2024 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers & Busts: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals to target and avoid this draft season.

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. That’s Murphy’s Law, yes, but also the theme of the 2023 baseball season in St. Louis. Before the season started, the Cardinals had the most talented roster on paper in the NL Central and were heavy favorites to not just win the division, but also to contend for a World Series. Things didn’t exactly go to plan.

Nearly from the get-go, the team struggled both on the field and off. Within just a few weeks of Opening Day, star free agent acquisition Willson Contreras was thrown under the bus as cover for a poorly constructed pitching staff that finished with the 7th-worst ERA in the sport. The since-traded Tyler O’Neill was accused of not hustling around the basepaths and subsequently benched. Things got ugly quickly, and the team never rallied, finishing 71-91 and in the basement of the division.

For a fanbase not used to a lack of success, a quick turnaround isn’t just expected, it’s demanded. Thankfully for the Cardinals, their uber-talented offensive core is still intact. On the pitching side of things, the front office quickly brought in three veteran starters — Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, and Kyle Gibson — to patch the gaping holes and hopefully provide a pathway to the formidable duo of Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos in the late innings. Whether things all come back together quickly and St. Louis becomes a division favorite once again or not, there should be at least a small bounce-back in store for a team that went 17-26 in one-run games.



Jordan Walker

2023 Stats (465 PA): .276 AVG, 51 R, 16 HR, 51 RBI, 7 SB

Walker was one of last year’s trendy rookie breakout picks but never really lived up to those lofty dreams. He started red-hot with a 12-game hitting streak but followed it with an eight-game slump that included a 32.1% strikeout rate that earned him a demotion to Triple-A. Upon returning to the big league club on June 2nd, Walker slashed .277/.346/.455 the rest of the way and saw himself move up the lineup from the eight-hole to second, third, or fourth by season’s end.

Everyone needs some time to really feel comfortable when starting a new venture, and Walker was no different. We started to see some of that uber-talented prospect pedigree come out down the stretch.

That looks like a whole lot of growth for a player who couldn’t even legally buy alcohol on Opening Day last year.

Walker will turn 22 in May, and still has so much more room to grow. He’s not just one of the better prospects that debuted last year, but probably one of the better prospects of the last five seasons with power-upside that only a handful of players in the whole sport can match.

Early drafters are certainly dreaming of that upside as Walker currently has a 112 ADP in NFBC drafts over the past month. That may seem like a steep asking price if you’re looking at Steamer’s projection for Walker this year — .266/.335/.442 with 18 home runs, 64 runs, 68 RBI, and 9 stolen bases. Most of those look pretty light to me. I’d take the over nearly across the board there. ZiPs thinks so too and comes in a lot more favorably with a .269/.338/.467 triple slash to go along with 27 home runs, 67 runs, 84 RBI, and 10 steals.

If Walker can get close to those numbers ZiPs popped out, he’ll be an anchor in both real and fantasy lineups this year. His big bopping upside is tremendous, and having that kind of player on your team can make the season a whole lot more fun if it pans out. He’ll certainly be on a handful of my rosters, and he should be on some of yours too.


Sonny Gray

2023 Stats (184 IP): 2.79 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 183 K, 8 W

It feels a little wrong to call a pitcher who just finished second in the AL Cy Young voting a sleeper, but “veteran player that is being severely undervalued based on recent performance” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. In fact, I actually expected to be doing the opposite in this article. Before diving into the numbers, I was fully anticipating putting Gray in the Bust section of this piece. 34-year-old starters coming off the best season of their career don’t often continue that performance, but I think Gray can.

To start, this wasn’t some one-year aberration. Gray’s been a solid starter for much of the last decade, but his stint in Minnesota was some of the best pitching we’ve ever seen from the three-time All-Star.

The only thing keeping us from talking more about Gray’s 2022 season in a similar vein to last year’s is injuries. Gray had three separate IL stints in that year due to a recurring right hamstring strain and a pectoral injury. That just comes with the territory when we talk about Gray, but that shouldn’t be enough to scare you off drafting him. He’s only topped 180 innings once since 2015, but he’s also tossed 115 innings in every single one of those full seasons during that stretch. Durable-ish isn’t a word, but that’s kind of what Gray is. Draft him assuming you’ll move him to your fantasy IL once or twice this season and you should stay pretty happy with his performance.

Our fearless leader Nick Pollack did a fantastic breakdown on Gray’s arsenal and expectations for him during the upcoming season in his 2024 St. Louis Cardinals SP Breakdown. It’s a great resource if you want to dive deep into what Gray’s throwing these days. The highlight of Gray’s offerings is his sweeper. It’s filthy — one of the best breaking balls in the game. Gray’s sweeper had a 5.48 PLV (81st percentile) and a 122 Stuff+ which was ninth best among sliders.

Gray bumped up his sweeper usage to 20.4% last year and it absolutely devastated batters. He used that slide piece more than anyone in two-strike counts – 68.8% – and for good reason. Gray’s sweeper carried a 27.3% PAR which was 91st percentile. The pitch carried an identical 91st percentile O-Swing% and when batters did make contact, they wished they hadn’t. They hit just .097 with a .114 wOBA against the offering.

