St. Louis Cardinals

After offseason of swings and misses, can Cardinals remain viable in tough NL Central?

David Wilhelm - BND Sports Writer
David Wilhelm - BND Sports Writer

If we’ve learned anything about the St. Louis Cardinals over the years, it’s that they always seem to find a way to be competitive. Usually, they’re much more than that.

But this has been a strange offseason. Fans don’t seem to be jazzed up about newcomers Mike Leake, Jedd Gyorko and Brayan Pena. The glass feels half-empty, not half-full.

Pitcher Lance Lynn will miss the entire season because of Tommy John surgery. Catcher Yadier Molina is expected to miss the start of the season after two operations on his left thumb. Pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Jason Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs, and the Cardinals whiffed on their attempt to sign free-agent left-hander David Price.

All of this appears to be problematic, but history keeps whispering in our ear: “Don’t be concerned. The Cardinals will find a way.”

But will they?

Optimists point to the starting rotation of Leake, signed as a free agent, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia. Solid, no doubt, even without Lynn.

It comes, however, with the common qualifier: “If it stays healthy.” And that’s a big if considering Wainwright, Wacha, Martinez and Garcia all have spent substantial time on the disabled list during the last two seasons.

Let’s presume the rotation is what it can be, which is very, very good. The next concern is whether the Cardinals’ aging offense can support it.

St. Louis ranked 11th in the National League in runs scored with 647. They were 11th in home runs with 137. And with the team tied for 11th in stolen bases with 69 and 13th in sacrifice bunts with 32, there wasn’t much of an attempt made at manufacturing runs.

How can the offense be better in 2016? Little to nothing has been done to improve it.

Heyward was criticized for not providing enough offense. He batted .293 and played Gold-Glove defense in right, but produced a scant 13 home runs and 60 RBIs. The Cardinals offered him $200 million to return, yet he chose to sign with the youthful, talented Cubs.

Replacing Heyward won’t be easy. The Cardinals have not yet pursued outfield help via free agency and aren’t likely to at this point. The options aren’t that great, anyway.

So for the time being, manager Mike Matheny’s outfield consists of the diminishing Matt Holliday, who will soon be 36, in left, a to-date brittle yet still-promising Randal Grichuk in center and second-year player Stephen Piscotty in right. All bat right-handed.

Holliday represents a huge dilemma. He never was a fluid fielder, and that issue will be exacerbated after he twice was on the disabled list with a quadriceps injury in 2015.

Offensively, Holliday might have one more productive season left in the tank, but few realize that the seven-time All-Star hit no home runs at Busch Stadium last season. That’s right, none.

Holliday is in the final season of a guaranteed contract that pays him $17 million. He has the right to reject all trades since he has been in the big leagues 10 years, including five with the same team. Whether the Cardinals exercise their 2017 option on Holliday or offer him a $1 million buyout will depend largely on his production this season.

Matt Carpenter is ensconced at third base, but what spot in the lineup suits him best? He topped the Cardinals with 28 home runs last season from the top of the order. He works the count and gets on base, but might his newly found long-ball bat be better utilized?

Jhonny Peralta’s lack of range and offensive dropoff in the second half of last season are reasons for pause. He turns 34 in May and still has two years left on his contract.

Most believe second baseman Kolten Wong’s best years are ahead, so perhaps his breakout season is upon us. But the Cardinals traded Jon Jay for Gyorko to provide insurance at second and short and third.

First base? It’s difficult to get excited about Matt Adams or Brandon Moss. Adams, like Moss a left-handed hitter, resembles trade bait at this juncture, given the Cardinals’ affinity for ultimate team player Moss and the power he could provide.

Then there is Molina, who turns 34 in July. His knees, and everything else on his body, have taken a pounding over the years. His offensive upside has taken a hit, too. Perhaps Pena’s arrival will enable the Cardinals to provide more regular rest for Molina.

The Cardinals have serious obstacles in the NL Central in the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, teams that are built for sustainability.

Some fans, feeling disappointed by an offseason that hasn’t been the franchise’s best, didn’t renew their season tickets. Warm summer evenings don’t seem as desirable if the Cardinals are working hard to scratch out three or four runs a game.

But as they make that decision, are they second-guessing themselves? Perhaps they hear the voice, ever so softly, in their ear: “Don’t be concerned. The Cardinals will find a way.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm