Free agents may have gone in another direction.
But it’s likely the law of averages will be on the side of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016.
The Redbirds are hoping that a rash of injuries to their club turns out to be a fluke -- and that some players with the arch-rival Chicago Cubs are due for a fall back down to earth to compensate for a lopsided off-season.
Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta was out of his mind in 2015, winning 22 out of 28 decisions, taking home the Cy Young Award in the process.
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But baseball-reference.com predicts impressive -- yet much more modest --statistics in the upcoming season: A 15-7 record with a 2.61 ERA.
That’s seven wins the Wee Bears will have to find somewhere else.
Cubs “ace” Jon Lester doesn’t seem likely to be the source. After an extremely disappointing first season in Chicago in which he was 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA, the lefty is projected to be 11-10 with a 3.33 ERA in 2016.
Lester’s strikeout totals are impressive and his hits to innings pitched ratio is solid. But he seems to have established a reputation for finding ways to let close games slip out of his hands. He’ll be 32 next season, so Lester is getting to the point where he can no longer overwhelm hitters with his physical abilities and he’ll have to become more precise to remain effective.
Needing a number three starter to bolster Arrieta and Lester, the Cubs inked former St. Louis hurler John Lackey over the winter.
Lackey had his highest innings pitched total in five years and an ERA 1.15 points below his career numbers in 2015.
Baseball-reference projects a slightly upside-down innings to hits ratio and an ERA that kicks up nearly 3/4 of a run in 2016, leading to an 11-10 record.
Offensively, the Cubs’ biggest off-season acquisition is expected to drop off, too.
Former Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward hit a career-high .293 last season along with 13 homers and 60 RBIs. Projections expect he’ll hit .277 with 13 homers and 55 batted in, despite playing 81 games in the cozy confines of Wrigley Field.
I guess a couple hundred million doesn’t get what it used to anymore.
Does it chap my hide that Heyward opted to flee to Chicago? Sure. But I feel better with him taking up a big chunk of the Cubs payroll that might otherwise have gone to Yoenis Cespedis or Justin Upton. Those guys would have been a huge boost to the offense of a team that plays in a park that allows a lot of runs.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals will replace the loss of Lackey with the addition of Mike Leake and the return of ace Adam Wainwright to the rotation.
Wainwright’s numbers are tempered by the fact that he missed almost all of last season with a leg injury. Still, his projected 7-4 record with a 2.97 ERA accounts for more than half of Lackey’s 13 wins.
Leake is projected to be 10-9 with a 3.76 ERA.
Lance Lynn, who was 12-11 with a 3.03 ERA last season has been lost for the year. But the Redbirds are expecting strong seasons from Michael Wacha, Carlos Martine and Jaime Garcia to round out the rotation.
Replacing Heyward will be right fielder Stephen Piscotty who burst onto the major league scene with a flashy rookie campaign.
Although he doesn’t get the press of the Cubs youngsters, baseball reference predicts he’ll capably replace Heyward’s production with a .286 batting average with nine home runs and 44 batted in.
Oddly, those numbers factor in an expected 297 at-bats. I don’t think the Cardinals would have steadfastly refused to chase one of the many free agent outfielders available over the winter if they didn’t expect Piscotty to be a full time player.
While I believe Piscotty’s power display from last summer is unlikely to be replicated consistently over the course of a long season, it’s a bit surprising he’s expected to hit less homers and drive in less runs in a full campaign than he did in half of one.
The Cardinals are also expecting an offensive boost from first baseman and outfielder Brandon Moss who arrived last summer as damaged goods.
Moss, who spent last season coming back from a hip injury, is projected to earn nearly full time status with 521 plate appearances in 2016. He’s expected to hit only .235 but to drive in 68 runs and provide much-needed power with 22 homers.
Matt Adams, who suffered through a lost season thanks to quad problems, is projected to rebound to a .275 average with 11 homers in 349 plate appearances.
It will be interesting to see how the numbers of Piscotty, Adams and Moss will pan out since those three players will fight for two positions, right field and first base. Adams will likely sit on the bench more than the other two because he can’t play in the outfield.
Of course, the problem may resolve itself if Matt Holliday struggles with injuries in left or if Randal Grichuk gets off to a bad start opening up playing time in other spots.
Although they provide some reasons for Cardinals fans to be encouraged, I take the projections with a grain of salt.
There’s a reason they actually play the games. Despite the feel good story being shopped that the Cubs are some sort of team of destiny, there is often a big difference between what people think will happen and what actually happens.