Pitchers moving to Busch Stadium usually get a nice boost, but it has nearly identical Statcast Park Factors as Target Field. Busch suppresses home runs much better, but Gray doesn’t struggle giving up the long ball. His groundball rate last year was 85th percentile and the Cardinals are pretty slick on the infield dirt. They finished first in Infield Outs Above Average in both 2021 and 2022 and fell just a bit to ninth in 2023. The Twins were 23rd.

Gray has a current NFBC ADP of 123 over the past month. He’s the 35th starter off the board and the 50th pitcher overall. That’s a price I’m happy to pay. Nabbing Gray as your third starter not only feels really solid but will look like a draft-day steal if he performs near the level he has in each of the last two seasons.



Nolan Arenado

2023 Stats (612 PA): .266 AVG, 71 R, 26 HR, 93 RBI, 3 SB

Betting against a player with as impressive a résumé as Arenado is not fun. It almost feels foolish. But as the eight-time All-Star enters his mid-30s, it may be time to avoid him in drafts.

One of the biggest concerns with any aging player is their pitch recognition, and we’ve started to see that slip a bit from the aging third baseman.

Arenado’s strike zone recognition hasn’t fallen off a cliff, but there are certainly signs that it’s declining, and that’s not a skill that many batters can regain once it starts slipping. PLV wasn’t a fan of his showing last year either, and it was the third straight year his average strike zone recognition has fallen.

Arenado’s always succeeded without elite plate discipline numbers. He’s never struck out much, but he’s also walked much more than a league-average player. If these trends are legitimate skill declines, it doesn’t spell disaster – he’s not all of a sudden going to be unrosterable in fantasy – but they are red flags that his time as an elite counting stats guy is in trouble.

Arenado entered 2023 with seven straight full seasons of 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI, but that ended last year due to not just a slip in production, but a back injury that sent him to the IL for the first time in three years. I don’t know about you, but my back hasn’t started feeling better as I aged, and I expect Arenado’s doesn’t either. Chronic back problems will humble even the most durable players, and it scares me to see that as a potential issue for the soon-to-be 33-year-old third baseman.

Part of the reason Arenado’s been able to be such a dominant fantasy player in the home run, runs, and RBI department is that he’s always been a max playing time guy. He posted six straight full seasons of 650+ plate appearances from 2015 through 2021, but those numbers have slipped ever so slightly to 620 and 612 the last two years. If that back injury becomes bothersome, even if he avoids an IL trip, it’ll mean more days off and less time to rack up those elite levels of counting stats we’ve come to expect from him.

Father Time is undefeated. Arenado’s done a decent job fending him off so far, but it’s a battle he’ll start losing eventually and I’m worried it may be this year. I don’t blame anyone for still excitedly drafting a player with the track record of Arenado, but with the fun young trio of Triston Casas, Spencer Steer, and Josh Jung going just a few picks after him, I prefer taking the gamble on those upside plays.


Tommy Edman

2023 Stats (528 PA): .248 AVG, 69 R, 13 HR, 47 RBI, 27 SB

Edman may be one of the textbook definitions of a player with significantly more value to his real-life team than the fake fantasy ones we have so much fun managing. His bat has been below average three out of the last four seasons,  but his excellent defense in up-the-middle positions makes him a great tool for his manager to mix and match around the diamond as needed. Unfortunately for his fantasy managers, his demotion from the top of the Cardinals lineup to the bottom last year took away his helpful run contribution making him a one-trick fantasy pony. That trick is stolen bases.

Since the 2021 season, his 89 stolen bases tie him with Starling Marte and Trea Turner for the second-most in the league over that period. He’s posted 30, 32, and 27 in the last three years. Last year’s 27 mark is disappointing given the league-wide surge in activity on the basepaths, but that lower number is partly due to Edman missing about a month with a right wrist injury.

The wrist injury bothered him enough that he underwent arthroscopic surgery to address it back in October. Recent reports are indicating he may be behind schedule and not ready to hit at the start of Spring Training which is a pretty big red flag. The Cardinals seemingly never lack in interesting bench options, and if Edman opens camp delayed and someone else – maybe Dylan Carlson or Alec Burleson – impresses early on, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Edman lose his hold on a starting role.

Edman’s profile is incredibly similar to Cardinals’ top prospect and new starting shortstop Masyn Winn. Both are fielding-first, light-hitting types with speed as their most potent offensive strength. I’m curious to see if manager Oli Marmol and the front office will be content with having two nearly identical players pencilled into the bottom of their lineup day in and day out.

If the lack of production at the bottom of the lineup becomes a problem, I can see Edman entering a platoon scenario. He has a career 117 wRC+  versus left-handed pitchers compared to a 93 wRC+ against righties. With Carlson, Burleson, and the freshly signed Matt Carpenter all swinging it from the left side, Edman may be skating on thin ice.

Edman’s carrying fantasy tool is his stolen base numbers and anything causing him to see the field less will quickly tank his value. With stolen bases up across the league, I think you’ll be able to find plenty of stolen base help from players who will also contribute in other areas and who have fewer threats to their playing time.

Mark Steubinger

Mark loves everything talking and writing about baseball - from every fantasy league format you can imagine to the unending greatness of Mike Trout. Mark has a degree in Sports Communication from Bradley University and works in radio production. He lives in central Illinois where his TV is permanently tuned to Chicago Cubs games.

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