Playing Pepper 2015: St. Louis Cardinals

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form. Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season. It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are. This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC. Order this outstanding baseball simulation today!

St. Louis Cardinals
90-72, first in the NL Central, lost in the NLCS

Normally, when I do the Pepper series, I skip the Cardinals. After all, you pretty much know what I think of what’s going on with the club and you’re probably reading a lot of the other Cardinal bloggers as well, so it would seem fairly anti-climactic to rehash a lot of the questions that we’ve been bandying about for the past few months. (In truth, the annual UCB roundtable does a superb job of giving you similar insight to these posts.)

This year, however, I had an idea. There are some notable Cardinal fans out there on the Internet. They don’t always write about the Cardinals because they may be at more general sites, but they’ve made no bones about their fandom. What if we posed Pepper questions to them and let them expound on their favorite team?  I don’t often have great ideas, but this one had promise.

So I contacted four luminaries of the Internet and they all graciously accepted.  So here’s our distinguished panel:

–Will Leitch, who has “founder of Deadspin, senior writer of Sports on Earth, published author” among his many achievements.  He’s on Twitter @williamfleitch.
–Dayn Perry,  writer for CBSSports.com, especially their Eye on Baseball blog and one of the few people I know with a dedicated Facebook page. He Tweets @daynperry.
–Drew Silva, who pulls double duty at Rotoworld.com and at NBC’s Hardball Talk.  His Twitter handle is @drewsilv.
–Larry Borowsky, better known as lboros, the founder and long-time author of Viva El Birdos, the largest Cardinals blog on the net.  (For those that know Larry’s work, the following capital letters may throw you.)

Let’s have at it!

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’€™s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

WL: For the fourth or fifth consecutive year, I a€™m pleased. I a€™m glad they didn’€™t go after a big-name starter — frankly, national media reports aside, I never thought they would –€“ and the Heyward trade was one of those great John Mozeliak moves that are a total shock when they happen and then seem inevitable once you think about them. I understand the idea behind the Mark Reynolds move even if I don’€™t think it’€™ll work. I’€™ve even calmed down from October and don’€™t mind that they kept the manager.

DP: I like the decision to deal from a position of depth to get Heyward, even though they lost a good bit of player control in the process. Heyward has such broad value — there’s his stellar defense and plus base-running, of course — that he doesn’t necessarily have to rebound with the bat in order to be very valuable (although we’re of course hoping he does rebound with the bat). As well, it presumably gives the Cardinals the inside track on re-signing Heyward, who’s been a 3.5-6.5-win player and is still what should be a prime or even pre-prime age. If he walks, then the Cardinals make the obvious qualifying offer, net a high draft pick and maybe install Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty in right at minimal cost.

Elsewhere, I like the addition of Reynolds as a right-handed caddy to Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams. I don’t like Tony Cruz‘s continued presence on the roster, especially with Yadi’s being another year older and presumably less durable. I’d really like a better backup catcher moving forward. Let’s end on a positive note: I really like the Dean Anna pickup.

DS:  I think so. Right field obviously had to be addressed after the death of Oscar Taveras and I can’t think of a better fit than Jason Heyward. I also liked the Mark Reynolds pickup — a nice bench bat who can spell Matt Adams at first base against tough left-handers. My one gripe would be that they didn’t upgrade at backup catcher, but that’s a pretty minor gripe. There weren’t many massive holes on the roster heading into the winter.

LB: It was a terrible offseason, of course, because of Oscar’€™s death. In addition to the incalculable human cost, his loss forced the Cardinals into a risky trade they never would have made otherwise. Given the difficult circumstances, Mozeliak did extraordinarily well –€” he picked up a rightfielder who’€™s almost as young as Oscar and has almost as much upside as a hitter, and he did it in less than a month without creating a gaping new hole on the roster. Impressive.

It was a trade he had to make, but it’€™s one the Cards can’€™t win. It’€™s almost the direct inverse of the Cards’€™ transaction with the Braves in 2003, which the Cards won handily and are still profiting from a decade later. In that deal St Louis gave up one year of control over a young, multitalented rightfielder who still hadn’€™t reached his potential (€”J.D. Drew)€” for three years of control over a hard-throwing but one-dimensional 25-year-old starting pitcher (Jason Marquis) and a projectable pitching prospect recovering from an arm injury — Adam Wainwright. The current deal casts Jason Heyward in Drew’€™s role, with Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins in the roles of (respectively) Marquis and Wainwright. It puts the Braves in position to reap a long-term windfall, while the Cards can only avoid a big drubbing in this trade by making the biggest payroll commitment in their history to keep Heyward here beyond 2015.

