Nine games back.
That's how they finished 2017 in the division, and the Cardinals have to figure out how to close that gap, and so far they're hoping that trading for Marcell Ozuna is a big enough step in that direction. Ozuna won't do it alone, but he's a major piece. On Saturday, I profiled the Milwaukee Brewers, who have a slightly smaller standings deficit to erase, but who are due for some regression it seems, and today St. Louis, a team with as many questions about their future.
The NL Central was one of the most competitive divisions in baseball as recently as 2015, but the power has shifted to Chicago since. The Cubs dominated in 2016 and finished comfortably ahead last season despite a slow start, and they are built to stay comfortably ahead for a few more years to come.
This puts the Cardinals, the team traditionally accustomed to regular division titles and deep postseason runs, in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. They signed Dexter Fowler last winter in an attempt to match wits with the Cubs, and this winter the aforementioned swap for Ozuna is their next step toward reclaiming what they perceive as their rightful place in the standings.
To me, their final outcome in 2018 will boil down to three things: starting pitching, their bullpen, and how much of an impact Ozuna has on the offense. None of this is earth-shattering, but the Cardinals have a very strong roster in many respects, so they don't come into the season with unique or even glaring holes to fill.
The question of their starting pitching comes down to whether their young starters can take the mantle from Adam Wainwright. "Uncle Charlie" -- as he is affectionately called by the St. Louis faithful -- has been a stalwart of their rotation for a decade, but he has struggled to find his former self since injury sidelined him for almost all of 2015. Last year was his career-worst, and unless his October elbow surgery rights the ship, the Cardinals are going to need more from two younger arms: Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes.
Martinez has been steadily good for three straight seasons, and he is coming off of what was, in many ways, his best season. Throwing more than 200 innings for the first time, pitching two complete game shutouts, and posting the highest strikeout rate of his career, Martinez looks poised to assume the top spot in the rotation. Though he was slightly more hittable in 2017 than he was the previous year and gave up nearly twice as many home runs in only ten more innings pitched, his velocity is up slightly from 2016, and at 26 he is still not quite a finished product.
Reyes is a much bigger question mark. He was dazzling in a brief look at the end of 2016, but Tommy John surgery on his elbow claimed his 2017 season right as spring training started. Almost a year removed from that, Reyes could return and resume his dominance, but the 23-year-old flamethrower has only 46 MLB innings to his name, so the Cardinals should hedge their bet here.
After relying on Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh to close games for the last three or four seasons, both are gone from the Cardinals roster, and though they signed Luke Gregerson, the back of their bullpen is still unsteady. For as much as we might worry over the state of the Cubs reliever corps, it is still in better shape in the 9th inning than their St. Louis counterparts. They have other options, but they are piecemeal ones at best, so this stands to be a significant weakness for the Cardinals in 2018. Greg Holland, the 32-year-old free agent who saved 41 games for the Rockies in a revival 2017 season, is the best option left on the market.
And then there's Ozuna. A 4.8 fWAR player last season, he is a notable step in the right direction for the Cardinals. Last year was easily his best season, and Ozuna is 27 and poised to enter the prime of his career. Like the Cubs, St. Louis has need to fill the leadoff spot in the lineup after Fowler scuffled slightly in 2017, but Ozuna probably doesn't solve this problem. He has never hit leadoff in his career, spending the majority of his time somewhere in the middle of the order instead. Ozuna will go a long way toward bolstering the offense no matter where he hits, so this is a major add for the Cardinals.
According to ZiPS, the Cardinals are heading in the right direction. They have, as always, an uncanny ability to foster talent from the unexpected, and whatever projections we have for them are inevitably leaving out Scrappy McGrit, the replacement-level minor leaguer who will spring from the Pacific Coast League in May to hit leadoff and lead all of baseball in OBP while providing above-average defense at shortstop.
So that nine-game deficit from 2017 will probably shrink in the upcoming season, but only enough for a wild-card spot, as their pitching still has too many questions marks, despite the growing strength that is the Cardinals lineup.