Playing Pepper 2017: St. Louis Cardinals

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

St. Louis Cardinals
86-76, second in NL Central
Last year’s Pepper

One game.  Just one game.

OK, technically it was just one game to force a tie and extend the season a day.  If they’d won that game they’d have had to play the Giants, then the Mets, then the Cubs in a whirlwind stretch of three games in four days, I believe.  It’s probably for the best that didn’t happen, but still, missing the playoffs will gnaw at a Cardinal fan, a feeling made even worse by the once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) Series championship by the North Siders.

An offseason has come and gone.  The Cards have Dexter Fowler, they’ve lost Alex Reyes.  How is 2017 going to look?  While most often in this Pepper series I’m talking with other bloggers, we do that all the time thanks to the UCB.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have some internet friendships with three guys that have national prominence but don’t always get to talk about the Cardinals (though Will somehow finds a way at times) and one legend in the Cardinal blogosphere.  You know these guys, you follow these guys, but it’s a real honor to have them all here talking about the team we love.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Will Leitch Sports On Earth williamfleitch The Will Leitch Experience
Larry Borowsky Viva El Birdos founder
Dayn Perry Eye on Baseball daynperry
Drew Silva Rotoworld drewsilv Rotoworld Podcast

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

Will: I think they made the move they had to make – Dexter Fowler – and didn’t make any potentially crippling mistakes, something they hardly ever do and something we don’t always appreciate. That said: I think when you see what Edwin Encarnacion got from Cleveland, well, I think that would have been well worth a flyer. I still think the Cardinals look like gathering of fantastic complementary parts that still are looking for their centerpiece. I’m not sure Encarnacion was that guy, but he’d have been a handy fit at three years while we go look for him. (I’m very obviously talking about Manny Machado right now, and I have an Orioles fan friend who is very sick of me constantly salivating over his impending free agency.) I just the Cardinals are only short one thing, and it turns out it’s the biggest thing: A superstar.

Larry: I’m not a fan of Dexter Fowler’s contract. Nothing against him as a player—he broke in out here in Denver (where I live) and I’ve always thought he was underappreciated. But the Cards have over-appreciated the guy. They’re suddenly awash in ripening outfield talent—Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra, Adolis Garcia—and it’s going to get awkward in a couple of years (if not sooner) when the Cards are overpaying an aging Fowler to deny those players at-bats. He’ll help them in the very near term, but not enough to close the gap between the Cards and Cubs. And over the full five years, I think the contract is gonna be a net liability. Bigly.

Given the prohibitively high cost of trade acquisitions this off-season, their best option would have been to leave Randal Grichuk in center and take their chances with an ad hoc solution in left field until midseason, then promote Bader (or whoever else is ready) or make a trade as the standings dictate.

Dayn: I’m generally fond of their work this offseason. I like the Fowler signing because they obviously needed a true center fielder, and I really like moving Matt Carpenter‘s power down in the order. Fowler’s an OBP guy with some speed, and even if his defensive rebound was driven by positioning, that’s transferrable, I would think. I think he’s also a good influence for a roster and a clubhouse that may have gotten a little strained and stodgy. Elsewhere, I like Brett Cecil in the near-term, but I’m not generally fond of four-year deals for relievers.

I was an advocate of pursuing Justin Turner, but that obviously didn’t happen. I like his power and glove at third, and I see pushing Carpenter across the diamond as a good thing. I wouldn’t want Turner if it meant no Fowler, so if it’s an either-or proposition then I like the way Mozeliak played it. If they were to make a heavier investment in this season, then I like the idea of Turner.

Drew: If the goal for the offseason was to catch up with the Cubs, the Cardinals failed. But if the goal was to simply improve a roster that finished one game out of the National League Wild Card race in 2016, the Cardinals probably succeeded. Dexter Fowler is a great fit at the top of the lineup and will improve the outfield defense, with Randal Grichuk taking over in left field for new Yankees designated hitter Matt Holliday. And the signing of left-handed reliever Brett Cecil turned a pretty good bullpen into a really good bullpen. I would have liked to have seen the addition of a middle-order slugger to feast on the high OBP that should come from the top, but Edwin Encarnacion and Justin Turner apparently didn’t read too well on the Cardinals’ internal evaluations.

