Allow me to begin by stating that I am an optimist, occasionally to a fault. I don't enjoy looking at what could go wrong. However, sometimes it is prudent to look at a worst-case scenario just to be prepared. The 2023 St. Louis Cardinals achieved their worst-case scenario. Therefore, it would be wise to look at everything that could go wrong in 2024 to prepare ourselves for another potentially devastating season.
There is still some risk with next year's roster, but the foundation is much more sturdy. Pitchers such as Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson, and Lance Lynn give the team assurance that wasn't present last year in Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, and Dakota Hudson did. The lineup maintains its depth, and the bullpen has some capable pitchers at the back end.
There are three categories that could provide for another dismal season in St. Louis: injuries, underperformance, and bad luck. I'll evaluate and isolate these three categories to provide a blueprint for failure in 2024. I am already cringing as I write this. I don't enjoy looking at the negative side of things. The best part about the offseason is fantasizing about the heights a team may reach next season.
Last year's rotation was littered with question marks in the injury department; Jack Flaherty, Steven Matz, and Adam Wainwright all couldn't be counted on for twenty-eight or more starts. They each had a lengthy injury history, thus dampening the potential of the starting rotation.
Injuries are not solely to blame for the team's record last year. Paul Goldschmidt and Miles Mikolas were able to play a full complement of games, and Tommy Edman was quite healthy. Nolan Arenado, Willson Contreras, and Giovanny Gallegos were all mostly healthy in 2023. That doesn't leave the team without injury concerns for next year, still. Nolan Gorman's back issue could become a bigger problem than it has been thus far. John Mozeliak has been adamant all offseason that there will be no limitations on any player as we enter Spring Training.
But what if Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan don't progress like they're expected to this offseason and instead miss the start of camp? That isn't likely, but it is possible. Without Edman, Dylan Carlson and Masyn Winn are thrust into more prominent roles. In fact, it's even entirely possible that Dylan Carlson continues his troubled past with injuries.
Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, Tommy Edman, and Brendan Donovan all have injury histories that are concerning, and they are four very important players for next year's team. If any one of them or a combination of multiple of them goes down with an injury in the long-term, it could be devastating to the team. Pitchers Ryan Helsley, Steven Matz, Andrew Kittredge, and now Giovanny Gallegos all have shown a tendency to be injured.
If you were to choose one word to define the 2023 season for the Cardinals, underperformance may be that word, barely ahead of disappointing. Only Lars Nootbaar, Nolan Gorman, JoJo Romero, and Ryan Helsley surpassed their ZiPS projections for the year. Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas, Willson Contreras, and even Tommy Edman fell short of their projected WAR totals.
Projections this year are much tamer for the Cardinals and for good reason. However, plenty of players could continue to see regression next year. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are aging, the starting rotation has an average age above thirty-five, and other core players such as Willson Contreras and Giovanny Gallegos are on the wrong side of thirty.
There are plenty of talented young players on the roster, but young players such as Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, and Masyn Winn could all experience slumps at any point next year despite their track records or prospect statuses at one point.