Top Five surprises for the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals:
5) Life without Adam Wainwright
It’s not a surprise that Wainwright was injured. He struggled to the finish line in 2014 with elbow problems. Maybe the nature of his injury - an Achilles issue as opposed to arm trouble - was a bit of an eyebrow raiser. But the real surprise was how the Cardinals were able to lead baseball in starting pitcher ERA without their ace.
From top to bottom the rotation picked up its leader with all five regulars - and a pair of minor league call ups - making significant contributions.
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Too add to the the shock, Jaime Garcia, who hasn’t been healthy since the 2011 season, made a remarkable comeback to help weather the loss of Wainwright. Garcia combined to pitch 99 innings in 2013 and 2014. But this year he pitched 125 2/3 innings after a late start to the season and, besides a groin pull, was completely sound. He had a 2.36 ERA with 100 hits allowed, 28 walks and 92 strikeouts.
Long considered to be an ex-Cardinal by the end of the 2015 campaign, Garcia’s options now look too good to pass up.
4) The maturing of Carlos Martinez.
There’s no doubt the young St. Louis starter has an electric arm. But his inability to control his emotions has always been Martinez’s undoing. He’d pitch a couple of great innings and then a call or two would go against him and Martinez would unravel and get pounded. He also seemed perplexed about how to pitch to lefties. I was concerned the tragic death of his close friend Oscar Tavares would be too much for Martinez to handle. Instead, he used the loss as a lesson and largely straightened his head out. A September start against the Cubs in which Martinez lost his composure and showed up the umpire threatened to undo all his progress. Instead, Martinez pulled himself together and was the bigger man, apologizing to the umpire and accomplishing the task of getting himself back together.
3) Jason Heyward, declared a bust in May, is team MVP by season’s end.
Heyward’s turnaround was remarkable and largely unexpected by much of the Cardinals fan base. On May 26 he was batting .233 and the internet was on fire with bloggers and social media posters lining up to declare the trade of Shelby Miller for Heyward was the low tide moment for St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak.
But in June Heyward hit .326, in July he hit .312, in August he hit .318 and over the last month he’s batted .286 to lead Cardinals regulars with a .292 batting average and stolen bases with 23 swipes in 26 tries. He was 10th in the National League in WAR with a +6.5 mark.
Heyward really drove up his free agent stock with his best season, statistically. I hope his agent and the Cardinals can come up with a reasonable contract to keep Heyward in the fold long term.
2) The dramatic debut of Stephen Piscotty.
We all knew Piscotty was the top St. Louis prospect among position players. But was it due to default since Kolten Wong and Randall Grichuk already graduated to the majors and Taveras died?
After all, Piscotty was a .282 hitter in Class AAA ball and the knock has been that he didn’t have enough power to be a starting MLB outfielder.
Piscotty was called up almost in desperation due to injures to Grichuk and Matt Holliday. And he proceeded to carry the offense on his shoulders with a .310 batting average and seven home runs in only 62 games. (He’s come close to at least a half a dozen more home runs, backing outfielders up to the wall but falling a couple feet short.)
It remains to be seen if Piscotty can maintain this level of production over a long career - and if that justifies making him a starter at the expense of letting go of Heyward. But the Cardinals wouldn’t have won the NL Central without him and the 39 runs he drove home.
1) 100 wins.
Look, I have as much blind faith in the Cardinals as anyone. But with Wainwright, Holliday, Grichuk, Matt Adams, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez, Jordan Walden, Matt Belisle and others spending a significant chunk of time on the shelf with injuries, is it even reasonable for this team to have one of its best seasons in history? Is it reasonable, on paper, for this to be a club that’s playing over .500 baseball.
I’m hoping most of those players are going to get healthy at the right time to heat things up in the playoffs and bring home championship number 12. But its almost miraculous that the Redbirds have made it as far as they have already.