If it’s possible to radically change without really changing, then that’s what the St. Louis Cardinals have done the last five years. Today, March 20, 2017, there’s a level of uncertainty in these parts after the Cardinals missed the postseason in 2016 for the first time since 2010. Their dominance of the NL Central is over, or, at best, temporarily on hold as their arch-rivals are better-suited going forward in almost every facet of the game. Still, this pales to the great unknown that was March 20, 2012.
Backing up a few months before that, approximately six weeks after the Cardinals won their 11th World Series title in 2011, the organization woke up to a new reality. Albert Pujols, the greatest Cardinal of the modern era, possibly the best right-handed hitter the National League had seen this side of Willie Mays, was gone. He was replaced at first base by a committee, mostly Allen Craig whose career WAR at the time was separated from Pujols by approximately Sammy Sosa’s entire career.
And Tony La Russa retired. The winningest manager in Cardinals history, the guy with the most wins in baseball (if the counting begins at basically any point between 1915-1980) would no longer be pacing and scowling in the dugout. He was replaced by Mike Matheny, a 41-year-old former catcher who had never managed at any level that mattered.
This was a seismic shift for an organization that had won on average 90.8 games a year since 2000, not to mention two World Series titles. A lot of people called this the golden era of Cardinals baseball and it probably was. But take those above-anxieties and throw in Chris Carpenter more or less being finished, Adam Wainwright coming off Tommy John surgery, and no one would have been too shocked had the window slammed shut on this run.
So what’s happened in the last five seasons? For starters, the Cardinals have averaged 92.2 wins per season, which has amounted to more wins than any other team. They won a pennant, three division titles, and 21 total postseason games. They have the best winning percentage in baseball (.521) versus teams with a .500 record or better. And they’ve done this with a different player each season leading the team in WAR (Baseball Reference model):
- 2012 - Yadier Molina (6.9 WAR)
- 2013 - Matt Carpenter (6.4 WAR)
- 2014 - Adam Wainwright (6.5 WAR)
- 2015 - Jason Heyward (6.5 WAR)
- 2016 - Carlos Martinez (5.9 WAR)
That signifies the biggest change for the franchise since the Pujols/La Russa days. Gone, regrettably, is the elite superstar, in fact, the Cardinals haven’t had a player finish higher than eighth in MVP voting since 2013. Between 2000-2011, a Cardinal failed to finish in the top-8 in MVP voting only once and that was in 2007 when Pujols finished 9th yet probably should have won. And during the 2000-2011 span, a Cardinal finished fourth or higher ten times. In contrast, the last five years the organization has managed to prolong the golden era with pitching depth and above-average hitters scattered throughout their lineup. It was a reinvention but the goals and results were the same.
As for that pitching depth and above-average hitting, the Cardinals’ 3.53 team ERA from 2012-2016 is the third-best in all of baseball and their 101 team wRC+ trails only the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League even though they didn’t have a single player finish in the top ten in baseball in this category. Matt Holliday’s 147 wRC+ (good for 12th in the league) in 2013 came the closest.
In 2017 the Cardinals will need to rely on this same formula if they want to get back to the postseason. We know this team doesn’t have a peak Pujols-type player. They might not even have a peak Freddie Freeman-type. And though the roster didn’t change drastically from last season, one move could mean a big difference.
For instance, let’s count the ripple effects from the Cardinals’ acquisition of centerfielder Dexter Fowler:
- With Fowler and his on-base skills leading off (from 2012-2016, his .373 OBP ranks 14th out of 165 players with at least 2,000 plate appearances), Carpenter can finally move to a spot in the lineup better suited for his power;
- Randal Grichuk being squeezed to left will ideally result in a defensive improvement over lovable slow guys Holliday and Brandon Moss, who combined to play 133 games there last season;
- Fowler’s departure from the Chicago Cubs weakened their lineup (they’re so deep that the impact will likely be negligible but why bring that up when we’re trying to focus on the good); and
- Fowler can run and he’s joining a team that cannot, or at least one that cannot run well.
Yes, Fowler is on the wrong side of 30, and yes the Cardinals just promised him $82.5 million, but it’s pretty clear why the team saw him as an attractive fit.
