After a long winter lamenting an NLDS loss to the Chicago Cubs pitchers and catchers have finally reported at the Cardinals’ spring training facility in Jupiter, Florida. As usual, hope springs eternal in February. The good news started with the team’s official website reporting that Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez both feel strong coming back from their respective Achilles heel and shoulder injuries. Moreover, Manager Mike Matheny told Derrick Good of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he expects Matt Holliday to have a “monster year.” Still, there are reasons for concern heading into this Spring Training for the Cardinals. Excuse the spring showers in February, but here are five reasons the Cardinals may stumble and not make the playoffs in 2016.
This offseason the Cardinals lost Jason Heyward and Jon Lackey to free agency. Heyward is now roundly hated by Cardinal nation, but there is no denying the contribution he provided both on defense and offense last year. Heyward’s 6.0 WAR was tops among Cardinal positional players. Lackey was a veteran workhorse who could be counted every fifth day in a rotation that was otherwise shaky with injuries. His 3.6 WAR was tops among Cardinal starters. Not only do both players leave, but they left to the rival Chicago Cubs, which means the team effectively “lost” 9.6 wins above replacement player and the Cubs “gained” the same wins above replacement – a total shift of 19.2 WAR. Of course it is not quite that simple. Stephen Piscotty could make Heyward’s departure less painful. Mike Leake’s addition could offset some of what was lost with Lackey. Heyward is replacing Dexter Fowler, who had 3.4 WAR last year. Still, it is hard to envision that the Cardinals managed to bridge the gap with the signing of Mike Leake and the trade for Jed Gyorko; and on paper the Cubs certainly appear better than they were last year.
Many of the players most important to the Cardinals success this year are serious injury risk. Yadier Molina’s thumb required a second surgery this offseason and there are now questions as to whether he will be ready for Opening Day. Adam Wainwright is coming back from an Achilles injury that robbed him of most of 2015. Even if Wainwright’s Achilles is fine he has also had two Tommy John’s surgery and he is staring at the wrong side of age 30 for a starting pitcher. The list goes on and on, with Matt Holliday’s quad, Carlos Martinez shoulder, Michael Wacha’s shoulder, Randal Grichuk’s back and elbow, and Matt Adams quad. It might actually be easier to list the Cardinals who are not recovering from injury in 2016. The Cardinals overcame a number of devastating injuries in 2015, but one must wonder whether they have the depth to do it again in 2016.
A Tough Division
Despite finishing with 100 wins the Cardinals still only won the National League Central Division by two wins over the Cubs and three wins over the Pirates. The team is in the toughest division in baseball, and their competitors are only getting better. The Cubs likely will be helped not only by their offseason additions but also by the maturation of their youth. There could be exceptions or the “sophomre slump” here or there, but history suggests that as Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, and others gain experience they will get better. The Pirates are anchored by Andrew McCuthchen playing in the prime of his career, and youngsters Gregory Polanco and Sterling Marte at his side. The Pirates also have young pitching phenom Tyler Glasnow ready to contribute this year. If the Cardinals stumble the Cubs and Pirates appear ready to pounce.
Starting Pitching Performance
The St. Louis Cardinals were carried by their pitching in 2015. Despite losing Adam Wainwright for much of the year the team posted a remarkable 2.94 ERA in 2015. The Pittsburgh Pirates were a distant second with a 3.21 ERA. The question is whether the team can realistically be expected to repeat that historically low ERA in 2016. As mentioned before, the loss of John Lackey’s 2.77 ERA may hurt the Cardinals in this category. In comparison, Mike Leake posted a 3.70 ERA last year. The loss of Heyward’s defense may also allow more runs to score hurting the staff’s ERA. Finally, there is also the luck factor. Much like hitting with runners in scoring position, which the Cardinals excelled at in 2014 but not in 2015, ERA tends to depend greatly on variables not within a player’s control. A bloop hit here or there, or a few “seeing eye” ground balls that extend just beyond the shortstops reach, can make the difference between a good ERA and an average ERA. If the Cardinals pitching cannot match its 2015 performance it is hard to see the offense producing enough to give the team 100 wins again.
Where’s the Offense?
As stellar as the Cardinals pitching and defense was in 2015 the team’s offense was well below average. The 647 runs scored by the team was less than the Brewers, who finished fourth in the central division. The Cardinals OBP (.321) ranked 13th in the MLB, which is respectable. However, the team’s slugging percentage (.394) ranked 23rd. There was a noticeable lack of power throughout much of the lineup, and outside of Kolten Wong and Jason Heyward there was also a lack of speed. Too often the Cardinals needed three singles in one inning to score a run, something that happens far too rarely. Yadier Molina, Johnny Peralta, Brandon Moss, and Matt Holliday all saw their power numbers decline in 2015. Is it possible that some of them experience a power renaissance? Of course, but the age of all four is not on their side. The Cardinals added a bit of power in Jed Gyorko, but he is a platoon player who struggles to make consistent contact. Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Matt Carpenter are the best hopes for power in 2016, but outside of Carpenter that means relying on players who have never done it over a full MLB season. If the Cardinals struggle to produce runs in 2016 like they did in 2016 John Mozeliak may wish he pursued a hitter like Chris Davis or Yeonis Cespedes with more earnest.