C70 At The Bat

Another Press Conference

The Cards have called another press conference for 1 PM this afternoon. Unlike yesterday’s, nobody has any idea what this one is about. Stay tuned to Twitter and we’ll come up with 1000 goofy reasons before finding out the real one.

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Before we get too far on discussing last night’s game, let’s take a moment and look at a beautiful piece of art.

For one night, the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and sanity, so lacking over the last few months, has returned to our world.  There’s no guarantee on how long this will last (past Tuesday night, at least) so enjoy the moment.

Baseball returned to us last night and it did so in thrilling, but somewhat familiar fashion.  After all, the Cardinals didn’t get their first hit with a runner in scoring position until the ninth.  We’ve been there.  Carlos Martinez was dominant and completely worthy of this opening start.  Been there as well.  And Mike Matheny made some hugely questionable decisions regarding his bullpen.  It’s like we never left.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way before we break down what I think were the key moments when things could have been different last night.  For much of the game, it looked like it was obvious who the Hero and Goat were going to be.  (By the way, if you are just joining the blog this season, a quick explanation: every game I pick one player as the Hero and one player as the Goat.  Usually it’s who had the best or worst game, but key moments can produce either one as well.  You can find a running total plus who got the overall award for the last nine season below the links over here.)  Martinez was amazing, holding down a very powerful Cubs lineup to just six hits, two of which came in the first frame and two of which came after he probably should have been pulled (more on that soon).  He struck out 10 and seemed in command all night.  Ask Kris Bryant about how well Martinez was going.  Bryant, the reigning MVP, didn’t put a ball in play until after Martinez had left the ballgame.

On the flip side, Jhonny Peralta was installed in the cleanup spot and looked pretty rough, striking out in his first three plate appearances.  Peralta’s antics were particularly painful because The Three Amigos (Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter) were doing what they are supposed to do, which is get on base.  Peralta had at least one runner on in each of those times up but couldn’t do anything with it, twice ending the inning with a K.  Until the ninth, everything was fine and dandy.

The ninth upset the apple cart.  Seung-hwan Oh gets the first Goat tag of the year, but there are mitigating circumstances that we’ll get into in a bit.  Oh threw 38 pitches, which was more than he threw in any game in 2016 (he threw 36 against the Reds on April 16).  Only four times did he throw over 30 pitches last season and three of them, interestingly enough, were against the Cubs.  Two of those three were in August, which makes you think that Matheny is focused on beating the Cubs more than some other teams.  That’s a defensible position, but you have to make sure your judgement isn’t clouded when you do that.  You could argue, at least based on last night, that it has been.  (Then again, some would snark, Matheny’s bullpen judgement has never really been clear.)

You could also give a share of the Goat (if we did such things) to Matt Carpenter.  Most of his first night as official first baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals was uneventful, but with a runner on first in the ninth inning, old friend Jason Heyward hit a little chopper to first.  Instead of taking the out in a 3-0 game, leaving the Cubs just one out to get, Carpenter first looked to second to see if they had a force there, then lost the handle on the ball in his glove, allowing Heyward to beat it out.  One batter later, Wilson Contreras took Oh deep, tying the game.  If you get the out there, at worst the Cards are still up by one if Contreras still goes yard.  At best, with two outs, Oh focuses and gets the grounder and everyone goes home happy.

Thank goodness for Randal Grichuk getting hit on the hand.  That’s a strange sentence to type, but if Grichuk hadn’t been plunked at the end of spring training, it seems very unlikely that he’d have been hitting eighth and it’s possible he wouldn’t have been the Hero of our story last night.  Grichuk smashed a two-run homer in the eighth inning against Pedro Strop and then walked it off in the ninth against Mike Montgomery.  Grichuk also put together some good at bats early in the game, even though they didn’t wind up with great results.  If you want to base it on one game, it really looks like Grichuk has stepped up his game and perhaps figured out the contact thing a little more.  Not saying he’s going to hit .300 or anything, but his overall night was encouraging.

Speaking of encouraging, the person that batted before Grichuk in the ninth was Kolten Wong, who had come in as a pinch-hitter for starter Jedd Gyorko when Jon Lester left the game and it was safe for a lefty to enter.  Montgomery is a lefty, which meant Wong was at the handedness disadvantage there in the ninth with two on and a chance to win the game.  Unlike some times when feels like he has to be the hero, Wong stayed disciplined and worked the walk, setting it up for Grichuk’s heroics.  The rest of his outing wasn’t overwhelming, but you take the good where you can find it.

Kudos to Diaz as well for continuing his strong spring and getting a good start at alleviating one-hit-wonder worries.  Not only did Diaz get two hits, including the team’s first extra-base knock of the year, he stole two bases against Lester, one of the few that was able to take full advantage of Lester’s issues with base runners.  Wong and Stephen Piscotty had seven steals to lead the team last year.  Maybe this new focus on baserunning is actually going to happen!

There was a lot going on in this game, but let’s start talking about three different Matheny decisions.  If the Cardinals had started out with a loss last night, any one of these could have been the reason.

Sixth inning, two outs, bases loaded.  As noted, Martinez was cruising along in this game, but the offense wasn’t getting the hit he needed.  The Cardinals continued to put runners in scoring position but they continued to leave them there.  The one run that did score, like the first run they scored in the spring, was Fowler scoring on a Carpenter sacrifice fly.  In the sixth, though, Yadier Molina singled and Piscotty walked.  After Wong grounded into a force out, Grichuk walked to fill the bags and bring up Martinez to hit.

Martinez was at about 85 pitches right then, so there’s the question: do you hit for Martinez and let the bullpen cover the last three frames or do you let Martinez bat because he’s going well and you want another inning out of him?  I mean, you do have Matt Adams on the bench, who had a strong spring.  The Cubs might have gone to a lefty reliever, but they had just brought Carl Edwards Jr. into the game and I don’t think that they had anyone warming up.  They may not have had a chance to counter.

My initial feeling was to leave Martinez in the game, but I understand and don’t really disagree with the idea of hitting for him there.  Martinez actually put together a good AB–probably too good, as his sharp grounder turned into a double play.  Some argued that Martinez should have just taken strike three and let Fowler hit with two outs and the bases loaded, but I don’t know.  Fowler was a better shot at getting a hit, of course, but two outs limits the options.  Then again, Edwards didn’t look good at all–without the stroke of luck that his wild pitch immediately caromed right back to home plate, one run would have scored anyway–and maybe that would have been the better option.  Flip side, if Martinez actually gets a flare to drop, which isn’t unthinkable, two runs score and the Cubs are on the ropes.  It didn’t work out, but I think this is the most defensible of Matheny’s moments.

Eighth inning, nobody out, nobody on.  Martinez ran through the seventh without much of an issue, though when Addison Russell singled Brett Cecil got up in the bullpen.  At 97 pitches, it seemed like Martinez’s night was through.  Seven scoreless frames is about as much as you can expect from a starter these days and there’s a fully rested pen out there that should be able to get six outs.

Instead, Matheny sends Martinez back out there.  I can understand perhaps not sending Cecil out since there were a lot of right-handed bats coming up (not that Cecil can’t face righties, just that you’d want him to face a majority of lefties to be most effective) but literally everyone down there was available.  Kevin Siegrist is supposed to be the eighth inning guy, right?  Why not use him, especially since he’s been better against righties than lefties in his career anyway?  I can see not wanting to toss Jonathan Broxton or Sam Tuivailala in that situation, but Matt Bowman’s done a fine job in those situations before.  I’d even not squawked if Miguel Socolovich had come into the game there, though that’d have been pretty surprising.

There was only the tiniest of chances that Martinez makes it through the eighth.  He doesn’t need to be out there for 110 pitches in the first game of the year.  Unsurprisingly, Martinez’s effectiveness was not quite there.