C70: Mike Matheny takes a lot of heat. How much of it is deserved?

Will: Much of it. Not all of it. But much of it. It’s not just the strategic issues, though those are certainly there. (At least he’s not bunting as much anymore.) It’s the stubborn refusal to change from a guy who, I thought, was here in the first place because he was young and of the “new school” and wouldn’t just toss out Mark Ellis and Jonathan Broxton all the time because they’re “veterans” and he trusts them. I think you can trace much of Randal Grichuk’s and (especially) Kolten Wong’s problems back to him and his inability to just leave them alone. And look: LaRussa had problems with young players too. But LaRussa (mostly) had the strategy stuff down. And even when he made mistakes, it was obvious they were processed by a constantly active mind. Would you classify Mike Matheny as having a “constantly active mind?” I mean, the question is ridiculous on its face. It must be frustrating for Mozeliak to have to always work the roster around his own manager’s biases and blind spots, but hey, he’s the one who just gave him the extension.

Larry: First let’s give him his due: He inherited a 90-win team that had just lost Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols, and Chris Carpenter, and he’s led them to an average of 91 wins a year with four postseason series victories. Those achievements shouldn’t be taken for granted. But Matheny still has a lot to prove this year. He was hired with the understanding that he’d master in-game strategy, roster management, etc. on the job. Nobody expected him to excel at first, but there was an expectation he’d improve over time. That hasn’t happened, and the costs are accruing. He needs to do better this year.

Dayn: I think he’s tactically challenged when it comes to running the bullpen. That’s a pretty major part of a manager’s job, it should be noted. Early in his tenure, Matheny showed some growth when it comes to laying off run-one strategies, but the bullpen thing has been a concern for a while. I also think he’s a little stuffy and overly serious in his demeanor. All that said, Matheny isn’t without his merits. He’s good with players on a one-to-one basis and with an eye toward development, and even though he’s had strong teams, he’s won. In the end, though, I think he was a strange choice given where the Cardinals were at the time of his hire, and it’s entirely possible they would’ve reached greater heights with someone else in the dugout. That Terry Francona interviewed for the job and didn’t get it still pains me. 

Drew: Matheny might not be so sound tactically, but we can’t place a value on his ability to guide a group of self-interested millionaires through the grind of a 162-182 game baseball season. Well, that was the canned response for the first four years of Matheny’s managerial tenure anyway. The problem is we can now poke holes through the positive spin. Randal Grichuk acknowledged this spring that there have “been some cliques in the past few years and definitely some distance between players and different players.” Yadier Molina, the on-field leader of the Cardinals, has provided multiple veiled criticisms of Matheny on Instagram over the last calendar year. Kolten Wong recently voiced his displeasure with Matheny’s communication methods to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Matheny is probably very close with some guys on this roster — your Adam Wainwrights and Matt Carpenters and Stephen Piscotties — but it has become quite apparent that not everybody feels the same or is treated the same. Baseball is a business, not a family, but great leaders of men thrive in the gray areas of life and Matheny doesn’t seem to know how to navigate in troubled waters. If he isn’t good at baseball strategy and isn’t good at clubhouse leadership, what exactly is he good at? Yes, the heat is deserved.

C70: It’s tough living in a world where the Cubs are World Champions. How close to you think the Cards can get to dethroning them in 2017?

Will: I think the Cardinals have as good a shot as anyone in the NL at the wild-card, so while I don’t think the Cubs can be caught in the division this year – though people should really be a lot more worried about the Cubs’ rotation than they are – any series is a crapshoot. (In Alt-Earth 2, the Indians carried Francisco Lindor out of the Progressive Field after a walkoff homer against Aroldis Chapman’s dead-arm slider in Game Seven. That should have happened.) I will take Carlos Martinez in a wild-card game playoff, and our odds against anyone else – even the Cubs – in a five-game series. All you gotta do is get in.

