The Cardinals begin the off-season sooner than many expected and with a lot more questions than legitimate answers. Granted, not many thought that they looked like a 95-win team coming out of Spring Training, but after 162 games, they certainly looked like a team that should have won more than 86. If you can get beyond the spectacularly deficient defense, mediocre starting pitching, sketchy bullpen, and heavy reliance on home runs for offense, you’ll find that they somehow still managed to stave off their elimination to the last game of the season. That’s quite an accomplishment for a team that needed a 4-game winning streak to reach the elusive 10 games above .500 mark.
The Bright Spots – Hitters Edition
- Aledmys Diaz hit .300./.369/.510 (133 OPS+) and set the pace with 3.5 bWAR despite playing only 111 games. He showed the potential to be the long term solution at SS that the Cardinals have needed for a long, long time. All this from a guy who was expected to spend a good bit of the year at Memphis before Peralta lost the first 57 games of the season to injury. If not for a hairline fracture of his thumb caused by a wayward pitch, he may have Wally Pipp’d shortstop Jhonny. Oh, what might have been. Swipe right.
- Matt Carpenter played like Matt Carpenter until sidelined by a strained oblique. After the injury, he played like Matt Carpenter with a strained oblique, but he still produced 3.4 bWAR in just 129 games played . Prior to the injury, Carpenter hit .298/.420/.568 (.335 BABIP), but he hit just .229/.316/.410 (.265 BABIP) after his miraculously quick return. He also played 300+ innings at 3 different positions. That’s fine for a veteran utility guy, but it seems like poor utilization of Carpenter’s skills, especially given the other options available at those positions. Swipe right yet again.
- Jedd Gyorko proved to be so productive that he had me wondering whether or not Padres GM A.J. Preller was looking at the wrong set of medical records when he agreed to swap Gyorko for Jon Jay AND pay $7.5M of the $33M guaranteed to Gyorko through 2020. After a 2.9 bWAR campaign that included a 110 OPS+ and time at all 4 infield positions, it’s like the Cardinals are playing with house money from this point forward. Swipe right.
- Yadier Molina is a defensive catcher who happens to hit for average and a fair number of XBH. Despite what I would characterize as a down year defensively, Molina still led the team in average (.307) and produced the same 110 OPS+ as Gyorko. A career high 1218.1 innings caught should be a concern, but Yadi seems to be holding up just fine physically. Buying him some days off or at least a few more starts at 1B should be part of the plan going forward, even if that means letting Brayan Pena do whatever it is backup catchers do when they aren’t sitting on the bench. Swipe right until he retires.
- Randal Grichuk’s breakout 2015 season had people asking themselves what he could do with a full season in the big leagues. We still don’t really know, but it seems likely that the answer is “hit home runs, strikeout a lot, and play reasonably good defense in CF”. That basically makes him Brandon Moss with better defense and more speed at a fraction of the price. Swipe right just for the hair flips.
- Greg Garcia is Daniel Descalso with a better glove at 3 different infield positions, and that alone should be enough to get him a roster spot next season. He’s also good at pinch hitting, pinch running, and getting on base with great frequency. He probably excels at knitting and enjoys poetry after long walks on the beach. He’s basically the perfect clubhouse guy. Swipe right.
- Kolten Wong may not be a high OBP guy, and he may not be a 15+ HR guy. He certainly doesn’t seem to be the guy Mike Matheny wants at 2B on a regular basis. Or even in the starting lineup. However, he’s still a 1.5 bWAR guy in somewhat limited playing time, and maybe the challenge is to find the right niche for him. He’s got bat speed, he’s got foot speed, and he’s quick. So why isn’t he a bottom-of-the-lineup hitter who sprays the ball around? He’s got financial security with guaranteed paychecks through 2021, so maybe someone needs to explain to him that he can’t earn all that money in one swing. Swipe right occasionally.
- Stephen Piscotty isn’t Jason Heyward in RF, but he’s a pretty darn good substitute at 1/23 the cost for the year. Swipe right for a guy who isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2019.