Eighth inning, two on, one out.  Martinez allowed a leadoff single, got a popout, then gave up a single.  Matheny finally realized that he had a bullpen and went to get Martinez.  Did he bring in Siegrist?  Did he go to Cecil, given that Kyle Schwarber was up next and Anthony Rizzo was looming?

Oh no he didn’t.  Perhaps being confused with all the pomp and circumstance and thinking it was the playoffs, Matheny went to his closer.  There are times that bringing Oh out for a multi-inning save makes sense, but I’m not sure that this was one of those times.  It wasn’t him facing the bottom of the lineup in either frame.  This was Oh going through the heart of the Cubs power.  Again, this one makes some sense if it wasn’t for the fact that you signed Cecil for just these situations.  If the Cubs counter by removing Schwarber from the game, that’s fine.  Cecil’s not limited to lefties, as we’ve noted, and that removes a big bat from the late innings.

Oh got through the eighth, but as we’ve seen didn’t manage the same luck in the ninth (though Mr. Grichuk make sure he got a win for his efforts, because baseball).  I know nobody would have done it, but it would have been interesting if Oh had pitched there and Cecil the ninth, given that Ben Zobrist (a switch hitter) and Jason Heyward were coming up.

Right now, if you were to take away one thing from last night, it’s that Mike Matheny doesn’t trust his bullpen.  That may not be the case, but it sure looked like it from his decisions.  It’s very possible that Matheny got caught up in the moment and put undo emphasis on winning the first game of 162 more.  It’s possible that we’ll see better moves going forward.  Matheny’s bullpen management has always been one of those things that worries Cardinal fans, though, and last night didn’t relieve those worries one bit.  It’s one game, though.  Let’s hope the rest of the week and the rest of the season works out better.

Baseball likes to tease us, and after waiting six months for real baseball and getting one game last night, we have to wait until tomorrow for another one.  There’s lots of games to watch, to be sure, but it’s not quite the same.  Tomorrow, Adam Wainwright will go up against Jake Arrieta.  I’m sure it was different for Waino to be sitting and watching yesterday, but at least he got to ride in on a truck.  (Actually, that probably wasn’t a rare treat–the last time the Cards started at home, Chris Carpenter got the nod, so I don’t think Waino’s had the home opener as well as Opening Day very often.)  I think we are all holding our breath with every Wainwright start this year, not exactly sure what we are going to get.  A solid outing against a strong team like the Cubs would help us feel a lot better.

vs. Batters Table
Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS SH SF IBB HBP GDP
Anthony Rizzo 42 38 11 1 0 1 5 3 5 .289 .333 .395 .728 0 1 0 0 3
Miguel Montero 29 26 7 0 0 1 2 3 7 .269 .345 .385 .729 0 0 0 0 1
Jason Heyward 19 18 4 1 0 1 3 1 3 .222 .263 .444 .708 0 0 0 0 0
Ben Zobrist 12 11 3 1 0 0 0 1 3 .273 .333 .364 .697 0 0 0 0 0
Kris Bryant 10 9 2 2 0 0 2 1 0 .222 .300 .444 .744 0 0 0 0 0
Javier Baez 9 9 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 .222 .222 .222 .444 0 0 0 0 0
Addison Russell 8 7 4 2 0 0 2 1 1 .571 .625 .857 1.482 0 0 0 0 0
Willson Contreras 5 4 2 0 0 1 3 1 1 .500 .600 1.250 1.850 0 0 0 0 1
Jon Lester 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Albert Almora 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 1
Jake Arrieta 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Jon Jay 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
John Lackey 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Kyle Schwarber 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Kyle Hendricks 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Tommy La Stella 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .500 .500 .500 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Matt Szczur 2 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1.000 1.000 2.000 3.000 0 0 0 1 0
Total 159 146 39 8 0 4 17 11 30 .267 .321 .404 .725 0 1 0 1 6
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/3/2017.

As for Arrieta, we know that’s going to be a tough matchup for St. Louis.  The Cardinals have gotten to him a little bit more than some teams as of late, but for his career he’s 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 13 games against the Cards.  Last year he was 3-1 with a 2.38 ERA, so he’s trending the wrong way?  Maybe?

vs. Batters Table
Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS SH SF IBB HBP GDP
Jhonny Peralta 37 35 10 6 0 0 2 2 5 .286 .324 .457 .781 0 0 0 0 1
Matt Carpenter 33 27 1 0 0 0 0 6 8 .037 .212 .037 .249 0 0 0 0 0
Kolten Wong 32 31 7 1 0 0 0 1 9 .226 .250 .258 .508 0 0 0 0 1
Yadier Molina 28 26 4 0 0 0 0 1 9 .154 .214 .154 .368 0 0 0 1 1
Matt Adams 26 22 7 2 0 0 4 4 9 .318 .423 .409 .832 0 0 0 0 0
Stephen Piscotty 15 13 2 0 0 1 3 2 3 .154 .267 .385 .651 0 0 0 0 0
Randal Grichuk 12 12 4 1 1 1 3 0 6 .333 .333 .833 1.167 0 0 0 0 0
Jedd Gyorko 8 8 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 .250 .250 .250 .500 0 0 0 0 0
Aledmys Diaz 6 6 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 .500 .500 .500 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Greg Garcia 6 5 1 0 0 0 0 1 2 .200 .333 .200 .533 0 0 0 0 0
Michael Wacha 6 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Eric Fryer 3 3 2 0 0 0 1 0 1 .667 .667 .667 1.333 0 0 0 0 0
Lance Lynn 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Adam Wainwright 3 2 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 .500 .667 1.000 1.667 0 0 0 0 0
Carlos Martinez 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .500 .500 .500 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Mike Leake 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 1
Total 221 202 46 11 1 2 13 18 60 .228 .294 .322 .616 0 0 0 1 4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/3/2017.

We’ve gone this long and didn’t even mention Molina’s contract extension, but it was right in line with what most of us expected.  Three years after this one, $60 million total.  That was exactly what I thought and, with the TV money kicking in next year, I don’t see that being an issue.  We’ll see how things between him and Carson Kelly work out over the next couple of years, but I think it’s a very good thing that Molina should end his career wearing the birds on the bat.  Molina also made history last night, becoming the first player to walk on no pitches.  I still think this new intentional walk thing is silly.

Enjoy the day off and the fact that the Cardinals are in first.  It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it?

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Last month, the United Cardinal Bloggers did their annual preseason roundtable.  There were lots of questions asked and, as is my tradition, I went last with the group, which meant that most of the good stuff was taken.  I did get one out there though and the answers came in.  Good answers.  Solid answers.

And then I forgot to post them.

In my defense, I’ve been getting Playing Pepper posts ready as well as juggling some other spring things, but I really should have gotten this post and that last John Mozeliak trade post written and published.  So here, on the eve of the 2017 season, the final question:

For each of the following, give me one person who:
1) Will be a major reason the Cardinals win or lose
2) Won’t be in the organization come August 1
3) Will frustrate the fanbase the most this season
And now, the answers….
Mark Tomasik (RetroSimba)

Carlos Martinez will be a major reason why 2017 Cardinals win or lose. Without him, or if he is subpar, they lose.

Jordan Schafer won’t be with the organization come Aug. 1. Cardinals won’t have a place for him and someone else will give the two-way player a chance.  (Editor’s note: this was before Schafer went down with season-ending surgery.)

What will frustrate the fan base the most in 2017 will be the inconsistency of Trevor Rosenthal.

Laura and Holly (STL CardGals)

I would also have to agree that Carlos Martinez will probably be a big enough deal this year that if he lands on the DL for any extended period of time, the Cardinals could risk overall loss this season.

This is a tough one. I think for the past few summers we’ve been a little concerned that Matt Adams will be traded, which I think could be another possibility this year, particularly if he can’t get off the bench much the first half of the season.

