Since the turn of the millennium, the Cardinals have won 71 more games than the second best National League team (Dodgers). They have the most postseason wins (65) across the league. And they’ve won 197 more regular season games than their arch-rival Chicago Cubs, meaning the Cubs could finish 17.5 games in front of the Cardinals for another ten straight seasons and they still wouldn’t catch up. It’s only within these parameters that the 2016 Cardinals were a major disappointment. That the Cubs fielded one of the most dominant teams in recent memory and were the last team standing (winners of Dayn Perry’s coveted “Earl Weaver Trophy” for best regular season record as well as the World Series) made it all the more miserable.

So it’s certainly relative, but here’s an additional rundown of how forgettable the Cardinals were in 2016. They:

  • Failed to win the NL Central for the first time since 2012;
  • Failed to make the postseason for the first time since 2010;
  • Experienced their first losing month since 2012;
  • Had their first losing record at home since 1999; and
  • Never won more than 23 games in a 40-game stretch, a low dating back to 1995.

Still, the Cardinals won 86 games. Only ten teams in MLB won more. They were one win away from playing extra baseball. A few bounces here or there and their 2016 epitaph reads entirely different. And therein lies the conundrum when trying to figure out the 2017 Cardinals: Was 2016 a mere hangover or the first stage of a new world order?

Possibility #1: The Cardinals are finished

The 2016 Cardinals were not who we thought they were. Following elite-yet-unsustainable run prevention from their pitching to go alongside a tepid offense in 2015, last season the pitching fell to middle of the pack and the offense came out of nowhere to slug their way to the second best wRC+ (104) behind the Cubs. For the first time in club history they had six players (Jedd Gyorko, Brandon Moss, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday) reach 20 home runs and eight hit more than 15 (add in Aledmys Diaz and Matt Adams). The entire team slugged .443, 31 points above the NL average and their highest mark since the Albert Pujols-driven days of 2003.

PECOTA isn’t expecting an encore, projecting a 30 point drop in slugging (along with a ghastly 76 wins). And expecting a slide back to the mean is absolutely fair. Sixty home runs have gone elsewhere with the departure of Moss, Holliday, and Jeremy Hazelbaker. There’s more – here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote at Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos about a month ago:

And there’s the production the Cardinals got from pinch hitters in 2016 which will be impossible to replicate. To recap, in 275 plate appearances in 2016, Cardinals pinch hitters slashed .332/.392/.615, good for a wRC+ of 164. They basically sent David Ortiz up to the plate for every pinch hit appearance, and thereby led MLB in nearly every offensive stat that matters, including 17 home runs which set an MLB record.

In other words, for all that went wrong for the Cardinals last season, they were pretty darn lucky in some areas as well. Add in Gyorko putting up slugging numbers well beyond his previous career numbers, Diaz still being a mystery, and Piscotty slumping down the stretch in his first full grind of a season, would anyone be surprised if this offense turns into a pumpkin next year?

On the pitching side, the big news was losing Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery a few weeks ago. Although, in a vacuum, I’m not sure that’s a disaster for 2017 as much as it could be down the road. Even though Reyes was rated by Baseball Prospectus as the number one prospect in baseball, and PECOTA, Steamer, and FanGraphs all saw him throwing more than 100 innings in 2017, it’s no guarantee that he would have secured a spot in the rotation come opening day, in fact, it wasn’t guaranteed that he wouldn’t start the season in Memphis. But the injury made the margin of error for the other projected starters that much smaller.

And, once again, PECOTA isn’t enamored with these starters. Carlos Martinez is projected to have the best ERA of the projected five at 4.19, and he sits even with Mike Leake with the highest projected WARP at 1.8. Adam Wainwright‘s decline is said to continue, and the outlook for Lance Lynn‘s first season back from his Tommy John surgery is not good: only 148 innings pitched with a 4.44 ERA. If this prognosis comes close to fruition then 2017 will be a disaster for the Cardinals. I’m not even sure how to argue otherwise.

Lastly, perhaps the biggest obstacle to the Cardinals returning to the 2000-2015 days lies outside their clubhouse. The Cubs are still young with a solid farm system and have one of the best managers in baseball. That they’ve been earmarked to dominate the NL Central for years to come should surprise no one. If the Cardinals are lucky enough to sustain a roster capable of winning 87 to 90 games, they will likely still have to roll the dice with the one-and-done play-in game. That’s fine – division winners should have an easier path – but the outlook is not good if the Cardinals want to build on those 65 postseason victories since 2000.

Possibility #2: The Cardinals are absolutely not finished

Of course they’re not finished. PECOTA is a perfectly fine algorithm but like everything else in this wretched world, it is not perfect, and the Cardinals are going to win more than 76 games. In fact, there’s a pretty navigable path to the Cardinals winning more than 86 games and it all starts with the top of the order and new leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler.