The Bright Spots – Throwers of Round Projectiles Edition
- Seung-hwan Oh was magnificent in relief of Trevor Rosenthal. Posting a 1.92 ERA (2.13 FIP) with 103 K in 79.2 innings (11.6 SO/9) made him indispensable and should make him the leader in the clubhouse for the closer role next season. Swipe right to exercise that $2.75M club option for 2017. BONUS: Oh is a package deal with Eugene Koo, so swipe right for the best translator in baseball.
- Carlos Martinez showed strong signs of maturing into the pitcher that he can be for many years to come while throwing a career high 195.1 innings. That 3.04 ERA definitely gives him bragging rights on an otherwise mediocre starting staff, even if the 3.61 FIP that accompanies it should probably temper the hype just a tad. Swipe right with care as long as you have all your shots and a good healthcare provider.
- Alex Reyes is the guy we weren’t supposed to get more than a peek at during the season. He wasn’t supposed to be mature enough, or he was to much of a thrower and hadn’t learned the art of pitching yet. He definitely wasn’t supposed to be the guy to be counted on for key starts in a playoff run, but there he was pitching in 4 huge games down the stretch. He started three games from September 18th onward, and he yielded just 4 earned runs in 18 innings against the Giants, Cubs, and a fairly scrappy Reds team. If Trevor Rosenthal returns for 2017 and is back to form, Reyes could stay stretched out as a starter in Memphis for a while, but he would be the “in case of emergency, break glass” guy anyway. Swipe right.
- Zach Duke and his 10.0 K/9 are both welcome to return next season for $5.5M, and many thanks to the White Sox for taking Charlie Tilson in return. On a team well stocked with 6-inning starters, Duke could be instrumental in creating the bridge that covers the gap between the starters and Oh. If not, then at least he’s not Randy Choate. Swipe right for Duke being someone other than Randy Choate.
- Matt Bowman managed to not only hang around for the entire season, but he acquitted himself quite nicely. He can go multiple innings, keep the ball in the park, and miss enough bats to have a job next year. Swipe right for a Rule 5 guy going 67.2 innings in relief.
The Not Bright Spots – Swings and Misses Edition
- Brandon Moss on offense giveth, and on defense he giveth some more. Dealing Rob Kaminsky for a 1B/LF combo guy who hit 28 HR and produced a 105 OPS+ wasn’t a bad idea at all. Somehow retaining that guy would be. Sure, it was probably worth the $8.25M just for the Myorko bromance alone, but Moss showed enough offensive prowess to earn a cushy DH job with an AL team that needs a guy who can play 1B or corner outfield in NL parks. That’s Moss. Swipe left for DH.
- Jhonny Peralta’s thumb injury cost him nearly half the season, so it’s probably fair to discount a lot of what he did (or didn’t do). If you’re willing to ignore his first couple months and focus only his last two months, he slashed .284/.337/.403 from the beginning of August until the end of the season. That respectable .740 OPS will play, but his 3 HR and 16 RBI over that span probably shouldn’t have. At the very least, it probably didn’t warrant Peralta hitting in what should be a productive spot for driving in runs. His .224/.276/.358 line with runners in scoring position for the season probably didn’t justify the amount of faith Matheny showed in him, and dropping him down a few spots wouldn’t have been terrible. His backloaded deal pays him $10M next year, and a healthy Peralta should still be a fairly productive Peralta, although maybe it shouldn’t be in St Louis. Swipe left to see Peralta playing for a team that needs a SS/3B guy.
- Backup catchers not named Eric Fryer combined to hit well under Carson Kelly’s weight. While Kelly is still probably the heir to Yadier Molina at that position, he’ll have to wait for Brayan Pena to finish being the Ty Wigginton of Cardinal catchers. Swipe left for cheerleader.