Here’€™s hoping that Heyward’€™s performance justifies the latter.

I like the additions of Jordan Walden and Ty Kelly. But the Cards are still too thin at catcher and shortstop;€” Tony Cruz and Pete Kozma still constitute 40 percent of the bench, as they did last October. And the left side of the bullpen could still cause some problems. If Kevin Siegrist doesn’€™t return to form, they’€™ll likely have to turn to Marco Gonzales, which in turn will deflate the cushion for the starting rotation in case of an injury. It’€™s mildly disappointing that Mozeliak didn’€™t give the team better options in these support roles.

C70: What kind of season will Jason Heyward have and will the club sign him to an extension before the end of the year?

WL: Certainly feels like these questions are related. It stands to reason that Heyward will be a lot more comfortable here than he was at least in his last couple of years in Atlanta, if just because all we’€™re really asking him to do is hit the ball either off or over every wall he sees in front of him. But listen: As much as Braves fans loved him, they understood that he underachieved as well, no matter what WAR might or might not tell us. What’s a number of homers that would excite you? 30? What’€™s a number of homers that would disappoint you? 10? I’€™ll go with 19, an OBP that’€™s down a little from last year and continued magic defense in right. The extension is of course up to him. Some of the numbers seem crazy, and honesty, even though we stat nerds see him as close to equal to Stanton, no one else does. If he will take, say, eight years, $168 million, I think this gets done during the season. If he wants to get more –€“ and I would think he could get more, but not that much more –€“ he’€™ll go to free agency. My bet right now: He goes to free agency.

DP: I’ll say Heyward has a moderate rebound offensively, puts up a 5.5-win season and decides to test the market.

DS: I’ll guess that he reaches his full potential — or something close to it — with 20-plus homers, an OPS above .850, and another Gold Glove. And if he bats second all year, he’ll score more than 120 runs. That’s going to make him a $200 million player on the open market, but I think the Cardinals will buck up. They need a player to build around, and Heyward would only be 35 years old at the end of a 10-year deal. The money is absolutely flowing in at Busch Stadium, and a big boost is coming in 2017 in the form of a new local television contract.

LB: Heyward this year will be the same age (25) that Matt Carpenter was when he reached AAA; the same age Allen Craig and Jon Jay were as midseason callups in 2010; and two years younger than David Freese was as a rookie that same year. He is, today, a year younger than Matt Adams and two years younger than Pete Kozma. The only younger position players on the Cards’€™ opening day roster will be Kolten Wong and, perhaps, Randal Grichuk.

All of which is to say that Heyward still has a ton of upside. He’s at the same age Gregg Jefferies was when the Cards acquired him back in 1993, and at about the same point in his career,€” a highly touted player who broke in very young and managed to disappoint by being merely good, rather than great, in his early 20s. Jefferies had his career year at age 25 and another great year at 26. I think it’s more likely than not that Heyward will follow suit.

It’€™s worth noting that Heyward has always been a 2nd-half hitter, with a career OPS 50 points higher after the All-Star break than before it. If he only matches his 1st half career averages — .248 / .339 / .419 — we’€™ll probably see him reach free agency.

C70: Will Trevor Rosenthal be the closer all year long?

WL: Yes. People freak out too much about Rosenthal. Sure, he makes it scary sometimes. He still does the job as well as almost anyone in the game, and he’s cheap, and it’€™s in his (and Scott Boras’s€™) interests to hang onto the job. I think he’s the closer at the end of next season too.

DP: I think so. I have some concerns, though. He struggled with his control last season, didn’t miss bats as much, didn’t get first-pitch strikes as much and didn’t get hitters to bite on stuff outside the zone as much. However, I think the underlying skill is there, and his velo was fine. I don’t see him as shutdown guy, but he’s got enough to keep a job.

DS: I’ll say yes. Relievers are so year-to-year (the nature of the small sample size) and Rosenthal has shown better control this spring. I don’t see him walking 40-plus batters again. I do see him tallying 40-plus saves for a second consecutive season. Rosey’s velocity is no longer in the 98-100 mph territory, so maybe he can make better use of his off-speed stuff. I really like the changeup.

