Are the St. Louis Cardinals counting on too much from their up-and coming players?
Something that troubles me about the roster, as it currently stands, is that the Redbirds are counting on guys who made unexpectedly solid contributions in 2017 to do the same thing next season. Not only am I uncertain that some of the more outstanding performances can be repeated, I’m concerned about what it means for the club if they don’t. If the players did the best they could do last year, it would seem the only way to go is down.
Tommy Pham hit .306 with 23 home runs in 2017. But let’s not forget, he didn’t even make the team out of spring training. And that’s not because St. Louis didn’t know what it had in the speedy outfielder. Pham made his major-league debut in 2014 and he’s 29 years old. He had about triple his previous high for plate appearances last year and his career stats line before 2017 was a .245 batting average with 114 strikeouts and 39 walks in 358 trips to the plate.
Baseball Reference projects Pham to have a solid season with a .280 batting average and 20 home runs. But as the roster is configured now, I’d guess Pham is penciled in to hit second or third in the order and carry a major part of the offense. What if he reverts to his career numbers? Let’s not forget that his degenerative eye problem continues to be a concern and he’s reaching the age where his reaction times are going to start to show. Let’s hope last year was the new Pham and not just a statistical outlier. He was clearly one of the best players in baseball last year. There’s a lot of room between where he finished in 2017 and where he was in 2016.
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Jedd Gyorko hit a career-best .272 with a .341 on-base percentage in 2017, although he fell back to 20 home runs after belting 30 the season before. The Cardinals seem interested in transitioning Gyorko back to a super-sub role after two seasons as a mostly regular third baseman. That seems to be a sign that the Redbirds front office doesn’t view Gyorko as a player who can hold up while playing everyday during a grueling 162-game schedule. Baseball Reference predicts a decent but not great .255 batting average with 23 homers and a .320 on-base percentage in the upcoming campaign. The site also predicts Gyorko will be something of a three-quarter time player with 435 at-bats.
Paul DeJong was absolutely stellar in 2017. So much so that he took previous shortstop Aledmys Diaz’s job and eventually chased him out of the organization. Batting .285 with 25 homers in only 108 games after being called up in the middle of the first half of the season. DeJong ended up hitting in the middle of the order, which was totally unfair to him, because it’s an awful lot to ask of a green player. A tip of the cap to him for doing so well. But can he do it again?
Baseball Reference believes DeJong will bat .280 with 22 homers and a .332 on-base percentage in the upcoming season. But I am concerned by the fact that DeJong saw his batting average drop 40 points in the second half of last season while his slugging percentage dropped 100 points. Hopefully, the slump DeJong endured toward the end of the season was just a matter of fatigue after a mentally and physically stressful season and not a sign that pitchers are starting to figure him out. But no one would benefit more from the Cardinals adding another middle-of-the-order bat than DeJong who could slip out of the pressure cooker and into a more comfortable spot lower in the order where he could hone his craft in more hospitable conditions. If you hit .265 with 20 home runs as the cleanup hitter, folks are going to be disappointed. If you put up the same numbers batting sixth or seventh, people consider your production to be a bonus.
Speaking of middle-of-the-order bats, the Cardinals’ biggest off-season acquisition thus far had a career season in 2017. Marcell Ozuna hit .312 with 37 home runs his last year with the Miami Marlins. Prior to that, he was a .265 hitter with an average of 15 homers a season and a .314 on-base percentage. So which player is he? It’s difficult to imagine that at least part of Ozuna’s good fortune came from batting in close proximity to slugger Giancarlo Stanton. Who will provide protection for Ozuna in the St. Louis batting order?
In the rotation, Michael Wacha managed to make it through 2017 without problems in his troublesome pitching shoulder, although he did struggle mightily at the beginning of the season then faded at the tail end. Is he fixed, or is this the latest installment of the pattern that has seen him have one healthy year followed by one in which he misses a large chunk of time due to arm trouble? Because if the pattern isn’t broken, this would be his year to struggle. With an unproven pitcher joining the rotation in Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright winding down at the end of a storied — yet injury-plagued — career, the Cardinals can’t afford for Wacha to not pitch at least as well as he did last season in 2018.
I don’t mean to look for the dark lining in a silver cloud. And I certainly am not predicting that all of these players will wash out in 2017. But I think it’s logical to expect some regression from a number of people in the group. And that’s why I believe the Cardinals, while they appear on paper to be at least as good of a team as they had last year, could still benefit from adding a middle of the order bat, at least one pretty highly regarded starting pitcher and a closer. By adding some proven talent, this team would lose some of the question marks and raise the floor while giving some of the youngsters on the roster a chance to grow with a little less pressure on their shoulders.