30 in 30: St. Louis Cardinals

Image result for st louis cardinals 2017
Photo: Jeff Curry/USA Today

by: Ryan Waldis

Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 19th team preview of the series, featuring the St. Louis Cardinals.

Quick Facts

Manager: Mike Matheny (7th season)
2017 Record: 83-79, 3rd in NL Central
Run Differential: 56
Top Position Player: Tommy Pham (6.2 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Carlos Martinez (3.2 WAR)

2017 Review

For those keeping score at home, this is the first team preview featuring a team that finished over .500 in 2017! After making the playoffs 12 times in a 16 season span, the Red Birds have missed out the previous two years. St. Louis finished 86-76 in 2016 and 83-79 in 2017. The Cards started off the season a little slow. After sitting at .500 after April, the team posted records of 13-13 and 13-16 over the next two months. However, they turned things around when the calendar flipped to July. Over the final three months of the campaign, the Cardinals went 14-12, 15-13, and 16-13. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.

The NL Wild Card race was essentially a three-horse race during the stretch run. After a win over the Reds on September 14th, the Cardinals were 2.5 games back of the Rockies with 16 games left to play. As has been stated before, it’s really difficult to make games up in September, but 2.5 games is a manageable deficit. The Cards proceeded to go 4-6 over their next 10 games after an 8-2 stretch, essentially eliminating themselves from playoff contention.

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Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Offense

It’s almost easy to forget that Yadier Molina has been around since 2004. Even at 35, the backstop is still getting it done both at the plate and in the field. Molina hit 18 home runs in 2017, his highest total since 2012 when he hit 22. He also stole nine bases and slashed .273/.312/.439 en route to a 94 wRC+. His strikeout rate spiked to a career-high 13.6% while the 5.2% walk rate was the lowest of his career, but in a vacuum Molina had a solid year at the dish. Behind the dish, Yadi finished 15th among catchers with a 6.8 adjusted FRAA and 23rd in Framing Runs with 4.2.

Matt Carpenter burst onto the scene in 2012 and has since been one of the more consistent and productive players at the plate. In 2017, Carpenter hit to a line of .241/.384/.451 with 23 home runs. His plate discipline was still enviable—while he did strikeout 20.1% of the time, his walk rate was an exceptional 17.5%. There were some concerns with Carpenter, though. His FB% spiked to a career-high 50.8% while his LD% of 22.3% was a career-low. That helps to explain why his HR/FB rate has decreased for three consecutive seasons.

Kolten Wong received his first taste of major league playing time in 2013, and since then people have been waiting for him to reach his potential. It took a while, but Wong finally put it all together in 2017, hitting to a line of .285/.376/.412 and posting a career-high wRC+ of 107. In 411 plate appearances, the second baseman compiled a 14.6% strikeout rate and a career-best 10.0% walk rate. The 3.7 BsR and 5.4 Spd grades were also positives, although the -1.3 UZR left a little to be desired.

In a vacuum, Paul DeJong’s rookie campaign went about as well as it possibly could. The shortstop made 443 plate appearances and slashed .285/.325/.532, hitting 25 home runs and starting his career off with a 122 wRC+. He didn’t come out of nowhere—most prospect lists had him close to (if not in) the top 10 within the Cardinals organization—but no one expected the 24-year-old to do as well as he did. The strikeout and walk rates of 28.0% and 4.7% weren’t exactly ideal, but DeJong provided enough reasons for optimism regardless.

Jedd Gyorko posted a .272/.341/.472 triple-slash on the back of a .312 BABIP that was 34 points above his career average. His strikeout rate of 21.8% was right around his career average while the walk rate of 9.8% was a career-high. The infielder swatted 20 homers a season after hitting 30, and posted a 2.6 UZR at the hot corner in 900 innings; the former Padre also saw a little time at first and second base. He was solid if nothing else, but Gyorko did what was expected—provide some power in the lineup while utilizing his versatility around the infield.

