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Top of the order for the ‘17 Cardinals should be a tough out

After losing power this offseason, this year’s lineup could still do some damage and it starts with Fowler, Carpenter, and Diaz.

St. Louis Cardinals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

A lot of us had fun reacting to PECOTA projecting that the Cardinals will be a bumbling lot of fools running around on the Busch Stadium grass in 2017, but it’s not hard to see how things could go very wrong for the team this year. In short, the pitching could continue to underwhelm, and the power-driven offense from last season might not be there to balance out the scoring. For starters, replacing the 60 home runs lost with the departure of Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, and Jeremy Hazelbaker won’t be easy.

And there’s the production the Cardinals got from pinch hitters in 2016 which will be impossible to replicate. To recap, in 275 plate appearances in 2016, Cardinals pinch hitters slashed .332/.392/.615, good for a wRC+ of 164. They basically sent David Ortiz up to the plate for every pinch hit appearance, and thereby led MLB in nearly every offensive stat that matters, including 17 home runs which set an MLB record.

A repeat performance of last year’s pitching only with 2015’s offensive production would be a doomsday scenario if the goal is to put some heat on the Cubs or at least compete for a wild card. And that should be the goal. Thankfully, I think there are good reasons to expect a rebound in run prevention. And as for hitting, there should be a lot of table setting opportunities at the top of this lineup.

The Cubs dominated last season for a host of reasons one of which being they got on base a whole heck of a lot. That’s a nice goal for the Cardinals in 2017.

To that end, a statistic in the 2017 Athlon Baseball Preview (well worth your time, find it next to the paperback romance novels at your local Walgreen’s) caught my eye: The Cardinals likely top three hitters in 2017 (Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz) had a combined .381 on-base percentage in 2016. The overall NL average last season was .322. League average for hitters 1-3 combined was around .343. A .381 OBP would have tied a Coors-inflated Charlie Blackmon for 11th in the league. Four of the ten players with an OBP higher than .381 were represented by the Northsiders, including the now-Cardinal Fowler who led the team with a .393 mark.

The Cardinals lack an elite hitter/slugger like Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo, but at his best Carpenter is close especially in terms of reaching base. He hasn’t had an OBP lower than .365 since becoming a regular. And in spite of PECOTA’s bearish take on Carpenter, his last 2,500+ plate appearances resemble nothing other than a great hitter as evidenced by a 134 wRC+ dating back to the beginning of 2013. Being a full-time first baseman might zap a bit of his value but if health is on his side in 2017 he should soar past PECOTA’s projections (2.4 WARP).

Soon-to-be leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler had arguably a career year in 2016 which explains PECOTA thinking his production will regress this season (projected 1.9 WARP). He also has a career .366 OBP aided by an exceptional 12.6% career walk rate. After 4,300+ career plate appearances, it’s fair to call these bonafide skills that likely aren’t going away this soon into his 30s.

Fowler and Carpenter penciled in at the top two spots (which, of course, might not be how Mike Matheny chooses to construct the lineup), will also be an annoyance for opposing pitchers because they excel at making pitchers labor through their respective at-bats. Fowler was second in the NL in 2016 in pitchers per plate appearance (4.40) behind Jayson Werth. Carpenter was eighth (4.22).

The value, if any, from this statistic isn’t that clear although the top ten in 2016 in all of MLB included some of the most dangerous hitters (names like Trout, Votto, and Goldschmidt). And the correlation between long at-bats and team success isn’t necessarily obvious either. Cubs hitters as a team ranked third in the NL in 2016 in pitches per plate appearances (3.96) while the lowly Brewers led the league (3.97). Meanwhile, playoff-bound Dodgers and Giants, as well as the Cardinals, were below league average. On the other hand, in 2014 and 2015 combined, nine of the ten NL playoff teams ranked at or above league average in pitches per plate appearance with the ‘14 Giants being the one outlier.

Whatever the case, the dream scenario for the Cardinals in 2017 is Fowler on the third, Carpenter at first, and Diaz stepping up to the plate in the 1st inning with the pitch count already in double-digits. Speaking of Diaz, at just 460 career plate appearances his profile remains incomplete. He also looked comfortable in the batter’s box from the second he arrived and his plate discipline improved to the tune of a 11.5% walk rate and a near-.370 OBP in his last 270 plate appearances. That along with the third best slugging percentage for all shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances in a season when shortstops averaged their best offensive numbers in nine years. If there were signs that he’s not likely to remain a well above-average hitter then I missed them.

Things could go wrong for the Cardinals in 2017. PECOTA sees their slugging dropping over 30 points which is a fair call given that the model is designed to weed out extremes (they were 31 points above the NL average last season) and, as mentioned, the Cardinals lost some power in the offseason. There’s opportunity here though to generate runs by wearing out pitchers and getting on base and the Cardinals have a pretty good lineup at the top of the order to do just that.