As the St. Louis Cardinals move towards the 2016 season, expectations are high. After three straight division titles with at least 90 wins, five straight playoff appearances, and eight straight seasons of at least 86 wins, the Cardinals are a franchise unfamiliar with losing. The team has won at least 85 games in 14 of the last 16 seasons, and in one of the seasons they failed to reach that mark, they won the World Series. Success is not new. What is new is the Cardinals perceived status in the National League Central.
After the Chicago Cubs knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs, then signed Jason Heyward and John Lackey away from the Cardinals, it is the Cardinals' rivals from the North Side of Chicago who are expected to win the division this season. The twin themes of the offseason were the Cardinals' aging core and raising the floor.
After Jason Heyward turned down the Cardinals' offer he indicated one of the reasons he signed with the Cubs was the number of young, dynamic players and the Cardinals aging core of Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright. However, those three players contributed little to the Cardinals' 100 wins in 2016 and the concept of the Cardinals aging core is mostly a myth.
The Cardinals do indeed have an aging core of players how have been incredibly important to the Cardinals' success, and hopefully they can be important to the Cardinals' success again this season. However, they do not need to be the Cardinals' star players. Something closer to average is expected of this aging core. A younger group is already present and ready for major contributions.
The decline in production from Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina along with injury concerns for Adam Wainwright make it seem like the team is aging with a closing window, but that ignores the rest of the team. For those aging players, their window is closing. The same can't be said for the Cardinals. The future is wide open. For more on Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and the Cardinals new core, click here
Raising the Floor
When it comes to creating expectations, we often think in terms of floor and ceiling. The ceiling is exciting--What will happen if everything goes right? The floor draws less attention--What will happen when things go wrong? The Cardinals spent the first part of the offseason trying to raise the ceiling. With a mostly full rotation, the Cardinals sought out David Price, the best free agent pitcher on the market. After Price signed with the Red Sox, the Cardinals, with multiple young players ready to play the outfield, the Cardinals again sought to raise the ceiling by attempting to lure Jason Heyward back to St. Louis. After Heyward signed with the Cubs the Cardinals shifted their approach, opting to raise the floor.
Mike Leake, Jonathan Broxton, Jedd Gyorko, and Seung Hwan Oh do not move the needle when it comes to impact, but Leake served to provide innings to a rotation with question marks, especially after Lance Lynn was sideline with Tommy John surgery. Broxton and Oh provide the bullpen with experience and Gyorko reinforces the bench. For a team that prides itself on continuous contention, the Cardinals moved to ensure the performance would not drop should injuries or ineffectiveness befell the holdovers of the Cardinals great run or the dynamic young players who are expected to step forward.
While many drool over the physical specimen that is Randal Grichuk, and those talents and prodigious power along with improved plate discipline could make himself an All-Star in center field, our pick to break out is Stephen Piscotty.
[Piscotty's] a pure hitter, with great ability to square the ball up and hit to all fields, who also hits for power simply because of said ability to square the ball up combined with raw power.
Last year, Piscotty became the latest embodiment of the "How do they keep doing it?" Cardinals Draft and Development machine. Due to his real ability to tap into his new found power, while still hitting to all fields and not cratering in the Plate Discipline department, I think this year he establishes himself as a key piece of future St. Louis Cardinals teams going forward. For more on Piscotty's breakout potential, click here
The MVP Candidate
The Cardinals have many players who have big-name notoriety who have performed at MVP or Cy Young levels. Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright are stars of the game and great leaders who help set the tone for the club, but in 2016, Matt Carpenter is the best player on the Cardinals and the one who sets the tone at the top at the top of the order.
The success of a ballplayer comes down to two things: The physical tools they were gifted with and their ability to consistently harness and utilize those tools. There are plenty of guys in the annals of baseball with prodigious physical tools, but whose approach never evolved beyond "grip it and rip it", and therefore spent their careers hitting 500 foot home runs in Triple-A.
