Assessing the Competition: The St. Louis Cardinals

Nine games back.

That's how they finished 2017 in the division, and the Cardinals have to figure out how to close that gap, and so far they're hoping that trading for Marcell Ozuna is a big enough step in that direction. Ozuna won't do it alone, but he's a major piece. On Saturday, I profiled the Milwaukee Brewers, who have a slightly smaller standings deficit to erase, but who are due for some regression it seems, and today St. Louis, a team with as many questions about their future.

The NL Central was one of the most competitive divisions in baseball as recently as 2015, but the power has shifted to Chicago since. The Cubs dominated in 2016 and finished comfortably ahead last season despite a slow start, and they are built to stay comfortably ahead for a few more years to come.

This puts the Cardinals, the team traditionally accustomed to regular division titles and deep postseason runs, in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. They signed Dexter Fowler last winter in an attempt to match wits with the Cubs, and this winter the aforementioned swap for Ozuna is their next step toward reclaiming what they perceive as their rightful place in the standings.

To me, their final outcome in 2018 will boil down to three things: starting pitching, their bullpen, and how much of an impact Ozuna has on the offense. None of this is earth-shattering, but the Cardinals have a very strong roster in many respects, so they don't come into the season with unique or even glaring holes to fill.

The question of their starting pitching comes down to whether their young starters can take the mantle from Adam Wainwright. "Uncle Charlie" -- as he is affectionately called by the St. Louis faithful -- has been a stalwart of their rotation for a decade, but he has struggled to find his former self since injury sidelined him for almost all of 2015. Last year was his career-worst, and unless his October elbow surgery rights the ship, the Cardinals are going to need more from two younger arms: Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes.

Martinez has been steadily good for three straight seasons, and he is coming off of what was, in many ways, his best season. Throwing more than 200 innings for the first time, pitching two complete game shutouts, and posting the highest strikeout rate of his career, Martinez looks poised to assume the top spot in the rotation. Though he was slightly more hittable in 2017 than he was the previous year and gave up nearly twice as many home runs in only ten more innings pitched, his velocity is up slightly from 2016, and at 26 he is still not quite a finished product. 

Reyes is a much bigger question mark. He was dazzling in a brief look at the end of 2016, but Tommy John surgery on his elbow claimed his 2017 season right as spring training started. Almost a year removed from that, Reyes could return and resume his dominance, but the 23-year-old flamethrower has only 46 MLB innings to his name, so the Cardinals should hedge their bet here.

After relying on Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh to close games for the last three or four seasons, both are gone from the Cardinals roster, and though they signed Luke Gregerson, the back of their bullpen is still unsteady. For as much as we might worry over the state of the Cubs reliever corps, it is still in better shape in the 9th inning than their St. Louis counterparts. They have other options, but they are piecemeal ones at best, so this stands to be a significant weakness for the Cardinals in 2018. Greg Holland, the 32-year-old free agent who saved 41 games for the Rockies in a revival 2017 season, is the best option left on the market.

And then there's Ozuna. A 4.8 fWAR player last season, he is a notable step in the right direction for the Cardinals. Last year was easily his best season, and Ozuna is 27 and poised to enter the prime of his career. Like the Cubs, St. Louis has need to fill the leadoff spot in the lineup after Fowler scuffled slightly in 2017, but Ozuna probably doesn't solve this problem. He has never hit leadoff in his career, spending the majority of his time somewhere in the middle of the order instead. Ozuna will go a long way toward bolstering the offense no matter where he hits, so this is a major add for the Cardinals.

According to ZiPS, the Cardinals are heading in the right direction. They have, as always, an uncanny ability to foster talent from the unexpected, and whatever projections we have for them are inevitably leaving out Scrappy McGrit, the replacement-level minor leaguer who will spring from the Pacific Coast League in May to hit leadoff and lead all of baseball in OBP while providing above-average defense at shortstop.

So that nine-game deficit from 2017 will probably shrink in the upcoming season, but only enough for a wild-card spot, as their pitching still has too many questions marks, despite the growing strength that is the Cardinals lineup.

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  • Good job, couple years ago I was standing in line(2015) for playoff tickets at Wrigley before the first Cardinal game at home. I asked a guy in Card gear if he thought we were witnessing 'a changing of the guard'? He just looked at me like had two heads.

  • Somewhat off topic, but included because relief pitching is a concern for both the Cubs and Cards, is an article (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/goose-egg-new-save-stat-relief-pitchers/) by Nate Silver (the inventor of PECOTA). First published last April (but somehow missed by me), Silver creates a new metric, the "goose" (after Mr. Gossage), which is succinctly described as a no-run relief appearance in a late inning, high leverage situation. He also advocates using the closer/best reliever from the 7th on, rather than saved for only the 9th. Thus far, only Cleveland's use of Miller approaches this model. Could this be the latest example of the Cub FO exploiting a marketplace weakness?

