St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals’ push to the playoffs begins with the basics

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny

Mike Matheny on a variety of topics Friday before the Cardinals played the Washington Nationals
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Mike Matheny on a variety of topics Friday before the Cardinals played the Washington Nationals

It’s back to the basics for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Sloppy baserunning and substandard fielding were bugaboos for the Cardinals last season, and both contributed to them missing the postseason for the first time since 2010.

St. Louis finished 86-76, one game behind the San Francisco Giants for the final National League wild-card spot. That didn’t sit well with players during an offseason of reflection.

“It’s amazing how we, literally, missed out by one game,” Cardinals right fielder Stephen Piscotty said. “You hear coaches and whatnot say it all the time: ‘You never know what game is going to cost you.’ But it actually happened to us.

“All of us could look at it and say, ‘If I had done this or this, we would have won (another game) and we would have been in the postseason.’ It’s a blessing and a curse. We experienced it, so we know the feeling. We know going into this season how important each game is, especially in a tough division like the Central.”

That, of course, is where the World Champion Chicago Cubs reside. The Cardinals injected some of the Cubs’ karma into its clubhouse with the addition of affable center fielder Dexter Fowler, whose presence in the leadoff spot will be counted on to spark the lineup.

Fowler, who signed a five-year, $82.5-million free-agent contract and received no-trade protection, is the centerpiece of the Cardinals’ efforts to improve the baserunning.

“You’ve got to press the envelope,” said Fowler, who has scored 186 runs in the last two seasons. “It’s better to make make a mistake being aggressive than being passive.”

Too frequently last season, the Cardinals carelessly ran into outs on the bases. They also lacked the speed and initiative to advance from first to third on singles or score from first on a double. Instead, they relied on their bounty of power that produced an NL-high 225 home runs, second in all of baseball.

“We wanted to improve our athleticism, baserunning and defense, clearly, (and) be less of a station-to-station ball club,” Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said. “I would imagine you’re going to see a regression in home runs, (but) I hope you see a step forward in overall offense (with) more activity on the basepaths and being able to score from second.

“Hopefully, it’s an exciting brand of baseball.”

Left fielder Randal Grichuk doesn’t foresee the long ball going out of style.

“We’ve got a lot more athleticism this year. We’ll going to be able to run the bases, go first to third, first to home, second to home,” he said. “But I still think we’re going to hit for power.”

The Cardinals, who open the season against the Cubs on April 2 at Busch Stadium, aren’t expected to win the NL Central. But the Cardinals never worry about outside expectations.

“We’re all really excited,” Piscotty said. “There’s a different feel, a different life, in (the clubhouse). It’s hard to put into words, really, how this year feels different. But it is different and I think it’s a good improvement.”

Mozeliak doesn’t concede anything to the vaunted Cubs.

“No one is waving a white flag and saying we’re just playing for second,” Mozeliak said. “I think that type of thought process would just be crazy.”

The hitting

The Cardinals ranked third in the NL in runs last season with 779 and could approach that number again this season even if their power numbers sag.

Fowler, shortstop Aledmys Diaz and first baseman Matt Carpenter are projected to be the top three hitters in the order. Their ability to reach base could create a breakthrough season in terms of RBIs for players like Piscotty and Grichuk.

“Whoever’s in that four hole is going to be hitting with runners on a lot,” Piscotty said. “That’s awesome to have. We’re going to put pressure on the other team right out of the gate.”

Fowler scored 102 runs in 2015 and 84 last season in just 125 games. The switch-hitter is coming off a career-high .393 on-base percentage and mixes in plenty of doubles and home runs. He also has reached double figures in stolen bases for eight straight years.

“He just pesters (opponents) on the bases. I love that,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “It’s kind of what you want that guy to do. Dexter is a smart baserunner, a smart player. He’s been, so far, everything we hoped for — on the field and off.”

Future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina, 34, seems to be getting better with age. He batted .307 with 38 doubles in a career-high 147 games and remains the heartbeat of the team.

Carpenter, in his first full season as a first baseman, was slowed in spring training because of lower-back stiffness. The former leadoff hitter could be a perfect fit in the No. 3 spot, where he can still employ his on-base skills and long-ball bat that hit 21 homers last year.

With the exception of a broken right thumb suffered in August, Diaz enjoyed a stellar rookie season with a .300 average, 17 homers and 65 RBIs in 111 games. Most anticipate more production from the Cuba native who made the All-Star team in 2016.

Third baseman Jhonny Peralta, in the final year of his contract, began swinging the bat with more vigor in the second half of last season after suffering a torn ligament in his left thumb in spring training. Peralta batted .284 in his final 52 games and could approach his career averages of 18 home runs and 80 RBIs.

“It was really tough,” Peralta said of batting .260 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs in 82 games last season. “I tried to come back quick and play, and it didn’t feel right. At the end, I felt really good. I had the confidence. I knew I could do it. I’m ready to go for 2017.”

