The St. Louis Cardinals ran out of gas on the way to the finish line in the National League playoff race, leaving fans without October baseball for the third season in a row.
The reloading process for next season hasn’t yet begun. But here’s a quick glance at what went right, what went wrong and what’s up for debate as the Redbirds lick their wounds and look toward 2019.
▪ In my book, outfielder Marcell Ozuna had a solid season. But the problem is that the Cardinals didn’t trade a couple of excellent prospects for a solid player. They wanted Ozuna to come in and be a star. He hit .312 last season with 37 homers and 124 runs batted in for the Miami Marlins. It’s a little much to ask him to repeat that career year — especially without the benefit of having Giancarlo Stanton hit behind him in the lineup. Still, the Cardinals certainly expected more of him than the 23 homers and 84 runs batted in they got in 2018. Also disappointing were his on-base percentage, 51 points lower than the year before, and his slugging percentage, which fell by 114 points. Ozuna was likely hampered at the plate by the shoulder problem that turned him from a Gold Glover to an average outfielder at best. He didn’t have a terrible year. But it wasn’t a superstar campaign, either. I’m glad the Cardinals have Ozuna. But I believe for him to be more effective he needs a slugger to hit behind him in the order — and to find a solution to his shoulder problems. Hopefully he’ll come back next season healthy, and he’ll hit closer to .300 with 30 some home runs — and then he’ll sign about a five year contract to stay in St. Louis.
▪ Dexter Fowler was supposed to be a key player in the second year of his five-year contract. Instead, he was like an anchor tied to the leg of a swimmer. He couldn’t get his batting average even close to the .200 mark, his regressing defense went into overdrive and then he became a distraction by feuding with then-manager Mike Matheny and pouting when he didn’t start games. I can only hope that Fowler had an undisclosed injury that was holding him back and he comes back in the spring at 100 percent. Because this contract is going to be a nightmare if his current output is the new normal. There’s still hope because he’s only 32. But a .180 batting average and five stolen bases in seven tries isn’t nearly enough production from a guy who was signed to be a force at the top of the batting order. He’s going to have to make a heck of a comeback to make his contract seem like anything but a disaster.
▪ Greg Holland was supposed to be the cherry on top of the sundae when he was signed on the eve of opening day. Instead, he was the fly in the punch bowl, turning in an earned run average of 7.92 while allowing 34 hits and 22 walks in 25 innings. He only finished seven games and didn’t earn a single save after being signed to be the team’s primary closer. That was $14.5 million thrown in the dumpster and set on fire.
▪ Alex Reyes was a disappointment of a different variety. He worked hard to come back from elbow ligament replacement surgery after missing all of the 2017 season. Then he managed to hurl only four innings in 2018 before tearing a lat muscle and ending up back on the disabled list for the rest of the season.
▪ Brett Cecil was a disaster last season after signing a huge free agent deal. He was worse this year. He earned a 6.89 ERA by allowing nearly two runners an inning. That’s not a great result for a guy who is supposed to be a late inning specialist.
Five mixed bags
▪ Michael Wacha was one of the best pitchers in the National League for much of the season. But, once again, he missed a big chunk of the year on the disabled list and it cost his team dearly. This was a different injury than the stress reaction that’s plagued Wacha in the past, so that’s sort of a good sign. But he’s probably on his way out of St. Louis thanks to his inability to stay on the field and the wealth of starting pitchers in the system. It’s a shame because he has the stuff and the fortitude to be a top part of the rotation starter. But he doesn’t have the track record to justify the sort of contract he’s going to want before he walks away as a free agent at the end of 2019. If he would have stayed healthy, it was probably pretty likely that the Cardinals would trade him this winter. But his value has probably been seriously damaged because of his troubles.
▪ Adam Wainwright missed the four months in the middle of the season before coming back to pitch fairly well. It was encouraging to see him make a contribution in September. But, it’s sad to see a great Cardinals hurler be reduced to being a cheerleader most of the rest of the season. I’d add him to the list of disappointments if not for the fact that I didn’t have high expectations for Wainwright because he had trouble staying healthy and effective the past two seasons.
▪ Bud Norris can’t seem to put together an entire good season. One half of last season he was awful, the other half he was fantastic. The first half of the year in St. Louis he was a great insurance policy that paid off when Holland couldn’t do the job he was signed to perform. But in the second half, he disappeared. Before the All-Star Break, he struck out 8.33 batters for every one he walked. In the second half, he struck out 1.21 batters for every one he gave a free pass. His first half ERA was 3.05. In the second half it was 4.66. He allowed 0.96 base runners per inning before the break and 1.7 afterward.