The Not Bright Spots – Sportsball Tossing Edition
- Mike Leake’s 3.83 FIP was actually second best among the starters, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair to him (or maybe everyone else was just bad). He really wasn’t as terrible as I would love to lead you to believe, but he wasn’t nearly as good as advertised either. If you are going to spend $80M trying to replace Lance Lynn (even for a while), you better get it right. If you want to write off some of this season to a “honeymoon grace period”, then that’s fine. Just know that most of his batted ball numbers were in line with his career numbers – 53.7% ground ball rate (50.7% career), 21.0% line drive rate (21.2% career), and 25.3% fly ball rate (28.1% career). His strand rate of 65.6% was low compared to his career rate of 73.3%, and maybe that’s just an aberration. Or maybe he’s an overpaid 4th starter who got really lucky in the free agent market. Swipe left until he pitches better.
- Michael Wacha – Granted, Wacha wasn’t exactly a Cy Young contender prior to his DL stint (.276/.331/.434, .326 BABIP, 4.45 ERA), but he was absolutely brutal to watch the last 3 weeks of the season. Opponents hit .500/.500/.875 against him after he returned on September 14th. So bringing him back for 6.2 primarily low leverage innings was worth it? Hardly, and his one appearance in a high leverage situation turned into a 1-inning start in which he spotted the Pirates a 3-run lead in the first inning. He’s just 25 and a potential rotation mainstay. Next time maybe think of shutting him down. Swipe left until he’s healthy.
- Jaime Garcia has shown that he can be really good in small doses, but he hasn’t put paired anything close to a full season with high level performance since 2010, and even that was just 163.1 innings. Perhaps tossing 171.2 innings this year helps his cause moving forward, but the $12M team option for next year seems like a good choice only if the Cardinals have a buyer for him. Otherwise, that $500K buyout looks like the move to make. Swipe left unless you are part of Team Fredbird, and then definitely swipe left with much bias.
- Jerome Williams made me miss Seth Maness and Tyler Lyons more than I ever thought possible. Swipe left.
- Jonathan Broxton made me wish Jerome Williams had performed better. Swipe left for the thought of watching another year of replacement level Broxton.
- Trevor Rosenthal went from the nonsensical “elite closer” discussion to not being a closer at all. When he wasn’t striking out people, he was finding ways to get them on base (1.909 WHIP). Maybe some mystic healed him of whatever ailed him, but he’s a potentially expensive proposition in arbitration after making $5.6M last year. If his struggles can mostly be attributed to injury AND he’s healthy, then he’s worth it. Swipe left based on the medical team though.
- Kevin Siegrist’s ERA (2.77) somehow beat his FIP (4.43) into submission this season.
- Adam Wainwright may have passed the “Staff Ace” baton to Carlos Martinez, but he still gave the team 198.2 greatly needed innings. His decline phase may be tough to watch, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have its moments.
- Luke Weaver was 22 when the season began, and that season for Weaver began at AA Springfield. He had a whopping 6.0 innings at AAA before being rushed to the big leagues. Forgive me if I’m not rushing to label him a failure after two really bad outings to finish his season. He was used out of necessity, so the expectation level should be set accordingly, and my expectation level was that he not be Mike Mayers. He wasn’t, so he gets a pass until at least the end of next year from me.
- Jeremy Hazelbaker’s .775 OPS (103 OPS+) should land him a job next year, especially if neither Moss nor Holliday are there as statues in left field. He’s shown he can play at the highest level, and it would be a shame to see him back in Memphis.
- Ditto for Tommy Pham. He can probably do some good for another team, and that’s great news for him, because he doesn’t seem destined to get a really good shot in St Louis.
Matheny, Mike – Author of a Manifesto
I’m loathe to admit that not everything can be pinned on the manager (any manager), and goodness knows that Matheny gets an awful lot of grief – both deserved and undeserved. That the 2016 Cardinals weren’t a 100-win team isn’t on Matheny. That they weren’t at least 2-3 games better probably is. Don’t bother swiping left or right though. Matheny will likely get to brood at the top step of the St. Louis dugout for many years to come.