What Went Right For the 2016 Cardinals

We’ve had a few days to come to terms with the fact that October is going to happen without the Cardinals. It’s a strange feeling not looking up broadcast times (and then complaining about them). We’re just not used to looking toward next season quite this early.

Before we move on to 2017, though, let’s take some time and posts to look back at the season that was. To keep us from sinking down a depressing hole, let’s start with what actually went right this season. These are in no particular order, but all played their part on the positive side of 2016’s scale.

The bullpen.  This wasn’t an unmitigated success, of course.  If you put it up against the expectations the team had in Jupiter, of a lockdown staff of Jordan Walden, Seung-hwan Oh, and Trevor Rosenthal ending games, you might think it was a bit disappointing.  But with a starting rotation that tended too often to leave games with a lot of innings left, the staff more often than not did its job.  There were some stretches where you wondered who you could trust, but then you have a game like the penultimate, where the ‘pen threw eight scoreless innings, and while that was an extreme, it wasn’t a total surprise.

Oh, of course, was everything the team could have asked for in a late-inning reliever and slid into the closer role almost effortlessly once Mike Matheny finally determined Rosie shouldn’t be out there.  Seth Maness struggled early, then came back from the DL and was effective before requiring Tommy John surgery.  Kevin Siegrist, for the most part, was what we expect Siegrist to be and the mid-season trade for Zach Duke provided some dividends, though Duke wasn’t quite as consistent as we might have wanted.

Beyond Oh, though, the star of the bullpen might well have been Matthew Bowman.  When the Cardinals claimed him as a Rule 5 pick from the Mets in the offseason, it seemed a strange move because the pitching staff seemed to be filled to the brim.  Bowman pitched well in the spring and enough injuries happened to let him make the 25 man roster.  After that, all he did was get outs, no matter what the situation.  Three times this season he escaped from a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation without allowing a run.  He hit a bit of a wall close to the end of the season, which wasn’t terribly surprising, but as much as you can be excited about a mid-level reliever, I’m excited about Bowman returning next year.

Power.  In 1987, the pennant-winning Cardinals clubbed 94 home runs on the season.  This year, the Cardinals hit 108 in the second half alone.  The 2006 champs hit 184, 2011 162 homers, but this team smoked a whopping 225, coming just 10 shy of the 2000 team for the most in franchise history.  While power obviously doesn’t equal success (the teams that have missed the playoffs since 1996 rank 16th, 3rd, 7th, 6th, 15th, and 2nd on the all time club standings) it at least makes it a lot of fun to watch a club night in and night out.  It also proves that there’s always a chance for a rally when almost anyone can put it out of the yard.  We saw that in the game against Pittsburgh where Matt Carpenter hit a tying homer with one strike left in the game, then Randal Grichuk and Jhonny Peralta followed that up with blasts of their own.

Some homers had more impact than others–we’ll always remember Matt Holliday‘s last one and important ones like Matt Adams‘s extra inning one against the Dodgers and Stephen Piscotty‘s Sunday night blast against the Cubs–but there’s no doubt that, without a team that had nine players with 10 or more homers, they wouldn’t have been in the race the final weekend of the season.  The power was a huge portion of the success of the ’16 Cards and it’s going to be interesting to see how much of it will return next season.

Weaker competition.  What if Pittsburgh had been closer to the 97 win team that we saw last season?  What if the Giants hadn’t almost completely collapsed in the second half?  What if the wild card teams had been closer to the 90 win standard that we’ve seen over the past few years?  What if the Brewers had been a little more competent?  The Cardinals didn’t fully take advantage of lesser teams–you don’t have to go any farther than that last series against the Reds, for example–but it helped their playoff chances and their 86 win total overall that there weren’t too many overly strong teams.  Now, on the flip side, the one real dominant regular season team was the Cubs and they played almost to a draw with them, so it’s not that they only feasted on bad teams.  However, if the league overall had been a little tougher, we might have been having these sort of conversations while the games were still going on.

