Playing Pepper 2018: St. Louis Cardinals

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

St. Louis Cardinals
83-79, third in NL Central
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

We’ve done the rest, now let’s do the best.  If you are a regular reader here, you probably know enough about my thoughts about the coming season.  So I’ve gone and got an All-Star cast to answer some questions for your entertainment and edification.  (And I left Heather’s the way she sent it, to honor Mr. Borowsky’s signature style while he was running VEB.)

Writer Site Twitter
Heather Simon Viva El Birdos lil_scooter93
Will Leitch The Will Leitch Experience williamfleitch
Larry Borowsky VEB founder
Allen Medlock The Redbird Daily amedlock1
Dayn Perry Baseball Genres daynperry
Tara Wellman Birds on the Black tarawellman
Drew Silva Rotoworld drewsilv

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Heather: i certainly believe the club improved this offseason. while there is room for criticism that the team did not do enough, i think that the trade for marcell ozuna is not quite getting the recognition it deserves, perhaps because it occurred early in the offseason. i would like to see the team raise its floor in the rotation – there are still a lot of questions there, but i think they will ultimately be fine with what they have.

Will: I think they did all they could. If there would have been any way to trade for Josh Donaldson, I absolutely think they would have done it. There just wasn’t. So they added around the margins. I still think someone like Logan Morrison would have been handy in a pinch, and while I’m glad they didn’t pay for Holland or Wade Davis, the bullpen has to be a worry. But they’ve kept that all-important flexibility, and that’s not nothing. Also: Marcell Ozuna totally rules! Did everyone forget that?

Larry: The most promising additions were on the coaching staff. The Cards have underachieved two straight years — they should have been a wild card both seasons by Pythagorean formula. You could say they were just unlucky; I’d say they were both unlucky and incompetently managed. If Jose Oquendo and Mike Maddux can rein in Matheny’s worst tendencies, this winter’s roster changes may look very astute. Otherwise, I think the team is gonna stay stuck in the same old 80-something-win rut.

The personnel moves were sensible but not particularly imaginative. The pattern of hoarding redundant WAR on the bench and in the minors doesn’t seem to be working. The organization remains overstocked from the right side (both bats and arms) and undermanned from the left, skewed to the flabby end of the defensive spectrum, and so heavily invested in high-floor talent that opportunities to raise the ceiling seem to get crowded out. These imbalances have persisted through multiple off-seasons — and that’s not the manager’s fault.

Allen: It was impressive to see the club act quickly on the goals they set during the season wrap-up press conference. I feel the club did improve in the ways they directly prioritized like impact bat, closing option, and starting pitching depth. The names weren’t necessarily the names that most Cardinals fans wanted to hear but the team felt like this group was close to playoff contention with what seemed like incremental improvements. In my eyes, the club seemed to miss a component the last two and a half years. The acquisition of Marcell Ozuna and the maturation of the pitching staff seems to point the arrow in the up position. 

Dayn: I thought it was quite good. The team needed power, and Ozuna addresses that in a very direct way. As well, they were able to get Ozuna at what I think was a very nominal cost in prospects. I don’t dislike the Bud Norris signing considering he’s slated for bullpen detail. If he makes more than a handful of starts, though, I’ll have objections. Bringing in Mikolas also strikes me a sound calculated risk, and I’m encouraged that he’s apparently been willing and able to make adjustments this spring. I thought the front office also did a solid enough job of clearing out the outfield logjam while also getting back some pieces that can help in the near and mid-term. Dominic Leone is especially interesting. At various points, I stumped hard to add another starting pitcher, but I’ve softened that stance a bit. I still think there’s collapse potential at a couple of spots, and I worry that the team will stick with Wainwright too long if he doesn’t rebound. That said, I think I was giving short shrift to the depth that’s in place. 

Tara: An offseason that begins with the possibilities of Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado, Chris Archer and Alex Colome and ends with none of those players is bound to be a little disappointing… especially after hearing the big talk from the Front Office about impending roster changes for 2018. That said, there were some improvements and perhaps more importantly, some decluttering that took place. Plus, the additions to the field staff were very strong. So, sure. They improved. How much, though? Well, not enough to make themselves favorites for the top of the NLC.

