MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

The St. Louis Cardinals always seem to be good right? Well it’s because they have been a consistent winning franchise from 2000 to present, as they have only missed the playoffs 5 times in the past 17 seasons, while winning the World Series in 2006 and 2011. The Cardinals are no longer a slam dunk to make the playoffs as they missed the post-season by a hair last year, but they should be involved again in another tight race to return to October baseball.

The Players

Matt Carpenter is the Cardinals heart and soul. He literally plays three positions on a regular basis and has been one of their most consistent players. Carpenter pretty much equally split time at 3rd, 2nd and 1st base last season and was on pace for one of his best seasons to date, but eventually missed some time with an oblique injury. Carpenter was never known for his defense but has been average at all those positions over his career, what really matters though is how consistent he is at the plate.

Carpenter is one of the premier “walkers” in the league as his career OBP is an outstanding .376. 2016 provided a .380 OBP so he was seeing the ball and hitting as good as ever. However, he was actually an elite hitter up until his mid season oblique injury. In the first half of 2016 Carpenter hit for a .298 average and pumped 14 baseballs over the fence. However, his second half saw an ugly .224 average and he hit half as many home runs, albeit in less games. It sounds like Carpenter will mainly play first base now that the Matt Adams experiment is close to being aborted and if his health is truly back there’s little reason to believe that Carpenter’s 2015 through 2016 (pre-injury) power will regress. By being a patient hitter he gets to see more hitter friendly counts and quite simply he makes pitchers pay for their mistakes by absolutely crushing the ball more than ever before in his career. Carpenter was once a solid line drive and ground ball hitter but he has altered his swing to trade those ground balls for fly balls, and with his hard rate there’s little reason to believe he won’t hit over 20 home runs and provide an elite OBP yet again. The off-season signing of Dexter Fowler likely means Carpenter no long hits lead offs so a slight drop in runs in exchange for an increase in RBI’s is also in order.

Johnny Peralta is coming off his worst season as a major league player and he missed half the season due to a wrist injury. The move to third base from shortstop did not bode well for the veteran as he was well below average at the hot corner. At the plate, he had his lowest batting average since 2012 and the lowest walk rate of his career. His other hitting ratios weren’t overly different though as the strike out was a little better than average, the hard hit rate was right at average and he actually hit opposite field more than had in recent years. The bottom kind of fell out on Peralta in the middle of 2015 though and when you combine his wrist injury with what’s likely age related decline, you get a middling result at best. Peralta’s best days are behind him so it would not be a surprise to see him relegated to a bench role on days where Matt Carpenter plays third to get Matt Adams into games at first.

Aledmyz Diaz is coming off a pretty good rookie year that kind of went unnoticed by a lot of people. 2016 was truly the year of the young shortstop as so many young shortstops were playing great defense and hitting for previously unseen power from this key defensive position. Diaz had an injury that forced him to miss some time on the DL but otherwise put up a great year that in any other season could have had him in the Rookie of The Year conversation. The Cuban rookie ended up hitting .300/.369/.510 with 17 home runs, 71 runs’, 65 RBI’s and 4 steals. This is a phenomenal hitting line for a first year player but Diaz isn’t even being considered a top 10 shortstop in baseball at this point. His defense needs a bit of work but he should be able to provide at least average defense there with a high average bat. The power might not be legit since his hard hit rate was essentially league average, but I have a hard time seeing him regress by much else though as he had a great 13% strike out rate and 8.9% walk rate as well.

Second base will be shared between Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko. Wong,was defensively pretty good when he played, but lost out on every day playing time for much of the season to the hard hitting slugger, Jedd Gyorko. After three and a half seasons in the bigs, it’s probably fair to say Wong’s bat will never be above average. He provides a mediocre average, below average power, limited speed and slightly above average strike out rate. Gyorko on the other hand put up a nice post-hype performance that was pretty good. For the first time in his four seasons in the bigs, and first outside of San Diego, Gyorko provided good defense at second base. He was previously sub-par defensively but turned it around in St. Louis. He hit for a career high 30 home runs, while only striking out right around league average. Here’s the thing though, Gyorko did this without be a full time player, but he did it with only slighter better than average hard hit rate. If there’s ever a candidate for home run regression it’s almost a lock to be Gyorko. I’d expect Gyorko to see some time at third base again given Peralta’s struggles but I’d guess this 2nd base situation will be a constant time share again.

Longtime catcher, Yadiar Molina is still greatly revered in St. Louis but he is well into his career decline. At the age of 34, the power is gone but he still provides a great batting average. Molina’s reverence though comes from his defense, but after over a decade of elite defense he declined to completely average last year. Age has a way of catching up to everyone and catcher is the most demanding fielding position in the game. It’s very unlikely Yadi returns to his prime form so expect very little from the pitcher whisperer in 2017.

With Matt Holliday leaving via Free agency, the Cards will boast an athletic core of Randal Grichuk, Steven Piscotti and Dexter Fowler.

