(Photo Credit: Getty Images – David Banks)
If you’re a St. Louis Cardinals fan who doesn’t reside at the bottom side of a boulder, you’ve heard the talk by now. The foregone conclusion of the Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series championship has become somewhat of a meme; and that’s before spring training games have even begun.
Every day, it seems, offers additional evidence of the Cubs impending triumph. As though acquiring the likes of Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist earlier in the winter weren’t enough to position the North Siders atop MLB experts’ prognostications, Chicago upped the ante Thursday by throwing a surprise party announcing the return of CF Dexter Fowler to the fold.
Then Friday, former Phillies star Shane Victorino signed a minor league contract with the Cubs. Since when did West Addison become the desired landing spot for budding superstars and aging veterans alike?
The Chicago Cubs have become the LeBron-Era Miami Heat faster than you can say ‘Steve Bartman.’
For St. Louis Cardinals fans, that pill has been a tough one to swallow. Cardinal Nation has grown accustomed to viewing the Cubs in an almost sympathetic light. It was easy to dub the rivalry as ‘friendly’ when October rolled around and the Cardinals were consistently cruising to NLCS appearances while the Cubs were sitting at home.
But with Theo Epstein and company running the show at Wrigley, those days are over. The baseball world seems to view the Cubs 2015 NLDS defeat of the Cardinals as a changing of the guard in the NL Central. St. Louis’ reputation as an aging club with a closing window is pervasive chatter in the baseball atmosphere.
I’m not here to deny the writing on the wall—the Cubs are undeniably a dangerously talented young team on the rise. What I am here to do is offer a rebuttal to the idea that the Cardinals window is closing, and that because of a lackluster offseason, 2016 will be a distinct step back from their recent successes.
The following evaluations should not be taken as infallible. This isn’t me guaranteeing the Cardinals to beat the Cubs. This is me trying to dig beneath the hype, and consider a different perspective than the one so loudly proclaimed in the media. My goal is to actually examine the Cardinals roster, and produce a pragmatic argument that supports a path for its success in 2016. Whether these views represent a realistic approach or display absurd bias is for you to decide.
Point #1: The Cardinals lineup will be deep in 2016.
We know Matheny doesn’t like toying with the lineup, but let’s just imagine what one iteration of the order could be in 2016:
- Kolten Wong 2B
- Stephen Piscotty RF
- Matt Carpenter 3B
- Matt Holliday LF
- Randal Grichuk CF
- Jhonny Peralta SS
- Brandon Moss 1B
- Yadier Molina C
Bench: Gyorko, Adams, Pham, Garcia, Pena
Is that not a pretty balanced lineup? It remains to be seen if Matheny will actually use it, but he’s got a lot of flexibility at his disposal with this group. Try Wong at the top, move Holliday out of the three-hole, Carpenter into a real run-producing spot. Guys like Moss and Adams may surprise you with their
power numbers this year, too. Moss was a 30 HR guys just a couple seasons ago. His position at the bottom of the order is evidence of a capable, deep lineup for the Cardinals.
The bench also looks significantly better than it did at the beginning of last season. Pena is an upgrade over Tony Cruz should Molina miss time. Peralta, Carpenter and Wong all suffered from fatigue issues last summer. Having a guy like Gyorko around who can fill in at multiple positions without sacrificing offense is significant.
Matheny won’t have to run his starters out there for 160 games because the ‘next man up’ isn’t Pete Kozma this time. And in the outfield, it won’t be Jon Jay. Matheny’s devotion to the injured CF last year was like Allen Craig all over again. Well, Mozeliak forced Matheny’s hand with Craig, and now he’s done it with Jay as well. This is a good thing. Gyorko’s positional flexibility improve this baseball team, and Tommy Pham as a spark off the bench has a nice ring to it.
Point #2: The starting rotation will regress, but can still be an exceptional strength.
