Coming off of their worst season since 1990, the St. Louis Cardinals aren't seen as the vaunted organization as they once were. Everything fell apart last year, placing the Redbirds firmly in last place while the Chicago Cubs surprised everybody and made a genuine push for the playoffs even if it didn't pan out. That said, it would be wrong to assume the Cardinals won't be a threat in 2024.
Dan Szymborski recently shared the ZiPS projections at FanGraphs for St. Louis in 2024 and it points to the Cubs' chief rival bouncing back to their winning ways. ZiPS measures the projected WAR value of each position on a team as well as projected stats for each player based on past performances - particularly their most recent seasons - and comparisons to current and former players.
Looking at the best, worst, and most likely outcomes for the Cardinals, Szymborski sees them once again in the 85 to 90-win range with their new pitching acquisitions playing a key role in getting them back to contention.
Key among the changes is Sonny Gray, who's projected for 3.6 fWAR with 154 innings pitched and a 3.56 ERA, good for a 118 ERA+. Pitching was by far the Achilles' heel for St. Louis who still managed a solid offensive season but faltered thanks to nightmarish performances by Adam Wainwright and Steven Matz among others. Adding an ace in Gray to replace the outgoing Jordan Montgomery, as well as some extra depth in Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, gives them more innings and safety nets for injuries and underperformance than they had last year. It's not a stellar rotation, but it is a deeper one.
The bullpen, similarly, projects well enough again thanks to the depth. While the Cardinals won't have Yuki Matsui reinforcing the back end, they still seem primed to cobble together another strong group led by Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley. In total, the St. Louis bullpen is projected at around 4.2 fWAR with five to six arms projected with ERAs in the threes.
The offense, meanwhile, shows no glaring holes as no position falls below 2 fWAR. Even in his 20th percentile outcome, Paul Goldschmidt is still projected to be an above-average hitter and Nolan Arenado isn't far behind. While not seen as the perennial MVP candidates they once were, each is still projected at 3 and 3.8 fWAR respectively. ZiPS also believes St. Louis's younger players like Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn are primed for better days, with Walker's 122 OPS+ projected as the second-best on the team. Old friend Willson Contreras is also predicted to have another strong offensive season to the tune of 2.5 WAR.
The Cubs' path to the National League Central won't be easy
Szymborski goes into far more detail, but the long and short of it is that this team, on paper, will likely be better than the Cubs heading into the 2024 season. It's easy to laugh at the Cardinals' misfortune last year, but they've seemingly shored up their greatest weakness all as Jed Hoyer and company have stood pat. They will arguably be the biggest threat to the Cubs' hopes of retaking the NL Central aside from, perhaps, the rapidly-improving Cincinnati Reds.
These teams are both beatable. The Cardinals, in particular, still have flaws in their rotation despite the improvements. It's still up to the Cubs to make the improvements that can put them over their rivals. With Juan Soto and Shohei Ohtani off the table, that starts with re-signing Cody Bellinger then adding another starter like Shane Bieber and reinforcing the bullpen. That's a lot of holes to fill and options to become a true contender in the Central only dwindle as the team continues to wait.