It takes a lot to stay good in baseball, year after year. Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers seem to do it. And the Cardinals do it.
There’s one big way the Cardinals stand out from the rest of the teams in MLB: the consistency of their position players is the best in baseball. By far. And the upcoming season should be more of the same.
Here’s a very interesting list FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski included in his team-by-team ZiPS projections for the upcoming season. It shows the teams that have gone the longest without ranking in the bottom third of the league in position player Wins Above Replacement.
Last time each team ranked in the bottom third of MLB in position player WAR
1988 — Cardinals
2006–Rays, Red Sox
2013 — Mets
2014 — Cubs, Guardians
2016 — A’s, Braves, Twins, Yankees
2018 — Padres, Phillies
2019 — Blue Jays, Giants, White Sox
2020 — Astros, Brewers, Nationals, Reds
2021 — Angels, D-backs, Mariners, Marlins, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers, Rockies, Royals, Tigers
The last time the Cardinals had a bottom-third position player group was in 1988. That’s 33 straight seasons without a weak lineup. Their run of consistency is 18 years longer than any other team’s.
In fact, going all the way back to St. Louis’ World Series championship season in 1982, four full decades ago, the 1988 season is the only time the Cardinals have had a bottom-third lineup.
Mostly, it hasn’t even been closed. The Cardinals have had the best position player WAR three times in that span; they’ve been in the top five 12 times, and in the top 10 27 times. Their average finish, over four decades of baseball, has been eighth.
Aside from 1988, St. Louis’ only brushes with a bottom-third lineup were in 1995 and ’99, two of the team’s worst seasons of the last 40 years. In their three championship seasons, the Cardinals ranked eighth (1982), seventh (2006) and sixth (2011). The other four times they won the National League pennant, they ranked first (1985), seventh (1987), first (2004) and fifth (2013).
St. Louis’ position players are never bad, and that’s the foundation of the club’s 14 straight winning seasons, and the 15 postseason appearances since 2000, and the World Series titles in 2006 and ’11, and the biggest reason why the Cardinals haven’ t lost 90 games or finished in last place since 1990.
Don’t expect 2022 to break the streak, either. Coming off a 2021 season in which they had the seventh-best position player WAR, the Cardinals are projected to be top-10 again this season, according to FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections.
Here’s a look back at how the Cardinals have stayed so consistent for so long, and why they’re set up for success again in 2022.
1982: Ozzie Smith in his first season in St. Louis, Keith Hernandez in his last full season and a supporting cast of Darrell Porter, Lonnie Smith, George Hendrick and Willie McGee power the Cardinals to the World Series.
Mid-’80s: The Wizard of Oz provides the Gold Glove defense, Jack Clark provides the slugging, Vince Coleman provides the speed and McGee provides a little bit of everything.
1988: St. Louis finishes in the bottom third in position player WAR for the last time.
Late ’80s – early ’90s: As stars of the ’80s like Ozzie, Coleman and McGee age, new faces arrive like Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey and Todd Zeile, and the Cards get some big seasons by players like Pedro Guerrero and Gregg Jefferies.
Mid-’90s: The Cardinals have some of their worst finishes in the standings, but players like Lankford, Brian Jordan and Delino DeShields keep the offense afloat — and Big Mac is about to arrive.
Late ’90s: Mark McGwire comes to the Cardinals and powers the great home run chase of 1998. He’s then joined by a wave of young bats — Edgar Renteria, JD Drew and Fernando Tatis.
2000s: The Pujols Era. Albert Pujols debuts in 2001 and will define the next decade of Cardinals baseball, winning three MVP Awards and two World Series. Stars like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Larry Walker join him. The Cardinals also feature strong defensive lineups with Rolen, Edmonds, Renteria, Fernando Vina and eventually Yadier Molina.
Early 2010s: A strong veteran core anchors the Cardinal lineup, as St. Louis brings in stars like Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltrán and Lance Berkman, and others like David Freese, Allen Craig and Jhonny Peralta play key roles and ease the transition as Pujols leaves for the Angels .
Mid-’10s: The new wave of young talent starts to come up. Cardinals like Matt Carpenter (2012), Kolten Wong (’14), Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty (’15), Aledmys Diaz (’16), Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham (’17), Harrison Bader (’18) and Tommy Edman (’19) establish themselves with breakout seasons throughout the rest of the decade. Many place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Turn of the 2020s: With the core of the team in place, big names come in: Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Marcell Ozuna are among the sluggers that join St. Louis as the Cardinals return to the playoffs for three straight seasons from 2019-21.
2022: And that brings us to the present.
The Cardinals have the veteran stars. They have the supplementary core players. They might be MLB’s best defensive team, having just led the Majors in Outs Above Average in 2021. And they have more potential rising stars: 2021 breakout hitter Tyler O’Neill, NL Rookie of the Year finalist Dylan Carlson, who’s entering his age- 23 season after hitting 18 home runs as a rookie, and 21-year-old infielder Nolan Gorman, MLB’s No. 33 overall prospect, who could develop into a star hitter himself.
The Cardinals have the right combination of pieces in place again. The pipeline keeps flowing, and they add what they need to from outside. The organization puts the players on the field that put it in position to succeed year after year in a way that’s not easy to replicate.