On May 20, 2017, Carlos Martinez was scheduled to get the ball against the visiting, scoring-challenged San Francisco Giants. It was good timing. After blanking the Cubs for seven-plus innings on Opening Night, Martinez hit some turbulence with an ERA over 4.50 in his next seven starts, while walking over 11 percent of batters he faced. The Giants’ offense would prove to be the cure for all ills though, and that evening Martinez pitched the game of his life.
Facing just two batters over the minimum, Martinez struck out five, walked only one, and gave up two measly singles a couple of innings apart. He went the full nine and surrendered zero runs. And Martinez only needed 93 pitches to do all of it. A “Maddux,” if you will. Or, at least, it would have been but things didn’t come easy for the Cardinals in 2017, and the inconvenient truth on that night was the Cardinals hadn’t scored any runs through nine innings either. Lord knows they tried, or, perhaps more accurate, Lord knows they tried not to.
For example: Leading off the bottom of the 9th – with the Cardinals needing just that one run – Matt Carpenter hit a bullet off the wall in left field that was clumsily fielded by Eduardo Nunez. After seeing the misplay, Carpenter recklessly decided to turn the easiest of stand-up doubles into a mad dash to third. The ball beat him there, however, – quite easily, too – and the next two batters both went down on strikes. Never make the first or last out of an inning at third, they say. And especially never make that out when you aren’t exactly Willie McGee on the base paths, and when you represent the one precious run that will win the game and brand your pitcher the hero. Appropriately, the Cardinals would eventually lose the game 3-1 in 13 innings, and Carpenter’s miscue largely overshadowed Martinez’s brilliance.
It was the perfect microcosm for a season of lost fundamentals and blown opportunities. The question now is should we expect 2018 to be different? My answer: A firm “probably.”
Now, “probably” in that the Cardinals have closed the gap with the Cubs and will win the division? Absent some “none of us saw that coming, but hey, that’s baseball” series of events – which can absolutely happen! – probably not.
But is it reasonably expected for this team to be more fundamentally sound? Can they be expected to run into fewer outs on the bases? (To wit: The Cardinals were second worst in this category in the National League in 2017.) Can they be expected to not blow so many damn late leads? (To wit: The Cardinals would have been 12 games over .500 last season had games ended after the 8th inning. They were five games under .500 in one-run games, too.) Can it be expected that a spliced video of all of the team’s miscues to the tune of a one-hit wonder from the ’90s will not be one of the highlights of their season? (To wit: This.) Can they be expected to win enough games to make the Wild Card game? Well, sure.
This is a good lineup
Speaking of Matt Carpenter, he’s a very good baseball player. Over the last five seasons he’s been one of the more valuable players in the NL. Hits, runs scored, wRC+, WAR – he ranks in or near the top ten in the NL in all of these categories since his breakout season in 2013. And to borrow a stat from the 2018 Athlon preview, since 2012 his .391 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot leads all of MLB (min: 1,000 plate appearances).
I bring this up because there exists a segment of Cardinals fans who are convinced that Carpenter isn’t a good baseball player, or that he’s overrated, or that he’s, I dunno, something less than the stats say he is. Why? Because he only hit .241 last season (although he still had the 13th highest OBP in the NL). Because, per above, of a few base running mistakes. Because no matter where you stick him in the infield, he’s probably not going to win a Gold Glove. It reached the point last July that when popular Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos put out a call for new writers, one of the questions asked of the prospectives was, “Is Matt Carpenter good?” It was a litmus test that never should have been necessary, but when the second most successful franchise in all of MLB during the expanded playoffs era (by my calculations, anyway) is wrestling with the thought of a second straight season without extra baseball, all while surrendering their hegemony to their arch-rival, well, fans will start to think crazy things.
But make no mistake, Carpenter is good, and he should have a lot of help in 2018. By way of Miami’s liquidation sale, Marcell Ozuna is now in left field, and he put up some (albeit cherry-picked by me) offensive numbers last season that St. Louis hasn’t seen since Albert Pujols. Avid FanGraphs reader Tommy Pham was 2017’s breakout star, just one of seven qualified hitters in MLB to have a .300/.400/.500 season, and it’s a decent bet that it wasn’t a fluke. Knowing that, here’s a projected lineup as things stand on this early day of March:
Of the top three, Dexter Fowler’s .363 OBP in 2017 was the worst of the bunch so if Ozuna is penciled into that cleanup spot like a lot of us assume, expect him to get plenty of 1st inning at-bats. The rest of the lineup consists of medium-to-low-ceiling guys, with the possible exception of Paul DeJong – who led the team in home runs (25) last season in only 443 plate appearances – but no one with a low floor.