Matt Carpenter skews to the other end of the distribution. His physical tools, on their own, may not be elite. He ranked 153rd in average exit velocity last season. But in terms of his ability to harness the tools he has, make adjustments and maximize the impact they can have on the game: I don't think there are many better than Matt Carpenter. To read the rest, click here
Mike Leake, signed to that five-year, $80 million contract is not expected to bear the burden of impact ace. Instead, he was brought to St. Louis to ensure the Cardinals' cupboard was not left bare in the search for quality innings. He might provide a bit more.
Given the noticeable differences in velocity and horizontal movement, Leake's repertoire is a pitch sequencing craftsman's dream. The next step is to turn that ability into reality, and Leake has the perfect battery mate to help do this. Now, will Leake go out there and strike out nine hitters per nine innings this season? No, but any uptick from his career average will be a step in the right direction and will play a vital role in Leake performing as a crucial contributor to the Cardinals' success. To read the full story, click here
No one player makes or breaks a season for a baseball team. Even the most impactful hitter takes around 10% of plate appearances, and the workhorse pitcher just 15% of the innings. There are certain players who can act as pivot points for the season--stepping up can mean the difference for a team, changing perceptions, and impacting the overall performance of the team. The Cardinals have several candidates who could provide a broad range of outcomes. Steps forward by Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, and Randal Grichuk could be huge. A return to form from Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright could return the Cardinals to the division title. This season, though, the X-factor is Michael Wacha.
Wacha has been an enigma of sorts, and, in my opinion, is the one likely to move the needle on whether the Cardinals will be considered to have the best rotation in the NL at year's end. That this imaginary title hinges on Wacha feels disingenuous since the rotation is so balanced as well as being less than a year removed from losing Wainwright for almost the entire season and still allowing the fewest runs in baseball. But there's going to be regression in run prevention and it would be nice to counter that with Wacha assuming the role of co-ace with Wainwright, which is a title that's been bestowed on him before. To read the rest, click here
The Cardinals' rotation is scary, both to the opposition and to fans. Between Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, and Mike Leake, there is a ridiculous amount of talent. Wainwright has contended for Cy Youngs. As discussed above, Wacha has pitched like an ace. Garcia helped rescue the Cardinals' season with ace-stuff every time out. While John Lackey was the workhorse and Game 1 pitcher in the playoffs, it was Carlos Martinez who was the team's de facto ace. From mid-May to mid-September, Carlos Martinez pitched 139.1 innings, struck out 141 against just 43 walks with a 2.52 ERA and a 2.77 FIP. To read more about Carlos Martinez's strikeouts, click here
Wainwright has earned the title of ace, but any number of pitchers could step up, and having an ace might not be as important as we think.
The ace starter is to the mythology of baseball what the cowboy is to the Western: an unassailable, untouchable icon of all that is good, both in terms of righteousness and quality. But both have been elevated over time because stories need heroes. And even if Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, or Michael Wacha do not become the hero of the 2016 Cardinals, history shows that the club can still be very successful without one. To read the full analysis, click here
As for who is pitching Opening Day, that should not come as a surprise.
Adam Wainwright taking the hill on Opening Day should be a familiar sight for Cardinals fans, as this will be his fourth consecutive Opening Day start and fifth in his career. This will put him in elite company with the likes of Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, and Chris Carpenter as Cardinal pitchers to make more than five or more Opening Day starts, with only Dean and Gibson having made at least four in a row.
The Cardinals' rotation proved to be vitally important in preventing runs last season, and while they might not perform as well with runners on base, the talent is there to be the best rotation in Major League Baseball.
The Cardinals offense last season was a bit of a disappointment in the run-scoring department. First base was gigantic hole offensively, Yadier Molina took a step back with the bat, Matt Holliday missed a ton of time, Jon Jay suffered through injury, while the season took its toll on the double-play combination of Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong with both wearing down in the second half. The Cardinals lost their second-best offensive player in Jason Heyward. To top it off, Jhonny Peralta is now out until perhaps the All-Star Break and the dropoff to Ruben Tejada is a big one. Yet there is reason for optimism in the lineup.
