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The Cardinals’ five biggest developments of 2017

As 2017 winds down, here are this team’s most important big-picture stories of the year

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There are a couple different ways one could give a high-level description of the Cardinals’ 2017. One is a story of a slow, grim march of decline: World Series in 2013, NLCS in 2014, NLDS in 2015, miss the playoffs by a game in 2016, now in 2017 they missed by several games. Another, slightly sunnier version would be that the Cardinals’ record undershot their fundamental performance for the second straight year and they were once again a better team than W-L reflects — frustrating, but more in need of a few upgrades than a total rethink.

Whether you take the optimistic line or the pessimistic one, I think most would agree that this year represented an uncomfortable lowering of the bar, in which the Cards had to satisfy themselves not with being a contender, but with being relevant. The 2017 Cardinals may have stayed in the conversation, but the conversation was never about them.

Here’s the thing about these 30,000-foot narratives: I’m tired of them. So as 2017 winds to a blissful close, I’d like to take it down to, say, 10,000 feet, and look at some more concrete developments from this Cardinals season. Here they are, arranged in reverse order of importance, as scientifically determined by me:

5. Trevor Rosenthal’s tenure ended

Given his struggles in 2016 and strand-rate-inflated ERA this year, it’s easy to forget that as of the middle of the season, Trevor Rosenthal looked like he was back. Rosie posted a massive 37.6% strikeout rate, his career high. A truly dominant stretch in July (20 strikeouts vs. 3 walks across 47 batters, with only a .140 batting average allowed and no homers) earned him the closer spot back. It looked like the 2017 Cardinals finally had a stabilizing force at the end of their bullpen. It looked like the 2018 Cardinals would have a true relief ace again. Rosie carried a low-twos FIP into August. It was great.

Then in August, his elbow went sproing during a blown save in Boston. Soon after that, he went under the knife for a Tommy John surgery. Rather than work something out for Rosenthal to rehab on the Cardinals’ dime in 2018 and take a cut-rate contract in 2019, the Cardinals and their best closer since Lee Smith parted ways — at least for now.

Honestly, Rosie was probably the best closer in team history, or would be considered such if his awesome 2013 had been spent closing instead of setting up games for Edward Mujica. He made it easy to forget what it’s like not having a dominant reliever at the end of the bullpen. And now, instead of returning to dominate 9th innings in 2018, Trevor Rosenthal is gone. He will be missed.

4. Jose Martinez might be a thing

I have no idea which side of the Jose Martinez bet to take. The knocks are obvious: he’s 29, was essentially obtained for free, and doesn’t have any real defensive or baserunning value. The Cardinals are his fifth organization. He never really hit in the upper minors until 2015, and that was on the back of a .434 BABIP. Nothing about Martinez’s past should have made anybody expect anything like a 135 wRC+ in the big leagues over 300 PAs.

But it happened. And the weird part is, it happened in a way that doesn’t scream “unsustainable.” That’s not to say there are no sustainability concerns — a 27% line drive rate, 20% HR/FB rate, and .350 BABIP are ripe for downward regression — but as the old saying goes, Jose Martinez hit the crap out of the ball in 2017. He finished 31st in the league (minimum 190 recorded batted balls) in Statcast’s “barrels per PA” metric, just a few spots behind Bryce Harper and one ahead of Cody Bellinger. He was 18th in average exit velocity (sandwiched between Josh Donaldson and Harper). His expected wOBA, based on average outcomes for balls hit how he hit his, was in fact 25 points higher than his actual wOBA.

Whether Jose Martinez can continue to hit the ball the way he did in 2017, nobody knows. That’s the tricky thing about sustainability in baseball: although Martinez’s 2017 results (hits, homers, etc.) were well-deserved based on his underlying performance (how he hit the ball), he’ll have to sustain that performance to have any hope of sustaining those results. But the thing is, he’s only in the team’s plans right now as a bench player, albeit a frequently-used one. If he’s not for real, fine. And if he is, then the good version of Allen Craig just fell out of the sky.

3. Paul DeJong might be an even bigger thing, but is an even bigger risk

Paul DeJong seized the shortstop position with a surprising three-win rookie year. It’s his spot to lose now. But to be blunt, DeJong’s profile is terrifying.