Outside of Aledmys Diaz (who was discussed in the Blue Jays team preview), two other players received close to 300 plate appearances that logged at least a little time in the infield. Jose Martinez was very impressive in limited time, hitting .309/.379/.518 while clubbing 14 home runs in 307 PA’s. He struck out 19.5% of the time while drawing a walk 10.4%. Close to 40% of his contact was considered hard, while 45% was considered medium. All in all, the 29-year-old gave fans multiple reasons for optimism. Greg Garcia stepped up to the plate 290 times, hitting .253/.365/.332. He walked 12.8% of the time but didn’t really contribute much else at the dish or in the field.

Four outfielders saw regular playing time for the Red Birds in 2017. Chief among them was Tommy Pham, a 29-year-old who had a career-year. A member of the 2006 draft class, Pham slashed .306/.411/.520 with 23 home runs, 25 stolen bases, and a 13.4% walk rate. This all culminated in a wRC+ of 148. He was even solid in the field, posting a 5.1 UZR in left field (736.1 innings) and a 2.5 UZR in center (281.1 innings). Brad Johnson of FanGraphs, though, brought up a possible red flag: “Adding to the danger is his keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease. Pham has had well-documented difficulties with finding effective corrective lens, and, per manager Mike Matheny, he has ‘more trouble seeing…during day games.’”

Dexter Fowler made a solid first impression with the Cardinals, hitting to a line of .264/.363/.488 with 18 home runs (a career-high), seven stolen bases, and a wRC+ of 121. He struck out 20.6% of the time while drawing a walk in 12.8% of his 491 plate appearances. The longtime Rockie who has made stops with the Astros and Cubs wasn’t great in the field though, finishing with a -5.9 UZR in center field. Former Angels prospect Randal Grichuk had one of the worst seasons of his big-league career in 2017, finishing with a slash-line of just .238/.285/.473 with 22 home runs and six stolen bases. His strikeout rate of 30.1% was unsightly, especially when compared to his 5.9% walk rate. He provided solid contributions with the leather, though, posting a 4.4 UZR in right field. Stephen Piscotty battled through some off-the-field problems to the worst season of his career. He finished with an uncharacteristic .235/.342/.367 slash-line with nine home runs. He did post a career-high walk rate of 13.0%, so it wasn’t all bad.

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Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today

Pitching

St. Louis managed to put together one of the better pitching staffs in the league a season ago. The unit finished 10th in the league with a 4.01 ERA, compiling 1,351 strikeouts and 493 walks. Their starters slotted in at 11th with a 4.13 ERA. Based off of WAR, Carlos Martinez was the leader, pitching to a 3.64 ERA/3.91 FIP. He posted solid pitch values (2.5 wFB, 12.5 wSL, 0.7 wCB) and finished with a strikeout rate of 25.3% and a walk rate of 8.3%. Lance Lynn has made a living outpitching his peripherals, and he did it once again in 2017. Lynn’s ERA/FIP/xFIP line was 3.42/4.82/4.75, which certainly isn’t ideal. He posted a wFB value of 15.4 and actually finished with a second plus pitch: his slider (wSL of 4.9). However, the average velocity of his fastball (92.6) was a concern, especially since he’s not a control wizard (10.1% walk rate). The odds are that he’ll regress to the mean eventually; the only question is when.

Michael Wacha was a reliable pitcher for three seasons before posting a 5.09 ERA in 2016. However, his 3.91 FIP that year pointed towards positive regression. That did occur in 2017, as Wacha posted a 4.13 ERA and 3.63 FIP. He tossed 165.2 innings over 30 starts, finishing with a 22.5% strikeout rate and 7.9% walk rate. Wacha managed to keep the ball I the yard (0.92 HR/9), and posted two positive pitch values with his fastball and curveball (wFB of 5.5 and wCB of 3.6). Mike Leake was serviceable in 26 starts for the Cards before a late season trade to the Mariners. The former Red and Giant pitched to identical ERA and FIP marks of 4.21 and 4.24, respectively. He didn’t strikeout a ton of batters (15.8% strikeout rate), but the 5.4% walk rate was appealing.

