Playing Pepper 2016: St. Louis Cardinals

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

St. Louis Cardinals
100-62, first in the NL Central, lost in the NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

Saving the best for last, right?  We’ve gone through the other 29 teams but, even though we are most familiar with the Redbirds, let’s take a look at them through some different eyes.  You know what I think of the club, but this year we have brought back Dayn Perry of CBSSports.com, Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos fame, and Will Leitch of basically everywhere (but perhaps most tied to our focus, Sports On Earth) to talk a little bit about their favorite team.  Dayn’s on Twitter @daynperry, Will @williamfleitch, and Larry isn’t a guy that can be limited to 140 characters.

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

Dayn: They needed a known quantity in the rotation, and they got that in Mike Leake. No, he’s not David Price, but the front office by all accounts make a highly competitive bid for Price. Ultimately, it was out of their hands. Given the high price of starting pitching on the market, I thought Leake was a reasonable signing, and it certainly fit a need post-Lackey and with Lance Lynn out for the year.

Larry: They did everything but add an impact bat. The bench and bullpen are both vastly improved, and the Leake signing was pricey but useful. As for the offense, I didn’t think there were any quick fixes out there despite the crowded free-agent field. Improving the lineup may turn out to be a multi-year project, causing some short-term frustrations. But I think that’s preferable to an overreach born of impatience.

Will: No, they did not. I was OK with the Leake signing, and still am: He’s a little goofy, and we could use that. But this team needed a bat — it probably needed two, but at least one — and it didn’t go get one. I understand the reasoning one can use to talk themselves into this offense being improved on last year. Full years of Grichuk and Piscotty, Adams back and healthy, Carpenter consolidating his last two seasons. But we shouldn’t have to wishcast on this. There is a team in the division that is not just sticking to a “plan,” come hell or high water. They’re being aggressive and proactive. And they are passing us. I appreciate the Mozeliak mindset of prudence. But circumstances on the battlefield have changed.

C70: The Cardinal front office seems to be relying a lot on health and improvement from the young players. Is that a reasonable strategy?

Dayn: I worry about center field depth. Can Randal Grichuk stay healthy? Can he stay healthy while seeing every-day duty at a more rigorous position? Will Tommy Pham get exposed if he’s forced to play every day? That’s a concern. I don’t so much worry about the rest. Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss provide corner depth, and Holliday and Matt Adams can mix and match at first base.

On a more general level, I’m glad the club didn’t spend just to spend. They took big swings at Price and Jason Heyward and didn’t land either. So rather consider themselves pot-committed to spend a lot of money, they addressed a need with Leake and then closed ranks. I think there’s sometimes a perception that teams go into the offseason with a hell-or-high-water approach. But they’re far more adaptable than that, especially a smart organization like the Cardinals. I’m guessing they surveyed the Jordan Zimmermanns, the Justin Uptons, the Cespedeses and decided that their range of outcomes relative to what was already in place (or obtainable for less) wasn’t worth the going rates. I get why the offseason is perceived as a disappointment because it certainly wasn’t an auspicious one for a contender with holes to fill. But mostly I like that the front office appeared to be flexible in its thinking.

Larry: I’m comfortable with it. I didn’t see any obviously better alternatives out there. They don’t need every one of their younger guys to come through, but they do need one each from Grichuk / Pham (CF), Kolten Wong / Jedd Gyorko (2B), and Stephen Piscotty/Adams (corner). If they can clarify their future at two of those three positions by the end of this year, I’d call it a successful season regardless of the win total.

Will: It’s reasonable, but it’s oddly passive. They basically counting on Grichuk having a 35 homer season and playing golden center field, and Piscotty to play in 152 games, and Wong to learn to walk, and so much else. I hope that happens. But it’s a lot to rely on.

C70: Carlos Martinez started to come into his own last season. What do you expect from him this year?

Dayn: Assuming the shoulder holds up (not an entirely safe assumption, I know), I’m very bullish on him. I loved what I saw from his changeup last season, and he’s now got four legit pitches, with that changeup serving as the platoon-buster. It sounds counterintuitive, but some guys see their stuff play up when they go from relieving to starting because they respond well to the regimentation and predictability of it. I think that could be the case with Martinez. Given health, he can be a frontline guy.

Larry: He has the talent to be no worse than the #2 pitcher on the staff. Maybe the ace. He made tremendous strides last year in commanding all his pitches, learning how to sequence them, pitching with his head and not just his arm. But his sharply increased workload in 2016 resulted in season-ending shoulder trouble. I can’t pretend that doesn’t make me nervous.

Will: I can’t wait to watch him. As much as we could have used him in the playoffs, that injury saved him going over 200 innings, which was more than twice his previous high. He should be able to let it fly this year. I think he’s a year away from a maturation season that puts him in Cy Young contention, but yeah: I’m insanely bullish.

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

Dayn: I’m cheating a little when I say Piscotty because he was already very good last season in limited exposure. I’m not a scout, but even I can see the obvious changes he made to his swing mechanics prior to last year. I think the power breakout, underpinned by those swing changes, is sustainable, and I think he’s going to have a high-value full season in 2016.

Larry: Tommy Pham. I like him better than Grichuk as an all-around player — better defense and arm in center, better on-base ability. Pham’s circumstances are similar to those of Carpenter and Craig not that long ago, and Jon Jay on multiple occasions — they broke camp without an everyday position but played their way into the lineup. Pham has a chance to do that this year, especially given Holliday’s newfound ability to play 1B.

Will: I think Carpenter has his consolidation season, where he combines the on-base and contact of the pre-2015 Carpenter with the power of 2015 Carpenter. If that happens, hoo boy.

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

Dayn: I’ll give you a range: 89-92 wins. I think they finish in second place and claim the second NL wild card berth. This is a good team, but I don’t think we’re talking about a true 100-win baseline coming off last season.

Larry: With so many variables, it’s a very tough team to project. I think they’ll beat their PECOTA / ZIPS projections. Let’s pencil them in for 88 wins and a second-place finish.

Will: I think they’re a 90 win team that will finish second and play in the wild-card game.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

Dayn: The Cubs. I think the Cubs are pretty clearly the better team on paper, but I look forward to enjoying the rivalry now that there’s competitive relevance on both sides. That’s going to be a lot of fun.

Larry: I guess I’m supposed to say the Cubs, but the truth is I just want the Cards to beat whoever stands in their way. That happens to be the Cubs this year — and most likely the Pirates too, as they always seem to elbow their way into the race. All the same, I can’t help but admire the way both teams have addressed their roster challenges, and I’ve always liked both Joe Maddon and Clint Hurdle — until last year, Cardinal fans would have enthusiastically welcomed Maddon as the St. Louis manager.

Will: The Cubs, obviously. And I think they’re better than we are, and we’re going to have to adjust accordingly. Still: All this business with the mimes and the cubby bears and Joe Maddon’s face on a T-shirt … all that stuff is gonna seem a lot less cute if they don’t win the World Series, and I mean THIS YEAR. I’m glad they’re having fun, and it’s a great story for baseball and something a lot of people can enjoy. But they haven’t won a thing yet. The pressure, and the dread, it’s coming.

My appreciation to these three, who I have a ton of respect for.  Let’s hope for another wonderful season of Cardinal baseball!

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