Aledmys Diaz.  It seems so long ago when the Cardinal front office thought they needed to go out and sign Ruben Tejada after Peralta got hurt in spring training.  Of course (and I think Cardinal fans can say thankfully) Tejada also got hurt, requiring Diaz to step in.  That allowed him to show just why the Cardinals thought enough of him to sign him to a four-year deal when he left Cuba.  Diaz hit .423 with four homers in the month of April and .315/.380/.536 in the first half overall, not only cementing his place in the lineup (though that place was so often eighth in the early going, to the frustration of many a fan on Twitter) but after Carpenter was injured, it also got him a spot on the National League All-Star team, a spot that means so much more to him because it was the last time he got to play with childhood friend Jose Fernandez.

Diaz was hurt at the end of July, missing some significant time and bringing questions into his second half line of .257/.341/.440.  Was the league starting to figure him out?  Was it all due to the injury and the layoff?  It’s still somewhat hard to know, though expecting Diaz to continue to hit .315 might be a little much.  His last home run, the grand slam after returning from Fernandez’s memorial, shows that he’s still going to be a factor for the Cardinals going forward.

Bench.  John Mozeliak said that perhaps he built it too much flexibility for this club.  While that’s a reasonable argument and something to discuss another day, it is true that the flexibility plus the offseason additions meant that there were always a couple of weapons available for the late innings.  While Kolten Wong struggled to get a starting spot, he did hit .263 with five extra-base hits when he didn’t start a game.  Until the injuries occurred, you almost always had at least one of Adams, Holliday, or Brandon Moss available for the late thump.  Jedd Gyorko was supposed to be one of those bench guys, but he played well enough to have a regular starting spot.  Greg Garcia‘s playing time waxed and waned, but he gave a good middle infield option and came up with big hits here and there.

That bench strength showed up in subtle ways at times, but the biggest help from the bench was pretty blatant.  As a team, Cardinal pinch-hitters had a .333/.393/.617 slash line, including a team and league record 17 pinch-hit home runs, breaking the old MLB mark by three.  Interestingly, they also set a record with three pinch-hit homers in the same game back in early April.  Given that the club only had four such homers last year and 10 was the old club record, that’s obviously going to slip back next year, but it was a lot of fun to know that basically no matter who the club sent to the plate, there was a chance of fireworks.

Yadier Molina. If we were making this list up after the first half of the season, there’s a good chance Yadi isn’t on it.  After all, it was obvious that the wear and tear was getting to him.  He never got a day off, it didn’t seem, even with Eric Fryer making the most of his limited opportunities.  Weren’t they supposed to rest him?  Sure, Brayan Pena got hurt, but that doesn’t mean Yadi couldn’t get a day off here or there.  It was so bad Molina missed his first All-Star Game in quite some time.

Apparently, that was all he needed.  Whether the four day rest invigorated him or the slight motivated him, Molina was a hitting machine in the second half, slashing .365/.398/.529 and becoming the best and most consistent hitter on the club.  By the end of the season, Matheny had slid him up to the third spot, mainly because that’s the way he was hitting (even though it risked more double plays).  Yadi played with his usual joy and happiness as well, grinning and doing such things as pushups when pitchers made him skip the rope at the plate.  His defense did seem to slip a little bit, as more baserunners were successful and more balls seemed to get past him, but overall he was still part of that core, aging as it might be.

Alex Reyes.  Nothing was anticipated more than Reyes’s major league debut.  Given his off-season suspension, nobody was expecting him to start the year in St. Louis, but as the team continued to scuffle in June and July, the calls for his promotion got increasingly loud.  Finally, in early August, the club brought him to the bigs.  All he did was post a 1.57 ERA in 46 innings split between the bullpen and the starting rotation.  His first earned run game in his sixth appearance and even that was a runner that Zach Duke didn’t strand.  His worst outing was three runs in five innings against the Cubs, an outing that much of the rest of the rotation would have loved to have on any kind of regular basis.

Even his vaunted control problems seemed to dissipate when making the big leagues, whether it was because of Molina’s playcalling or a touch more focus.  He did walk six in a 3.2 inning relief stint, but he only allowed two hits to go along with it and none of the runners scored.  Those six were over a quarter of his season total.  The idea that he could be in a rotation with Carlos Martinez full time next season makes Cardinal fans drool over the possibilities.

There were others, of course–Martinez himself emerged as the actual ace, the Cardinals were a remarkably good road team, Piscotty continued to be a solid addition, at least most of the year–but these are some of the great things we’ll remember about the 2016 season.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a win or two more to go along with them!

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