile to make him usable in fantasy.
If the rest of the lineup continues to hit well and get on base, more opportunities could arise for Grichuk to pad those numbers.
He’s maddeningly inconsistent, but if you believe in the Devil Magic like I do, then Grichuk could be a sneaky good source or power down the stretch.
Let’s finish this off with some quick bonus blurbs about the Cardinals’ prospects that could be overcome with the spirit of the Devil Magic down the stretch:
P Luke Weaver: Recently got called up by the big boys. He started last night against the Dbacks and posted a 4 ER, 5 K night over 5 IP. He was absolutely torching guys in AAA (9-1, 1.91 ERA, 0.94 WHIP), but the real question will be where do they use him. Some outlets say he will plug into the bullpen, which the Cardinals famously love to do with their young stud arms. If he starts, I’m absolutely streaming him in the right matchups. Pay close attention to Adam Wainwright’s status if you like Weaver as much as I do.
OF Harrison Bader: Also got the call this past week after he too had been obliterating AAA this season. He had a 62 R/19 HR/48 RBI/9 SB line in Memphis, and the University of Florida product looks to have little left to prove in the minors. Pay close attention to Dexter Fowler’s injury over the next few weeks. At-bats will be hard to come by if Fowler is back soon. Bader doesn’t do one particular thing great, but like Bradley Zimmer, he does a lot of things very well. I’m taking a flier if there’s at-bats available.
C Carson Kelly: It’s a full-on call-up circus in St. Louis! The eventual successor to Yadier has posted some very Yadier-like seasons in the minors. His best asset is his arm, so I’m not sure how he contributes in fantasy especially this year. Catcher is a death zone this year, but don’t fall for this shiny new toy.
So, do the Cardinals have more Devil Magic in them? Do they have enough to get hot here in late July/early August, catch the Cubs and set the world on fire? Time will tell.
Maybe it’s the under-the-radar attitude towards the Cardinals that always motivates them to greatness. Maybe Tony La Russa actually is in cahoots with the devil and that’s spilled over into Matheny’s regime.
Whatever it is, it’s dangerous and it works. Never count out the Cardinals. Someone will always be there to get that clutch hit. Someone will always be there to pitch that clutch inning. They have a knack at accomplishing the unexpected.
It’s a tough hill for them to climb this year, but I fully expect to see them in October.
Give me a follow on Twitter @jakebridge03!