Long before they yielded the division and saw their archrivals, for the first time in generations, take the crown, the Cardinals lost their way. An uncharacteristic Cardinals team had an uncharacteristic finish, out of the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and looking up at the champion Cubs for the first time in 108 years. A culprit in the Cardinals’ slip to second place was shoddy defense and a plodding lineup that proved a stark contrast to the fundamental dynamos that won 100 games in 2015. To correct the drift, general manager John Mozeliak sought a team that was more athletic, stingier defensively. He started by plucking the Cubs’ leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, to be his own. That allows Matt Carpenter to bat third and will give the Cardinals three on-base monsters atop the order, enough to compensate for a drain in sluggers.
By revisiting the club’s roots, Mozeliak desires a “more exciting” team. He wants it to look familiar because the view isn’t. Chased for years, the Cardinals are now chasing.
The rotation slipped from an MLB-best 2.99 ERA in 2015 to a 13th-best and resolutely average 4.33 ERA in 2016. The truth is somewhere in between, and a more reliable defense will help a groundball-greedy staff get there. So will the return of stalwart Lance Lynn from elbow surgery and the revival of Adam Wainwright after the most frustrating year of the ace’s career. Lynn, Wainwright and Carlos Martinez put three All-Stars atop the rotation, and Mike Leake will benefit most from improved gloves behind him. That seasoned foursome can become an assembly line of quality starts. That depth matches any contender in the league, but the big question now is who rounds out the rotation. Rookie Alex Reyes, the top pitching prospect in baseball, was supposed to be the guy, but the 22-year-old was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow while preparing to pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Instead, he will need Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire season. Reyes’ loss means Michael Wacha could get another shot in the rotation or the Cardinals could turn to rookie Luke Weaver.
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The crater for the Cardinals could have come a lot sooner if not for the presence of the “Stone Buddha.” Nicknamed that for his stoicism, Seung-hwan Oh finished one save shy of being the sixth rookie ever with 20 and 100 strikeouts. When All-Star Trevor Rosenthal fizzled due to an injury, Oh inherited the ninth and showed who is boss. Oh, known as “The Final Boss” in Asia, returns to close, but Rosenthal is back too — perhaps in a role just as vital. The Cardinals intend to “stretch out” Rosenthal so that he could start (especially now that Reyes is lost for the season) or be used as a multi-inning reliever. With power righthanders Rosenthal and Wacha possibly in the bullpen, they’ll pair with two lefties, newcomer Brett Cecil and holdover Kevin Siegrist, for an eight-limbed bridge to Oh. In a variation of what teams popularized in October, those left-right combos could be utilized aggressively in high-leverage, late-inning binds. A key part of playing cleaner, tighter games is shortening games, and the bullpen is armed with rock-solid options, sharpened for an edge.
The pivot from the team the Cardinals were to the team they intend to be again is up the middle, where second baseman Kolten Wong can bloom as shortstop Aledmys Diaz did in 2016. Wong personifies the athletic, energetic, frenetic style the Cardinals want to employ. Wong’s turnaround would follow a trend. Less than 12 months removed from being designated for assignment, Diaz was an All-Star. His .369 on-base percentage led all rookies, and his 17 homers were the most ever by a Cardinals middle-infield rookie. Diaz can improve and stick as an impact shortstop, while Wong must emerge and star at second. Unsteadiness from either could undermine the desired defense and lineup’s pep, leaving the Cardinals not only to rethink their approach but also to recast it.
One of the first changes of the winter was more of a promise. Carpenter had been an All-Star at second and third and was selected as an All-Star in 2016 while playing everywhere. Repurposed as a super-utility infielder, he appeared in at least 40 games at three different positions. Manager Mike Matheny phoned Carpenter this winter to tell him he was the everyday first baseman. He’s a defensive upgrade and a fit for an offense-forward position. Carpenter’s move opens third for Jhonny Peralta. Hand surgery cost him his job at shortstop and sapped his production. The Cardinals are banking on a bounce-back year for the veteran who led the team in homers in 2014. Jedd Gyorko will challenge for playing time at third after leading the team with 30 homers in 2016.
Since 2014, the only regular center fielder to have a higher slugging percentage than Randal Grichuk was the player drafted immediately after him in 2009, Mike Trout. Grichuk’s .495 is well off Trout’s MVP-level .567, but it hints at what the Cards are trying to tap by moving Grichuk to left. Matt Holliday’s departure for the Yankees after seven-plus seasons as a pillar leaves left unmanned, and in their effort to improve the overall outfield defense, the Cardinals want to give Grichuk a run there. His OPS (.797) since 2014 would also rank fourth among MLB left fielders. Newcomer Fowler will be flanked by Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, two above-average fielders.
On his way to a career-high 1,218.1 innings behind the plate, Yadier Molina hit .365 with a .529 slugging percentage in the second half. He didn’t wear down; he powered up. That will help him, like his team, repeat past accomplishments. The Cardinals re-signed trusted vet Eric Fryer to be the backup, but they also could turn to Carson Kelly, a future starter at the position.
A strength of last year’s team also became a complication for St. Louis. The Cardinals sought a stouter bench to provide both power and positional versatility, traits they thought would help fend off fatigue. The return was a MLB-record 17 pinch-hit homers, but players for so many positions also meant stability at none. Gyorko remains from a model that allowed him to thrive, but around him complements will rule, from savvy pinch-hitter Greg Garcia to outfielder Tommy Pham.
Before making moves to retool the roster, the Cardinals gave Matheny job security. He received a three-year extension, one that reaches past many of his players. A clubhouse-first manager whom players see as a gifted motivator, Matheny must shepherd young players into larger, leading roles all while contending. Mozeliak, nearing his 10th anniversary as GM, has restocked the pipeline and given “the coaching staff new tools in their toolbox.” His next moves: a new core player to pair with Fowler, and possibly a snazzier title, above GM.
After a decade as a regular resident and sometimes king of October, the Cardinals are no longer the organization within their division that others aspire to be. This team still has stars like Carpenter and is banking on a style better suited for their ballpark to prove that 2016 was a brief eclipse. Overcoming the Reyes injury will be tough, but the Cardinals are still intent on showing the rest of the league, especially a certain team in the Windy City, that the sun hasn’t set on their empire.