Drew: I wanted more. I wanted two bats. And I think the Cardinals’ front office did too. I would guess they made a hard early run at Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado and came away surprised at the Blue Jays’ and Orioles’ unwillingness to negotiate. I also wanted someone like Addison Reed — or exactly Addison Reed — whose two-year, $16.75 million free agent agreement with the Twins would have barely been a pin prick in the Cardinals’ budget. That said, they did make upgrades. I consider the Marcell Ozuna trade a big win, as I think most around baseball did and do. Sandy Alcantara throws hard, but there are at least five under-25 pitchers in the Cardinals’ system whom I like better. Magneuris Sierra runs fast, but there are 100 guys in the minors just like him and few of them will become everyday major leaguers. Ozuna is the middle-of-the-order slugger the Cardinals desperately needed last year and he won’t hamstring the club’s spending power in the long term like Giancarlo Stanton might have. Miles Mikolas is an intriguing addition, and beating out the Cubs to get him — if those reports are accurate — makes that two-year, $15.5 million deal all the more inviting. Dominic Leone had closer-like numbers last season in Toronto and Luke Gregerson is a decent bet for a bounceback. Yairo Munoz is the only utilityman I’ve ever loved (sorry, Jose Oquendo).

C70: What do you think the club will get out of Alex Reyes this season and what role will he be in come September?

Heather: all reports i have heard is that reyes will be ready by may and will take on a bullpen role. i see him taking a path similar to the one we saw carlos martinez take a few years ago. i think the team will be cautious with his workload and since he will start in the bullpen, the team might not feel comfortable using him for spot starts. i don’t anticipate him making any starts until at least after the all star break.

Will: I think they take as much time as they possibly can, as they should. And then by August, he’s basically playing the role Carlos Martinez played in 2013. It’ll be beautiful.

Larry: In a perfect world he’d throw 100+ innings and ease into a starter’s profile over the course of the year, setting him up to make 25+ starts in 2019. But with Jack Flaherty and John Gant on hand for rotation depth, it’s possible (likely?) the greater short-term need will be in the bullpen. It’s also possible Reyes will be ineffective due to Tommy John hangover or the inconsistent strike-throwing he’s always struggled with. IMO the likeliest (albeit not most desirable) scenario is that he gives the Cards 40 or 50 innings of relief.

Allen: The Alex Reyes situation looks to be fluid throughout the season. Personally, I’m glad that spring has worked out to where we don’t feel like he will need to be rushed into action. I would like to see him prepare as a starter and hoping that the preparation will allow him to pitch multiple inning relief stints late in the season. When an Alex Reyes looks to be the club’s sixth, seventh, or possible eighth starting pitcher option, it’s hard not to believe the organizational depth is quite impressive. 

Dayn: I’m going to guess he gets some spot starts but mostly works out of the bullpen — low-leverage at first and of increasing importance as the season goes on. Spotty command in May, but he gets up to vintage level before the end of the first half. I’ll say he’s a multi-inning reliever by September (and a full-time member of the rotation to start 2019). 

Tara: Unless the need for him becomes dramatically apparent, I don’t expect them to rush him back. With the emergence of Jake Flaherty this spring, there’s more than one backup plan, should the Big League team need a starter for any length of time. And with the promise of Reyes’s future, I fully expect the Cardinals to be extra cautious in getting him back up to speed. But, should Wacha face physical challenges, Mikolas fail to recreate his overseas success, and Wainwright falter under the weight of Father Time… Reyes will have his chances. And that’s just in the rotation. The bullpen that was once more full of question marks than answers seems to have steadied heading into Opening Day. But by July? Who knows. Still, I’d expect Reyes to be groomed as a starter, and scheduled for work there at some point this season. 