Again, hoping this isn’t the case, but I’m thinking Kolten Wong might fall into this category again. The guy’s got all the heart in the world, but the fanbase already seems to be somewhat on the fence about his future here, at least playing 2nd.

Colin Yarbrough (The Redbird Daily)

Michael Wacha‘s performance will dictate whether or not this team competes in the division or simply for a wild card berth.

Low hanging fruit, but Eric Fryer won’t be on the team come August 1st. Carson Kelly will play his way onto the big club.

Fans will continue to be frustrated by Kolten Wong. I think he’ll have good enough numbers to warrant being in the lineup, but he won’t play at an all-star level. Fans have seen the tools, and will want more.

Zach Gifford (Redbird Rants and The Redbird Daily)

Dexter Fowler. It’s pretty simple, but scoring in the first inning is huge for win probability. Can he repeat his OBP skill from last year, or does he regress back to his career average (which is still pretty strong). Health has also been a little bit of an issue for him the last few years, and I think the Cardinals need him to play 150 games.

Luke Weaver? He’s the most obvious trade chip if the Cardinals are buying in June or July. I think they should trade Lance Lynn even if in contention, but that’s another story, and I don’t think its a move Mozeliak would make.

Matheny is the obvious answer here. It will be interesting to see how he handles the bullpen, would should be on of the best in the MLB. I’m not confident he’ll put those guys in their best positions to succeed. Kolten Wong is another strong candidate. I think both of them disappoint in 2017.

Josh Gilliam (Pitchers Hit Eighth)

I truly hope this is the season where we finally get to pick on the players instead of the manager. It will be a clean sweep of Adam(s) for my answers, as Wainwright has that look again. If he is the co-ace again, the Cards go into October happy.

On the other hand, if Waino isn’t bueno then he won’t get a mostly free pass again from the vocal BFIB. I do think Matt Adams is auditioning for other teams and will be used to fetch another arm or possibly the answer to the 3B riddle by the end of July. Peralta becomes the honorary Adam in the equation for possibly all three questions, especially if he isn’t moved and breaks down in September.

Bill Ivie (I70 Baseball)

The major reason the Cards win or lose will be the skipper himself, Mike Matheny. The manager has to figure out how to “let the boys play” a bit and get their footing under them. He’s been given a fairly steady lineup at this point, let’s see how much he tries to tweak it in the early months.

Who won’t be in the organization August 1? I think Matt Adams or Kolten Wong. Adams, I think, has a chance to be somewhere else before opening day (paging Colorado, I hear they need a first baseman right now). Wong will depend on his development and if Matheny pulls him early.

Who will frustrate the fans? Possibly Wong but more likely some inconsistency in the bullpen. I’m going to call this one a draw between Trevor Rosenthal and Brett Cecil. Both are going to be looked to for some high pressure innings and both have shown in the past that they can’t always be the one to handle that.

Allen Medlock (The Redbird Daily)

I’m completely impressed with Dexter Fowler. I think he’s a winning player and changed the atmosphere on club that had grown stale. His ability as a lead off hitter changes the complexion of the ball club.

This may be easy after the news over the weekend, but I don’t think Schaefer will be with the team in Aug. I will almost be surprised if Adams and Pham are still with the team after the deadline.

The most frustrating issue to me is the fact that we still have blacked out games in 2017.

The great thing about asking questions is, of course, that you can tidy up, get everyone’s answer, and then move along when nobody’s watching….oh, I just gave that away.  I guess I better come up with some answers as well, then.

–There are so many ways to go with the first one.  Yadier Molina has to stay healthy, I think.  If he’s down for any length of time, this could get ugly.  Also, Adam Wainwright really needs to be better than last year.  Lance Lynn and a resurgent Michael Wacha can pick up some slack, but not all of it.

–I’m starting to think that Harrison Bader might not be around, given the logjam in front of him and the players coming behind.  I feel like even with Yadi’s extension (if it happens) Carson Kelly has value to this organization and won’t be terribly buried.  Bader, though, could be part of a mid-season deal to bring in a quality solution to a problem.

–The frustration has already started with Kolten Wong and I can’t think of anyone that will be more polarizing to the fanbase.  That said, if Matt Adams plays much in the outfield, it could be him or the manager that put him there.

It’s always great interacting with my fellow bloggers and podcasters.  I look forward to doing it all season long!

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It’s hard to believe that spring training is over and that the season kicks off on Monday.  Before you settle in for the 162 games, I’m providing the following for you to be able to catch up on any Pepper entries you might have missed.  Find out about the rivals, look toward some October matchups, and just generally find some great baseball folks to interact with.  My thanks to all of these bloggers for helping me out this year and I look forward to doing it all again in 2018!

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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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The Cardinals did a little walking in Memphis last night, taking on their affiliate in the first part of their tour of checking out their territory, but even though there was a lot of fun on the field, it was the news off the field that had everyone buzzing.  Multiple reports had Yadier Molina very close to an extension, apparently a three-year deal worth between $55-$65 million.

Continual cautions that this is not a completed deal have typically fallen on deaf ears.  With reporting like this, it’s a fairly strong indication that something will get done in time.  It feels like the Cardinals have done enough that if they need an extra day or two, Molina might grant it.  So, with all the caveats that things might not actually get done, let’s talk about this deal as if it was already put to paper.

We talked just earlier this week about a similar deal and why the Cardinals should make it.  With their financial resources, paying Yadi $20 million a year really isn’t going to keep them from doing other things to make the team better if they come up.  I don’t think this rules them out of getting their next franchise player in free agency in a couple of years, for instance.  With the young (and, more importantly for this discussion, cost-controlled) players that are on their way, having Yadi on the books for a couple of years at a high price isn’t going to do anything terrible for the team no matter what happens.

Hopefully the idea on this deal is that they’ll start the transition to Carson Kelly like I outlined in December.  With the news of this extension and the news that the Cardinals were quietly in on Jose Quintana, it seemed to spell trouble for Kelly if he wanted to become the next Cardinal catcher.  However, I’m not sure that’s the case.  Kelly will be 23 in the middle of this season.  That means, at worst, he could start the 2021 season (the first year after Yadi) just a little shy of 27.  That’s not just terribly old for a catcher.  You’d like to probably have him active before then, but again, he spends all this year in Memphis and then most of next year as the backup, then you can see what 2019 and 2020 bring in regards to needing to pass the torch.

That’s not ruling out a Kelly trade, of course.  If you can get someone like Quintana for him and others, you have to take a hard look at it.  I’m just saying you don’t HAVE to trade Kelly because Yadi reupped.  It’s not like there are other strong catching prospects in the system that will pass Kelly by in the span of this extension.  It’s not like Harrison Bader, who has folks like Magneuris Sierra on his tail.  Kelly’s pretty comfortable where he’s at and I don’t think the Cardinals are going to look for a way to move him.  (If you wanted to be a hopeless dreamer, you could say John Mozeliak was close enough to a Quintana deal that he had to re-up Yadi to make sure they had a catcher next year, but I don’t think that’s quite the case.)

It wouldn’t be surprising to me if the contract wasn’t announced on Sunday morning so as to make sure Yadi got a huge ovation during the Opening Day ceremonies.  I mean, larger than he was already going to get.

In other news, the 25-man roster has already gone through its first change, as Trevor Rosenthal will start the year on the (now 10-day) disabled list and Sam Tuivailala will take his place in St. Louis.  Tuivailala played with the Cardinals last night and wound up giving up an unearned run in two innings, with one walk and one hit but zero strikeouts.  We know what Tui brings, both strengths and weaknesses, and it seems unlikely that he’ll figure it out in his limited time in St. Louis.  If Rosenthal gets healed up quickly, Tui will go to Memphis for him.  If not, Tuivailala will probably get sent down when Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons gets activated in a few weeks.  Either way, Sam doesn’t have much time to make a good impression, but we can always hope something will click.

