It appears the off-season is over for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Instead of adding to a weak offense with a flashy, core player like Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Upton, the Cardinals traded Jon Jay to the San Diego Padres for enigmatic infielder Jedd Gyorko and signed fallback pitcher Mike Leake to a five-year, $80-million contract.
It was a disappointing off-season for several reasons. Still, the front office types are confident they have the pieces to contend in the upcoming season.
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First, the long-expected rise of the rival Chicago Cubs has taken place. With their class of young prospects finally graduated to the big leagues, the Cubs have opened the check book to fill in the obvious holes and wrest away St. Louis’ hold on the position as favorites in the National League Central Division.
Second, a lot of fans thought the Redbirds were primed, armed with a mammoth new local television contract, to wade into a deep pool of free agents. St. Louis has several promising youngsters of its own: Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and hurlers Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and top prospect Alex Reyes.
But the core of Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina is aging, as painfully pointed out by Heyward as he kicked at the Cardinals on his way out the door.
If the team wasn’t willing to spend some of its “dry powder” when the market was crowded and the need was obvious, when is it going to happen?
Just one big hitter in the middle of the order that could stir the drink and make this offense hum.
I fear that this team could slip into a rebuilding mode when the stars fade. Especially when the free agent market looks pretty lousy for 2017. So a big gamble is being taken that the St. Louis kids are going to come through and become established, productive major leaguers.
The Cardinals have found a way to pull rabbits out of a hat before. In 2004 and 2005 I firmly believed the Birds were the best team in baseball but they fell short of a World Series crown. The 2006 team couldn’t hold a candle to its two predecessors on paper. But it got hot at the right time and went all the way.
Still, the Cardinals are going to have their work cut out just to make the playoffs and have a chance to catch lightning in a bottle.
While the Cubs are expected to finish on top, the Redbirds seem to have taken a step backward towards the Pittsburgh Pirates within the Central Division. Meanwhile the Arizona Diamondbacks were surprisingly active over the winter to put themselves in the wild card picture along with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, whichever one doesn’t win the Western Division.
The Mets, with the surprise re-signing of Cespedes, look like favorites in the NL East. That makes the Washington Nationals a strong contender for a wild card berth.
It’s not going to be easy to make it to the dance if the Birds don’t win their division outright.
Three things are key to the Cardinals 2016 campaign:
▪ Number one, unquestionably, is health. With a major offensive component gone in Heyward, Holliday and Molina need to shake off injury-riddled seasons to perform closer to their career norms. And that’s a tough thing to hope for when Molina has had TWO thumb surgeries in the past six months and isn’t even expected to be ready at the start of spring training.
▪ Second, the pitching staff has to be the anchor of this team. Again.
If you’re not going to score a lot of runs, you better not allow a lot of runs either. Borrowing from point number one, the Redbirds need Wainwright to bounce back from a major injury to have a season worthy of an ace. And let’s not forget that Michael Wacha seemed worn down and Carlos Martinez had a shoulder injury that kept him out of the playoffs. Those two must take a step forward from remarkable 2015 seasons.
I don’t really understand the signing of Leake.
The Cardinals seemingly made no effort to bring back John Lackey, who was statistically their best pitcher in 2015. Instead, they bid nearly $190 million on Price only to let him go over $20 million or so. I find it to be a much better investment to spend mega bucks on a guy with a sky high ceiling than to spend big bucks on a fourth starter.
▪ Third, the offense might not be flashy. But it has to be more balanced than it was last season.
Without an obvious clean-up batter or lead-off man, the Cardinals batsmen must learn to hit better in various situations.
Wong has all the physical tools, speed, a line drive bat, quick reactions and occasional power, to be a great lead-off guy. But, up to this point, he has resisted suggestions to stop trying to pull every ball he sees over the right field boards.
If he sprays the ball around the park, Wong could double his doubles total and still pounce on mistakes to ride balls out of the park. He could also be a .31 hitter instead of a .260 hitter.
Matt Carpenter seems to be the closest thing the Cardinals have to a steady power hitter these days. But for unexplainable reasons, he only hits when he bats in the top spot. He needs to find a way to successfully transition to the middle of the order where he has more chances to drive runs in.
No one has to hit 40 home runs. But every man who comes to the plate has to move runners up. Too often this team takes an all or nothing approach and strikes out while swinging for the fences. The whiffs need to trend downward.
While much is made of the Cubs’ kids, there is an argument to be made that Piscotty and Grichuk have just as bright a future. Because of the lack of high-dollar additions, they’re being counted on to produce now instead of waiting to ease their feet beneath them.
Piscotty hit a lot of homers in his rookie year. But I see him more as a great defensive player who hits a lot of doubles ala Andy Van Slyke while Grichuk has a little bit of Jim Edmonds in him as a power-hitting centerfielder.
It would be great to see Piscotty, Grichuk and Wong battle Heyward, Bryant and Jorge Solar for the next decade or so.
Matt Adams or Brandon Moss would likely get the nod to bat cleanup if they can hit for a decent average. But Adams has to prove that he’s rediscovered his power stroke and Moss has to show that he can be a consistent producer.
You don’t need spectacular players to win. But if no one is going to put up flashy numbers, EVERYBODY needs to put up decent production statistics.
I can’t wait for spring training to start so thing which we can become optimisic about become more obvious.