As for the rest of the lineup, this seems to be the likely consensus, or at least where we stand on March 20:
- Dexter Fowler
- Aledmys Diaz
- Matt Carpenter
- Stephen Piscotty
- Yadier Molina
- Jhonny Peralta
- Randal Grichuk
- Kolten Wong
Missing from that list is Jedd Gyorko, who led the club with 30 home runs last season. Gyorko should be platooning with Wong at second base, perhaps replacing Peralta at third if it’s actually the soon-to-be age-35 thing and not the hurt thumb thing that has slowed Peralta since the middle of 2015. The other big bat on the bench is slimmed-down Matt Adams, who remains a first baseman in spite of Saturday’s Spring Training experiment in left field. And with the team publicly committing to Carpenter at first base, it’s probably more accurate to say that Adams remains a pinch hitter.
Another link to the past for this current squad is the pitching, at least in one respect. Between 2000-2011, Cardinals pitchers had a 46.5% ground ball rate, second highest in baseball behind the Atlanta Braves (46.9%). That shouldn’t surprise anyone, it was loudly declared to be Dave Duncan’s modus operandi after all. Last season, in spite of how different the staff feels from the old days - to wit, I don’t recall many pitchers under Duncan’s tutelage throwing triple-digit darts like we see so often now - the Cardinals led all of baseball with a 49.5% ground ball rate. That would have been fine but for the lousy defense the Cardinals had in the field, which likely contributed to the Cardinals underperforming their FIP by their worst margin since 1994.
The obvious goal is tightening up the infield defense, which is a reasonable expectation if we assume more playing time for Wong, a more experienced Diaz at short, and Carpenter’s move to first benefiting his limited range. As for the projected starters, Alex Reyes’s unfortunate and unexpected Tommy John surgery made it a bit less murky (and Derrick Goold reported yesterday morning that Matheny has confirmed this will be the rotation):
- Carlos Martinez
- Adam Wainwright
- Mike Leake
- Lance Lynn
- Michael Wacha
Like Fowler for the offense, Lance Lynn could be a difference-maker for this staff. He’s the third longest-tenured Cardinal behind Molina and Wainwright, but was out all of last season while recovering from Tommy John. He was missed. From 2012-2015, Lynn was unequivocally one of the better pitchers in the NL. Only nine NL pitchers had a higher WAR during that span: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Grienke, Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Johnny Cueto. That’s fine company.
In 2016 Cardinals pitchers allowed the highest contact rate (81.3%, the NL average was 79.3%) in baseball. Lynn is not a master at missing bats - he’s slightly worse than average - but slightly worse than average would be an improvement. More importantly, Lynn eats innings. He pitched the seventh most innings in the NL from 2013-2015, which is not a trivial stat considering the team had trouble finding a fifth starter last season when Jaime Garcia and Wacha faded down the stretch.
There is one other notable new face besides Fowler and that’s Brett Cecil, who was inked to four-years at $30.5 million, and he’ll be joining other banished returnees like Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal, Seung Hwan Oh, et al. Trying to preview a bullpen never seems worthwhile - projected roles at the beginning of the season don’t often match the end result. And these are relief pitchers so by nature we’re dealing with small sample sizes. But anecdotally speaking, on March 20, 2017, the bullpen is fine, and looks to be average-to-slightly-better just as it was in 2016. And Oh had one of the best seasons for a reliever in Cardinal history last season. As mentioned, he’s back. I’m satisfied.
Lastly, as for Manager Mike Matheny, that’s been covered. He’s now entering his sixth season with a newly inked extension carrying him through 2020. Any hope that he’s going to morph into the type of in-game tactician who won’t frequently infuriate the fan base is probably gone. We know who he is by now and he’s probably not changing. We also know it’s possible to win big with him at the helm because we’ve seen it happen. It’s a player’s game and if you like the Cardinals players then you should feel good about their chances in 2017.
The face of the Cardinals over the last five years has changed from a generational talent and manager, to a collection of various moving parts that have kept the Cardinals near the top of the baseball landscape. That’s not likely to change in a radical sense any time soon. The core is relatively young, and the farm system is strong. Whether that will be good enough to sustain serious runs at the postseason going forward is the big question facing the organization. We’ll see.