Know Your (2016) Enemy: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have been the model of consistency for as long as can be remembered by most fans. They went through a lull in the 1990s, making just one playoff appearance on the back of an 88-win season in 1996 and posting a winning percentage of just .488 for the decade. But Walt Jocketty took over the reins as the general manager in October of 1994 and went about systematically changing the way the organization was run.

Jocketty hired Tony La Russa as the new manager prior to 1996, replacing Joe Torre. He also rebuilt a barren farm system, creating one that consistently brought high impact talent to the major leagues. By the late 90s, the Cardinals had traded prospects and low-impact major leaguers to develop a core that included Mark McGwire, Fernando Tatis, Edgar Renteria, Darryl Kile, Fernando Vina, and Jim Edmonds. They also had young prospects such as Matt Morris, Rick Ankiel, J.D. Drew, Placido Polanco, and Albert Pujols preparing to take roles on the roster, too.

Beginning in 2000, the Cards were set for their run of sustained success. Over the last 16 seasons, the Cardinals have averaged 91.5 wins per season, finished under .500 only one time (2007), made four trips to the World Series, and won it twice. The names have changed, including Jocketty and La Russa having moved on to new ventures, but the foundation has been set: the St. Louis Cardinals always seem to be involved in the National League Central division race, and that doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.

Last Season’s Record
100-62, 1st Place in NL Central

The Cards had an interesting season last year, having a ton of simultaneous good and bad luck—which should balance things out, right? While they had major injuries to key players, such as starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, left fielder Matt Holliday, and first baseman Matt Adams, they had several of their everyday players have full, healthy seasons of over 150 games played—including Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, and Jason Heyward.

And even though Wainwright missed most of the season with an Achilles injury, the overall starting rotation remained in good health, too. The Cardinals had four starters pitch at least 175 innings, a feat only accomplished by eight teams in Major League Baseball last year—and six of those eight made the playoffs, if that tells you anything about how important pitcher health can be.

The Cardinals’ season was truly a tale of two halves. They dominated the competition early on, looking like the best team in baseball despite the injuries. This is on display in the 51-25 record (a 108 win pace) that they took into the month of July. However, the end of the year was not as kind to them. Was it the injuries? Bad luck? Or was it simply their advanced age catching up to them? It’s hard to narrow it down to just one thing, as it could have been all of those things. Or, it could’ve been the baseball gods evening the score a bit. Either way, the Cardinals went 49-37 (92 win pace) the rest of the way, bringing them back down to the pace more equivalent with their talent level.

The rest, as you know, is history. The Cardinals limped into the playoffs after going 15-16 in the regular season in September and October, went up 1-0 on the Chicago Cubs in the first game of the NLDS, and proceeded to lose the next three games.

Key Losses

Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Tony Cruz, Mark Reynolds, Peter Bourjos, Jon Jay, Carlos Villanueva, Lance Lynn (Tommy John Surgery)

Key Additions

Mike Leake, Brayan Pena, Jed Gyorko, Seung Hwan Oh, Ruben Tejada

If It All Goes Right

As if losing to the Cubs in the playoffs weren’t painful enough, it got even worse for the Cardinals in the offseason. St. Louis would have free agent starting pitcher David Price stolen out from under them by the Boston Red Sox. They would lose their best performing pitcher from 2015, Lackey, to the Cubs. And after making the best financial offer to their own free agent—Heyward—they’d watch as he chose to go play with a much younger, exciting, and up-and-coming team—again, the Cubs.

Fast forward to spring training, and things are continuing to go south. Peralta, who is 34 years old and was being relied upon as the everyday shortstop, has a torn ligament in his thumb and could be out several months. Molina is just now coming back from several surgeries on his thumb. The players are being asked about the Cubs, who are the favorite among local and national publications to win the division, on a nearly daily basis.

So what does this look like, if everything goes well? Pretty good, actually. The Cardinals biggest question right now is the age and health of their best players. It’s not that they have a complete lack of impact talent—actually, you could make the case that their talent level rivals anyone in baseball. But Molina, Peralta, Wainwright, and Holliday are all 33 or older, and each of them has had a serious injury issue in the last 12 months. Outside of Wainwright in the rotation, three of the other four starters have had to hit the disabled list for shoulder problems in the last two seasons. These are not issues to be taken lightly.

But what if Holliday is healthy and has a season more reminiscent of 2014, when he posted a 2.6 WARP with 20 home runs in 667 plate appearances, than his injury plagued 2015 which saw him compile just 0.9 WARP and 4 home runs in 277 plate appearances? What if the rotation continues to stay healthy? What if Molina, clearly on the decline offensively but still one of the top-five defensive catchers in the game, has one last great season?