Rosenthal pitched in five games this spring and did well, but obviously this lat strain has been an issue.  I don’t know how much he pitched after his start–he wasn’t a name I heard come up very often.  I’m no doctor so I’m not sure how connected or related lat strains are to oblique injuries, but if they are anything similar this could be an issue Rosie deals with for a while.  Even if he comes back from the disabled list, there’s no telling how long it might be before he injures it again.  Hopefully that’s not the case and a little more rest will do it, but given the Cards had already announced him as a part of the roster, it’s obvious you never know when it is going to flare up again.

Cardinals play in Springfield tonight, then get a day off at home before starting their season Sunday night at Busch Stadium.  I’ve railed before about how the tradition of Opening Day has been completely mutilated throughout baseball.  I’m old enough to remember when every season started in Cincinnati, home of the oldest franchise.  This year, the Reds are one of the last teams to get started, with a 4:10 EDT first pitch.

I could understand the Sunday night spotlight game, though it was still a little iffy.  (Some may remember the Cardinals and Reds played in the first one of these things.)  But now there are games on Sunday afternoon before Sunday Night Baseball.  Where’s the specialness of that?  I wouldn’t mind if MLB took a page from their own playbook and start every game on Monday at the same time, like they do with Game 162.  Get everyone off to a rousing start.

They don’t, though, and they aren’t likely to listen to me anytime soon.  It is nice to not have to worry about missing work on Monday to catch the game on TV and it should be a game worth catching.  Carlos Martinez, with his new contract and his new ace status–because, really, an opening start was all he was lacking–takes on the *pauses, swallows bile* World Champion Chicago Cubs.  Remember, all the pregame festivities, the stuff that makes Opening Day in St. Louis so very special, will be on FOX Sports Midwest starting at 6:30 PM.  With the return of real games, it marks the return of our pitcher vs. batter looks, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Well, it would, but I think since the season hasn’t started rosters aren’t loaded on BR yet, so I’m getting an error trying to run the report.  I do see that Carlos has 30 PA against Anthony Rizzo and the first baseman has a 1.064 OPS against the hurler, so maybe he should be careful there.  On the flip side, Kris Bryant has a .491 OPS in 24 PA against Martinez, which is good to see.  Carlos has a 3-3 mark with a 4.97 ERA against the Chicago club.  He struggled against them last year (1-3, 4.80 ERA in five games).

Jon Lester goes for the Cubs, which probably means we don’t see Kolten Wong at second and that whole discussion can get started again.  We know how good Lester can be, as he is 3-3 with a 1.97 ERA against the club in his career.  He’s been even better at Busch, with a 2-0, 0.82 mark.  The Cardinal with the most plate appearances against him is Molina, who has a .711 OPS against him (three doubles are the only extra-base hits) in 34 PA.

Baseball is here, folks!  Enjoy your weekend and let’s talk about the game Monday morning, all right?

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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!

Washington Nationals
95-67, first in NL East, lost in NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

Unlike in years of old, this Washington team has become a consistent winner.  In the last five years, they’ve finished either first or second in the division and the three times that they’ve taken home the divisional title, they’ve won at least 95 games doing it.  Yet they’ve never been able to get past the first round of the playoffs (hello, Pete Kozma!) and with Bryce Harper getting closer and closer to free agency, that window has to at least feel like it’s starting to close.

We’ve got a couple of bloggers to talk about the Nationals and what they chances are they can break through this year.  Dave’s an old hand (and recently got a job covering the Mariners for The Spokesman-Review, so the blog link is where he’d been writing) and Justin’s a welcome newcomer to the annual tradition.  Give them a look!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Dave Nichols Federal Baseball DNicholsSR
Justin Howard Half Street Heart Attack HalfStreetHeart

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?

FB: The Nats had a decent offseason, picking up CF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters as the main additions. They didn’t acquire a “proven closer,” instead rolling with a combination of Shawn Kelley as the veteran, Blake Treinen as the unproven and Koda Glover as the hard-throwing heir apparent. Adam Lind was signed as Ryan Zimmerman/Jayson Werth health insurance.

HSHA: It was a weird offseason. Closer was biggest hole on the roster–everyone expected the Nats to sign someone–and they did nothing. Now the Nats are toying with different possibilities and we’re still not sure what the back end of the bullpen will look like. It’s almost like they deferred the closer decision to midseason, when more trade options might be available.

Almost everyone in baseball panned the Adam Eaton trade, thinking the Nats overpaid. It’s hard to disagree. Lucas Giolito was considered
the biggest prospect in baseball a year ago. Had they sold high, Giolito might have been able to get Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman. It just seems like a missed opportunity.

I would have loved to see the Nats sign Harper to a long term deal this past offseason. Now that he’s two years away from free agency, it’s less likely to happen now. Never say never–Strasburg’s extension was a huge surprise–but it’s likely the Nats’ window has closed.

C70: Is there more of an urgency to win in the next couple of years, given the statements this offseason regarding Bryce Harper and, if so, how will that manifest itself?

FB: Simply: Yes. Harper will test free agency regardless of Nats’ success. He becomes a free agent a year after Werth’s contract clears and the year before Zimmerman’s is up though, so if he re-ups it’ll come then. We’ve already seen Mike Rizzo give up the Nats’ two top pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez) to obtain his everyday center fielder (Eaton), so if he feels he needs to trade for a closer he will.

HSHA: None, whatsoever. This team has already started to plan for life after Bryce Harper. Adam Eaton was acquired because he has 5 years
left on his contract. OF Victor Robles, one of the top prospects in baseball, was mostly untouchable in trade talks this past offseason. No, you can’t really replace a player like Harper, but the Nats will have a plan. The money they budgeted for Harper’s extension will be redistributed elsewhere. Bryce will leave a lot of talent in DC when/if he signs somewhere else.

C70: What’s the major weakness of this team?

FB: We’ve mentioned the lack of proven closer a few times already. Another weakness is position depth. There are no position prospects pushing for playing time now that Trea Turner is locked in at short. When (not if) Zimmerman and Werth go down, the Nats will have to rely on Lind and players like Chris Heisey and Clint Robinson.

HSHA: Bullpen, obviously, could be a problem. I also worry about middle infield defense. Murphy is not a plus defender and Trea Turner is untested at SS. But the biggest weakness on this team is durability. Werth, Zimmerman, Rendon, and Strasburg have all missed significant time over the past few seasons. Assuming Harper was hurt last year (I think he was), he’s had 1 healthy season in 4 since his rookie year. There are just way too many key contributors on this team who always seem one play away from a month-long DL stint.

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

FB: This is a veteran team, outside of Turner – and he’s getting plenty of attention after his second place NL rookie of the year campaign last season. Perennially overlooked Tanner Roark is probably the most anonymous two-time 15-game winner in the bigs. Maybe Treinen or Glover if one emerges as the closer?

HSHA: Honestly, Bryce Harper takes so much oxygen out of the room, I feel like every quality player on this roster is unheralded. Tanner Roark
was one of the most consistent and reliable starters in the league last season (13 games with 7 inn or more & 1 ER or less). Daniel Murphy is well known from his Mets playoff heroics, but he legitimately put up an MVP-quality season last year (he finished second in voting). Trea Turner’s rookie season was so spectacular I started calling like Mike Trout-lite, and I wasn’t entirely joking. SP Joe Ross is another name fans should know and watch this season.

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

FB: First place, 93 wins. Again, Nats will get to feast on building Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami to boost the win total.

HSHA: A lot of things broke right last season (Murphy, Ramos, Scherzer), so it’s not hard to imagine a slight regression in 2017. On the other hand, if Bryce Harper becomes Bryce Harper again and Trea Turner repeats his 2016 second half over a full season, this team could win 100 games. I think the Phillies and Braves improve, giving the Nats fewer easy victories, and this team grabs the NL East with 91 wins.