Drew: An exciting unknown as we sit here in late March. You probably want a straightforward prediction, but it’s going to depend on what the Cardinals’ biggest immediate need is once Reyes is deemed fit for major league games. If the Opening Day rotation is still rolling in May and Reyes is reintroduced as a reliever, that’s more of a positive than a negative. It means Adam Wainwright has rebounded. It means Michael Wacha’s shoulder is healthy. It means Miles Mikolas really did figure something out in Japan. Reyes’ innings and situations can be managed in middle relief and then he’ll have more freedom to go the distance in 2018, jumping into a rotation spot whenever one opens up. I’ll say he’s in the rotation in September. I’ll say he’s getting stretched out by the All-Star break. I’d like him to throw around 120-130 innings and I think there’s no limit to how good he can be. By the opening game of the 2018 postseason, his Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery will be nearly 20 months in the rear view.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Heather: the cardinals outfield is legitimately good. one could make the argument the cardinals have the top outfield in the division, though the brewers are certainly a contender in that department. the team has a steady lineup throughout and while there are not any true super-stars, there are not many obvious holes…

… except potentially at shortstop. paul dejong had a breakout year in 2017, but he is unlikely to repeat that production in 2018. his walk rate is worrisome and his defense seems likely to regress. this issues would be less concerning if the cardinals’ depth at the position was not so thin. the cardinals are all in with paul dejong. it may work out, but if it does not… that could be quite bad.

Will: Ozuna. Honestly, the Cardinals finally got the huge power bat we’ve all been waiting for and we’ve still done nothing but complain all winter. Whatever order you put the top three — Fowler/Pham/Carpenter — you’ve got three huge on-base dudes all set up for a monster bat to drive them in. He’s what we’ve been asking for. We got him. This is good, right?

Larry: They really need another left-handed power hitter. If Carpenter spends any significant time on the shelf this year, the big-league roster will be completely lacking in LH sock, with no help in the upper minors.

Allen: I’ve been saying for well over a year that Matt Carpenter will have a monster season with lineup protection. Ozuna hitting in the cleanup spot allows for Carpenter to get back to his line drive approach that is capable of 35-45 doubles. With a lineup of high on-base potential of Fowler and Pham hitting in front of Carpenter with Ozuna looming, pitchers will be forced to throw Carpenter fastballs in which case MC should thrive. 

Dayn: The addition of Mike Maddux as pitching coach and the analytics-friendly Mike Shildt as bench coach may be key to helping Matheny make fewer obvious tactical errors. Maddux should be able to help him have better instincts when it comes to removing the starter, which has been a huge blind spot for Matheny. If they do their jobs and Matheny listens to them, this could cut down on the number of games that are lost in the dugout. 

Tara: Jedd Gyorko. Just sort of in general… he’s somehow easy to forget about. (Sorry, Jedd. It’s not personal, I promise.)

Drew: Probably that starting pitching is not an issue. I heard people clamoring for Jake Arrieta, or for the Cardinals to re-sign Lance Lynn once it became clear that his market had cratered, but I’m on board with Mozeliak and Co. trusting what they have. Maybe it’s over for Adam Wainwright, but they can plug in Alex Reyes or Jack Flaherty. Carlos Martinez is one step away from becoming an ace. Luke Weaver has breakout written all over him. Michael Wacha seems to have somehow become underrated. Miles Mikolas put up a 2.18 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in three years with the Tokyo Giants and he struck out 187 batters over 188 innings last season in the contact-driven Japanese leagues. I’ll also just casually mention Ryan Helsley, Austin Gomber, and Dakota Hudson. And in the long term, watch out for Jordan Hicks.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Cardinals to do well?

Heather: the cardinals really need carlos martinez to lead the pitching staff. while tommy pham will probably take a step back, the team is very dependent on his production in the outfield. marcell ozuna putting up a good year after the trade would definitely be a good thing…

but, the cardinal that needs to perform well the most is paul dejong. his production will be critical to the cardinals success this season. there is just not another actual shortstop in the pipeline – at least not for another couple of years. greg garcia and jedd gyorko could fill time if dejong suddenly turns into a pumpkin, but that would be beyond less than ideal.

Will: Probably Paul DeJong? They were counting on Aledmys Diaz just as much last year, but they had DeJong waiting in the wings if he struggled. There is now not a DeJong for DeJong, if you will. Shortstop is the one position where there is no backup plan. He has to be healthy, and he has to produce.

