Happy New Year to all fans across the interwebs, I hope you closed out 2015 on a high note. As Cardinal fans, I know everyone, including myself, are excited to be another month closer to baseball. And with Pitchers and Catchers reporting in mid-February, we are a lot closer than we think.
With that being said, I've been writing articles on here for while, and got to thinking about a different way to provide commentary, without having to write in blocks of text. And though I will still write longer pieces if a topic merits one, I'm going to be shifting my writing into a different format.
Once a week, or once every several weeks, I'll write something I call my 'Top 5's'. Basically it's a list of 5 players/things that are ranked based on the topic of that list. I'll probably do 2-4 lists per article, with my reasoning of why I ranked these players in the way that I did. For this article I chose two prompts; 'Most Under-The-Radar Players Heading into 2016', and, 'Biggest Disappointments of the 2015 season'.
Let's dive in:
- Most Under-The-Radar Players Heading into 2016:
For this list, I chose to stay away from players who have already solidified themselves as Starters or impact pieces. That means no Wainwright or Molina, and even no Grichuk, Piscotty or Wong, because they're already held in high esteem by most people in the Cardinal and Baseball community.
5. Brayan Pena
Signed to a two-year deal this offseason, Pena will serve as Molina's primary backup heading into the 2016 season. Safe to say, he'll be a major upgrade over Tony Cruz, defensively, but more importantly, offensively. Cruz's Career slash-line of .220/.262/.310, was dreadful compared to Pena's of .260/.300/.352. Why is he under the radar? Because he is a durable Catcher who can step in anytime and give you some offense, at a position that the Cardinals have struggled to get production from due to Molina's injuries and aging. No one knows exactly how Molina will fair both at and behind the plate next season or beyond, and Pena will play a pivotal role throughout the next two years of his contract.
4. Jedd Gyorko
Acquired from San Diego in exchange for Jon Jay, Gyorko adds infield versatility, and pop off the bench. Wait though, what about his bad contract? That alone should make him 'Overvalued' right? Well, realistically, it's not that simple. One overlooked thing, is that Gyorko doesn't see his yearly salary rise above 10MM until the 2019 season. So for essentially three seasons, he doesn't come with a 'Starters' salary. And more importantly, he can most likely serve as a starter during that span, and get solid production. But that's long term stuff. The thing that makes him valuable this year, is that he can play multiple positions, and he has very respectable Home Run power. His 162-Game average (Which means how much he yields in a certain category over a given season), is 22 Home Runs. The thing is, he's never actually played a full season. So his power numbers aren't where they could be if he is in a full season of play. But likely that won't come as long as Carpenter, Peralta, and Wong are Starters as their positions. Even still, a bench player, who will probably still play more than an average bench player, who can hit 15+ HRs? That's a great value. And if one of the infielders get's injured, and Gyorko receives extend time as a starter, he could reach 20 HRs easily. That's the type of Power the Cardinals could use, which is why Jedd shouldn't be overlooked as just 'bench depth'.
3. Tommy Pham
Pham has definitely gotten lost in the offseason's chaotic Outfield shuffle. Heyward is gone. Jay and Bourjos, right around the same time. Cardinals have been connected to Alex Gordon. Cardinals have talked with the Rockies about their OF. And in all of this, if an external Outfielder was acquired, is how will Mo and Matheny manage to get all the bats in the lineup? For one, I don't think they should go get somebody else. At least, not yet. As of today, we know, Holliday starts in LF, Grichuk in CF, Piscotty in RF. Not bad offensively. Pretty bad defensively. All three of those players fit better in Left Field than the other two spots in the OF, you've got them spread across all three positions. Tommy Pham looks to be the primary back up, which already makes him important. But even more so, is that he is the only true Center Fielder on the team. After Jay and Bourjos left, the Cardinals lost their actual Center Fielders. And no offense to Grichuk, he has a lot to show if he wants to be considered a good glove in CF. Tommy Pham, as a back up, can give you good speed, solid pop, and a solid glove off the bench. But what makes him underrated is what he could do as a starter. No doubt, what he did when he came up in 2015 was amazing. And he continued into the postseason, which is something you can't deny. In no way do I think he'll be that type of player for most of his career, but to be a solid, everyday CF, he doesn't have to. If over a full season, he could give the Cardinals a .270+ AVG, 10-12 HRs, 15+ SBs, and at least average CF defense, he would be a big asset. And based on his minor league track record, it's not out of the question for that being possible. I could even see him, at some point, being a 20 HR/20 SB guy. That's definitely his ceiling, but it's not that crazy to imagine. Even though he currently doesn't have a starting position, he may as time goes on. Holliday could go down again for a significant period of time. So could Grichuk or Piscotty. Or Matt Adams and/or Brandon Moss could go down, shifting Piscotty to 1B. Combine that with him starting to give regulars time off, he could approach a full-season. He probably will never see an All-Star game or a Gold Glove, but he is someone to watch, and someone who is still under the radar.
