The Cardinals will get the baseballs, bats and themselves moving next week when spring-training camp opens in Jupiter. They will take the first big step to leave a dreadful 2023 behind and set their sights on 2024.

This offseason I’ve been writing a series of columns that describe why I’m feeling optimistic about the Cardinals’ chances of making a positive rebound in the coming season. And if anything, I’ve grown even more confident about their chances.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noted several analytical projection systems that have forecast a first-place finish for the Cardinals in the 2024 NL Central race. FanGraphs. Clay Davenport. Baseball Prospectus.

The ZiPS forecast is the latest model to put the Cardinals atop the division. ZiPS has averaged a success rate of around 67 percent over the last 10 seasons in projecting each team’s win totals.

“Fans have a tendency to overrate teams when things are going well and underrate teams when they’re not, and I think the Cardinals are a good example of this,” ZiPS inventor Dan Szymborski wrote on Friday. “The additions outside of Sonny Gray don’t send a tingle down your spine, but they did successfully patch up the rotation, which was a gaping wound for most of last season. Paul Goldschmidt, 36, and Nolan Arenado, who turns 33 in April, might not be as good as they once were, but if they age gradually instead of all at once, St. Louis should have the necessary depth in its lineup to score enough runs to compete in such a weak division. ZiPS isn’t alone here.”

The accuracy of all preseason assessments will be determined over 162 regular-season games. But there is no rational reason to believe the Cardinals will drift to near the bottom of the overall National League standings for a second straight season.

Based on projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) team totals, FanGraphs currently has St. Louis as the NL’s fourth-best team behind the Braves, Dodgers and Phillies.

The Cardinals aren’t a great team. But as I’ve explained in several recent columns, the standard for making it to the postseason is lower since baseball added a third wild-card in each team. A projected win total between 85 and 89 makes St. Louis a contender. Like it or not, that’s the new math.

Here’s why I say that:

In the two seasons under the new format, seven teams with 100+ wins made the playoffs. But just as many (seven) got into the playoffs with no more than 89 wins.

In 2012, MLB added a second wild-card team to each league. In the full regular seasons from 2012 through 2021, the playoffs included 15 teams that won 100+ games. But over the same time frame, 17 teams made the playoffs with no more than 89 victories.

The 2024 Cardinals can be a playoff team for several reasons.

The STL rotation will supply more innings and quality starts. I remain puzzled by the number of people who can’t – or won’t – understand the value of that.

The Cards lineup should be, at worst, above league average. And there are reasons to believe their hitters will do even better than that. “This is a deep, flexible lineup with lots of upside,” Baseball Prospectus wrote.

The Cardinal rotation won’t be bombed into early submission as often as we witnessed in 2023. The bullpen won’t throw away as many leads in the middle and late innings.

I make no guarantees about this team’s defense and baserunning, but it’s reasonable to expect improvement in the fundamentals. And if Cardinals are sloppy again, we’ll know the manager and coaches are failing.

The St. Louis win total will rise from 71; that much is obvious. It’s just a question of how high they’ll go. But the division title is in play and the Cardinals will try to grab it back.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals have a 49.4 percent chance of winning the NL Central and a 63% probability of making the playoffs. FanGraphs isn’t as bullish on the Cardinals, giving the Redbirds a 36.1 percent shot of winning the division and a 54.1% crack at qualifying for the postseason.

As Baseball Prospectus recently noted, “the Cardinals get the benefit of the doubt in a very weak NL Central, but this is at least partially because they have perhaps the most complete roster in the division.”

Here are the last 10 teams to go from worst in their division to first in the division in a quick turnaround:

* 1990-91 Twins
* 1990-91 Braves
* 1992-93 Phillies
* 1997-98 Padres
* 1998-99 Diamondbacks
* 2006-07 Cubs
* 2007-08 Rays
* 2010-11 Diamondbacks
* 2012-13 Red Sox
* 2014-15 Rangers

Worst to first figures to be easier in the NL Central. And if the Cardinals are seriously tracking a playoff spot in 2024, president of baseball ops John Mozeliak will secure help to improve the team at the trade deadline — just as he did in 2021 and 2022.

Mozeliak acquired starting pitchers Jon Lester and J.A. Happ at the deadline in ’21 and landed two starters (Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana) in ’22. The Cardinals went 31-15 in the games started by the four imports.

