The beauty of baseball in spring is that there are 30 teams who are still in first place. There are 30 fan bases who think “this is going to be our year.” Everything is new and exciting with a new 25 man roster, injured players now healthy, and off-season additions are primed for career years. Realistically, there aren’t 30 teams who are in the hunt for a legitimate shot at the playoffs. A lot of teams have to have everything go right to play in October. With the current playoff format, ⅓ of the teams make the playoffs. In my opinion, there are 7-8 teams per league who have an indubitable chance at playing in October. While it seems like everybody is chasing the rising bar of the Chicago Cubs, this will focus on what needs to happen for the Cardinals to go to October. I won’t address how the sky might fall in St. Louis if the Cardinals fail to make the playoffs for a second straight season (though one may argue, I just did).
What has to go right:
For the St. Louis Cardinals to get back to the playoffs, they need their pitching and defense to improve over what they did last season. General Manager John Mozeliak said “I think what ends up happening is a lot of our decisions tend to lean toward making sure we get the offense right, and sometimes maybe the defensive component takes a back seat,” Mozeliak said. “As we look to 2017, it’s going to have to be, ‘How do we minimize giving up those runs and, in doing so, having an offense that’s relatively status quo be acceptable or, maybe in the wins and loss column, more successful.'” The starting pitchers and defense really let the Cardinals down last year.
Eight different pitchers started games for the Cardinals last year. Mike Mayers made 1 start (total disaster), Alex Reyes made 5 starts (Tommy John out for 2017), and Luke Weaver made 8 starts (about ¼ of the other starting 5). This year’s rotation is similar to last year’s with the exception of Lance Lynn being swapped in for Jamie Garcia (Mr. Headcase himself). Lynn, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, and probably Michael Wacha will be the starting 5. The Cardinals didn’t have a single pitcher go over 200 innings last year, which immediately taxes the bullpen. The last time the Cardinals didn’t have a pitcher log 200 innings was way back in 1999 when Darren Oliver pitched a team leading 196 ⅓ innings.
The longer the starters go, the more defined the bullpen roles become. As we all know, Mike Matheny tends to ride his relievers until they burn out. When bullpens get burned out, or guys have to pitch in roles they aren’t comfortable with, nothing good comes of it. Guys get over exposed, the worst pitcher in the bullpen pitches meaningful innings, and Matheny keeps runnings out the same 3 guys to try and get every out. Matheny is still working on how to get everybody involved as it seems like there is always a pitcher in the bullpen that hasn’t pitched in approximately a week. I understand the need for a “long man” but he can’t be called on 3-4 times a week.
Leake, Wacha, and Wainwright turning in “average” years for their capability would be a tremendous help to stabilizing the rotation.
Mike Leake, who will be making 15 million dollars this year, turned in a 9-12 season with an ERA of 4.69, the worst of his career. His fielding independent pitching ERA (FIP) was 3.83. FanGraphs describes FIP as what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing. Hopefully, the Cardinals get an ERA under 4 this year from Leake. Almost worse than his pitching was his hitting. Leake batted 60 points below his career average and didn’t hit a homerun for the first time since 2013. If Mike Leake turns in an “average” year for him, that will drastically help the Cards every 5th day.
Michael Wacha, who went from All Star in 2015 to first Cardinal to lose an arbitration case in the 2000s, didn’t have the year anyone thought he’d have last year. His career started to take a nosedive in the 2nd half of 2015. Lingering shoulder problems are a big part of his struggles. After going 10-3 with a 2.93 ERA back in the first half, he followed it up with an ERA of over 4 in the second half of 2015. He followed that up last year by going 7-7 over 24 starts with an ERA of over 5. Wacha’s FIP was 3.91. Were the Cardinals pitchers faced with that much random bad luck or did the defense let them down that much? Better luck and defense will help Wacha, who hopes his injury problems are a thing of the past.
Finally we get to the old staff ace, Adam Wainwright (@UncleCharlie50 on Twitter). After coming off of his torn achilles injury which shortened his season to just 7 games in 2015, he pitched to a 4.62 ERA while winning 13 games last year. Wainwright recorded his lowest win total as a full season starter last year. When you listen to Adam talk, he makes you a believer. He stated that he “saved up an entire year’s worth of great pitches for this year because I didn’t throw any last year.” Batters who put the ball in play vs Wainwright last year hit .330 (BABIP), which is 35 points higher than his career average. Father Time isn’t on Wainwright’s side either as the veteran pitcher is now 35 years old.
Defensively, the Cardinals need to “clean it up”. Randal Grichuk moving to LF with the addition of Dexter Fowler to play CF will help the Cardinals defense. Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday didn’t exactly make pitchers (or fans) overly confident in the outfield. Fowler should be a better CF than Grichuk and Grichuk will surely be an upgrade in the corner spot.
On the infield, 3B looks to be manned by either Jedd Gyorko or Jhonny Peralta. Neither one of those players are great defensively, but a healthy Jhonny (former SS) should be able to improve on last years fielding percentage of .976 at the hot corner. Gyorko’s defense will only be pointed out if his offense suffers after hitting 30 home runs last season. Aledmys Diaz improved his defense as the season went on. He committed 16 errors last year but after May 13th he only had 7 errors. In his final 32 games of the season he only committed 1 error. I expect him to look more like the SS we saw at the end of the year than the beginning. Kolten Wong is a 2B that could very well someday win a gold glove. As long as he doesn’t take his offensive struggles with him out in the field, Wong will be a more than serviceable 2B. I think (hope) the Wong experiment in the OF is over. Carpenter moving to 1B should really help the Cardinals defense as well. One of the better hitters on the Cardinals over the past few years, he never could match his fielding with his exemplary hitting. After posting a .997 fielding percentage in 45 games at 1B last season, he has now found himself a new home at 1B. Yadier Molina has always been known for his tremendous defensive attributes. Number 4 doesn’t have anything to do with the defense letting down the pitching staff. I expect Yadi to continue playing great defense behind the plate while guiding the Cardinals pitchers in 2017.
The manager from one of the best baseball movies, Bull Durham, said, “This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Since I’ve talked about throwing the ball and catching the ball, let’s briefly go over the Cardinals hitting the ball. The top 4 in the Cardinals lineup is something that few teams in the National League can match. Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter, and Stephen Piscotty bring a great mix of on-base percentage, average, and power. If these guys can stay healthy and continue producing like they are capable, the Cards should be able to score plenty of runs. The second half of the Cardinals lineup may end up being the ones that teams try to exploit with such a great top 4. Grichuk, Peralta/Gyorko, Molina, and Wong should have plenty of opportunities if the table setters get on base. A more athletic lineup should result in more runs. Hopefully Mike Matheny won’t panic if one of the young guys doesn’t start as fast as he would like. A full, healthy season with those guys in the lineup flanked by Greg Garcia, Tommy Pham, and Matt Adams off the bench will offer enough firepower to keep the Cards from putting doughnuts all over the scoreboard.
I tend to believe in John Mozeliak that if the pitching and defense improves so will the Cardinals. Yes there will probably be less fireworks at 700 Clark Street during the games this year because of potentially less home runs, but I’d rather see Busch Stadium fireworks at the end of 8 ½ innings of Cardinal baseball games.