Going into this season as MLB.com's #10 prospect for the Cardinals, Tuivailala is certainly not a blue-chip prospect. He'll never break the all-time saves record, and may never be anything more than a Setup man. But that doesn't mean he won't be a solid arm out of the bullpen. And in fact, some view him as exactly what I said he probably wouldn't be. For now, Rosenthal occupies the 9th inning, but Tuivailala certainly has the skill set to at least take a stab at closing at some point. But for now, he'll just try to break the MLB roster by having a good showing in Spring Training. But even if he doesn't, he still may be in St. Louis come April. Last season he came up and produced a 3.07 ERA, in 14.2 IP. On top of that, he struck out 20 batters in those 14.2 innings, giving him a 12.3 strikeouts per SO/9. Even though a small sample size, that kind of arm is something that will intrigue the Cardinals when looking to set their MLB roster for 2016. And with a 96.1 average fastball velocity in 2015, (Which was in the top 30 in all MLB), he could be what Carlos Martinez would have been had he stayed in the bullpen. Who knows what inning he'd take as Kevin Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton, and Jordan Walden all could be potential setup men. But that kind of arm could be a shutdown pitcher for the Birds this season, which is exactly why he is so high on my list. During the 2015 NLDS, the Cardinals' pitchers simply ran out of gas. But if you put a flame-throwing Tuivailala into that bullpen, at his best, that will certainly help the depth to ensure the ball gets to Trevor Rosenthal.
1. Brandon Moss
What? Brandon Moss? That guy sucks! Oh wait... Half of a season trying to adjust to a new team, ballpark and NL pitching doesn't define what type of player you are? Could of had me fooled.
But seriously, some people truly may not understand why Moss can play such a key role for the Cardinals in 2016. Let's start with some facts. Moss is a 32 year-old slugging 1B who can also play the Corner Outfield spots. When he was traded he got off to a slow start. But as time went on, he hit an uptick in production. In the months of September into October, his slash line was .275/.342/.435. Also, he contributed down the stretch hitting Two Walk-off hits (One a single, One a Home Run). This was all only after a couple of months after being traded. Those numbers aren't Bonds-level, but they are nothing to dismiss. What is the most impressive is what he's done in his career up to this point. Isolated Power (ISO), is a stat used to determine a hitters raw power numbers. You take the SLG and minus the BA, and you get a players ISO.
Moss comes in 19th in all of baseball in ISO since 2010. That beats out Ryan Braun. That beats out Joey Votto. That beats out Troy Tulowitzki. All coming from a guy that many Cardinals fans simply disregarded after not hitting enough Big-flies. A lot of talk is revolving around, 'Well St. Louis doesn't have enough power in it's lineup, where will all this power come from?'. And let's run down the list:
'Go get Chris Davis.' Oh, you mean the guy who is looking for 25 million a year coming up on 30 years old? No thanks. There are plenty of guys that strikeout 200 times a year that cost less.
'Go get Justin Upton'. Once again, No. His above-average offense does not make up for his atrocious defense. And where would you put him? Right Field? He's already disastrous in Left Field, and you can't move Holliday. It would be devastating to watch Holliday, Grichuk and Upton trying to shag fly balls on a regular basis. Let alone in somewhere like Chicago on a windy day.
'Go get Carlos Gonzales'. Better. But the price to get him may not be worth it. The Rockies are seeking a return for Gonzales' 2013-level performance. Not the 2014 and beyond, injury-prone Gonzales.
Brandon Moss can, and will, do just fine. Production at least resembling these players' Power numbers, all at a fraction of the cost. And because no one seems to be talking about it, that's what makes him so under the radar.
- Biggest Disappointments of the 2015 Season:
5. No Waino, No Es Bueno
Though the Cardinals won 100 games this season, and lead all of MLB in ERA, it looked bleak not having your #1 out there every fifth day to take the mound. What's more disappointing about this, however, is just the fact Wainwright lost another season to an injury. He's getting to the point in his career, where no one knows when his last 'Ace' level season will be. And even though Wainwright's 'Bulldog Mentality' would say otherwise, he doesn't know either. At any rate, I at least want to see Wainwright have one more, Cy Young caliber season, with no injuries. Heck, maybe he'll even get that long deserved Cy Young award. Dream on, I guess.
4. Will The Real M.C, Please Stand Up?
Matt Carpenter is a great player. In fact, a terrific player, just not one who is definable. This one isn't a complaint, as much as it's just a wonder. Which Matt Carpenter will it be this year? Jason Heyward was a lot like this. One season he's a 2-hole hitter, next he's a 4th-hole hitter, the next he falls off the map. Now he's back to a top of the lineup hitter.