    Anyway, IMHO it's a pretty amazing article, and it explains the Cubs offseason's seemingly random collection of pitchers. The key quote from the article is: "Pick up a few failed starters off the waiver wire, tell them to limit their repertoire to their two best pitches, and test them out in Triple-A or in low-leverage situations. You won’t necessarily have the next Gossage or Miller — those guys are scarcer and more valuable commodities — but you’ll probably find a couple of pretty good late-inning relievers without paying a lot to do it."
    It's definitely worth a read.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    Great link W.
    I also highly recommend it.
    It does speak to an inefficiency in the market.

  • Looking back over the last couple decades or so, when you faced the Cards, you knew they'd have 3 big sticks in the 3,4 and 5 holes..Pujols, Walker, Rolen, Edmonds, Berkman, Beltran, Holliday, Hendrick, Clark, Glaus for a season, and others. They haven'y had that for a couple years now. There isn't much fear in navigating through their offense. Ozuna helps as you've said,, but they have a ways to go.

  • I'm never sure about the Cardinals. Last year something looked off with them from minute one that I couldn't put my finger on and try as they may they just couldn't take advantage of the opportunities both the Cubs and Brewers seemed to hand them on a silver platter. There seem to some obvious FA for them to target but so far they haven't done so. Eric Hosmer would seem to be a very good fit for them replacing Matt Carpenter who could either move to 3B or in trade. Barring that Mike Moustakas would seem to fit as well because if Jed Gyorko is the answer to anything then I don't understand the question. Paul DeJong looks to be a good player but probably has no business playing SS and will probably have to move to 3B at some point. I'm sort of shocked they didn't pursue Zack Cozart who signed to play out of position with the Angels. The OF is solid with the addition of Ozuna and their starting rotation with Martinez, Wacha, Luke Weaver (who looks to be a good one) and presumably Reyes at some point is solid as well. Their bullpen though, as you mention, is a shambles. Can they spend on a position player and go out and get Greg Holland? I have no idea but even that doesn't solve the problem. For me though it all comes down to Mike Matheny who I think is a terrible manager (thankfully). Until they realize that it's going to be tough sledding. I would never write off the Cardinals, and expect them to nip at our heels some this year, but they're missing several pieces to the puzzle and don't seem all that interested in finding them.

  • I think what looked wrong to you last year was that the Cardinals have been well coached for several years and when the season comes along, the manager just throws them out there and the players handle it themselves and the manager doesn't have to do anything on game day. The longer Matheny stays around, the less that team resembles teams of the past. Card Fans in my area have a firm belief that the loss of Jose Oquendo from the coaching/fundamentals area was to blame and that will fix itself now that he is returning. We shall see.

  • In reply to KJRyno:

    That's a good take on it. I think part of it is that their talent level has dropped even if Oquendo is a piece of it, which honestly seems a little bit of a stretch to me. Matheny is not a good manager despite the national narrative that he is. While I get that the Cardinals were a "paint by number" organization sometimes your manager does need to inject himself, LaRussa surely did that, Matheny does not. You wonder if they reached out to Girardi and if they didn't why not? That would have caused me great angst.

  • In reply to TC154:

    The only reason why I somewhat believe the Oquendo part is that they always were a really good fundamental team. That has went downhill as everything from baserunning to fielding and throwing have not been up to their standards the last couple years and especially this past year. Never used to see the dirty birds throw to the wrong base. Happened often.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Matheny is a Cardinals type for sure, but he is probably on a reasonably short rope. Cardinals have lost their mojo for sure. I'm not knowing of how much of it is on Mike. They are not having lots of fun and could be better sports about it.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Matheny actually said last year, in response to Joe Maddon's comments about wanting his guys to have fun on the field, that he didn't understand that at all and never had fun playing baseball, outside of winning the World Series, and couldn't understand why anyone would. That tells me all I need to know.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Fowler arrived in SL with a million dollar smile. The last time anyone saw it was when he received his WS ring with his exCubs teammates in Wrigley.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    It was pretty telling that their season ended with the narrative of some fan spilling his nachos.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Matheny is a Stiffly Stifferson.

    http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/pranksters/n11681?snl=1

  • Just happy to say that they will continue to suck just enough to be a non-factor......and I could get used to that.....

  • First comment, but I have been a fan of Cubs Den for two years. The Cardinals core is quite old. Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Carpenter, Fowler, and a stale Mike Matheny. The bullpen is thin with no closer. Bench is mediocre, no depth. Starting pitching could be good if Reyes can come back, but without Lance Lynn they have to make up a reliable 15 games with Wainwright now a “maybe” ace. DeYoung has to show he is for real.

    Milwaukee and Pittsburgh are more of a threat to the Cubbies, especially if Gerrit Cole has a pre free agency year like Jake Arrieta.

