I hear a lot folks who have taken the attitude that, without the addition of a premiere free agent this off-season, the St. Louis Cardinals might as well not bother showing up on opening day.
I wish the club would have added a legitimate cleanup hitter to its Christmas shopping list, like a lot of folks. But, even without a big ticket player to compliment the addition of lead-off man Dexter Fowler and lefty reliever Brett Cecil, I think the Redbirds could be a lot more potent a threat to return to their familiar perch at the top of the National League Central standings than many people seem to believe.
Far and away, the biggest make or break factor on this team is the health of its starting pitchers. Last season, the Cardinals starters, as a group, were alright. Not great. Not terrible. Just so-so. But the rotation has the best potential of any single element of this team to be dominant. It’s the one thing that could carry the club on its own.
The situation: Carlos Martinez turned the corner last season from a guy with great potential to a guy who is one of the best starters in baseball. He’s, fortunately, been healthy in his young career. What has to happen: The most important thing for Martinez, who has sharpened his focus and his pitches every year he’s been in the majors, is that he needs to stay out of the trainer’s room. If he can do that and continue to keep his attention on baseball, he ought to be a threat to win 20 games in 2017.
The situation: Longtime Ace Adam Wainwright had a surprisingly subpar 2016 season. He managed 13 wins. But his 4.62 earned run average was nearly a point and a half higher than his career mark. Anyone who saw him pitch could easily tell that he wasn’t vintage Waino in 2016. His signature curveball seemed to elude him for most of the campaign and his usually-precise fastball location came and went.
When Wainwright has been healthy for a whole season, he’s averaged a 17-9 record with a 3.11 ERA. But, the last six years, he’s missed nearly two entire seasons.
One of those lost pennant races came in 2015 when the lanky hurler rehabbed for nearly the whole campaign, trying to recover from a torn Achilles tendon before making a cameo at the end of the year. Conventional wisdom was that Wainwright would come back strong after an off-season to recover. Especially since he appeared to be in top form – albeit in a relief role – when he finally appeared at the end of 2015. But that, unfortunately, wasn’t the case.
What has to happen: Wainwright, needs to find a way to increase the strength and flexibility in his damaged tendon to allow him to perfect his mechanics. If he can do that, he can succeed with his breaking pitches and stay out of danger with his fastball.
Will another year removed from the injury allow him to bounce back to Cy Young Award contention? Or have the cumulative effects of 11 years in the big leagues and the fact that he’s not 35 years old combined to wear down Wainwright permanently? Time will tell. But he’s repeatedly said he’s confident he has a lot more left in the tank. The Cardinals need him to be right.
The situation: In the same leaky boat as Wainwright is another top of the rotation starter beaten down by injury, Michael Wacha.
After a fabulous 2015 season that saw him wear down at the end, Wacha never returned to form in 2016. In his first three years in the big leagues, Wacha’s worst ERA was 3.38. Last year, during his fourth year, he was 7-7 with a 5.09 ERA and ended up back on the shelf for the second time in three seasons due to the stress reaction injury that has plagued his pitching shoulder.
The Cardinals aren’t saying much about their expectations for Wacha in 2017. But if the internet pundits are to be believed, he’s not likely to be a part of the rotation at all, settling for a spot in the bullpen where he’ll limit the number of pitches he throws over the course of the season.
What has to happen: I don’t believe the Birds have given up on their young star. Quietly, the team has had Wacha work on strengthening his shoulder over the winter. While his durability will likely always be a question, it’s not unreasonable to believe Wacha could be the 17-7, 3.38 pitcher he was in 2015 – IF he can keep his shoulder from becoming overworked.
The Situation: The next X factor is returning hurler Lance Lynn. He missed all of the 2016 season following Tommy John surgery. But Lynn was the second-winningest pitcher in the National League over the three previous years. It’s always difficult to say how a pitcher will return from Tommy John. Some guys come back and don’t miss a beat. Others take up to a year to regain their mechanics and muscle memory after a major injury. A few pitchers never make it all the way back…
What has to happen: Lynn, who is in the last year of his Cardinals contract will likely be highly motivated to show he’s 100 percent in effort to land a lucrative, long-term contract. If he’s fully recovered, Lynn could easily be the best fourth starter in the National League with just an average year, by his standards.
The Situation: That leaves the Redbirds with last season’s free agent signing, Mike Leake, and top prospect Alex Reyes battling it out for the last spot in the rotation (unless St. Louis tries to employ a six-man rotation to save innings off the arms of Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn and Reyes.)
What has to happen: Leake was very mediocre last season, which some attributed to the Birds’ poor defense in 2016. Hopefully, moving Matt Carpenter to first base and away from the hot corner improves defense at both spots and Aledmys Diaz and Kolten Wong smooth out some of their rough spots up the middle, so Leake will be a more effective hurler.
It would be best, at least in the short term, for Leake to win the starting job, First, the Cardinals gave him a five-year contract that they can’t afford to become a bust in the first half of the pact. Second, it would be reckless for Reyes to be allowed to throw more than 150 innings in his first full season. So it would be nice to let him work out of the bullpen for a while.
If any of the above starters falter, look for Reyes to jump right in and try to build on his impressive MLB debut last season. Reyes seems completely capable of being an impact starter right now. Not a fourth or fifth guy, but a potential top of the rotation hurler. While it would be nice to imagine that all of the above scenarios could work out for the best, Reyes likely will be counted on at some point of next season because of injuries or fatigue. Until then, if everyone else holds together, he could be a killer arm in the bullpen.
In 2016 the Cardinals had a decent rotation and an offense that was as inconsistent as it was explosive. The defense was terrible and the bullpen was shaken by injuries including those to key pieces Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness.
What the Birds lacked in 2016 was an aspect of their team that was DOMINANT. The most likely piece to fill that bill is the rotation. You can afford to have an average offense and average defense if you have dominant starting pitching and make the important plays here and there at pivotal moments.
Like Whitey Herzog said, it’s tough to beat you if you don’t let the other team score any runs.