A full season of Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty in the outfield could ratchet up production, especially in the power department. A healthy competition for time at first base cannot possibly lead to worse results at first base while a rested Kolten Wong could tap into his potential and put together a full season of production. If all goes well, the offense might actually be a strength this season. The Cardinals could start Matt Holliday at first base for the opener against lefty Francisco Liriano with Tommy Pham in the outfield, but for the first half of the season (before the Tejada injury as Gyorko now figures to get more time at shortstop), the lineup could look a lot like this.
One of the narratives at the end of the season was that the Cardinals were worn down. Wong and Peralta had second-half declines, Mark Reynolds was forced to start after an injury to Matt Adams, and Tony Cruz could not be trusted as Molina's backup. Gone are Pete Kozma, Tony Cruz, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, and Mark Reynolds.
Brayan Pena was signed to be Molina's trusted backup, although he is now hurt. Jedd Gyorko was brought in to bring a more reliable bench bat on the infield, although injuries to Peralta and Tejada have made him starting shortstop. Matt Adams moves from starter to backup depending on his production, while Tommy Pham looks to build on his eye-opening 2015 performance in the fourth outfielder role.
After the Royals' success in the postseason, building a lights-out bullpen was en vogue this offseason. The Cardinals began with a solid base at the end of the bullpen with Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist, but chose not to spend big to add more pieces. Jordan Walden' health is ever in question. Jonathan Broxton's signing seemed a bit unnecessary, but he and Seung Hwan Oh provide additional late-game experience.
Seth Maness is back in his role as ground-ball machine with hopefully better results than a season ago, while Tyler Lyons moves from sometimes-starter to a bullpen role where he has the chance to excel. Matt Bowman's status as a Rule 5 pick who will either be on the roster or offered back to the New York Mets. Miguel Socolovich, and Sam Tuivailala are set to start the year in the minors with Mitch Harris on the disabled list.
Impact From the Farm
Any discussion of Cardinals' prospects needs to start with phenom Alex Reyes, one of the ten best prospects in all of baseball.
The stuff Reyes brings to the mound is borderline unfair, with a fastball that sat comfortably at 94-97 this year, and touched triple digits nearly every time out. The heater is most effective when it's up, either at the top of the zone or up out of it, where hitters have virtually no shot at catching up. And as good as the fastball is, there are days when Reyes's curve is just as good, with true 12-to-6 break, nose to toes as the old saying goes, giving him two 70 grade pitches with which to attack hitters unfortunate enough to step into the box against him. To read the full scouting report on Reyes, click here
Reyes will miss the first 40 games of minor league schedule to a suspension for marijuana use, but could make himself a late-season impact pitcher, either in the rotation, if need be, or in the bullpen in the mold of Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, or even Adam Wainwright when he got his start with the Cardinals.
Marco Gonzales is the nominal sixth starter, set to be the first man up should someone in the rotation falter. Read his full scouting report here
Tim Cooney could also return to the big-league rotation after impressing last season. Read his full scouting report here
Sam Tuivailala could provide an boost out of the bullpen. Read his full scouting report here
While almost written off a season ago, Aledmys Diaz inserted himself into the shortstop discussion this spring. We should temper our expectations at this point, but Diaz could make an impact with the Cardinals this season.
The Cardinals enter the 2016 season with high expectations and the personnel to achieve those expectations. Reaching 100 wins again is unrealistic, but a fourth straight division title is a reasonable goal. With the upgrades the Cubs made this winter, Chicago is now the favorite, but the Cardinals are not set up to be also-rans. The goal every season is to make the crapshoot* that is the postseason. The Cardinals have had great teams fall short of the World Series and had surprising clubs win the World Series. While the race for the division got a bit tougher, the Cardinals standard has made anything other than the playoffs a disappointment.
*Playoffs are mostly a crapshoot because the talent level is close to equal at that level. A team of minor leaguers would not have the same chance to win the World Series if they were in the playoffs as a team that won 90+ games in the regular season.
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Special thanks to all VEB editors and writers whose work is included above: the red baron, Joe Schwarz, lil scooter, Ben Godar, Alex Crisafulli, John Fleming, and Ben Markham