Grichuk has provided above average defense in his short MLB tenure with the Cards. His bat is truly boom or bust though. His 29.9% career strike out creates for a middling average (.254 career average), and although his power is good, it’s really about all he does well at the plate since he doesn’t steal bases or take enough walks (5.9% walk rate) to counter the ugly K rate. He simply does not hit enough line drives to really be much more than a 25 Home run player who will have a .255 average at best and okay counting stats. At least the defense plays for centre field and will play even better in left field with Fowler’s arrival.

Stephen Piscotti had a grand entrance to the majors in 2015 as he hit .305/.359/.494 in two months of service. Those slash rates understandably declined in a full campaign but were still reasonably good. Unlike Grichuk, Piscotti strikes out less and hits enough line drives to have an average that can easily stick in the .277 range while still flirting with 20 home runs. Piscotti was a 5th overall pick in 2011 so his pedigree was slightly higher, but really they are relatively the same type of player for the Cards but expect Piscotti to hit in a better spot in the line up.

The new shiny toy in St. Louis is former Cub, Dexter Fowler. After winning a World Series with the Cubs, Fowler got paid a lot of money in free agency. Fowler’s best season couldn’t have been timed better after he was left unsigned in 2015’s off season free agency and was forced to return to the Cubs on a bit of prove yourself contract. Fowler went out and did exactly that as he provided 4.7 WAR to the champion Cubs due to one of his best offensive seasons. Fowler’s defense has never been that good and was quite honestly pretty bad in 2014 and 2015. In 2016 though he improved to average and it was mainly due to playing a lot deeper and getting burnt less. With MLB players hitting the ball harder then almost ever before this worked out well. A big reason why Fowler was sought after by St. Louis was that Cardinals left fielders finished 26th in the Majors in 2016 with a -10 DRS from Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss. If Fowler or Grichuk play left field it’s likely they turn that -10 DRS into a +5 DRS which will equate to an extra win and a half in the standings. Fowler’s about to turn 31 and his offensive upside is limited at this point. He takes walks at an elite rate (14.3% last year) but his power is likely realistically going to be in the 12 to 13 HR range again. However, the power is gravy as the Cards will want him to get on base and let Carpenter drive him in. It’s a nice little top of the order punch. His contract is ugly at 82.5 million for 5 years but the Cards want to try and win now hence the overpay. Nonetheless, this is one o the better outfields in the National League now.

Starting Pitching

The Cards pitching took a hit before Spring Training really got going as top prospect Alex Reyes is out for the entire 2017 season. This will hurt as he was projected to be an elite strike out pitcher who would probably win 13 to 14 games. Nonetheless, the Cards have decent depth to at least move forward without too much pain.

Adam Wainwright is no longer the ace he once was. Just accept it and move on. From 2009 to 2014 he was one of the most dominant and consistent pitchers in baseball. After missing almost the entire 2015 season with injuries he was not quite as sharp in 2016. He’s never been a flame thrower but his strike outs continue to decline, the walk rate and home rate went up due to being hit the hardest he has ever been during his long career. The sinking fastball just isn’t getting it done like it used to. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Wainwright as he was an above average pitcher, but he just wasn’t the all-star the Cardinals needed. Wainwright is now 35 and has a lot of innings thrown over his career. He’s still good but really just another guy that’s slightly better then okay. A renaissance is possible but very unlikely so expect quality starts but not dominance anymore.

Dominican pitcher, Carlos Martinez is really the team’s top pitcher now. During Wainwright’s injury riddled season, Martinez broke out. He struck out over 9 batters per 9 in 2015 but declined to 8 K/9 in 2016 due to some regression in his change up’s effectiveness and a drop in BABIP luck. Martinez is a solid #1/2 pitcher that any team in baseball would love to have. What’s holding him back from being an ace is his command issues. He walked 3.2 batters per 9 innings last year and you’d hope he could improve that into the mid to low 2 BB/9 range but that would be a huge jump at this point and maybe unrealistic for the young flame thrower. His strike out totals would see a jump if he can regain his change up touch from 2015 and drop those walks but I’m not holding my breath. The upside is there but a repeat of 2016 is more likely, but that season did produce a WAR of 3.3 and 2015 a WAR of 3.4.

Mike Leake’s first season with the Cards was one of his better even though he posted an ugly ERA of 4.69. Leake is a soft tossing pitch to contact groundball pitcher. His fastball velocity is now under 90 Mph so he has to be pretty on point to not get rocked. His sinker continues to be his main pitch but its effectiveness was actually not very good last year; however, his cutter was his killer pitch and he used it almost 1 in 5 throws. Leake’s ERA should improve due to luck improvement but he continues to walk a fine line and will have to continue to limit home runs or else his season could be disastrous. He’s really just an innings eater at this point and that’s cool I guess.