The favorite observation of analysts regarding the Cardinals pitching staff is that the historically low team ERA of 2015 is unsustainable. These pitchers aren’t really as good as the numbers indicated, and for the upcoming season, they’ll revert back to the mean.
All of that is probably true.
But there are ample reasons for optimism in this staff’s continued success.
First of all, Adam Wainwright is back. I understand the guy is 34 years old, but there are few athletes who match the level of determination and sheer will to compete of Waino. He proved it last season by coming back from a torn achilles to pitch out of the bullpen in the postseason. For everyone who brings up the departure of Lackey as a reason for a doom and gloom projection for STL’s pitching, let me offer a prediction: Wainwright’s numbers in 2016 will be as good as or better than Lackey’s.
If that is the case, we’ve just replaced the production of one stud. The Cardinals didn’t feel comfortable replacing the innings volume of another—Lance Lynn—from within the organization, so they went out and signed Mike Leake. Leake is known as a durable innings eater: precisely what the Cards require of a Lynn fill-in.
Jaime Garcia was a stud last year after finally getting healthy. Michael Wacha made it through a full season without a major flare up of his shoulder troubles. Carlos Martinez may be the best of the bunch, but was shut down in September with a shoulder strain. With these three, are undoubtedly lots of question marks.
But if/when injuries crop up, the Cardinals have the organizational depth to weather them to a reasonable extent. Tim Cooney is having some trouble already in spring, but if he can strengthen his shoulder, he’ll be an option coming out of Memphis if trouble strikes in St. Louis. So to, will Marco Gonzales, who was expected to be the depth-guy last year until injuries derailed his season. Then there’s Tyler Lyons, who will likely start the season in the MLB bullpen as he is out of minor league options.
And of course, after he serves the remainder of his 50 game marijuana-related suspension, top prospect Alex Reyes may make an appearance at Busch Stadium for the stretch run. That’s sure to turn to heads.
Basically, the Cardinals still have a remarkable amount of talent in their pool of available starting pitchers. They don’t need to have a sub-3.00 ERA to be considered a strength of the team.
Point #3: The bullpen, on paper, is one of the very best in baseball.
The St. Louis Cardinals bullpen ranked 3rd in MLB last year in bullpen ERA at 2.82. I’m here to tell you, there’s no reason it can’t be even better this year. Look at these names and tell me who should set up closer Trevor Rosenthal in the 8th inning. In parentheses, I’ll throw in their ERA last season.
- RHP Jordan Walden (0.87)
- LHP Kevin Siegrist (2.17)
- RHP Jonathan Broxton (4.62, but 2.66 with STL)
- RHP Seung-hwan Oh (2.73 in KBO, 1.81 career ERA)
Siegrist was excellent as the primary set-up man last year. The other three all have significant experience as closers. You can’t go wrong with any of them. Along with Rosey (2.10 ERA in 2015), they comprise of 5 of the likely seven bullpen spots on the 25-man roster. The other two will likely be Lyons (.206 batting average against as a reliever last year) and Seth Maness, the double-play machine.
Top to bottom, the St. Louis Cardinals have a formidable bullpen. If you give this team a lead going into the latter innings, good luck trying to claw you’re way back into it.
Final Point: Are the really Cubs immune to setbacks?
This is an uncertain season to predict, because while the Cubs seem to have it all together, the Cardinals come with some sort of question mark at almost every position. But from an optimistic and realistic perspective, not every question has to carry a negative connotation for Cardinal fans.
What if the Cubs—who experienced virtually zero injury-related adversity in 2015—have trouble keeping their top players on the field? What if some of the Cubs “aging veterans” like John Lackey and Ben Zobrist experience some decline in their production? The Cubs were fortunate last season not to experience many major injury-related setbacks. There’s no guarantee 2016 will be the same.
Even if you’ve already heard this a dozen times in the past few weeks, it can’t hurt for me to say it again: World Series titles are not won in spring training.
If they were, the Washington Nationals’ trophy case would be significantly more impressive.