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

FB: Tough one. I have a lot of respect for John Lannan, two-time opening day pitcher who toiled on some really, REALLY bad teams and took the ball every fifth day and usually kept them in game. I loved John Patterson’s curveball, shame he couldn’t stay healthy. For fun factor, Adam Dunn trudging around the outfield. And Ryan Zimmerman for being the team’s first “face” and all-star.

HSHA: I’m going to answer your question very literally. Walter Johnson. That’s right, there was professional baseball in Washington D.C. prior
to 2005. The Washington Nationals (commonly referred to as Senators) were one of the original 8 American League franchises. They won a World Series title in 1924, when Walter Johnson pitched 4 scoreless innings in a 12 inning Game 7. Johnson had 417 wins and 110 shutouts. He was likely the greatest pitcher of all time, and he played his entire career in Washington D.C.

Thanks to Dave and Justin for their thoughts on the club in the nation’s capital.  This may be the year that first-round exit bit is broken!

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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!

Toronto Blue Jays
89-73, second (tie) in AL East
Last year’s Pepper

Even though you’ll see the Blue Jays listed third in the AL East divisional standings, they made a strong October run before being caught up in the buzzsaw that was the Cleveland Indians.  Even though Toronto lost four games to one, all of the games were close and they could have easily appeared in their first World Series since 1993.

That said, you wonder when the window is going to close for the Blue Jays.  The East isn’t getting any easier and they’ll have to make another attack run without the services of Edwin Encarnacion.  There’s no short of people interested in this club and we have eight bloggers–on par with the teams from New York in number–to talk all about them.  Give these folks a follow then settle in for a good read!

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?

BJH: I guess that depends on who you ask. Overall, I think the Blue Jays’ fan base kind of views this winter as a failed offseason. They didn’t follow their offseason mandate, which was to get more left-handed, younger and more agile. Admittedly, the market was incredibly weird this offseason, and the Blue Jays probably couldn’t re-signed Edwin Encarnacion had they waited a little longer.

Outside of bringing back Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays really didn’t make very many “sexy” offseason moves, but several of them were necessary. They still need to address the bullpen with additional relievers, and getting a left-handed reliever with experience is paramount for the Blue Jays right now. In retrospect, I might’ve liked them to be a little more aggressive in their pursuit of Dexter Fowler; he checked off a lot of boxes for the Blue Jays, but ultimately he opted to go to St. Louis.

Overall, I guess I’d give the front office a “C” grade for their offseason moves thus far. Not the best, but not the worst.

EB: It was definitely one of the more eventful off-seasons the Blue Jays have had in some time. Especially with both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting free agency. For the most part, I think it’s been a pretty good off-season for Toronto. They addressed their needs in the bullpen by signing J.P. Howell and Joe Smith, which for me was a wonderful thing because for years now the front office has really neglected the bullpen, especially when compared to the offense and starting rotation. Obviously it would have been great to re-sign Encarnacion, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I don’t blame the team though, they extended a fair offer to Encarnacion.

BB: I think most Blue Jays fans, including myself, would classify the offseason as an alright one although it left a bit to be desired. It began with a lot of optimism as it was expected that the team would make a serious run at re-signing one of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. After offering Encarnacion around $80 million in early November, the Blue Jays gave him some time to mull it over before moving on to looking for a replacement. That search led to Kendrys Morales, who they signed in mid-November for three years and $33 million. This was a signal to most fans that Encarnacion likely wouldn’t be returning, although of course the front office said a reunion was still possible. Then in early December the team added another free agent infielder in Steve Pearce, which really slammed the door shut on fan-favorite Encarnacion returning.

After that saga was over the front office very slowly pivoted to taking another shot at Jose Bautista, as his market was a lot cooler than everyone expected. According to most reports, he wasn’t coveted all that much by the team’s brass but it would have been hard to face the fans in 2017 if they were outbid on the two legends of recent Jays history. This led to a one-year contract with a few options tied in, which seems to be mutually beneficial for both sides. The Jays save face and Jose gets a chance to re-build his value for another run at free agency.

In terms of doing what they needed to do, the Jays seem to have checked off almost everything on their shopping list. That certainly doesn’t mean they were all slam dunk acquisitions though. After the ALCS run in 2016, the team had a few obvious needs in the outfield along with first base and the front-end of the bullpen. To patch these gaps, the team signed the previously-mentioned Morales, Pearce, and Bautista along with veteran relievers J.P. Howell and Joe Smith. The problem is that only one of Morales or Pearce was probably necessary as the roster also features the strikeout-prone Justin Smoak, who most fans feel should have never been extended during last season. Bringing back Bautista compounded this logjam as the 36-year-old Dominican right fielder would be better served spending the majority of his time in the DH position or even first base. I don’t think too many people have any qualms with the reliever additions, although fans are obviously disappointed to have lost lefty Brett Cecil to the Cardinals in free agency on a big deal.

At the end of the day I’d give the Jays offseason a “B”, as they’re returning most of their roster from last season which took them to within a few games of the World Series. Jays fans have definitely had worse winters in the last few decades.

As for what move they could have made, this is a tough question as there’s always a few signings you see from other teams during the offseason that you wish your team made instead. I guess I’ll defer to the obvious one which is bringing back Edwin Encarnacion on the three-year deal at $60 million (plus an option) that Cleveland gave him. Looking back at last year’s post in this series, I said that Encarnacion would come back to the Jays on a four-year $80 million contract (the Jays rumored offer a few months ago), so maybe I’m especially sour that my prediction was so close to being correct.

To be clear, I don’t blame the front office at all for the way they handled the situation back in November. They gave the slugger their best offer early on in the process and allowed him a week to think about it before moving on to alternatives. I think a good portion of the blame lies at the feet of Encarnacion’s agent as he completely misread the market and cost his client (and himself) a boatload of cash.

I think if both parties could redo that situation, Edwin would be back in blue next year and the team would never have had to sign lesser players in Morales and Pearce during free agency. Jays fans can only hope that they don’t come to regret losing Encarnacion too much over the course of the next few seasons.

JFTC: The offseason was in interesting one if you’re a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. It was a roller coaster of emotions with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting free agency. But, not only was management expected to replace those two, they were also losing Brett Cecil, a major part of their bullpen and R.A. Dickey from the rotation.

That said, they did a good job in bringing in JP Howell and Joe Smith to shore up the ‘pen and their rotation could sustain the loss of the knuckleballer thanks to having Francisco Liriano already in the fold.

The real focus of the offseason was on the departure of Encarnacion. Many feel the team rushed into signing Kendrys Morales, who would be a poor substitute for Encarnacion’s production. Though, closer inspection yields some solace. Morales could benefit nicely from playing in not just the Rogers Center in Toronto, but the entire AL East for the majority of his time. He could have a year that will make fans forget all about Edwin.

The real steal of the offseason could end up being Steve Pearce. The club inked him to a 2 yr deal even though he had just had shoulder surgery. But, they are banking on the defensive versatility he provides, as well as a reasonable bat. He’ll start the year chipping in at first base, but when fully healthy, he can be used in LF as well.

Overall, the Blue Jays had an offseason that appears underwhelming, but they went about the business of building depth and versatility – to raise their talent floor – in an attempt to repeat, and hopefully improve upon, their ALCS appearances of the last two seasons. It wasn’t a sexy offseason, but could end up paying huge dividends.

BPT: Good seems like a stretch, but it wasn’t bad by any definition that I know. Ross Atkins solidified the bullpen, brought back the greatest player in franchise history, and did a pretty bang up job of replacing Edwin Encarnacion. Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales cost less than Encarnacion, and have the potential to make fans forget about his departure. I think bringing in Dexter Fowler would have been great for this team given its current construction, but I don’t think it’s a non-move that will hurt them that much in the long run.

500: It was decent. Not great, but decent. The obvious move that I wish they would have made was re-signing Edwin Encarnacion. He will be missed. But I think Kendrys Morales is a decent replacement (at least offensively), and I like the small moves they made to the bullpen. I think LF and 1B are still a bit of soft spot, so more work probably should have been done there.