Lance Lynn missed the entire 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery so Lynn is hoping to get his career back on track. He only managed to pitch in three rehab games with the AAA club last year and his limited results looked good. Command was never Lynn’s forte before his injury so it’s a good bet that it will continue to nag him upon his return. I’m sure he will contribute to the Cards this year but he really shouldn’t be expected to immediately get back to his prime performance level. At his best though he flirts with 8 K/9 and limits home runs which has resulted in elite level ERA’s. As a number four starter I’d expect an ERA just above 4.00 in 2017 and the K/9 to be around 7.6 with the walk rate being in the 3.6 BB/9 range. The upside is there but likely won’t occur until 2018.

‘Member when Michael Wacha was the beeeeeezneeeeeeeeeeeze. I ‘member… but unfortunately he’s not that good anymore mainly due to lingering injuries. Wacha was awesome when he made his late season debut in 2013 and he was instrumental in the Cardinals playoff run that ended in a World Series loss to the Red Sox. Since that debut he has yet to pitch an entire season as injuries have taken their toll. 2016’s ugly ERA that exceeded 5 was due to some bad luck, but he did deserve that ERA to be closer to 4.00. He will likely never become the ace he appeared to be for those few months in 2013 but he’s a great 5th starter when healthy. He creates above average ground balls while getting a decent 7.4 K/9. The strike out rate has continued to fall since his debut but he’s still above average. The biggest thing again will be his health and as a betting man I would bet he will be hurt again and miss extended time at some point.

The Bullpen

Trevor Rosenthal really struggled last year after a couple good years of closing performances. Once he was demoted from the 9th inning role, Seung Hwan Oh eventually took over and never let go. The 34 year old reliever posted an elite K/9 of 11.64 and walk rate of 2.03 BB/9 in his MLB debut. This performance mirrors pretty much what he has done for over a decade in the Japanese and Korean baseball leagues where he had been a closer for almost that entire duration. I would expect Oh to retain the closing role in 2017 unless he performs very poorly. He will likely regress a h9t with his strike out rate and ERA, but will be one of the better closers in baseball again.

Kevin Siegrist will be the Cards set up man to start 2017. The 27 year old lefty wasn’t very good last year due to home run problems. His velocity has now dropped for the 3rd year in a row and he may be a candidate for injury. I don’t see Siegrist lasting the year as falling velocity for such a young player is usually a sign of injury to come. Don’t let Siegrists nice 2.77 ERA from 2016 fool you though as he had an 89% strand rate which is just absurd and unrepeatable.

Former Blue Jay, Brett Cecil got himself a nice contract in free agency and should be the primary loogie out of the pen. Cecil has been pretty good out of the pen for the last three years. He did have some early season struggles with home runs allowed but rectified those issues in the season’s second half. He’s now moving to a much friendlier pitching environment outside Toronto so Cecil should continue to be his same old self and will have a nice strike out rate in high leverage situations.

Trevor Rosenthal’s 2016 season was outright bad. His ugly command issues from the 2014 season returned and he posted a hideous walk rate of 6.47 BB/9 compared to a tolerable rate of 3.28 BB/9 in 2015. His fastball velocity is still good and hums at 95 Mph. Given his off and on history of command issues, I have a hard time seeing Rosenthal ever getting the closing job back unless the bullpen completely falls apart. The strike out rate is still elite but outside of that it’s hard to trust him.

Jonathan Broxton is about as average as they get as he has combined for a 0.8 over the past four seasons. After that, rounding out the pen as middle relief options will likely be Matt Bowman and Miguel Socolovich… nothing to see here folks.

Outlook

The Cardinals are still a formidable team and have decent depth. They do lack upside though and they are relatively the same team as last year. I’d like to think the Cards are improved but the Cubs are so damn good that it will be very hard for them to win more than 86 games. They will be in the wild card hunt but will need health and some good luck to go their way to get into the dance. As of now I have them just missing the wild card cut by a hair, but the season is 162 games and a lot can happen between now and October.

Fantasy Studs

Matt Carpenter – He will have triple position eligibility at 2nd, 3rd and 1st base. His draft day price is reasonable too. Expect a great slash line of .272/.362/.483 with 22 home runs and 80 RBI’s and 80 runs. There’s nothing not to like here.

Fantasy Dud

Randal Grichuk – the young outfielders price isn’t ridiculous (170th overall) so he won’t cripple you but he only really provides value with his home runs and there’s a lot of other cheap options that will provide you with more RBI’s, average, OBP or runs. Grichuk is likely to hit a bit lower in the line up too so I am not sure what his counting stats will even look like outside the bombers. He’s a hard pass for me due to the limited upside on the average/OBP and lack of steals.

Sleeper

Aledmyz Diaz – If you don’t want to pay top price for a name brand shortstop then look no further! Diaz is going at a very reasonable spot in most drafts (150th overall range!!!). He is likely to hit in the 2 hole for the the Cardinals so run and RBI production will be great. He will likely hit .285/.349/.467 while chipping in 16 home runs, 70 RBI’s and 80 runs and 8 steals. Sign me up.