Defensively, DeJong looked the part at short this year, though maybe we’re just too used to fringey defenders out there. He’s not fast (in fact he’s slow [edit: no, I need to get my metrics straight; he’s not especially fast but he does run well, per Statcast]) or twitchy, but he seems to make it work. Still, it’s unlikely that he’s a good enough defender to make him valuable even if he doesn’t hit — he’s not Brandon Crawford out there.

And he hit in 2017, for sure. Even in the Big Shortstop era, a 122 wRC+ at short stands out. But his strikeout to walk ratio was deeply troubling (having one’s name appear alongside the phrase “terrible plate discipline” in a headline is bad), and he had a 42-point gap between his xwOBA and wOBA, which suggests a lot of fortunately-placed balls. It’s unlikely DeJong is really an above-average hitter. His floor is well below average.

Still, there’s room to think the Cards have a very good player here. “Randal Grichuk but a competent shortstop” is a 3+ win player, which seems achievable for DeJong. Also, he has never done anything but hit, at any pro level, and it’s kind of hard to tell a guy who keeps succeeding by doing what he’s doing to stop and do something different. If and when [note: it’s when] his swing-happy approach catches up with him, DeJong will have his chances to adjust. Frankly, given what he’s already done in his career, I’m not going to bet against a successful adjustment.

In any event, just the emergence of a possible three-win, cost-controlled shortstop where nobody expected one is huge news. Even for a team that feels like it does this all the time.

2. Generational turnover on the pitching mound

Lance Lynn is gone (strange as it seems to think of him as a seasoned veteran, 2011 was a while ago; he’s 30 now). Adam Wainwright is greatly diminished. Eight-year veteran Mike Leake is a Mariner. Guys with expensive car insurance and short credit histories abound.

It’s not news that Carlos Martinez is the Cardinals’ ace. That’s been the case for a couple years now. What’s news is just how young the Cardinals rotation looks to be in 2017, outside of Wainwright — who projects to be its worst member, and is likely entering his final season as a Cardinal. Carlos is 26. So is Michael Wacha. Luke Weaver will have a spot out of spring training, and he’s 24. The final rotation spot may go to Jack Flaherty, who is just 22, or eventually Alex Reyes, who is 23. Miles Mikolas is older at 29, but has such a short MLB track record that he’s hard to think of as a veteran.

Despite its youth, the Cardinals rotation looks pretty good, with potential to be very good indeed. There is inherent uncertainty with young players, especially young pitchers, but the moves the Cardinals have made — trading Leake and letting Lynn walk — indicate that they are comfortable moving ahead with the kids. Those end-of-2017 decisions set the stage for prospects (and Mikolas) to take something like half of the team’s 2018 starts, which is something I say with equal parts excitement and trepidation.

1. Clarity in the outfield

On Opening Day 2017, the Cardinals started an outfield of Randal Grichuk (LF), Dexter Fowler (CF), and Stephen Piscotty (RF). Barring injury and/or a couple wacky cases of trade take-backsies, it is unlikely that any of those players will start at those same positions for the Cards on Opening Day 2018. Piscotty is gone to Oakland. Marcell Ozuna figures to be the new everyday left fielder, with Tommy Pham slotted for center, Fowler shifting to right, and Grichuk on the bench if not eventually traded. 2017 was always going to be a show-me year for several Cardinals — team management was up front about that — and now here we are.

Put simply, some guys played well and some didn’t, and the ones that didn’t have not been extended another chance. Pham was a revelation, and now he’s a lineup fixture (if this post was aimed at only individual rather than team stories, it would have been titled TOMMY PHAM TOMMY PHAM TOMMY PHAM). Piscotty disappointed, and was replaced with a better player. Grichuk was basically himself, which is serviceable, but the team spent a couple years hoping for more than that and has clearly moved on. Jose Martinez surprised, and played himself into plenty of playing time.

Frustrating and muddled though the outfield situation in 2017 was at times, it’s hard to argue with the end product. A year ago, we didn’t know who the Cardinals’ best outfielders even were, let alone how good the unit would be. Now, with the benefit of a year to sort things out, we have a clear picture of (1) who should play out there, and (2) how good they are. It’s the new best player on the team, a blog darling that has us riding a delirious high thanks to a late-career breakout, and Dexter Fowler. And they’re quite good.