JJ: The Toronto Blue Jays will be without the likes of slugger Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil, Joaquin Benoit and R.A. Dickey who all signed free-agent contracts with other teams during the offseason. The Jays brain-trust has plugged the holes with Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, J.P. Howell and Joe Smith in an attempt to replace the lost production.  The Jays upper echelon had aspirations of getting younger and faster this past offseason however those goals were not met due to the unpredictability of the free agent market. The Jays made a play for outfielder Dexter Fowler before re-upping with Jose Bautista.

The Achilles heel of this team is first baseman Justin Smoak or left-fielder Melvin Upton. Both players are above average defenders but their inability to make consistent contact jeopardizes their value and they are instant rally killers anywhere in the lineup.  The Jays can use Steve Pearce at one of the two positions if completely healthy. The rumors of Angel Pagan have resurfaced after his decent showing at the World Baseball Classic; Pagan could oversee left-field while Pearce would slide over to first base and relegate both Smoak and Upton to bench roles.

ACB: I believe it was a mediocre offseason for the team. They did what they needed to do, no more no less. They added some depth to the bullpen by adding both Joe Smith and J.P. Howell to the mix. They also picked up a good utility player in Steve Pearce, a former Blue Jays crusher. I’d say the best acquisition of the offseason was Kendrys Morales (in replace of Edwin Encarnacion… more on that later). There were many rumours throughout the offseason for the Jays, related to Dexter Fowler and Andrew McCutchen. Obviously, Dexter Fowler would have been a fantastic acquisition because of his speed and hitting, but someone like Devin Travis can pick up those pieces over time. I felt myself waiting for a block buster trade to happen, or for a big name player to be signed, but that never happened, which made the offseason go by slowly. There was also quite a bit of disappointment when Encarnacion left to join Cleveland, and said “….but I made the decision to come here because here I have the opportunity to win the World Series.” I think that the Toronto Blue Jays front office did an OK job handling this past offseason, but we will have to wait until the next off season begins to evaluate it, after we see how the season unfolds.

C70: What are the expectations for Marcus Stroman this year? Will he be the staff ace?

BJH: 2016 was an up-an-down year for Marcus Stroman. He started the year as the Opening Day starter and ended it as the Blue Jays’ fourth best starting pitcher. I think he’s poised for a bounceback 2017, as his second-half peripherals looked a lot better (his ERA was over a run better after the All-Star Break).

I would say that Aaron Sanchez is the de facto “ace” of the Blue Jays right now and Marcus Stroman has a long way to go to usurp Sanchez, but he should make his way back up the ranks as the Blue Jays’ number two or three starter in the near future.

EB: I don’t see Stroman being the team ace, not now after what Aaron Sanchez has shown he’s capable of doing over a full season as a starter. Stroman needs to be more consistent and get back to what he was doing in 2014. I see him having a solid season…he has a lot to prove, to both himself and the league, that last season was just a minor setback in his development towards being a solid number 2 starter.

BB: This is a hot topic in Toronto these days as people were fairly disappointed in Marcus last year despite putting up a respectable 4.37 ERA in his first full season in the major leagues. The pessimism over Stroman’s performance isn’t entirely unfounded though as it’s looking more and more likely that the Duke product isn’t going to be the possible Cy Young winner that a lot of fans hoped for when he was making his way through the system in 2014. The strong-willed righty has struggled to consistently miss bats during his time with the Jays although an ERA in the 3.60-4.00 range is still a reasonable expectation. This coming season will be a big one for Stroman as he has to prove he can be a dependable rotation piece for a full year at the big league level. He hasn’t done that as of yet.

Stroman’s numbers may make him a staff ace on some teams, but the presence of Aaron Sanchez on the Jays roster means Toronto is not one of those squads. The lanky righty came up with Stroman through the minor leagues and in one season of starting, has already surpassed him for the crown of most exciting Jays pitcher. There’s another level to this story as the two young studs used to be extremely close friends and even roommates, but this offseason they had a falling out which made a lot of headlines up here in what has otherwise been a fairly slow winter for Jays news.

Obviously their personal relationship isn’t all that relevant to the on-field action, but it adds another layer to the ongoing competition for the top spot in the team’s rotation. It’s certainly something to watch as the regular season begins in a few weeks.

JFTC: Marcus Stroman came back from his ACL tear at the end of the 2015 season and was amazing. So, when 2016 was all said and done, you can’t blame a section of baseball fans for calling his season a disappointment.

But that is a tad short sighted. Stroman has the arsenal of a small army. He features a mix of 4-seam, 2-seam, cutter, curveball, slider and change, all of which he uses to maintain a groundball rate of 60%. He lives in the bottom half of the zone and has success there.

But, does that make him an ace? Likely not. He will likely see an ERA of 3.50-4, but will get his 200 innings in. The real issue with calling him the team’s ace is that he shares the mound with Aaron Sanchez, who many expect to take his game to the next level. Though, if there is anything that can get Stroman to follow suit it is people doubting him.

BPT: Expectations might be pretty low for Stroman just because he had a couple of rough months last year and he is surrounded by four fantastic pitchers, but that doesn’t mean he won’t exceed his expectations in 2017. As for being the staff ace, it’ll be hard to top Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada, and for that matter J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano, but he definitely has the talent to do it.

500: I don’t think he will be the staff ace and I think that will actually help him have a much better year. He pitched better than his number last season, but now that you can slot him behind Sanchez, and maybe even Happ and Estrada, it really takes the pressure off. He just finished up dominating the World Baseball Classic, so that bodes well. I expect a big season.

JJ: Marcus Stroman showed the world what he is capable on the International stage at the World Baseball Classic. The “Stro-Show” loves the spotlight and thrives on pitching in big games, he was also on the bump for the Blue Jays wild-card victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Stroman will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2016 campaign where he boasted an inflated 4.37 earned run average in 204 innings of work. If Stroman can live up to the hype he solidifies this rotation into one of the very best in the majors.

While I am confident Stroman will reassert himself as a top notch arm this year, my pick to click as the ace of the staff is Francisco Liriano. The veteran has had an incredible spring and a full season with his old Pirates battery mate will pay huge dividends. Liriano not Stroman or Sanchez will be this year’s staff ace.

ACB: After his latest WBC performance (aka a no hitter into the seventh inning, leaving the game with only one hit in the WBC championship game AND becoming the WBC MVP), I’d say the expectations are pretty high. Every Jays fan who appreciates not only his pitching but also his social media presence and attitude, hopes that Marcus Stroman will have a bounce back season after last year’s mediocre performance. Obviously, the Jays have the pitchers that can pick up where he leaves off if he has a bad start, but I think that Stroman is going to be great this season. As I have said in my own blog posts, I don’t really think there is an ace of the pitching staff… they all could be aces! This is probably one of the strongest pitching rotations the Blue Jays have had in their team history, so I think that the overall pitching will be exceptional (as it was last season).

C70: Who picks up the slack from the loss of Edwin Encarnacion or does anyone have to?

BJH: The clear comparison is going to be Kendrys Morales. At onset, swapping out Encarnacion for Morales looks like a downgrade, but combined with a healthy Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays should be able to make up the difference. Many believe that moving Morales to a hitter-friendly park like the Rogers Centre can only do wonders for his numbers; you can probably pencil him in for 30 home runs and 100 RBI’s. 

EB: Someone will have to pick-up the slack, the offense can’t be carried solely by Donaldson and Bautista. What made the Blue Jays offense so formidable back in 2015 when they won the division was that they had Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion hitting 2, 3, 4 in the order, and all three of them were on top of their game. That part of the line-up proved almost impossible to get through without being touched up, and if Toronto wants to regain that form, they’re definitely going to need Kendrys Morales to step-in and fill the offensive void left with the departure of Encarnacion. I think Morales (like any big leaguer) has a lot of pride, and the thought of him being Encarnacion’s replacement will be a good challenge for him. I feel he’s more than capable of being a great fit in the clean-up spot for Toronto.  

