The previews of the rebuilding teams are over (because I only do the NL Central Division. And because who gives a crap about the Phillies). The St. Louis Cardinals are not your daddy’s “third place” team. Not too many teams coming off of a 100 win season can reasonably be projected to finish third in the next season and have it be reasonable. In the Cardinals’ case, they only finished 3 games ahead of the third place team in the division, in spite of those 100 wins. And they lost some pretty big pieces after that 100 win season.
The Cardinals are due a little bit of regression to the mean. They won 100 games in a year where they had a lot of injuries and rode a really good starting rotation all the way until October. And they don’t beat themselves. For basketball fans, the Cardinals are like the San Antonio Spurs. It doesn’t matter how many bad things happen to them. It doesn’t matter who they lose, who gets hurt, or who under performs. They’re always in the hunt. 2016 will not be any different. And it would come as no surprise here if they won the division…a-freakin-gain.
They grow on trees. Honestly, that’s the only explanation for how they can lose their ace in April to a torn Achilles tendon and still have a staff with the five starters all having an ERA under 3.50. It’s how they could lose the guy hitting third for an extended period of time and still manage to finish in the top half of the league in on-base percentage, top ten in walk rate, and top ten in BABIP. In spite of the fact that they lost Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals still managed to win 100 games. In some ways, it says all that needs to be said about baseball…it’s a team sport and no one or two players will make or break a team. But it also says a lot about the culture of keeping replacements at the ready and having a culture of accountability and playing their brand of baseball. If any team in any sport can handle the loss of Jason Heyward and John Lackey through free agency, it’s the Cardinals.
The St. Louis Cardinals do not beat themselves. Think back. When is the last time you remember the Cardinals throwing the ball all over the diamond, missing cut off men, and giving away untold free bases because they did something dumb? It’s probably difficult to recall such a time because it happens to them so so very rarely. Teams who “play the right way”, in that they are mentally engaged and aware of everything going on around the field tend to not make miscues. The Cardinals are nothing if not in the moment. And it allows them to compete everyday and stay competitive for prolonged periods of time, even when it doesn’t look like they can match up on paper. The short of it is, you have to kill the Cardinals because they will not just die.
They can pitch. The loss of Lackey is off-set by the return of Adam Wainwright to the rotation. That’s a net positive for the Cardinals. Wainwright is better than Lackey. He just is. The rest of the rotation should return Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Jaime Garcia…the least productive of whom was Wacha. His 3.38 ERA and 3.87 FIP were the worst in the rotation last year. If you’re putting those numbers on your 4th or 5th starter (which Wacha is better than), you take it. Wacha should regress back toward his ability. Martinez and Garcia may not be quite as good as they were last year, but they should still be more than good enough. In some similar ways to the rotation, the bullpen features a seemingly endless supply of hard throwers and out getters. Trevor Rosenthal can put a legitimate claim on “best closer in the game”. Scoring runs against the Cardinals is going to be hard. Because all of these guys are good. All of them.
For all of the professional at-bats they put together, they did not have the most success scoring runs. They were 24th in baseball in that department. That should improve with the continued growth of players like Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. They were hurt by Jhonny Peralta‘s long term injury, but assuming the rest of their line-up stays healthy, the Cardinals should produce more runs. They won’t be a run-scoring juggernaut, but they should be better than 24th in baseball this year.
Part of their problem with scoring runs is the fact that they don’t do a lot of hitting for power. Their .394 slugging percentage was 23rd in baseball and their .142 ISO was 24th. Their 10% HR/ fly ball rate was 25th in baseball So, while their .321 on-base percentage was respectable, they need to sequence a lot together to put runs on the board. As it stands, they don’t figure to have that much more pop in their bats. They very much rely on keeping the line moving to put up runs, and one of their real issues is going to be solving team who will not allow them to string together the hitters to manufacture one run.
2016 Is a Success If…
For the Cardinals, success is measured in pennants. That isn’t going to change this season. In some ways, they are relishing being “under the radar” for the first time in a long time. With the emergence of the Cubs and the Giants, DBacks, and Dodgers all having more heralded off-seasons, the Cardinals come into the season with a remarkably low amount of buzz. That’s probably a mistake, because they rest firmly in the “Contender” category.
2016 Is a Failure If…
They miss the playoffs. That’s a pretty realistic scenario for the Red Birds because of how many quality teams there are in the National League, and the Central likely will not get both Wild Cards this season as they have a couple of times since the introduction of the second Wild Card. If this projection is accurate, they will probably not make the playoffs, and this season would be considered a disappointment for the “Best Fans”. Considering the make-up of their team right now, though, it would be tough to see them making a playoff run. Considering the name on the front of their jersey, it still feels like a mistake to project them this low.
Don’t sleep on the St. Louis Cardinals. This is a good baseball team, in spite of looking as vulnerable as they have in quite some time. It would not be a surprise to see them finish higher than 3rd in the division. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they won the World Series. There are some teams who just know how to win, and this is definitely one of them. With all of that said, the losses of John Lackey and Jason Heyward to a division rival hurt. There’s no way around that fact. And they have some very real offensive issues that they do not appear to have addressed in any meaningful way. While culture and development mean a lot, and this team has that in spades, there is something to be said about talent. At some point, a team needs to have impact in the middle of their batting order, and the impact in the Cardinals’ line-up is older and has injury issues. If anything derails the Cardinals this season, expect it to be their offense. You win games by scoring runs, and even though they won’t allow many to cross the plate, they still may not score enough of them to overtake two more complete and talented teams in their division.