I know it’s over – still I cling

I don’t know where else I can go

-The Smiths

************************

.272/.313/.385

84 wRC+

-Bo Hart

 

Last year, my theme for this piece was “not yet,” as in it’s not yet time for the St. Louis Cardinals to surrender the NL Central to any of the annoying division upstarts.  And it wasn’t – we won 100 games (I say “we.”  You’ll be fine.) en route to our third straight division title.  But now?  It’s over and this here is a funeral.  We appreciate you showing up.

The St. Louis Cardinals, the model organization of the 21st Century, have reached the end of the road.  Long-time nemesis the Chicago Cubs have lapped us in talent, front-office ingenuity, and in the projected win column.  PECOTA has the Pittsburgh Pirates finishing ahead of the Cardinals as well.  The best way to deal with this stupid turn of events is to confront it head on so let’s get this over with.  But first, to prove this is not just some exercise from a perpetual pessimistic fan, allow me to present you with some unbiased stats and facts from two unnamed teams in 2015:

2015

Team A

Team B
NL rank in runs scored 11th N/A
NL rank in home runs 11th N/A
Did they rely on unsustainable run prevention? Yes N/A
Eliminated from the playoffs by their arch rivals? Yes No
Are their two best players now playing for those arch rivals? Yes Seems unlikely.
Off-field embarrassment Highly-publicized corporate espionage ???

 

Stumped?  Team A, believe it or not, is the St. Louis Cardinals and Team B is the Buffalo Bills.  That’s where we sit in the year of our Lord 2016 – being compared to a franchise that lost four straight Super Bowls in the early 90s, and haven’t been to the playoffs since around the time all seven 11.5 fWAR+ players on the Cubs were born – and we come out looking worse.  Let that sink in.

But even though we know where this season is heading, let’s put the 2016 Cardinals in a box anyway.  I already found the perfect one (only $2,399!).

StL Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013  .599 (2) 104 (6) 93 (5) 94 (17)  -39 (22) -49 (27) -10 (26) 121 (10)
2014 .556 (5) 95 (16) 96 (10)  101 (22)  64 (2)  29 (6) -15 (30) 122 (11)
2015 .617 (1) 96 (16) 78 (1)  73 (3)  29 (6)  14 (10) 1 (15) 132 (12)

 

How do they score runs?

I’m glad you asked – we don’t score runs.  Per above, in 2015, we had the best record in baseball but were 11th in the National League in total runs.  Scraping one or two runs across the plate and then holding on for dear life is the true Cardinals Way.  The Cardinals won a combined 287 regular season games from 2013-2015 and approximately nine of those were easy.

Third baseman Matt Carpenter is the only player on the roster capable of batting leadoff and he might also be the only player who will hit more than 15 home runs.  Unless his 28 home runs last year were a fluke – and they might have been.  Before last year his highest home run total was 11.  Eleven?!  Take a look at the dead-ball era and you’ll find 42 seasons in which a player eclipsed 11 home runs.

As for the rest of the infield, shortstop Jhonny Peralta had a second-half OPS of .631 and a wRC+ of 74.  No big deal, he was only our best hitter in 2014.  Peralta’s double-play partner, Kolten Wong, followed his lead and had a second-half OPS of .614 and a WRC+ of 71.  He was just inked to five more years.  Infield guy Jedd Gyorko was acquired in the offseason by way of Jon Jay to give these guys a spell.  His .694 OPS and 93 wRC+ for all of 2015 will fit in perfectly.  And as of this past Monday, he’ll be sorely needed because Peralta will be out two to three months with what is likely a torn ligament in his left thumb.  Honestly, if Bo Hart was on this team he’d get 500 plate appearances.

 

Glancing over at first base, if you combine the best qualities of Matt Adams with those of Brandon Moss, it all adds up to Brandon Moss (0.6 fWAR in 2015).  Matt Holliday is actually getting reps at 1st this spring, which should be fine.

Obviously, there’s not much evidence to tell us whether Holliday is up for the task, but thankfully @redbirdmenace put together this simulation which could help put the issue to rest.

 

Now let’s turn to the outfield which is most notable for the player who won’t be wearing the Birds on the Bat, rather than the ones who will.  I’m, of course, talking about Jason Heyward, who decided he’d rather play for the Cubs because he’s only comfortable alongside players his own age he can Snapchat with, while under the tutelage of a complete loon of a manager – who’s like the 7th grade science teacher you thought was cool because he wore an earring and told the students to call him by his first name.

God, this guy.  And not to be morbid, but I lie awake at night constantly worried that Joe Maddon is going to die in a freak unicycle accident.

If you allow me to go off on a bit of a tangent here before returning to the matter at hand, it’s not just that the Cardinals lost their two best players from 2015 by bWAR (Heyward and John Lackey), it’s that they lost them to the most evil franchise in sports.  This a ball club that steals managers (they were found not guilty but I’m still investigating) and players, and their ownership group – the Rickets family – had a huge hand in the collapse of the housing market in 2007 (my theory, anyway).  If you thought media coverage was overblown and overwrought during and after their historic journey to the NLCS, wait until this Cubs machine is up and running full throttle. 

At the present moment, everyone thinks Cardinals fans are bad, but brace yourself for what’s coming from the North Side.  You’re going to regret being so mean to us.  All of you.  In fact, I shouldn’t even be talking to any of you after what you’ve put us through the last few years.  It hurt and it’s been hard.