BB: The eventual answer to this question may also provide insight into how the Blue Jays season progresses in 2017. The loss of Encarnacion is a massive blow to the team’s offense and without a suitable replacement, the team will definitely struggle to score as many runs in 2017 as they did last year. As I mentioned earlier, some combination of Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce is expected to pick up the slack but they are not Edwin Encarnacion by any stretch.

That being said, I don’t think anyone has to individually pick up the slack on their own, but all the players will have to meet expectations if the team wants to have any chance of making the playoffs for a third straight season. This includes the aging Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista along with Russell Martin behind the plate.

JFTC: As mentioned previously, folks should expect Kendrys Morales to fill those shoes quite nicely. Moving from the expanses of Kansas City and the AL Central to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Rogers Centre will fit quite nicely for the switch hitting slugger. Let’s also remember that Encarnacion is as streaky as they come, where Morales tends to be a tad more consistent.

That said, the Blue Jays will need to hope that age related regression doesn’t hit them heavily with guys like Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. As well, they’ll also need Devon Travis to stay on the field for a full season, where his quality bat can actually help them. And, if Kevin Pillar can take his game to the next level by, say, only swinging at pitches in his zip code, this lineup is that much better.

BPT: I think everybody is expecting Kendrys Morales to have a bit of an offensive pick up with the move to the hitter friendly AL East from Kansas City, but it’ll be hard to do it all himself. The Blue Jays front office seems to believe there is offense somewhere deep inside Justin Smoak waiting to come out, so he can have a big role to play, as well as Steve Pearce if he is healthy.

500: It will have to be Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. The Jays run totals fell pretty significantly from 2015 to 2016 so somebody will need to at least somewhat replace Edwin’s production. The real strength of the team is the pitching staff, so as long as ¾ of Edwin’s numbers are replaced Toronto should be OK. (should, of course, in italics)

JJ: Initially, Blue Jays nation were poised to jump off the proverbial bandwagon after the loss of fan favorite Encarnacion and his home run induced imaginary parrot. However, Kendrys Morales has had a great spring and a healthy motivated Jose Bautista will fill the power void and then some this season. Morales is going to benefit from playing his home games at the homer-friendly Rogers Centre and other AL East parks.

ACB: I assume that the player who would pick up Edwin Encarnacion’s slack would be Kendrys Morales, and that’s the main reason why the Jays acquired him. Personally, I am not a big fan of pinpointing a certain player to pick up the pieces for a former one. The Jays will have to come together as one team to pick up the slack of a player that added a lot of versatility (hitting wise) to this lineup, and I am unsure if that will be a problem for them or not. I do think that Kendrys Morales will have a great season with the Jays. Hitting 30 home run in Kauffman Stadium last season (with the Kansas City Royals) is a harder task than most fans would assume, and because of that I think he will be a monster hitter for the Jays this season.

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

BJH: I’ll give you two names to keep your eye on: Devon Travis and Francisco Liriano. If healthy, a full season worth of Devon Travis can play a huge part of setting the table for the Blue Jays lineup. And I say Francisco Liriano because he seems like an under-the-radar candidate to put forth a solid 2016 season. He projects as the Blue Jays’ fifth starter, but on any other team, he might be their number three starter.

EB: Devon Travis. This team is getting old and they need one of the younger guys to step-up and play a key-role with the offense. The big thing for Travis is whether he can stay healthy. He’s had a couple of fluky injuries the past two seasons and it’ll be great to see what he can do at the plate if he can manage to stay healthy for a full season. 

BB: Most of the Blue Jays roster is well-known by now, but the one unheralded player who is receiving a lot of buzz this offseason is hometown kid Dalton Pompey. The former highly-rated prospect has been stuffed in the minors for a few seasons but may finally get a chance in left field this year to break into the major league team. Currently a sub-optimal platoon of Melvin Upton and Ezequiel Carrera is expected to see most of the time out in left, but the speedy Pompey will be waiting in the wings for any chance to show he can provide more value, which shouldn’t be too difficult to be fair.

With Upton and Carrera both unlikely to be starting for the Blue Jays in 2018, a lot of fans are expecting Pompey to be given an extended shot at some point in the year to show what he has to offer. If the Canadian puts it all together, you will definitely be hearing his name a lot more south of the border.

JFTC: Aside from Steve Pearce? Sure. Watch out for Pillar. He has been putting in a lot of work on his approach at the plate. He has also altered his swing (by eliminating his leg kick). The idea is to avoid swinging at balls and to get on base at a higher, more consistent rate. It is paying off early this spring. So, if he can improve his bat, maintain his speed on the basepaths AND continue to play stellar defense in CF, this could be a rather nice season for him.

BPT: Kevin Pillar, usually just known around the baseball world for his defense, has always been a good hitter, but never a good offensive player. He’s been working on his plate discipline in Spring Training, and if the early results carry over to the regular season, he’ll be in the conversation for being one of the better outfielders in baseball.

500: Not sure he still qualifies as unheralded, but Devon Travis. If he can stay healthy he could become one of the top second basemen in the AL.

JJ: Kevin Pillar seems to have recognized his offensive deficiencies from last season and has implemented a new approach that has paid dividends so far this spring. Pillar is my position player to keep an eye on. I already let the cat out of the bag with my Liriano prediction as far as pitchers go.

ACB: As I had mentioned in a blog post last week, I think that Francisco Liriano is the player that Jays fans should watch this season. He was a spectacular acquisition for the Jays in the trade deadline, and was a fantastic pitcher for them during the second half of the season (the entire time he played for the Jays). The Pittsburgh Pirates did not have a good season last year, and barely gave Liriano any run support, which led to him having a 5.46 ERA for the first half of the season. Once he arrived in Toronto, he only had a 2.92 ERA, thanks to the run support that was given to him and the quality of his pitches. I honestly think that Liriano is overlooked and underappreciated by most fans because of the fantastic starting rotation he is a part of. He is going to be a huge weapon for the Jays, and I am looking forward to seeing how he will play for the Jays during an entire season.

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

BJH: The AL East looks to be a dogfight once again, but I think the Blue Jays should be able to grab one of the Wild Card spots with a record somewhere similar to where they finished last year: 89-73. 

EB: It’s going to be tough to take the division. Even with Boston losing David Ortiz to retirement, they still gained Chris Sale and that team is scary good. That being said, Toronto still has the potential of being a 90-92 win team. For that to happen though, they need a lot of good things to take place. Bautista needs to remain healthy and have a bounce back season, the rotation needs to pitch every bit as well as they did in 2016, and most importantly the team needs to come together like they did in the final two months of the 2015 season when they ended up going 40-16 after the trade deadline. Something was off with last year’s team…far too many players were swinging for the fences and striking out, and if it wasn’t for the solid starting pitching, last year’s team wouldn’t have won 80 games. 

BB: Last year in this post I predicted the Jays to win 87 games, two less than they actually did. Entering this season I feel just about the same about the team’s chances and therefore will predict 87 wins again. Boston will need to have a lot of misfortune to lose the division meaning the rest of the AL East is chasing down a Wild Card spot. The Yankees are probably the Blue Jays closest competition for second place and it should be an exciting race to keep an eye on throughout the season. I think it could come down to the slimmest of margins so I’ll summarize my prediction by saying the Blue Jays will finish either second or third in the AL East in 2017 behind the mighty Red Sox. Another deep playoff run from the Wild Card spot certainly would be fine with me.

JFTC: This is a tough call. With the Boston Red Sox having “won the offseason” the Blue Jays look to have an uphill battle in an already tough division. Even though Boston seems to have the injury bug working its way through their pitching staff, they’ll be tough again this season. Heck, every team in this division has a chance to compete every night. Even the Rays seem to find a way to give Toronto trouble.

