Make no mistake, baseball season doesn’t actually start until the very first pitch is delivered in a game that will count in the standings. That will happen this year on April 2 around 12:10 pm St. Louis-time for a Yankees-Rays game in Tampa. No, baseball season doesn’t start after the Super Bowl (to the contrary, after last night’s game I wish everything would end). Not when pitchers and catchers report. And not when the Cardinals are playing split-squad games at Roger Dean Stadium.
Anything short of that first pitch is not baseball season, and not for nothing but it takes true grit to go against the official VEB Twitter account and a handsome dog so this is not a take I deliver lightly. However, there are moments during the offseason when it’s worth thinking a bit more about baseball, one of them being when the Baseball Prospectus Annual for the upcoming season drops for public consumption.
The BP Annual is a trusted sidekick to keep close during the season, scribbling in it and jotting down notes until it’s barely decipherable. Then, after the season, prominently displaying the publication next to the others in the den in chronological order like some grad-student trying to impress his English Lit professor at a dinner party with his collection of Dylan vinyl. Aren’t we just the worst?
Anyway, the ‘17 BP Annual arrived at my home this weekend, and here are a few things about our favorite baseball team that stood out:
1. 2017 will be a big year for Mike Matheny
Big year as in it could decide his future. Will Leitch wrote the Cardinals essay and it carried a bit of a pessimistic tone considering the team won more games than they lost in 2016 and finished just a game away from extra baseball, but it’s easy to be pessimistic when talking about Mike Matheny, the subject of Leitch’s essay. Leitch runs through the gamut of Matheny grievances - the bullpen mismanagement, the tailoring of the roster to hide his deficiencies, the inability to listen and learn from criticism, etc. - and notes that the announcement of the three year contract extension for Matheny the morning after the Cubs won the World Series was poorly thought out from a timing perspective and not well-received by the fan base at large.
Both of those things are true. That said, I don’t think this extension will mean much if the Cardinals fall flat out on their face in 2017 and further regress in the standings. The 2017 Cardinals should be competing for a wild card, or a division title if the Cubs manage to run into some bad luck (always possible). Just because Matheny is locked up until 2020 for a few million of dollars doesn’t mean he isn’t immediately expendable for an organization that is swimming in cash.
2. Matt Carpenter has likely seen every type of pitch imaginable
According to the player comments (authored by Ken Funck and BP Staff), Matt Carpenter has seen 11,252 pitches since the start of the 2013 season. To understand that stat you have to know the context, which is that Paul Goldschmidt is second in the National League with 417 fewer pitches. It’s stats like that combined with articles like this that make Carpenter one of the more interesting hitters in all of baseball.
3. Like other projection systems before it, BP predicts doesn’t foresee elite production from Cardinals position players
Yadier Molina, whose work has always been highly valued by those at BP, is projected to have the best season for Cardinals position players per BP’s win model (WARP). BP sees Yadi worth around 2.8 wins. Not always a good idea to compare oneself to a team who just won 103 games and a World Series, but the Cubs have five players projected to be worth 2.8 wins or more. After Molina, Carpenter (2.3) and Stephen Piscotty (2.2) round out the top three. Keep in mind, the BP Annual is a preview and only has the facts as they are at time of publication so it can’t proactively credit the Cardinals for the pending Mike Trout trade.
4. Randal Grichuk’s player comments strike the right chord
Randal Grichuk is appropriately profiled as a hitter in 2016 who tried to work on his plate discipline and after two demotions to Memphis said to heck with that, I’m here to hit home runs. We, of course, already knew this because last July we heard it straight from the source.
5. Stephen Piscotty’s brother invented a product to keep craft beer at optimal temperature
I like the Cardinals, I like craft beer well enough, and yet I somehow missed this story. But, it’s true. It’s called the Beer Bit and it looks practical enough.
6. Rosenthal’s sky-high BABIP
Here’s another thing I didn’t know: Trevor Rosenthal only pitched around 40 innings last season (I knew that part), but had a .425 BABIP, which, according to the Annual, was the highest in baseball since 1950 (I didn’t know that part).
7. BP, like many, doesn’t know what to think of Michael Wacha
The player comments for Michael Wacha depict a one-act play in which the two protagonists debate the merits of Wacha’s 2016 season in ERA (5.09) vs. FIP (3.95) language. The dialog ends as all stalemated conversations should with an extended invitation to “get some tacos.”
8. The same applies for Lance Lynn
No tacos, though. Instead it’s a worthwhile question of whether Lance Lynn’s recovery from Tommy John will be easier given his tendency to throw almost exclusively fastballs (around 84% of the time in 2015), or if weakened command - a well known symptom of TJ surgery - will wreak havoc on said fastballs. Overall, Cardinals frontline pitching remains their most interesting issue heading into 2017. A bounce back from a disappointing 2016 season when they were expected to have one of the better rotations in baseball seems very possible, but so does a continued decline. We’ll have to wait and see.
9. The Cardinals have imaginary beef with Andrew McCutchen
From Andrew McCutchen’s player comments:
Few baseball players have earned universal love throughout the sport the way McCuthen has. Twitter eggs from St. Louis aside, does anyone dislike this guy?
I don’t put anything past any Twitter egg from any municipality, but did the Cardinals ever have even a modest feud with McCutchen or the Pirates? I certainly can’t recall one - I reached out to a Pirates fan and he couldn’t either. For reasons I won’t get into, the Cardinals have become an easy target for very easy jokes like this, but what I find surprising is that 2013 through 2015 came and went without a single major dust-up between the two clubs (please correct me if I’m wrong). And that’s while they were participating in some of the most competitive games in the league.
The Cardinals feuded with the Brewers. Came to blows with the Reds. The Cubs...where to even begin. But the Cardinals more or less have gotten along with the Buccos when there was a three to four year stretch when they probably should not have gotten along. Huh.
10. The Cardinals have four prospects in the top 81
And that includes Alex Reyes who sits at #1. The other three are Sandy Alcantara (#40), Delvin Perez (#79), and Carson Kelly (#81). The Brewers, who by most prognosticators are still a year or two away from capitalizing, boast a staggering six prospects in the top 80. Still, the Cardinals sit pretty well when compared to the rest of their NL Central foes. Perpetual Matheny issues aside, the future should remain bright.