St. Louis Cardinals 2018 season team preview: Playoffs or bust for Matheny?

Missing the playoffs for two straight years doesn't quality as any kind of drought objectively speaking. The Cardinals, though, don't have the usual standards, at least since 2000. Since 2000, the Cardinals have been shut out of the postseason in back-to-back campaigns only one other time -- 2007-2008. 

That the current mini-drought has coincided with the Cubs' championship ascent has probably made things more painful for Cardinals rooters. All of that means the 2018 season will be a critical one for the club, especially for manager Mike Matheny, who likely won't be manager in 2019 if the Cardinals miss the playoffs again. 

So with that scene set, let's preview the 2018 Cardinals ... 

The vitals

  • 2017 record: 83-79, third place in NL Central (plus-56 run differential)
  • 2018 depth chart: Click here
  • 2018 schedule: Click here

Probable lineup

  1. Dexter Fowler, RF
  2. Tommy Pham, CF
  3. Matt Carpenter, 3B
  4. Marcell Ozuna, LF
  5. Yadier Molina, C
  6. Jose Martinez, 1B
  7. Paul DeJong, SS
  8. Kolten Wong, 2B

Bench: OF Harrison Bader, C Carson Kelly, INF Greg Garcia, INF Jedd Gyorko

Probable rotation

Probable bullpen

Closer: Luke Gregerson, RHP 
Setup: Tyler Lyons, LHP
Middle: Dominic Leone, RHP; Bud Norris, RHP; Brett Cecil, LHP; Sam Tuivailala, RHP; Matt Bowman, RHP
Long/Spot Starter: John Gant, RHP 

Sorting out the infield

It's a bit of a fluid situation, the infield of the 2018 Cardinals. Gyorko is going to be a heavily used reserve at probably every infield spot. He may even emerge as the regular at third base if Carpenter's sore back or defensive limitations force him to be an exclusive first baseman. Speaking of Carpenter, shoulder issues sapped his numbers last season (he was still able to run an OBP of .384), so there's hope for a bounceback in 2018, even as he heads into his age-32 campaign. Ideally, Carpenter will be in the lineup somewhere -- first, third, or perhaps even second on occasion -- on a near-daily basis. 

Another consideration is getting Jose Martinez enough ABs. Martinez has done nothing but hit since rebuilding his swing and belatedly arriving in the majors. If Carpenter is healthy and mobile enough to man third, then Martinez's path to the first base job is clearer. Otherwise, he may find himself in a platoon arrangement with Carpenter while also seeing occasional time in left. Elsewhere, Gyorko is also a hedge against Paul DeJong's inability to come close to last year's power bestowals (.532 SLG, 25 home runs in 108 games as a rookie). If injuries and or ineffectiveness force, say, Gyorko into regular duty at short, then the Cardinals may need to find outside help prior to the non-waiver trade deadline. For now, though, Matheny will piece together what could potentially be a plus unit by slotting in Carpenter, Gyorko, DeJong, Wong, and Martinez as match-ups and other considerations warrant. It'll be interesting and possibly telling to see whether a stable arrangement emerges in the early weeks of the season. 

An uncertain rotation

The one-through-five you see above certainly isn't a glaring liability, but is it enough to yield a playoff berth? On this front, the Cardinals have some concerns. To wit ... 

  • Lance Lynn (a free agent unlikely to return) and Mke Leake (traded to the Mariners last season in late August) combined to make more than one-third of the team's starts last season. They're gone. 
  • Wainwright is 36, leaking velocity, and struggling to command his breaking stuff. He hasn't been both healthy and effective since 2014.
  • Wacha has a history of shoulder issues, and even when mostly healthy last season he struggled to pitch deep into his starts. 
  • Mikolas, while promising after reconstructing his career in Japan, is hardly a known quantity back in MLB
  • Weaver certainly profiles as a highly useful starting pitcher in the long-term, but what about in the here and now?

There's some depth in Gant and prospect Jack Flaherty. As well, the profoundly promising Alex Reyes is slated to return from Tommy John surgery in early May and may find his way to the rotation at some point. Still, this looks like a corps that needs a reliable innings-eater behind the ace Martinez. Things as they are, much will need to break the Cardinals' way in order for the back end to be worthy.

The new-look outfield

Since the end of the 2017 season, the Cardinals have traded away Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, and those combined for more than 1,700 defensive innings in the outfield. To backfill, the Cardinals of course swung a major trade for Marcell Ozuna, who's coming off a bust-out 37-homer season for the Marlins. As well, Pham will now be the regular center fielder, while Fowler moves to right. Potentially, that's one of the strongest outfields in the NL, but the Cardinals need Pham and Ozuna to come close to their 2017 levels. As well, the Cardinals need Pham and Fowler to avoid injury. 

The good news is that there's impressive depth in the outfield. Bader figures to crack the active roster as the fourth outfielder. Should things go awry, then deeper within the system are names such as Tyler O'Neill, Adolis Garcia (in camp on an NRI), Randy Arozarena (also in camp on an NRI), and Oscar Mercado. All are ready to contribute now or very soon. If injuries strike in the outfield, the Cardinals will be well positioned. Likewise, if they need to trade from a position of strength in order to move the needle in 2018, then they could tap into that outfield depth. 

Hard-throwers in the pen

The Cardinals will boast a lot of velocity in the bullpen. Figuring to crack the Opening Day roster are Norris, Leone, and Tuivailala, who all boast big fastballs. Reyes (see above) may see some time in the bullpen upon his return, and he hits triple digits with relative ease. Also capable of hitting 100 is 21-year-old Jordan Hicks. Hicks may be a starter in the long-term, but in 2018 he's a candidate to fill an early need in the pen. John Brebbia throws mid-90s, as does Arturo Reyes (no relation to Alex). You get the idea. When it comes to fire-breathing relievers, not many can match the Cardinals in terms of numbers. 

The new bench coach

Among the offseason moves that received less attention was the promotion of Mike Shildt to bench coach -- a role that opened up when David Bell took a job in the Giants' front office. Shildt last season served as Matheny's quality-control coach and, toward the end of the season, third base coach. The role of bench coach, though, gives him much more input on tactical decisions. That, of course, is where Matheny needs help. Shildt is analytically adept, so he figures to serve as a valuable check on Matheny's instincts. As for how many wins the Cardinals have frittered away because of dugout missteps under Matheny, estimates will range from "too many" to "way too many." Perhaps Shildt's having Matheny's ear will help on that front. 


Add it all up, and the Cardinals headed into 2018 figure to be well shy of the Cubs in the NL Central but among the strong favorites to claim one of the two NL wild-card berths. 

CBS Sports Writer

Dayn Perry has been a baseball writer for CBS Sports since early 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for FOXSports.com and ESPN.com. He's the author of three books, the most recent being Reggie Jackson: The... Full Bio

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