Such is baseball, I get it. But Carpenter really became a Chameleonic this season, as he boasted a .505 SLG. He hit 25 Home Runs combined over the previous three seasons (2012, 2013, 2014). In 2015 he hit 28.
But why am I complaining? And how is this disappointing? Well, it's because if he is never constantly one hitter, the Cardinals will never truly be able to maximize their offense. Yes his OBP has held at a high clip (.363 for his career), but it's still not making the most of what he could do. The Cardinals had offensive struggles this season, and had trouble finding someone to hit in the Three-hole. But the minute they put Carpenter there, he lost his 'magic' and didn't hit like he used to, (although I feel it was too small a sample size to say he can't hit in any other spot). My point is, if the Cardinals could have had a combination of Heyward, Wong, Piscotty, or Grichuk occupy the 1-2 spots in the lineup, Carpenter's 28 Home Runs could have driven in more than 84 RBIs. And so the Cardinals are at a crossroads with what to do with him. Who knows what type of hitter he'll be next season, though we do know he'll always carry a high OBP. But that could work in any of the 1, 2, or 3 spots in the lineup. It will be interesting to see how they fill the lineup, trying to milk any, and all, offense out of a lineup that didn't do so hot in the 2015 season.
3. Holliday's Vacation
Long term contracts usually don't work out. I shouldn't have to tell you this, as we saw our beloved #5 fly with his 250MM to the sunny state of California, where, even at the moment it was signed, looked like a bad contract. But Matt Holliday has lived up to almost every penny of his 7-year deal, slashing .295/.383/.496 through the first 5 years of it. Then the 2015 season happened, and he was barley worth a cent. I don't like hating on the guy, as he has been the core of the team since he was signed in the 2009-2010 offseason. But man oh man, was this not his year. The main reason was he was injured, twice, with a right-quad strain. Between those two times, he only managed to play 73 games. Even worse, he only hit 4 Home Runs, which was his lowest of any season he's ever played. There is a bright spot, however, as he had a .394 OBP. But that's not really worth a lot when your injured, and not driving in people in front of you. What's worrying about this even more is, if Holliday's decline has started, who will hit #3 in the lineup? I already mentioned Matt Carpenter as a candidate. Jhonny Peralta gave it a go this last season. Jason Heyward fit that mold nicely, but it's obvious he chose to fit another mold, with another lineup. If he is healthy, productive, and hitting extra-base hits, then great. Problem solved. But if not, the Cardinals are going to have to do a lot of trial and error in Spring Training to see who can give them that Number Three slot for a full season. I just hope they have a Plan B. And C. And D....
2. Second Half Problems
Between Peralta, Wong and Molina on the Offensive side, and Martinez, and Wacha on the pitching side, we saw big-time regressions after the All-Star break from these players. And even into the Postseason, all these players struggled to either put runs on the board, or keep their team in the game. Heck, if it wasn't for the historical pitching Pre-All Star break, Cardinals may not of even made it into the postseason. Not much else to say, honestly. Look up any 2nd-half stats of any of these players, and watch the production dwindle, and the injuries explode. The regression from some players were that bad, that even Piscotty, Grichuk and Pham couldn't power their way through the Cubs. And speaking of...
1. The Cubs
Let's face it, we knew this was coming. At some point, the lava of young blue-chip prospects, and big-city dollars, had to explode from beneath the surface, right on to the Cardinals and the rest of the NL Central. Take your pick. How about watching their young core emerge that includes, but is not limited to, Jake Arrieta (Cy Young), Anthony Rizzo (MVP Candidate), Kris Bryant (Phenom), Addison Russell (Other Phenom), Jorge Soler (Potential Phenom)...
Or we could look at the embarrassing loss handed to the Cards by a young, and unproven core, (Who are just as young, but now proven), that also took down the best pitching staff in baseball.
And the blistering, Lava-cherry, on top of the cake is watching arguably the two most reliable Cardinals of 2015, John Lackey and Jason Heyward, make their way to Chi-town, to possibly unseat the Birds at the top of the NL Central in 2016. All of this, obviously, is disappointing, and probably doesn't need to be explained any further. So to finish on a high note, I'll give you a perspective you may not of thought about.
Because Heyward and Lackey are gone, and were offered a Qualifying Offer, Cardinals receive two picks between the first and second round of the MLB draft. Add that to the first round pick that Mozeliak almost definitely won't surrender to a FA signing, Cardinals get three 'First Round' picks. What the Cardinals can do then, is potentially draft the next Kris Bryant, or Anthony Rizzo, by selecting a couple high potential players, who may not be as close to the MLB level as other Cardinal picks have been (Marco Gonzales, Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty). So hopefully, we'll be able to keep adding cole to the fire, and keep our core young and competitive.