St. Louis Cardinals fans waited all spring, into the summer months and then into the fall for their team to come together and play like it seemed capable.
But nothing ever changed. At least not for long. So the Redbirds saw their playoff hopes die as they lived for the past six months – with a whimper. Don Henley said when the Eagles broke up in the early 1980s that it was a “terrible relief.” That pretty much sums up the end of the line for the 2017 Cardinals, the Little Team That Couldn’t.
The Birds were three games out of first place in the National League Central two weeks ago with seven games to play against the first-place Chicago Cubs. St. Louis could have seized its own destiny and made good on preseason boasts that the team in red was still the top dog in the division, regardless of the results of 2016.
Instead, the Cardinals lost six of those seven games — repeatedly leading early only to have the pitching, defense and lack of offensive consistency add up to another frustrating loss.
It was maddening that this Cardinals team was able to reel of stretches of winning eight out of 10 games. In the end, it played terribly not only against Chicago, but it couldn’t beat the lowly Cincinnati Reds when it had to.
St. Louis fans waited in vain last winter for the team to add a middle-of-the-order slugger or two. We were told Jhonny Peralta, who had a terrible 2016 season which was marred by a serious wrist injury, was going to be back in the cleanup spot to produce like he did three years ago. I seem to remember when the Redbirds inked Peralta to a four-year deal that it was backloaded because there was a strong suspicion he was going to be out of gas before the pact expired. But somehow, an aging player with a growing injury history was going to be the key cog in the Cardinals offense?
Instead of signing a slugger, a team with one of the best leadoff hitters in the major leagues decided it would bring in another leadoff hitter in Dexter Fowler and move the previous one, Matt Carpenter, to third in the batting order. Never mind that Carpenter has repeatedly expressed his will to bat at the top of the lineup and had proven that he performs poorly when he is moved elsewhere in the lineup.
It seems St. Louis is always looking outside the box for band-aid solutions. Sometimes they find a rejuvenated Lance Berkman. More often, they end up with Ty Wigginton or Junior Spivey.
The people who constructed this roster were saved from an absolutely miserable season by a player they never saw coming in Tommy Pham.
Relegated to the minors at the start of the season after serving as a reserve outfielder the past couple of years, Pham led the Cardinals — by a long shot — in average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and stolen bases. Despite losing a month of the season in the minor leagues, he was second among Cardinals in hits, RBIs and home runs.
Eight games behind the division leader in third place, this club would surely have a losing record and would be closer to the bottom of the standings than the top had Pham not come out of nowhere to give the offense some spark.
If there was a highlight of a largely frustrating season that never came together, it was that several of the St. Louis prospects graduated to the major leagues and proved that they have the ability to be contributors.
Paul DeJong, who was impressive in spring training with his hitting and hustle, stole the job of 2016 All-Star Aledmys Diaz, filling the gaping third hole in the batting order for much of the season. DeJong, who hates to take a walk, batted over .300 much of the way, but he sagged to a .281 average with a .320 on-base percentage toward the end of September. That’s all right, though. No one should expect a sure-handed shortstop to be a team’s top slugger. If St. Louis would open up its checkbook and get an established slugger or two, DeJong’s 50 extra-base hits, including 24 homers. would look like a huge bonus from the sixth or seventh spot of the lineup.
Also contributing mightily to the cause was young hurler Luke Weaver. Written off by many after a couple of shaky relief appearances in 2016, Weaver got a real audition this season and passed with flying colors. Weaver made nine starts on his way to a 7-2 record with a 3.23 ERA. He allowed 50 hits in 55 2/3 innings of work and struck out 68 while walking 13.
While former ace Adam Wainwright scuffled until an injury put him on the shelf late in the year, underperforming free-agent signee Mike Leake was traded away to the Seattle Mariners and Lance Lynn had a stellar comeback season that seemed to have completely escaped the St. Louis front office’s attention, Weaver looks like a piece of the puzzle St. Louis can count on in 2018 and one that will be cheap, allowing the payroll space to make big moves elsewhere on the roster.
Cardinals fans are lauded as the best in baseball. But I sense that the masses are weary of empty praise and that the team must do something this winter to prove it isn’t going to take finishing in third place lying down. They can show all the videos they can find of Bob Gibson and Stan Musial playing the Redbirds into glory. But wishes and dreams don’t win ballgames. It’s time to invest some of the resources loyal St. Louis fans pump into that team into putting a better product on the field.