Adam Wainwright’s decline continued. The former ace made just 23 starts and tossed 123.1 innings, finishing with a 5.11 ERA and 4.29 FIP. The 17.6% strikeout rate was his lowest since 2008, while the 8.2% walk rate was his highest since his cup-of-coffee stint in 2005. The only pitch of his that finished with a positive value was his fastball (1.2 wFB). At the age of 36, it was hard to find many reasons for optimism for Wainwright. 24-year-old Luke Weaver, however, did give fans a reason to be excited for the future. One of the organization’s top prospects tossed 60.1 innings of 3.88 ERA/3.17 FIP ball, making 10 starts in 13 appearances. The strikeout rate of 28.6% was intriguing, and the walk rate of 6.8% was more-than-passable. The young arm exhibited two plus pitches in his fastball and change-up, and flashed glimpses of two others in his cutter and curveball.

The bullpen for the Cardinals was even better than the rotation, combining for a 3.81 ERA in 531.0 innings of work. The relievers notched 530 punchouts while issuing just 181 walks—the fifth-lowest total in the league. Tyler Lyons has officially found a home in the ‘pen; the former starter made 50 appearances and pitched to nearly identical ERA and FIP marks of 2.83 and 2.86. The southpaw struck out 68 in 54 innings of work while walking 20. Fellow southpaw Brett Cecil was also effective. The long-time Blue Jay was solid in his first season with the Cards, posting an ERA of 3.88 and a FIP of 3.26. In 73 appearances, Cecil totaled 66 strikeouts and 16 walks. Trevor Rosenthal took the mound 50 times, tossing 47.2 innings of 3.40 ERA/2.17 FIP ball. The volatile relief arm notched 76 strikeouts and walked 20 batters.

Seung-hwan Oh couldn’t match the success of his major league debut season. The 34-year-old made 62 appearances and pitched 59.1 frames. The 4.10 ERA was okay, but the 4.44 FIP was a little concerning. He finished with 54 strikeouts and 15 walks. Matthew Bowman led the team with 75 appearances, putting up a 3.99 ERA and 3.65 FIP. The 26-year-old compiled 46 strikeouts and 18 walks. John Brebbia threw 51.2 innings over 50 appearances, finishing with a 2.44 ERA and 4.13 FIP. Brebbia struck out 51 batters and walked 11.

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Photo: Associated Press

Offseason Recap

St. Louis had a fairly active offseason, especially on the trade market. Their biggest acquisition was that of Marcell Ozuna, the former Marlin. Ozuna is coming off of a career-season in which he slashed .312/.376/.548 while cranking 37 home runs and posting a wOBA of .388 and wRC+ of 142. The outfielder will likely slot into the middle of the Cardinals order and provide a steady power presence.

The biggest loss was outfielder Randal Grichuk, who was moved to the Blue Jays for Conner Greene and Dominic Leone. Grichuk clearly had potential but outside of a 350 plate appearance stint in 2015 had not really put it all together. Perhaps a change of scenery will help the young outfielder fully reach his upside… or maybe it won’t.

All Additions: Marcell Ozuna, Miles Mikolas, Luke Gregerson, Steven Baron, Edward Mujica, Bud Norris, Joe Colon, Jason Motte

All Departures: Randal Grichuk, Zach Duke, Lance Lynn, Juan Nicasio, Seung-hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Aledmys Diaz, Magneuris Sierra, Sandy Alcantara, Stephen Piscotty

2018 Outlook

Best Case: The pitching staff and offense both finish in the top-10. DeJong and Pham don’t regress; rather, they prove 2017 wasn’t an outlier. Ozuna proves to be the best offensive threat the Cardinals have had in recent seasons, while Yadi continues to fight off father time. Martinez finally is seen as an ace, and the top three of Martinez, Wacha, and Weaver is among the best trio in the league. The bullpen finishes in the top-7 yet again. Alex Reyes returns from Tommy John surgery and dominates. The Cardinals finish with well over 90 wins, securing a spot in the playoffs after being at home the previous two seasons.

Worst Case: Ozuna struggles to adjust in St. Louis and the entire offense suffers because of it. Pham proves to everyone that 2017 was a fluke, while DeJong hits the sophomore wall. With Carpenter and Molina as the only consistent offensive threats, the offense ends up in the bottom third of the league. Martinez doesn’t quite reach ace status, while Wacha is simply average on his best days. Even with names like Gregerson and Cecil, the bullpen falls on hard times. The Cards win just 80 games, finishing under .500 for the first time since 2007.

PECOTA Projected Record: 85-77, 753 RS, 718 RA

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