  • In reply to Swarf:

    Thanks for pitching in to the conversation! Good points. I thing many of us are used to the 'birds producing talent from their system that it's hard to believe they won't produce enough to make an impact.

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    In reply to Swarf:

    Welcome aboard. Great comments.

    Your first paragraph reminded me of a VEB article a year or two ago about how frustrating it must be to be the GM when Mike Matheny is the manager.

    One year they gave him depth on the bench. He then benched the more talented younger players and gave tons of playing time to older players who were more "proven"--and over-the-hill. Then, to compensate, the GM gave him bad options off the bench to "force" him to play the good guys more. The result: he vastly overplayed his only decent players and they were worn out by August and unable to compete in September. The next year they repeated.

  • In reply to Swarf:

    I'll chime in with the rest, excellent first post! Thanks for contributing. Don't forget Luke Weaver in that rotation. Martinez, Wacha, Weaver, Reyes, Wainwright is a pretty good 5 man, and Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson give them some nice depth. Even if Reyes isn't back for awhile starting pitching is not a problem for them. That said it's one of the few areas where they don't have serious issues.

  • I do not have much to add to the above excellent discussion,

    but ...

    I wish the Cubs could figure out how to pitch to Cardinal Cub-killer Randal Grichuk . Did anyone else notice that Grichuk just seems to murder Cub pitching (like Daniel Murphy, Carlos Lee, and Jeff Blauser always did)?

    Last year, the guy hit .238 / 23 HR / 59 RBI against MLB. But against the Cubs, Grichuk hit .355 / 6 HR / 12 RBI. In his 14 games against us last year, Grichuk went
    - hitless only 4 times
    - had 5 multi hit games
    - had RBIs in 7 games, including 4 multi RBI games

    (I am not sure why Grichuk sat out the other 5 games, but thank you Mike Matheny)

    I've ready that Ozuna makes Grichuk the odd man out; hopefully, the Cards send him to an AL team.

    BTW, Happy New Year to all!

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Haha. Just throw the guy a slider out of the zone. Most likely he won’t be starting this year anyway and possibly trades.

  • You start off article with stating cards finished 9 games back and that Ozuna isn’t a difference of 9 games. Maybe true but doesn’t some depend on what cubs do? Right now we lost the one of the best closers in baseball and we still need to fill 2 starting pitching spot. How about this question. Are the pitching arms the cubs signed any reason for us to separate the lead from cardinals by more then 9 games????

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    They aren’t going to a 7 man rotation... They only need to fill 1 starting pitching spot. And Morrow can close, but yes, they could use another guy who can as well.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    If we lose Arietta is chattwood ability able to maintain 9 game cushion. I would say chattwood is a pretty high risk for the cubs.

  • I think, all things considered, the Cubs are going to bounce back this year to upper 90's wins, and that's still going to be enough to stay 10 games ahead of even the best version of the current Cardinals. The problem the Cardinals have is that you have to get somewhat lucky with pitching if you don't have a no-doubt-about-it lineup, which I think actually over-performed their talent in 2017. A lot of that "Luck" with pitching in the past centered on staying ("sticking"?) talent of a certain catcher, who will be 50 (in catcher's years) this year. My belief is that it is still the beginning of winter for the Cardinals organization and fans, and that even last year will prove to be an Indian Summer before the inevitable and bone-chilling fall. 78 wins.

  • Whoever wrote this article has literally ZERO clue what they are talking about. The Cardinals are not looking for a leadoff. They have one. In fact, one of the best if not the best in the game in Matt Carpenter. And the plan is to have Fowler batting elsewhere in the lineup. At least know your facts before you pull something out of your rear.

  • In reply to Chappy13:

    It's me. I wrote this article. That isn't hard to figure out. And you think way, way too highly of Carpenter.

  • In reply to Jared Wyllys:

    One, I’m not a troll. Two, I don’t think highly of Carpenter at all. They tried to move him down to be a 3 hitter and he couldn’t hack it. But as far as leadoffs go there aren’t many better than carpenter at getting on base. But don’t take my word. Let’s use stats. He has a .390 OBP from the leadoff position over his career which is among the elite in the game.

    The Cards needs as far as offense are the middle of the order which is why they got Ozuna. But he won’t be enough. They need another legit middle of the order hitter to match the Cubs lineup. But leadoff they don’t have a need. Your assertion needs to be corrected.

  • In reply to Chappy13:

    Trolls aren't appreciated here. Respect and civility are expected from all posters. Note the way Jared replied to your middle-school level name calling politely. Try to keep that in mind if you wish to remain in the discussion.

  • In reply to Oneear:

    Pardon me. I speak plainly. I figure if you have the stones to post an article then you have the stones to take a critique. But here let me be “more civil.” The assertion the Cards have a need at leadoff is incorrect. I’ve provided numbers to back that up.

  • In reply to Oneear:

    Also I reviewed my post. I never once called him a name. Thank you.

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