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Still in the afterglow of the blockbuster trade that landed star third baseman Nolan Arenado in St. Louis at relatively little cost, the Cardinals in most circles will be NL Central favorites going into the 2021 season. That's a defensible expectation. The reigning champion Cubs have willingly taken a step back thanks to ownership's unwillingness to spend, and Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer has been subtracted from the Reds' roster. While Milwaukee has had a productive winter, they don't have St. Louis' overall roster strength, at least on paper. 

As for 2020, the Cardinals last season failed to repeat as NL Central champs, but they did manage to make the postseason for a second straight year. They achieved a winning record despite having to play 53 games in 44 days thanks to a COVID outbreak within the roster. The hope in 2021 is that no such schedule challenges are necessary. The further hope -- at least in St. Louis and environs -- is that those expectations above are met and then some. 

Now let's have a closer look at the 2021 Redbirds. 

Win total projections, odds

  • 2021 Sportsline projection: 88-74
  • World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): +2500
  • 2020 record: 30-28 (lost to Padres in Wild Card Series)

Projected lineup

  1. Tommy Edman, 2B
  2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
  3. Nolan Arenado, 3B
  4. Paul DeJong, SS
  5. Dylan Carlson, RF
  6. Yadier Molina, C
  7. Tyler O'Neill, LF
  8. Harrison Bader, CF

Bench: C Andrew Knizner, INF Matt Carpenter, INF Edmundo Sosa, OF Lane Thomas

The offense has been a soft underbelly for St. Louis in recent years. In 2019, when they won the division, they finished 10th in the 15-team NL in runs scored, 11th in OPS, and 12th in home runs. Last season they were even worse -- 12th in runs per game, 14th in OPS, and last in homers. Needless to say, the Cardinals would prefer to give their pitchers a greater margin for error in 2021. The addition of Arenado will surely help matters, but the continuing development of young outfielder Dylan Carlson is no less important. He thrived last season after being recalled from the alternate training site, and was even batting in the heart of the order in the postseason. That squares with expectations, and although he's still rookie-eligible Carlson could soon emerge as a fulcrum in the lineup. As part of an attack that's dubious and all too right-handed, the switch-hitting Carlson needs to do just that in 2021. 

Projected rotation, bullpen

  1. Jack Flaherty, RHP
  2. Adam Wainwright, RHP
  3. Kwang Hyun Kim, LHP
  4. Carlos Martinez, RHP
  5. John Gant, RHP

Bullpen: RHP Alex Reyes, RHP Jordan Hicks, LHP Andrew Miller, RHP Giovanny Gallegos, RHP Ryan Helsley, RHP Daniel Ponce de Leon, LHP Tyler Webb, Genesis Cabrera, Kodi Whitley

Flaherty looks to put the disappointments of 2020 behind and get back to being a true frontline ace. Wainwright still looks capable of getting outs, and Kim showed much promise his first season stateside. The back end is less settled and certain, as we'll touch on below. The bullpen has the makings of a powerhouse, especially from the right side. Big arms abound, and they can provide the swing and miss that may be lacking in the rotation. 

Now for three Cards-related questions -- burning in some cases, merely warm to the touch in others -- to ponder as the 2021 season approaches. 

1. What will Arenado's bat be like?

Arenado is absolutely going to help the Cardinals in 2021, but the question is to what extent. We know he'll pick it in the field, but what about his bat? The temptation is to think Arenado will suffer some manner of decline once he's no longer playing his home games at a mile above sea level. However, that particular concern is not really grounded in reality. Hitters in the past who have moved on from Coors Field teach us that, yes, home numbers will decline, at least superficially. However, that's offset by an improvement in road performance because playing one's home games at Coors Field tends to have a "hangover" effect in road games. Now in St. Louis, that won't be a concern for Arenado. 

What is of concern are his batted-ball indicators. Sure, you can dismiss last year's numbers because of the shoulder injury he suffered early in the season, in addition to, you know, playing a 60-game schedule in the throes of a pandemic. However, it's a trend that goes back to the start of the 2019 season. Since that point, Arenado's quality of contact measures such as average exit velocity, expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, and hard-hit rate have all headed in the wrong direction. As he heads toward age 30, it's something worth monitoring. Decline is rarely linear for a great like Arenado, so it's likely he's got some offensive peak left in his quiver. 

2. How will the back of the rotation sort out?

As you can see above, one through four in the rotation are pretty well settled (while acknowledging that Carlos Martinez may be a bit less than a known quantity these days). The back end, however, is in flux. That the Cardinals are in such a situation reflects that Dakota Hudson will miss the entire season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. As well, Miles Mikolas, who was set to return from his own TJ surgery, has been shut down because of shoulder issues and almost certainly won't be ready for Opening Day. Suffice it to say, a major elbow injury followed by a shoulder malady is not an optimal state of affairs. 

The guess here is that John Gant works as the fifth starter to begin the season. Daniel Ponce de Leon is also a candidate, and on the fringes are Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford. If Mikolas is out longer than expected, then one of those names will need to seize the job. Looking forward, top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore should be ready for rotation duty at some point this season. 

3. Will the defense be even better?

In 2019 the Cardinals ranked fourth in MLB in Defensive Efficiency, which is the the percentage of balls in play that a defense converts into outs, and in 2020 they led all comers in that metric. Utmost ranking notwithstanding, could the Cardinals' gloves be even better this season? Yes, they allowed Gold Glove winner Kolten Wong to walk, but they also traded away Dexter Fowler, an established defensive liability. Tommy Edman won't match Wong's skills, but he's a defensive plus at the keystone. In the outfield, rookie Dylan Carlson should be a significant defensive upgrade over Fowler. 

We've buried the lede here, and that's of course Arenado. Arenado is arguably the best defensive third baseman in baseball, and he'll be patrolling the hot corner for St. Louis. Given all that, it indeed seems plausible that the Cardinals will continue their defensive ascendancy in 2021.