Larry: I’m not focusing on the Cubs in 2017. As long as the Cards are playing meaningful games and making progress toward developing the next batch of core players, I’ll be entertained. To answer the question, I’d give our side maybe a one in five chance to knock off the Cubs and win the division this year.

Dayn: The Cubs are better, barring the unexpected. However, the Cardinals are very much in the mix for a wild card berth, and a division title is within the range of possibilities. Get to October, maybe avoid the Cubs in the Division Series, and hope things don’t break the Cubs’ way. October weirdness is never to be dismissed, and lest we forget the best team in the regular season going on to win the World Series is actually a bit of a rarity. 

Drew: If you compare the two rosters right now, leading into Opening Day, the Cubs are leaps ahead. Maybe some injuries will even the playing field a bit — there are some red flags in the Cubs’ pitching staff — but even then it would take a big swing of the luck pendulum for the Cardinals to have a chance at the National League Central title this season.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

Will: I can totally see John Gant being a surprisingly important part of the team, like what Matt Bowman did last year but maybe with some spot starts thrown in. Prediction I might regret: He has a better year than Jaime Garcia.

Larry: I was glad to hear Greg Garcia declare himself a contender for everyday duty. If the Cards really wanted to change the dynamic of the team from last year—tighten up the defense, lengthen the offense, become more multi-dimensional and more athletic—they’d put Garcia at third base over the two slow-footed, quasi-power hitters who are currently vying for that job. Matheny doesn’t have that sort of an imagination, but I do think it’s possible Garcia will end up forcing his way into a semi-regular role (a la Jedd Gyorko last year), picking up four or five starts a week all over the infield. Sans the Fowler signing, he might have been part of that ad hoc left-field solution I spoke of above (along with Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez). 

Dayn: I’m interested to see what Grichuk can do with lessened defensive responsibilities and if permitted to swing free and hard. The OBP won’t be there, but I’m bullish on his potential power outputs. 

Drew: Since this is the Cardinals edition of Playing Pepper and it’s going to be posted on a Cardinals blog, probably not. But let me take the time to #GiveLanceChants. Lance Lynn is pitching for the next $100-plus million free agent contract as an established 29-year-old starter entering his walk year. He owns a 3.37 ERA and 8.6 K/9 in 791 1/3 career major league innings. If he can improve those numbers or keep them about the same, the big boy will get paid.

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

Will: I think they win 87 games, finish second and host the wild-card game against Colorado.

Larry: Second place, 90 wins.

Dayn: 89-73, 2nd place, hosts NL wild card game.

Drew: 88 wins, second place in the National League Central.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Cardinal and why?

Will: They are all tied for first. I love all my children equally.

Larry: Can’t narrow it down to one guy. As a kid in the 1970s I worshipped Lou Brock — incredibly exciting player, same initials as me, left-handed like me. My favorite during the Whiteyball era was Terry Pendleton, because of his intelligence and steady demeanor. Brian Jordan was loads of fun to watch, and I admired the hell out of Darryl Kile — don’t think he gets enough credit for the role he played in establishing a winning culture that persists to this day. Albert Pujols is without question the best Cardinal player I’ve ever seen.

Dayn: Ozzie Smith. He was the guy I grew up on. I grew up in Mississippi, so going to Cardinals games was a one-series-a-year event for me. Seeing him come out and do the backflip was a true delight for me. He’s also my height, which is obviously endearing. I also appreciate how he seemed to will himself into a competent hitter. If I try, I can still get ticked at La Russa for shoving him aside in favor of Royce Clayton.

Drew: Albert Pujols, for giving the Cardinals the best 11-year stretch of offensive production in baseball history at a ridiculously team-friendly price point.

As always, it’s truly an honor to have these guys stop by the site.  It’s wonderful to think we are less than a weekend away from finding out just what the real answers to our questions about 2017 are going to be!

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