Borrowing a stat I caught in the 2017 Athlon Baseball Preview, the Cardinals’ likely top three hitters in the order this season (Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter) had a combined .381 on-base percentage in 2016. That was almost 60 points higher than the NL average as whole. Here’s Bob Nightengale of the USA Today in an enlightened article on Fowler on March 5:

The Cardinals, who have four National League pennants and two World Series titles since 2004, but missed the postseason for the first time in six years last season, believe that Fowler can be just as instrumental in their resurgence. They watched the switch-hitting Fowler bat .390 with seven homers and a .483 on-base percentage when leading off a game last year. They saw the Cubs go 54-15 in games he reached base at least twice. And they were acutely aware the Cubs went 11-17 when he went on the DL in mid-summer.

Those stats could mean something, could mean nothing, but Fowler is a great bat to put at the top of this lineup to finally force Carpenter to a spot more befitting of the power stroke he found in 2015. If the slugging does indeed regress, the goal here is to do some major table setting and get a lot of guys on base.

And baserunning. Fowler brings excellent baserunning to a team where “marginally competent” would be an improvement across the board. It’s Fowler’s defense in center field that’s the big mystery. He rated below average his first six years in the league before advanced statistics told him to play deeper. Will these improvements carry over to Busch Stadium where the outfield is a bit more vast than Wrigley Field? We’ll see, but his arrival did push Grichuk to left field, which the Cardinals reasonably hope is a defensive improvement over the slow-footed Holliday and Moss, who combined to spend 133 games there in 2016.

Improved defense could go a long way, especially in the infield since the staff had the highest ground ball rate in MLB (49.5%) in 2016. From that perspective, Kolten Wong (if he gets regular playing time) and a more experienced Diaz up the middle should help. And no pitching staff could benefit more from improved defense than this one. Or maybe just improved luck. They’re certainly due. Last season Cardinals pitchers had the seventh best FIP (3.88) in MLB and also the seventh worst deviation from their team-ERA (4.19). For the franchise, that was their ugliest gap between ERA and FIP since 1994. If the staff could be a bit luckier in 2017 and have that reflected in better run prevention numbers then that’s as good of reason as any to feel optimistic about a team coming off 86 wins.

As for that starting rotation, with the Reyes injury it most certainly now looks like Wainwright, Martinez, Leake, Lynn, and Michael Wacha (in some order). That’s a rotation that could wind up being anywhere between imposing and underwhelming. A lot of it hinges on health (and never assume health with the Cardinals – a few injuries here and there is as guaranteed as that death and taxes thing), but my colleague at Viva El Birdos, Ben Markham, noted that even without Reyes the staff is deeper than most realize. On the periphery sit Luke Weaver, Tyler Lyons (whose recovery from a knee injury is progressing faster than most expected), and whatever the Cardinals are currently doing with former closer Trevor Rosenthal. All are pitchers with varying degree of MLB experience.

Finally, the Cubs are again going to be very good, but they’re (probably) not going to be 103 wins good. It takes a ton of talent and luck to win that many games, and while the Cubs can depend on the talent returning, they shouldn’t feel the same way about the luck. Last week, Ben Lindbergh of the Ringer wrote an interesting article detailing how Cubs pitchers had a historic-level BABIP in 2016. From the article:

The 2016 Cubs were good at everything: hitting, pitching, fielding, baserunning, inspirational speeches during rain delays. But they were best at preventing hits. Last year’s Cubs allowed a .255 batting average on balls in play, in a season when the league as a whole (Cubs included) averaged .298. The gap between the Cubs and the team with the second-best BABIP (the Blue Jays, at .282) was greater than the gap between Toronto and the 27th-place team. As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote last September, the Cubs’ BABIP allowed was last season’s “most extraordinary team statistic.”

Actually, it was extraordinary by any season’s standards: Relative to the rest of the league, the Cubs were better at preventing hits than any team has ever been.

Pretty telling, right? It’s (probably) not a question of will the Cubs’ run prevention regress but by how much. (I hope I’m hedging enough with the “probably’s.” I don’t trust this current incarnation of the Cubs to not win 120 games.)  This is important because this is the team the Cardinals are chasing, the team they’ll play 19 times in 2017. The Cubs are the heavy favorites heading into the season, as they should be, but if the Cardinals somehow scrap their way to 95 wins and finish ahead of the Cubs it would hardly be the most remarkable thing that’s ever happened in baseball. It’s not likely, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible.

Forget about Possibility #1 and Possibility #2, does any of this actually matter?

No. The Cardinals were considered a major disappointment last season but this still happened:

So did this:

This, too:

And oh my gosh, this:

These were all wonderful, cherish-for-a-very-long-time moments from 2016, a season when 86 wins was somehow an affront to what I can only call a very lucky, perhaps entitled, fan base. The lesson here is even when the baseball is supposedly bad it’s still an absolute treasure. And I’m grateful that it’s almost back.

Prediction: I’m fully on board with Possibility #2…91-71.

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One Response to “The 2017 St. Louis Cardinals Preview: A Season of Possibilities”

  1. Thomas Dunne

    Alex…your stats are always the best…I think its time to “market your wares” to the major leagues…YOU’RE the Best. Tom

    Reply

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