Larry: Carlos Martinez. He’s the only 200-inning pitcher on the staff, unless Wainwright surprises us. Without a healthy, consistent Tsunami, the Cards’ rotation becomes as formless (and as susceptible to the manager’s nonsensicalities) as the lineup was last year.

Allen: If we see one of the rotation components behind Martinez take a step forward this club could be really, really good. A good number two would move this rotation form very solid to scary good. Luke Weaver seems like the most likely to make that jump. I felt like a playoff series last year with Martinez and Weaver leading the charge would have put them in a great position. 

Dayn: Obviously, there are a lot of ways to answer this question. I’ll take an obvious path and say Carlos Martinez. To me, he’s the one true present known quantity in the rotation, and I think it’s important that he’s once again that stabilizer at the front end. I think this team needs Carlos to make 30-plus starts with an overall body of work that’s ace to ace-ish in quality. In other words, C-Mart needs to continue being what he already is. 

Tara: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: As Matt Carpenter goes, so go the Cardinals. In years past, that was in part due to the significant drop off of his replacement. This year, Jose Martinez seems to have a better grip on that role. However, a fully functioning Matt Carpenter takes this team to another level… even if it means putting him at 3rd base now and then to keep Martinez in the lineup, too. 

Drew: I’d lean Kolten Wong. Obviously the Cardinals need their best players to be their best players, but it’s time for Wong to finally prove that he’s a worthy everyday second baseman who can extend the lineup and make life easier on the pitching staff. We saw some positive flashes last year — Wong quietly posted career-highs in batting average (.285) and on-base percentage (.376) — but he finished with just four home runs and eight stolen bases in 411 plate appearances and rated barely above average defensively. Wong has to do more in 2018. He would seem plenty capable of it.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Heather: i think the division race will be more interesting than those of the previous two years. while the smart money is on the cubs to take the division, i can forsee a path for them to falter. i think the birdos and brewers make it interesting, but the cubs take the division by three games while the birdos take the first wild card spot with 90 wins.

Will: I think they win 88 games and host the wild-card game.

Larry: Their last two Pythagorean win totals have been 88 and 87, so 90-something wins ought to be well within reach. To get there, they’ll need the new coaches to tighten things up and the young pitchers to come through. A softer interleague schedule this year (AL Central vs AL East) might also help. But after the last couple of seasons, low expectations are in order. Put me down for (sigh) 87-75.

Allen: Less than two weeks ago this question would have had me top out my expectations at 83-86 wins, battle for a wild-card spot and see what happens. I’ve become very bullish on the lineup and think the team has a chance to be very good. 90-93 wins could be very attainable as I believe they are truly one of the best four teams in the National League. 

Dayn: 89 wins, second place, host the wild card game. Beyond that, I have no idea, as only my employer can force me to predict postseason outcomes. 

Tara: I hate predictions on principle, but I’ll play along… 2nd in the division, good enough for a Wild Card spot. After that, who knows?!

Drew: 89 wins, hosting the National League Wild Card Game at Busch Stadium.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Heather: i am very interested in the cardinals bullpen this year, so i would have thrown in a question about how the cardinals are building it. it appears the strategy is to just throw a bunch of relievers into the mix and see what plays out. it is a bit different from years past where we seemed to have a pretty good idea of how the ‘pen will be constructed. this year, i am really unsure of what they will do!

Will: Why in the world would Bernie Miklasz do a weekly podcast with you, of all people? (I have no answer.)

Larry: Who might be this year’s out-of-the-blue source of WAR —- ie, this year’s Aledmys Diaz, Tommy Pham, Paul Dejong, etc.? Yairo Munoz sure looks the part.

Allen: “Do people really like the powder blue uniforms?” They are victory blue, my friend. People love them and they need to be worn several times a season.

Dayn: If loving Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez is wrong, do you want to be right? No, if loving Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez is wrong, then I do not want to be right. 

Tara: Why didn’t the Cardinals trade for Chris Archer? I HAVE NO IDEA.

Drew: [Maz Kanata voice] “Who are you?” … No one.

My thanks to my podcast co-hosts, my fellow and predecessor bloggers, and our national folks for their thoughts on the Cardinals.  No matter what happens starting Thursday, one thing is for sure–we’ll be watching all the way to October!

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