▪ Kolten Wong found his way to the end of Mike Matheny’s bench — again. Mike Shildt got him started when he took over as skipper mid season. But Wong’s numbers are still disappointing for a guy who is supposed to be such a unique talent. Wong had a pedestrian batting average under .250, stole only six bases and was caught stealing five times and, living up to his reputation, he made a lot of great defensive plays — and screwed up more than his fair share of easy ones like the double play ball he turned into no outs in a must-win game Friday against the Chicago Cubs. Wong did OK. But he needs to do much better. Is he a top of the order speedster with the ability to get on base and drive opposing defenses batty? Is he a rangy second sacker with Gold Glove chops? Or is he a utility guy because he can’t keep his head straight? The jury shouldn’t still be out at this point.
▪ Jose Martinez was arguably the Cardinals’ best hitter in 2018, hitting 25 points higher than the batter with the next-best average. He was second in on-base percentage to walk magnet Matt Carpenter. But the guy was absolutely brutal with the glove at first base and wasn’t much better in right field. Can the Birds afford to keep him out of the lineup? Can they afford to put his glove in play? If it’s a tough call and that’s probably a sign that they need to be looking for a better option.
Five success stories
▪ All-Star catcher Yadier Molina spent time on the disabled list with one of the most gruesome injuries of recent memory when a foul ball hit him in a place I’d rather not mention. Despite the layoff, he hit 20 homers — the second-highest total of his career — in his age 36 season. He was an invaluable leader on the field for the very young St. Louis pitching staff as he scaled up the charts for the most games played by a catcher in major league history.
▪ The story goes that Molina lobbied management to bring Class A pitcher Jordan Hicks to the big leagues ahead of schedule. I really thought it was going to be a short trip because the youngster didn’t seem to have a lot of certainty about where his 104 MPH fastball was headed once it left his grip. Plus, for a fellow that throws as hard as he does, Hicks didn’t seem to miss many bats. But the youngster got better and better as the season went on and ended up earning a place on the big league roster all year. He was thrust into a much bigger role than the Cardinals probably planned at the start of the season thanks to Holland’s troubles.
▪ Miles Mikolas was the guy the Cardinals signed over the winter that made fans say “who?” when they heard the news about him joining the team. Mikolas didn’t make anyone feel great about the deal when he got off to a clunky start in spring training. But he quickly turned that around once the season started. He’s the only St. Louis pitcher this year to win in double figures, racking up 18 wins and he’s the only starter on the club to post an ERA below 3.00 at 2.83.
▪ The impact of the young starters kept the Redbirds in contention long after they otherwise would have been. Jack Flaherty worked as a regular starter after Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez went down with injuries. John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber and Dakota Hudson moved around to different roles, some spot starting, some relief work, but they all provided valuable innings and a lot of insight about what their contributions to the team could be in the future. I’d love to see the Cardinals be able to build around a 1990s Atlanta Braves-like pitching staff of Martinez, Alex Reyes, Flaherty, Hudson and Gomber for the better part of the next decade. That leaves a lot of room in the budget to augment the office and put St. Louis back in the playoff mix.
▪ Last — but not least — I have to mention new St. Louis manager Mike Shildt. While speculation began to mount that Mike Matheny’s job was on the line as the Cardinals struggled for the third consecutive season to make the playoffs, few outside the organization could have imagined Matheny’s successor would be Shildt. Speculation from the national media was that the Cardinals would be a player for former New York Yankees skipper Joe Girardi who seemed to actively interested in the job. Local folks seemed to think that the manager of the Cardinals’ Class AAA affiliate, Stubby Clapp was a favorite for the job. Instead, the Birds hired a guy who never played professional baseball or managed in the big leagues. Shildt immediately set the club on fire, talking a team that couldn’t win a series to save its manager’s professional life and turning it into a club that tied the franchise record for most consecutive series won. Shildt performed so well that he convinced ownership to take away his “interim” title before the end of the season. Hopefully the new manager will change the perception that the Cardinals aren’t an attractive destination for free agents. It’s been said that several players who have been in the sights of the Redbirds just weren’t interested in playing for Matheny. Will they be interested in playing for Shildt?