I’ll wrap this column by listing other aspects of the 2024 Cardinals that give me optimism.

1. A Normal Spring Training. No absences and disruptions caused by the World Baseball Classic. Eighteen Cardinals competed in the WBC in 2023. That certainly didn’t help them get ready for regular-season ball. Among other things, pitchers that played in the WBC were taken out of their routines and weren’t ready for the regular season. This year camp should be more organized and lead to a higher quality of work.

2. A Drama-Free Zone: No more stewing and frustration and resentment over Tyler O’Neill’s frequent injuries, IL stays, and perceived lack of hustle. No more weak-minded pitchers mewling over the new catcher (Wilson Contreras) and dumping blame on him instead of taking responsibility for their own fiascoes. No more psychological theater over what’s inside the heads of chronic enigmas Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson.

3. Adam Wainwright Is Happily Retired: Let’s face it, his push to achieve 200 wins was turbulent and distracting. He suffered during many painful performances, and the Cardinals won only seven of his 21 starts. Wainwright’s extreme failures became a source of agony and anxiety. The Waino melodrama turned into an obsession. Through no fault of his own, Wainwright’s mission was more important than the team’s mission. Teammates fully supported him but had to live with the constant worry and sadness over his troubling quest. When a legend struggles terribly in the autumn of his career, it isn’t a happy time for anyone. The adversity was a drain on morale. When a franchise legend has an amazing, sensational final season – Albert Pujols in 2022 – teammates are happy, energized and inspired. The Waino Experience was the exact opposite of that – at least until he claimed No. 200. That was the one great moment in an exhausting season that ended with a 7.40 ERA for the second-best starting pitcher in franchise history.

4. More Help Down Below: I do believe the Cardinals will have more attractive internal options when they need help along the way in 2024. The pitching depth was solidified at the ‘23 trade deadline and then again this offseason. Tekoah Roby, a healthy Gordon Graceffo, Adam Kloffenstein, Drew Rom, Tink Hence and a number of new relievers could emerge as factors with the big club. Zack Thompson – who has a 3.65 ERA in his first 101 major-league innings – is a nice option for filling a rotation spot. I’m reluctant to suggest this could be a positive year for lefty pitcher Matthew Liberatore; I can’t count on it. But Liberatore is still only 24 years old, and he showed signs of going into an effective attack mode in ‘23. On the position player side, center fielder Victor Scott and infielder Thomas Saggese are close to being big-league ready.

Here’s an observation from Keith Law of The Athletic in his piece about the St. Louis farm system:

“The Cardinals need pitching,” he wrote. “So they’re going out to get pitching. But may I also point out that they might have some pitching coming soon? They’ve got a trio of promising up-the-middle position players in or close to the majors, then a raft of arms — maybe back-end starters, maybe bulk relievers — who should also start in or quickly get to Triple A this year.”

5. Tough Schedule Has Benefits: Many words have typed in or spoken in describing the formidable nature of the team’s challenging early-season launch. Nineteen of the Cardinals’ first 25 games will be played against teams that made the playoffs in 2023. But one of those clubs, Milwaukee, isn’t as strong after an offseason of subtractions including manager Craig Counsell and No. 1 starter Corbin Burnes. Only 12 of STL’s first 31 games will be at Busch Stadium; the Redbirds will have twice as many road series (6) as home series (3.)

I understand the fear of a slow start that could lead to problems, but there is another side to this. First, the Cardinals have a chance to surprise us by exceeding the early expectations. Second, if the Cardinals have a disappointing first month they’ll have five months to get over it. Over the past three seasons six teams eventually made the playoffs despite having a losing record through their first 31 games. The Phillies did it two years in a row, 2022 and ‘23. Third, if you play a rugged early schedule, you can look forward to the schedule easing up. Get the hard stuff out of the way. Starting May 3, the Cardinals will enter a stretch of playing 15 of 22 games at home. The schedule has twists and turns and the totality of success is the only thing that really matters.

If you’d like to read any of my other 10 Optimism Reports, you can easily access them by going here at Scoops. Once you’re into the “Bern Baby Bern” section, those pieces are simple to find.

Thanks for reading …

Have a swell weekend …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.