MLB: How the Cardinals Can Win the NL Central Title in 2016

San Diego Padres v St. Louis Cardinals

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After a series of offseason splashes, the Chicago Cubs enter 2016 as heavy favorites to win the World Series. According to advanced stat projections and MLB insiders alike, this year they’ll build upon last year’s success and erase a century-plus of heartache. Standing in the way of the loaded Cubs is a St. Louis Cardinals squad that reloaded from within and added a key pitcher. The Redbirds have their own clear path to another NL Central title, whether you want to call them underdogs or not.

While the Cubs and Mets were stealing the headlines with their dramatic late-season runs, the Cardinals quietly took care of business, winning the NL Central for the third straight year despite a rash of injuries to core players. The club ended with an MLB-best 100 wins and NL-best run differential of 122. Looking at the team’s strengths and weaknesses, St. Louis showcased depth throughout the 40-man roster, ending up in the top 10 in WAR for starting pitching, relievers, and offense.

This balance was tested at multiple points of the season as Matt Holliday (73 games) and Yadier Molina (136) missed huge chunks of time to injury. Meanwhile, Adam Wainwright made just four starts the entire season. So, as the media focuses on the departures of Jason Heyward and John Lackey to the Cubs, the Cardinals have restocked with the team’s No. 1 starter returning and Mike Leake joining the rotation on a five-year deal worth $80 million.

Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Jaime Garcia make up the rest of the rotation that, by most accounts, is superior to Chicago’s and may outperform every NL club except the Mets, even with the loss of Lance Lynn. In terms of replacing Heyward, a full season of Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty with Tommy Pham in reserve means St. Louis has enough weapons to make do, or possibly improve offensively.

Division Series - Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals - Game One

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Given the potential of Grichuk and Piscotty playing every day, the Cards may see a power upgrade over Heyward’s 13 HR last season. Yet stabilizing the offense will be easier with power from first base, where Matt Adams, Matt Reynolds, and Brandon Moss provided little thump in stints at the position in 2015. Bounce-backs from Moss and Adams would provide cover for the youngsters in the outfield. If the plan doesn’t work, GM John Mozeliak plans to look for reinforcements on the open market.

In a close division race, the head-to-head matchup against the Cubs will loom large. St. Louis went 11-8 against Chicago last season, with Lynn tagged with three of the losses. The overall three-game advantage was the exact margin the Cards held at the end of the year. Pittsburgh, which came in second with 98 wins, will once again be a factor. Though the Pirates went through the offseason without making any major moves, the returning club will be no pushover. (The dismantled Reds and disappearing Brewers, on the other hand, will be easy pickings.)

Finally, you have to consider the intangibles that the Cardinals bring to the ballpark every day. This team oozes confidence when Wainwright is on the mound, and the pitching staff will again be an imposing force from the rotation through the bullpen. St. Louis’s organizational depth seems to give every player the feeling that he is contributing a part rather than bearing a load on his own. That’s how a team with so many injuries could plug the various leaks and win 100 games last season.

Annoying as it may sound to fans of rival teams, the Cardinal Way involves excellence from pre-draft scouting reports all the way to the commitment of the big-league club’s best player and manager Mike Matheny. St. Louis is considered the sport’s best organization for these reasons, and the Cubs have a real fight ahead of them in order to win the NL Central in 2o16. Without the advantage of a bye in the Wild Card round, this year’s team of destiny could have a brief postseason run.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

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