But back to the outfield.  The Cardinals will likely be trotting out a former All-Star in left (Holliday) whose slugging has decreased every year since 2010 and reached a career low (.410) in 2015, and two second-year players (Randal Grichuk in center and Stephen Piscotty) who might be good.  On the other hand, things aren’t all bad.  Tommy Pham, the fourth outfielder and another second year maybe-phenom (he’s 28), finally got contact lenses that work.

After the Cardinals whiffed on signing Heyward (not to mention David Price) they decided to be coy and didn’t seriously pursue any of the other available premium free agents (Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, Dexter Fowler) from this year’s rich crop.  If Grichuk, Piscotty, and Pham turn out to be solid contributors, General Manager John Mozeliak will continue to look like the smartest guy in the room.  But if this trio’s success in 2015 proves to be fleeting, the Cardinals brass are likely to hear about this offseason for a long, long time.

Lastly, there’s Yadier Molina.  If you look at his regressing stats the last few years you’ll know he’s not going to help us score many runs – his power numbers are down significantly and unlikely to rebound – but dammit I refuse to say a bad word about this guy.  He’s our trusted oak behind the plate.  Unfortunately, the oak now has a few limbs missing and no longer blooms as pretty as it once did.  Still, even if Yadi is hitting .100/.200/.300 you know he’s going to be back there stealing pitches for strikes and calling the game with a steady hand.  I recently spit out nearly 2,000 on his magnificence.  It got retweeted by that BestFansSTL guy so you know it was good.

Run Prevention

The aforementioned “hold on for dear life until we record the 27th and final out” was a winning formula last year because the Cardinals’ pitching staff suppressed runs to a near-historic and probably lucky degree.  Overall, their staff had the best ERA (2.94) in baseball by a wide margin (the Pirates were second at 3.23) and their bullpen was third behind the Royals and Pirates.  They gave up the least amount of runs in baseball also by a wide margin (the second place Dodgers allowed 70 more runs), and only the Pirates surrendered less home runs.  Now they’re in the enviable position of having to try and replicate that in 2016 since, as demonstrated, they’re probably not going to be scoring many runs.

Here are the Cardinals’ likely starting pitchers heading into 2016 (fastball enthusiast Lance Lynn is out for the season with Tommy John surgery):

  1. Adam Wainwright
  2. Jaime Garcia
  3. Carlos Martinez
  4. Michael Wacha
  5. Mike Leake

Some publications have called this the best rotation in baseball, and if the injury gods are on our side they might be right.  Unfortunately, the injury gods are never on our side and I’m pretty sure they all write for Deadspin which, for the unfamiliar, is a truly awful website.  Only one of these pitchers (Leake) doesn’t have recent injury history and he’s probably the worst pitcher on this list.  Leake has pitched nearly 180+ innings every year since 2012 so he can be counted on to be an uninjured human body, but overall this rotation is built upon a house of cards (pun intended and perfectly executed if you ask me).

Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for nearly a decade but he hasn’t made a start since last April and, as Heyward will tell you, he’s one awkward fall away from breaking his hip.  Garcia’s endured every type of pitching injury imaginable short of left arm just straight up falling off.  Martinez (#VivaElGallo!) is a young stud who walked off the mound during his last start in September after just seven pitches with a right shoulder sprain.  Never good.  And Wacha, who also has a murky history with his shoulder, struggled all of last year with fastball command.

As for the bullpen – it certainly looks fine.  We signed Jonathan Broxton to two more years, and he’s always a good candidate to be in the best shape of his life.  Jordan Walden isn’t injured – yet.  And we reached out to the Japanese league to find Korean Seung-Hwan Oh, the Final Boss, to hopefully provide a shutdown inning before handing the ball over to Trevor Rosenthal to close out the 9th.  All of this should provide much needed relief for trusted relievers Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist, assuming that manager Mike Matheny manages the bullpen correctly.  (Translation: We’re doomed!)

But in spite of the narrative surrounding the Kansas City Royals, no one is winning the World Series by way of a strong bullpen and little else.  It’s a false premise.  And what looks like a strong bullpen in March is often unrecognizable in both personnel and prowess come August or September, so excuse me if I’m not ordering my 2016 World Series championship hat that I’ll never wear just yet.

Okay, for real this time, let’s can the manager, right?

Nah.  For all of this team’s shortcomings, Matheny is one of the least of my concerns and that might be terrifying in its own right.  On an excellent episode of the Best Podcast in Baseball in February, Will Leitch brought up what should be an obvious point on Matheny: For all his perceived tactical faults, he’s not Matt Williams.  That’s something.  Chris Jaffe has said he’s found from his studies that skippers are more managers of people than managers of the game, and while the latter matters, it’s not as important as what happens behind closed doors.  If that’s true, Matheny aces that.  Until Trevor Rosenthal chokes out Matt Carpenter in the dugout I’m satisfied with Matheny.  Just study this laundry list, please.

Prediction time

There you have it.  The Cardinals have had an amazing run, but it’s over and I accept that.  


He’s not wrong – it’s inconceivable to think that this roster can compete with the Cubs.  But speaking of which, if the Cubs pull off anything comparable to the Cardinals’ lame duck reign, they’ll be having this same conversation around 2030.  Think about that for a few seconds and then please sing with me before we administer last rites.

 

The Cardinals will finish 95-67 and win the NL Central by two games.

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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