That, plus continued good work from youngsters Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, would be the recipe for a 90-95 win season—and a fun battle in the NL Central all summer long with the Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

If It All Goes Wrong

The worst case scenario for the Cardinals is dire, and not out of the realm of possibility. This means the aging players continue to decline, the shoulder problems of Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Jaime Garcia flare up, and Grichuk and Piscotty perform closer to their projections and further away from the lofty numbers they provided last year.

Grichuk and Piscotty had extremely unusual BABIPs in 2015, with both players hitting over .365. Grichuk had hit for a .316 BABIP in 2014 with the Cardinals, .272 at Double-A with the Angels in 2013, and .329 at High-A in 2012. Piscotty had a BABIP of .304 in 372 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2015 before being called up to the big league club and posting a monster .372 BABIP in 256 plate appearances. He also had a .313 BABIP in 2014 and .302 in 2013, as well. High BABIPs alone aren’t necessarily cause for concern with young players, but it’s a bit more alarming when they have a track record that tells a different story. Regression may be imminent for the 25-year-old duo.

In the pitching category, the Cards are uncharacteristically thin. No one is doubting the talent of their five-man rotation, but they’ve already lost Lance Lynn to Tommy John Surgery. After Wainwright, Wacha, Martinez, Leake, and Garcia, their depth consists of Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales—who have combined for 32 career big league starts and a 4.85 ERA. Considering that the bulk of that comes from Lyons, with Cooney and Gonzales (who also had a shoulder problem in 2015) as relative unknowns at this point, injuries in the rotation could be the undoing of the 2016 team.

As far as the aging core goes, Peralta is already out for at least a few months. No one knows how well Molina will come back from the thumb injury, at least at the plate. We’ve seen the best of Holliday, and there’s no guarantee the power returns. Even if it does, his awful defense may make him a barely above replacement level player. Matt Carpenter, who had a breakout year with the power at age 29 in hitting 28 home runs last season, isn’t projected to be able to repeat that level of production.

With regression from the young players, a few injuries in the starting rotation, and the continued decline of the aging core, the outlook could be bleak for the Cards this season. Without Lackey, who provided them with the best season of his career in 2015, and the insanely valuable Heyward to fall back on, there’s an outside chance the Cards could sink as low as the 80-85 win range in 2016.

Notable PECOTA Projections

PECOTA has the Cardinals projected at 81-81 for 2016. That would be quite the dropoff from 2015, with 19 less in the win column. Since the wild card era began in 1994, there have been 22 teams that won 100 or more games and only three instances of a team winning 100 or more games one year and then 85 or less the next—the 1999-2000 Diamondbacks, 2005-2006 Cardinals, and 2011-2012 Phillies. Suffice it to say, history leans toward the Cardinals being at least a few games better than PECOTA says they might.

PECOTA also doesn’t care for many of the Cards’ best players. Carpenter is projected for 2.7 WARP, despite having 4.8, 3.7, and 7.3 WARP the last three seasons. After having an ERA (3.38) that outperformed his FIP (3.90) and DRA (3.90) in 2015, Wacha is projected to throw 176 1/3 innings with a 3.81 ERA in 2016.

Grichuk is projected for a .248/.290/.451 slash line, a .264 TAv, and a -3 FRAA as a center fielder. As previously mentioned, Grichuk and Piscotty could be due for some regression, and PECOTA sees it the same way. The players combined for 3.6 WARP in 606 plate appearances with the Cardinals last year, but are projected for just 3.0 WARP combined in well over 1,100 plate appearances in 2016.

Final Thoughts

The Cardinals are still just as dangerous as always. Just when you think they’ve dropped off is when they come back at you, full steam. Many thought 2015 was the year that their age would finally begin to show through, but despite major injuries they won 100 games and had the best record in the National League. After an 85-win 2003, the Cardinals stormed back with 105 wins in 2004 and 100 in 2005. Despite a fourth-place finish in 2008, they overtook the Cubs in 2009 and won the NL Central yet again. Doubting the St. Louis Cardinals has proven foolish, time and time again.

But that being said, without looking at the name on the front of the jersey, things appear to be on the decline for this team. The Cardinals might be good enough to still be considered a favorite in another division, like the wide open AL West or the mediocre AL Central. But battling with two of the strongest teams in the game, the Cubs and Pirates, skews the view a bit.

So what should we expect? The Cards still have talent and a winning pedigree, even if youth and health aren’t on their side. I would imagine 2016 will look quite a bit like 2015—with the Cubs, Pirates, and the Cardinals battling it out for playoff seeding into the final weeks of the season. The only difference may be the final order in the standings.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports.

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