As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
The Cardinals spent a year recruiting an outfielder they believed could be a part of the next core, the one who would in the coming years inherit the history and annual championship aspirations now driving Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. They gave him a summer to get comfortable in the clubhouse and, when he reached free agency, an offer potentially richer than any they had made before. Two weeks before Christmas, Jason Heyward made his decision. He left the Cardinals for the Chicago Cubs, offering a public referendum on a changing division.
The Cardinals enter 2016 facing their sternest challenge yet to their dynastic hold on the division and franchise record run of postseason appearances. And it’s not just the Cubs that should concern Cardinals fans — it’s also time. The three pillars from a decade of contending — Molina, Wainwright and 2009 addition Matt Holliday — are in their mid-30s, and each spent significant time on the disabled list in 2015. All three return for 2016, but it’s identifying who will join Matt Carpenter in the next core that will determine if they can not only fend off the Cubs now but also meet their own expectations for seasons to come.
The backbone of the best record in baseball in 2015 and one of the best run-prevention teams of the era was pitching, or, as manager Mike Matheny called it, “historically good pitching.” The Cardinals’ starters had a 2.99 ERA — a half run better than all but two other teams in the majors. The Cardinals did that without ace Wainwright, who missed five months recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. As Wainwright returns, Lance Lynn departs.
The workhorse will miss the entire season recovering from elbow surgery. To pick up those innings, the Cardinals signed free agent Mike Leake — a prototypical, contact-seeking, athletic Cardinals pitcher who can be a quality start monster in the middle of the rotation. The Cardinals don’t expect the rotation to match last year’s history, but they believe young arms Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez can improve, if only by adding more innings and more consistency deeper into the season. Lefty Jaime Garcia’s health was an unexpected bonus in 2015 and a necessity for 2016.
It wasn’t until the 67th of his 68 games last summer that Trevor Rosenthal blew his third save and first against a team other than Pittsburgh. Rosenthal asserted his place as a shutdown closer with a club-record 48 saves and would have challenged 50 if not for a last-weekend shutdown. Workload was, after all, the prevailing concern. Two of the relievers who led the majors in appearances were setup men Kevin Siegrist (81) and Seth Maness (76). They were a sturdy, well-trod bridge to Rosenthal, and the Cardinals must remain wary of creaks. With Jordan Walden an unknown due to a shoulder injury, burly Jonathan Broxton returns to fortify the route to Rosenthal. Korea’s all-time saves leader with 277, Seung Hwan Oh brings late-inning savvy to a setup role. Tyler Lyons is an intriguing addition as a lefty who won’t be limited to a specialist role.
Injuries and slumps to other All-Stars left shortstop Jhonny Peralta to carry a greater offensive load, and it came at a cost. A year after leading the team in homers, Peralta faded to a .243/.306/.325 slash line in the second half with only three extra-base hits in his final 146 plate appearances. His legs left him, and his swing followed. To keep Peralta fresher in his third year with the team and help third-year second baseman Kolten Wong blossom, the Cardinals traded for Jedd Gyorko. The right-handed-hitting infielder will be an alternative to Peralta at short and a platoon complement for Wong at second, or a challenger. Gyorko has averaged 16 homers in three seasons — the kind of pop the Cardinals want from Peralta and expect Wong to grow into.
The corners were a study in contrasts. Carpenter, who frequently batted first — not a spot often reserved for power — led the team in homers (28) and RBIs (84). From first base, a position defined by power, the Cardinals got fizzle. The combined .392 slugging percentage from the position was the lowest in the NL, and the committee provided almost 10 strikeouts for every one homer. Incumbent Matt Adams and veteran Brandon Moss will get first crack, with Stephen Piscotty a right-handed-hitting option. At first, it’s simple: Who produces most, plays most.
The departures of Heyward and Jon Jay, who went to San Diego in the Gyorko trade, clear the way for the next generation. The Cardinals want to unleash Randal Grichuk and Piscotty in 2016, and the lone question is where will they find at-bats. Barring a late-winter acquisition, the answer is every day. Grichuk had as many homers (17) as Peralta — and in 256 fewer at-bats. If Grichuk can stay healthy returning from elbow soreness and hernia surgery, he has rare power for a center fielder, power the Cardinals crave. Heady hitter Piscotty is set to replace Heyward in right, and he ultimately may be the superior offensive player. While the twentysomethings will get a chance to reveal who they are, most of all the Cardinals need Holliday to be who he always has been. The All-Star twice tore a quadriceps muscle and had career lows across the board.
For the second time in as many springs, Molina will be returning from hand surgery. Molina shredded a ligament in his left hand late in 2015 and required two offseason surgeries to repair damage. It took him time a year ago to regain strength in the right hand and force in his swing. To sub while Molina heals and alleviate some innings, the Cardinals added Brayan Pena, a seasoned backup.
What happens at other positions will define the bench bats (Adams or Moss? Gyorko or Wong?). For years, the Cardinals have struggled to find that right fit for pinch-hitting — cycling unsuccessfully through veterans — so they’ll attempt a blend this season. There should be more versatility and more damage to choose from, but also more part-time players to stay sharp with starts and not idly wait for that one swing at contributing.
A gifted, players-first motivator capable of infusing his guys with confidence, Matheny embraced a “next man up” mantra and refused to let the clubhouse surrender to the absence of multiple stars, convincing youngsters and backups they could win 100. He admits to learning the clockwork of his job — particularly bullpen management — in the crucible of contending, and he’s eagerly sought suggestions, including tips he’s employed from the analytics department. John Mozeliak, entering his ninth year as general manager, works to shape a roster for his manager’s tendencies. What he did for the bullpen during 2015, he wants to do for the bench — add name players Matheny will trust and thus play. A series of playoff exits shy of a title has increased the pressure on leadership and gotten Mozeliak rethinking the trade deadline through a postseason lens. This July he’ll look for an addition that lifts them in October.
The Cardinals entered the winter eager to pursue two of the most prominent free agents available, and they finished second each time. Pitcher David Price signed with the cash-splashier Red Sox, and Heyward picked the flashier Cubs. This didn’t sit well with the Cardinals, who have long used their history and atmosphere to woo players. While their place as a destination franchise may have changed, the Cardinals and their aging core have this year to show that their status hasn’t changed where it counts — the standings.
Prediction: 2nd NL Central
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
RF Stephen Piscotty (R)
LF Matt Holliday (R)
CF Randal Grichuk (R)
1B Brandon Moss (L)
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
C Yadier Molina (R)
2B Kolten Wong (L)
1B Matt Adams (L)
INF Jedd Gyorko (R)
C Brayan Pena (S)
OF Tommy Pham (R)
INF Greg Garcia (L)
RHP Adam Wainwright
RHP Michael Wacha
RHP Mike Leake
LHP Jaime Garcia
RHP Carlos Martinez
RHP Trevor Rosenthal (Closer)
RHP Jordan Walden
RHP Seth Maness
RHP Jonathan Broxton
LHP Kevin Siegrist
LHP Seung Hwan Oh
LHP Tyler Lyons