Another player who finished last season on a high despite a troublesome knee is Grichuk, whose 24 homers ranked third on the team behind Jedd Gyorko and Brandon Moss. Grichuk, who takes over in left field for Matt Holliday, batted .275 with 12 homers in his final 48 games. He had surgery after the season to remove loose cartilage from his knee.

“I think (the key) is going to be consistency,” Matheny said of Grichuk. “Consistency with being on the field and consistency with approach at the plate. He seems to be doing a real nice job adjusting to left field. I think he’s found a nice foundation for his swing and approach.”

Piscotty had 35 doubles, 22 home runs and 85 RBIs last year, setting career-highs in each category. Piscotty can be expected to improve on a .273 average and be an opportunistic baserunner. He had seven of the Cardinals’ NL-low 35 steals last year.

“He’s one of those guys who’s going to sneak up on you,” Matheny said. “Just out of choosing the right time, the right counts, he’s going to take some bags. He wants to also, so that’s something he has going for him.

“I think we have a few guys who can do that well.”

Second baseman Kolten Wong regressed in 2016, batting a career-low .240 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 121 games. Will this finally be his year?

“I don’t know. I couldn’t answer that,” Wong said. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. I’m not anticipating being given anything. I’m going to work and see what happens.”

Off the bench, the Cardinals will turn to the versatile Gyorko, trimmed-down first baseman Matt Adams, infielder-outfielder Jose Martinez, infielder Greg Garcia and catcher Eric Fryer. Martinez, who debuted last season at age 28, was dazzling in spring training.

The pitching

Even with the injury to top prospect Alex Reyes, who underwent Tommy John surgery in February, the rotation should be a strong suit with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake and Michael Wacha.

Martinez was 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year and seems to be on the cusp of greatness. Wainwright relied on an improved changeup during spring training, which could be a weapon against left-handed hitters. Lynn rejoins the rotation after missing last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Leake seeks to improve on a 9-12, 4.69 ERA showing.

Wacha, who has had a stress fracture in his right scapula in two of the last three seasons, said in spring training that he felt physically sound. The Cardinals will keep their fingers crossed.

“I think the potential for us to be great is astronomical,” Wainwright said. “I don’t think you saw me or Mike Leake at our best last year. We’re both going to be better this year. I don’t think you’ve seen Carlos Martinez at his best. He’s going to be better this year. And you certainly haven’t seen Michael Wacha at his best, and Lance Lynn is back in the mix.”

Lynn’s return couldn’t come at a better time, with Reyes being sidelined. Lynn should be motivated to excel in the final year of his contract.

“The first time he got off the mound, he looked like the guy that was healthy a couple of years ago,” Matheny said. “It was amazing how quick and how well he did with the rehab. Usually, there’s a little bit of a transition phase after a guy has time off for surgery. He just looked like Lance. He’s been around 94 (mph) with good life. It’s going to be interesting to watch.”

Seung Hwan Oh is back as the closer after supplanting Trevor Rosenthal in that role last season. Rosenthal, coming of a lat injury, will return to the bullpen as a setup man after he comes off the 10-day disabled list.

Jonathan Broxton, Sam Tuivailala, Matt Bowman, Miguel Socolovich, newcomer Brett Cecil and Kevin Siegrist were also in the bullpen mix.

Cecil, a left-hander, joins the Cardinals after eight seasons in Toronto. He was signed to a four-year, $30.5 millon deal after Zach Duke underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in October. Siegrist, the other left-hander, featured an improved curveball in spring training that he hopes will help keep hitters off his fastball.

Tyler Lyons, another left-hander, has no options remaining and will begin the season on the disabled list following offseason knee surgery.

The defense

The Cardinals had the fifth-most errors in the NL last year with 107. But that didn’t tell the whole story. Range, especially in the infield, was a problem.

Peralta at third base and Diaz at shortstop have limited range, but can be expected to catch what they get to. Peralta made several exceptional plays in spring training, and Diaz improved significantly in the field the second half of last season.

Wong has above-average range at second and makes the occasional outstanding play, while Carpenter is an average fielder at first.

“We have capable infielders who can make every play,” said Leake, whose ability to coax ground balls leaves him very reliant on his infield. “We don’t have a bad infielder. We have a good infield. Maybe not the best range, but we have a very solid infield that can carry us.”

With Holliday gone and Fowler on board, the outfield defense should be much improved. Fowler played deeper last season than in any other year, and his rise was dramatic. He has an average arm.

Grichuk could be a plus defender in left, as could Piscotty in right. Grichuk, an above-average runner, could still see some time in center if necessary.

Molina continues to deter the running game. He threw out just 18 of 85 runners attempting to steal last season (21 percent), but the Cardinals insist their pitchers were partly to blame.

Adams is the best first baseman on the roster, while Gyorko can play third, second and first. Garcia can play third, shortstop and second, with second base being his best position.

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

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