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Setting Expectations for the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals traded for an all-star and brought back their two elder statesmen. Will that be enough to open a championship window?

Jack Flaherty by Charles Edward Miller is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Setting Expectations for the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals


Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

As recently as late January, fans of the St. Louis Cardinals were troubled by the offseason and the immediate future of their beloved team, as the franchise seemed impervious to making moves.  That all changed in one week as the Cardinals traded for perennial all-star third baseman Nolan Arenado and re-signed legends Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright for one more year.

The Cardinals had a rough 2020. (Who didn’t?)

As the calendar flipped to 2021, Cardinal Nation became increasingly frustrated as it seemed the front office was content to choose mediocrity and overspending. The organization quickly changed that discussion by trading for Arenado and his nine-figure contract. The statement was clear. This team wants to win now. When Wainwright and Molina heard this, they immediately signed up for another year.

The addition of Arenado gives the Cardinals a second cornerstone to go with Paul Goldschmidt. 2021 promises to be the first time the Birds can reasonably expect to have two hitters in the lineup who might exceed 6.0 WAR since 2013 – the year of their last World Series appearance. Throwing out last year’s abbreviated season, Arenado has eclipsed 6.0 WAR in four of the previous five seasons – with the exception being a 5.9 mark in 2016.

Goldschmidt averaged almost exactly 6.0 WAR during a six-year stretch from 2013 through 2018. Not since the days of Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen has the Cardinals infield featured two mashers with the production credentials of Arenado and Goldschmidt.

The return of Wainwright and Molina represents more of an intrinsic value than the tidy, tangible metrics boost Arenado figures to provide.

The 39-year-old Wainwright has experienced something of a renaissance the last couple years. His 3.15 ERA during the shortened 2020 season was his best mark in half a decade. The Cardinals should have solid pitching depth behind ace Jack Flaherty, but they need a few hurlers to step up above just an adequate level if they want to have championship aspirations. If Wainwright can coax up one more vintage season, the Cards won’t have to rely so much on unproven younger pitchers to make a leap.

Wainwright also supplies valuable leadership in the clubhouse along with his mate Yadi Molina. These days Molina basically amounts to an average offensive player from the catcher position. But his intangible worth continues to be invaluable. Pitch-framing, shutting down the opponent’s running game, and essentially acting as an extra pitching coach on the field only begin to capture Yadi’s value. Molina has provided a winning foundation in St. Louis for nearly two decades. No one in the organization wants to begin thinking of a future without him despite the fact that he turns 39 in July. At this point, it is impossible to imagine a Cardinals championship run that does not start with Molina behind the plate.

The Cardinals definitely have an imperfect roster with plenty of question marks.

Again, the starting rotation will ask either Wainwright, the enigmatic Carlos Martinez, or some combination of largely unproven pitchers to step up into the number two and three slots. The bullpen could be very good, but some of its members need to move closer to “proven” than “potent” on the performance spectrum. Most ominous of all, the Cardinals have been woeful when it comes to offensive production from their outfield spots in recent years. They chose to move on from veteran Dexter Fowler in the offseason and turn over to youth. A number of players could get a chance in the outfield this year, with top prospect Dylan Carlson being the most intriguing of the bunch.

Arenado, who turns 30 this month, wanted to be traded by the Colorado Rockies because he was tired of losing. St. Louis was on his short list of approved destinations because he trusted that the club could win immediately. While Arenado could end up being in St. Louis for many years to come, Wainwright and Molina are almost certainly on their last hurrah. Their respective legacies in St. Louis are secure. The only reason for them to return is to win another championship together.

The Cards are all-in.

Logically, the Cardinals should expect to win their division – although a pennant seems unlikely in the top-heavy National League. Spiritually, the Cardinals should hope for a World Series title given that the club has manifested an ever-fleeting championship window.

Ross loves sports, he loves history, but he really loves sports history. When he isn't running, hiking, or otherwise participating in outdoor recreation, he is researching college basketball so that he can finally make a perfect bracket this March. A native of St. Louis, he is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan. For someone who currently works in marketing, he is a shockingly awful self-promoter, as evidenced by his paltry Twitter follower count.

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