That includes Kolten Wong, who improved his approach at the plate last season and was an above-average hitter for the first time in his career. He raised his previous OBP-high by almost 50 points, partly due to eight intentional walks while batting in front of the pitcher, but also because he swung at less junk. According to FanGraphs, in 2017 Wong swung at 25.2 percent of pitches outside of the zone – easily his career best – and near the top 20 percentile for players with at least 400 plate appearances.
All told, this is a lineup that can win 85 games with average pitching. Speaking of which…
Is this starting rotation good?
I have no idea. I don’t think anyone truly does. If you need to be brought up to speed, this is the projected rotation for 2018:
Martinez isn’t Clayton Kershaw, but he’s durable – he’s thrown the seventh most innings in the NL since 2015 – and has earned his spot atop the rotation. Although durability can be a fleeting thing, and Joe Sheehan mentioned in a recent newsletter that injuries tend to follow starters who throw as hard as Martinez. Worry if you must, but if it’s any consolation, PECOTA has finally come around on him.
The fluidity of two through five in the rotation is hard to ignore. I don’t really know who #2 is, I don’t know who #3 is. If Miles Mikolas ends up the fourth best pitcher on this staff then what does that say of Adam Wainwright. And if it’s Wainwright, then what does that say of Mikolas? The rotation is a brain scrambler because it’s such an unknown, even if relatively healthy.
And how did the Cardinals get here when they’re flush with cash, while proven pitchers Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb remain unsigned, and after Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs without a hint of protest from the division-mate best suited to challenge them? The answer lies in the front office’s almost admirable, albeit sometimes frustrating, nature to never deviate from the script, to not get rattled by what others are doing. They’re relying on young, cost-controlled talent, and not just Luke Weaver, but also Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes, who is expected to return in some role by May.
Not said lightly, this is the biggest risk of the John Mozeliak era. If the gamble on this starting rotation pays off, then credit where it’s due. If it morphs into Martinez, Michael Wacha, and a carousel of starters who no longer have it, never did, or simply aren’t ready, while help lingered all offseason on the sideline, then the powers-that-be should get absolutely hammered. And they’ll have earned every bit of it.
Bullpens should never get too much ink in March, but the club did the responsible thing and didn’t splurge on a Wade Davis or Greg Holland. Rather they followed a wise quantity-over-quality approach, first suggested by Ben Godar of Viva El Birdos last October, and brought in Luke Gregerson, Bud Norris, and Dominic Leone to take some of the pressure and innings from Matt Bowman and Tyler Lyons. And, as mentioned, Reyes should return in May. Who will get the bulk of the saves is anyone’s guess, but again, it’s March, it’s a bullpen, it doesn’t really matter.
The Secret Weapon is back
Mike Matheny is still managing this club. Re-hashing his fitness for the job is no longer a worthwhile endeavor other than to say he probably should have been fired by now. The reasons he hasn’t been fired, I suspect, is because of pride and also a true belief that stability begets success. Fine.
The good news, however, is that Jose Oquendo has returned to the club after a two-year absence. Normally, there’s no reason to fuss over a third base coach and doing so now might be a bit much. But if you listen to Bernie Miklasz and Will Leitch’s excellent new podcast Seeing Red, there’s a meme pushed by Miklasz that Oquendo’s old-school approach – and not the “please don’t flip your bat” variety, but rather the “we’re going to practice until we get things right” kind – will be good for this club. That’s not to say the stupid errors and mental lapses alluded to above won’t happen, but that there will be a respected coach in their ear demanding to help when it does. I don’t think that’s trivial.
Lastly, Mike Maddux is the new pitching coach, a real shift from over 20 years of Dave Duncan and then Dave Duncan-like Derek Lilliquist and their “controlling the counts, keep the ball” low approach. With the fly ball revolution, Maddux is instructing Wacha, at least, to focus higher in the zone. Martinez, who, like Wacha, has the type of fastball that can survive up high, gave up almost as many home runs in 2017 (27) as his previous two seasons combined, and he might benefit from similar tinkering. Bottom line, Matheny is still here, but there’s some new blood, too, and the club needed it.
More than likely, there will be similar instances in 2018 to a player unwisely taking third and arguably costing the Cardinals a game. The difference, ideally, is that such moments will be a mere footnote, and not the lasting impression of a season. Some luck will return. Things will be easier. One-run games will fall the other way. Mozeliak and company’s gamble on the pitching staff will pay off. The 2018 Cardinals will be an 88-74 team and will be one of the clubs playing in the Wild Card game. Let’s play ball.Next post: 2018 Season Preview Series: The Promise of Youth for the Atlanta Braves
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