LB: I sure hope so. He only walked one of the first 25 batters he faced this spring, which is very encouraging. I don’€™t know what his velocity’€™s been like this spring. I’€™m glad Walden’€™s on hand as an insurance policy; hope they don’€™t need it.

Kind of amazing to think that out of the three hugely promising starters the Cards promoted in 2012 –€” Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal –€” none has a spot in their rotation three years later.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

WL: Wong’€™s the obvious answer, but am I a simp for thinking Peter Bourjos has one last run in him? I know the spring was tough and there’s a general Frustration vibe about him –€“ particularly in the dugout –€“ but there’€™s still a ton, ton of talent here. I still think he’€™s more than a defensive replacement/pinch runner type, and this might well be the last chance he ever has to show it. Talent has to eventually emerge, doesn’€™t it?

DP: This isn’t a particularly novel choice, but I think Wong takes the next step. I’ll tab him for a .740 or so OPS, 15 homers, capable defense at the keystone and a lot of value on the bases.

DS: Kolten Wong. His production level seems to be tied closely to his confidence level, and I’d have to think he’s feeling good about his standing within the organization at this point. Mark him down for 20-plus home runs and 20-plus stolen bases, and I think we see a big uptick in his on-base percentage. The 24-year-old second baseman will flirt with an .800 OPS.

LB: I expect Heyward and Kolten Wong to take strides. But my money’€™s on Matt Adams to take the biggest ones.

He took Clayton Kershaw AND Madison Bumgarner deep in big situations last October, while posting an .875 postseason OPS. He’€™s an intelligent hitter who makes pretty good adjustments. He still hasn’€™t conquered his weakness for breaking balls down and in, but if can learn to resist those –€” and if he can keep his elbow healthy all season –€” I think Big City will hit 30 homers and slug over .500.

C70: What’€™s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

WL: 93-69, first in the National League Central. I also think both wildcards are coming from the division: Pirates and Cubs.

DP: 89-73. First place, two games ahead of the Pirates.

DS: I just wrapped up my National League Central previews on HardballTalk and predicted the Cardinals will finish in first place. From this early-April vantage point, I think it all comes down to the health of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha. If they’re both 200-inning guys, I honestly think this is a 100-win team.

LB: The Cards have more paths to first place than any other NL Central team. Their veterans could carry them, or their young players could; they could plausibly score the most runs in the division or allow the fewest. They have enough depth to weather injuries and/or to fill a hole or two via trade.

They suffered more than their share of injuries and slumps last season, yet still managed 90 wins. I’€™ll pencil them in for 92 wins this year in anticipation of some better luck. While that might not seem like great progress, recall that the Cards were only 83-79 last year by Pythagorean record. They’€™ll face tougher competition within the division, and they have a tougher interleague draw (the AL Central) than they got last year. And they still have a manager who, while terrific at managing people, has not shown himself to be particularly good at managing baseball games or rosters.

Mike Matheny –€” and the team as a whole –€” will have to be a lot better this year than last to improve to 92 wins.

C70: What do you like best about being a Cardinals fan?

WL: It’€™s the one place I always know I can go to be with my family, blood-related and otherwise.

DP: I grew up in Mississippi and inherited Cardinals fandom from my Dad, who was a Cardinals fan from back in the days when they were baseball’s southernmost team (he grew up in Alabama). Because of that, I’ve always appreciated the broad geographical appeal that the Cardinals have. That of course traces back to when they were baseball’s farthest-flung outpost. That powerful radio signal back in the day served them well. Our summer trips to St. Louis when I was growing up are memories that I go beyond cherishing, especially now that my Dad is 80 and in failing health.

I love watching Cardinal road games and seeing swaths of red in the stands. When I was a kid, I probably went to see them play at Fulton County or the Astrodome as much as I saw them play at Busch. The “Nation” phenomenon is deliriously overplayed in sports these days, but there’s some truth to it insofar as the Cardinals are concerned. I adore that to this day.

DS: That they’re always good. Gives me something to look forward to, something to watch, something to discuss with friends at least 162 days a year.

LB: Listening to Mike Shannon do play-by-play on the Mighty ‘€™MOX.

It was truly an honor to have all of these guys in one place–well, at least one post–at the same time.  Enjoy the season, folks.  It’s going to be a great ride from here on!

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