That said, look for the Blue Jays to finish 2nd in the division, in a Wild Card spot at right around 87-90 wins.

BPT: 91-71. First place. David Price’s arm will sink the Red Sox.

500: I’m not as down on the Jays as many. Yes a lot needs to go right (health of the rotation, rebound years from a few guys), but I think they can still reach 90 wins and secure 2nd place and a wild card spot.

JJ: I personally think the Blue Jays will be better in 2017 with a healthy Jose Bautista ready to prove all his doubters wrong. Joey Bats has been locked and loaded since the first pitch of Grapefruit League action. The flexibility Steve Pearce affords John Gibbons as a first baseman or an outfielder will be extremely valuable with the question marks surrounding those positions.  The starting staff is second to none now that Liriano replaces Dickey and the bullpen is no worse than last season.  Devon Travis needs to find a way to remain healthy as he could be an integral part of the offence getting things started in the leadoff spot for the big guns.  If the Blue Jays are healthy they win the American League East with the Red Sox a close second.

ACB: I honestly think that the Jays have the chance to win the American League East, but only if they meet certain requirements. Something that destroyed the Jays last season was all of the injuries the 25-man roster players experienced/had. Whether it was Jose Bautista’s freak accidents, Josh Donaldson’s calf, or Devon Travis’s knee, there were always major injuries that hurt the Blue Jays. If they can somehow limit injuries (possibly by monitoring everyone’s health very closely, or telling them to make smart plays, no “show-boating”), the Jays will be in the first place race during the majority of the season. They also have to “show up to play” in April and September. April is the “first impression” phase in baseball, and the Jays need to prove that they are major postseason contenders at the very beginning of the season. For a team that has postseason expectations, it is important for them to win as many games as possible in September, if the 2016 Jays would have won more games in September, they would have surely beaten the Boston Red Sox for first place. Therefore, they need to keep the offence and motivation alive, as well as supporting the pitching staff. If the Jays can limit injuries and play to their expectations for every month of the season, they can win the American League East.

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

BJH: This is so difficult and it’s incredibly hard to narrow it down to just one player. I could probably give you four different players from four different eras: Dave Stieb, Roberto Alomar, Roy Halladay, Jose Bautista. Each of them were instrumental to the Blue Jays, but all four were distinctly different. Stieb was a bit of a curmudgeon off the field, but he was the consummate perfectionist on the field. Alomar was arguably one of the most dynamic overall baseball players of the 90’s. Halladay approached pitching with a robot-like efficiency. And Bautista is not only a polarizing figure, but he’s incredibly talented.

EB: Devon White. I grew up playing center field and for me White was the best. The fact that he played for the Blue Jays made it that much better. He was so graceful as an outfielder and seemed to run down everything. The funny thing about White is that he rarely had to dive to make a catch, his speed and range was so great, that even the hardest of catches he’d just end up catching on shoelaces.

BB: I think my all-time favorite Blue Jay would have to be middle infielder Aaron Hill who played for the team from 2005-2011. Although the team didn’t do much when he was around, the 1st round pick of the Jays in the 2003 draft always played extremely hard and seemed to be a quality person off the field as well. I think the reason he’s my favorite player is that he made his debut for the team around the time I was starting to get into the sport as a child and his triple to center field during that first game is one of my earliest memories of baseball that has stuck with me.

After his time in Toronto, Hill went on to the Diamondbacks where he hit for the cycle twice in one season. Then he split the 2016 season between the Brewers and the Red Sox (ew). Last I read he was fighting for a spot this spring with the Giants as a utility infielder.

JFTC: This is an easy one. I’ve always been a sucker for bats. The Blue Jays have a long history of sluggers. My childhood was full of favorites like George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby. But, my all time favorite is Carlos Delgado. That guy had such a pretty swing from the left side. He made power look so easy. And, he had such a contagious smile.

He still leads the Blue Jays organization in just about every offensive category, even though he hasn’t played there since 2004. He was a one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot, which I still decry as a travesty. He finished with 473 HR, 1512 RBI, he was a career .280 hitter with a total 44+ WAR. His numbers mightn’t have been HoF worthy, but to me, he was.

BPT: We spell it f-a-v-o-u-r-i-t-e in Canada, and it would have to be Jose Bautista. He’s not just a good ballplayer, but he is a fantastic entertainer, and a very decent human being. He cemented his legacy in hearts of Canadians everywhere with his home run and subsequent bat flip in 2015, and returning to Toronto for at least one more season will allow him to create even more memories with the team for us to cherish him with in the future.

500: Tony Fernandez, by a mile. Always loved the way he played SS, especially the little underhand flip throw he made from deep in the hole. 

JJ: My favorite Blue Jays would be Past- Reed Johnson and Present- Russell Martin. I really appreciate the body of work from those gritty, gamer type players who would run through a wall to make an out.

ACB: My all time favourite Blue Jay has to be José Bautista. I was born after the back-to-back 1992-1993 World Series wins, therefore José Bautista is my generation’s version of Joe Carter and/or Roberto Alomar. I always have “current favourite players”, and ever since last season I have been a big fan of Jason Grilli. Not only is he a great pitcher, but he seems to be a great teammate. Grilli’s energy and love of the game are infectious!

Lots of great stuff there from our Blue Jay friends!  Should be another exciting year north of the border!

2 comments

I’ll admit, I’m a bit hesitant to tackle the Kolten Wong situation.  Not because I don’t have opinions on the matter, of course, but because Tara did such a thorough job of going through it all Sunday night on Gateway. Some of this may be a retread for those that listened, but given the fact that this is one that is polarizing a lot of Cardinals fans, I thought I’d go through it again anyway.  (Plus, after I thought up the post title, there was no way I was going to not use it.)

I don’t figure anyone needs background, but just for a refresher, on Sunday John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny stated that it was likely Wong would start the year as a platoon second baseman instead of the overall starter that had seemed to be the plan most of the winter.  It touched a nerve with Wong, who apparently learned of this idea from media members, and he had some honest and candid comments about his place on this team.  Wong walked those back a little bit (or at least couched them in softer terms), but the damage was done.

Unsurprisingly, this has created two camps.  There’s a side that thinks Wong doesn’t have any reason to complain, what with his .184 spring average along with a career that has been more frustrating than outstanding.  There’s a side that thinks Wong has a point, that he’s never gotten the full faith and trust of his manager and that he’s right to be upset when the rug is pulled out from underneath him.  There’s a lot of truth in both positions.

We like to mock Matheny’s comments about “adversity” with Wong and say that some of that adversity was manager-created, but the simple fact is that everyone in the big leagues has to overcome some obstacles to have a successful career.  Whether it’s health, whether it’s being the newcomer trying to unseat a veteran, whether it’s a down year, players have to be able to come through those situations, learn from them, and be better.  So far, Wong hasn’t completely done that.  Whether there are extenuating circumstances or not probably depends on your point of view, as Obi-Wan used to say.

There comes a time where Wong has to produce on the field.  Honestly, he pretty much did in 2015.  Maybe not to the level of everyone’s expectations, but a .707 OPS with 11 home runs is not terrible from your second baseman.  Some of that is probably overshadowed by the fact that his second half was weaker (.238 BA, just 2 HR) but still, the entire package wasn’t that bad, especially from a young player.  As Tara noted Sunday, 2015 was also the only year they just ran him out there to play.  There was no Mark Ellis, there was no Jedd Gyorko, there were no trips to Memphis, he got 613 plate appearances and had a solid, if unremarkable, year.

“He’s got to hit to play” seems to be a popular mantra, but I’m not sure how much I buy into the fact that he’s had his chance and he’s not done anything with it.  After that solid 2015, you’d think he’d built up some credibility that he could play at this level.  That he’d be the guy they’d run out there day after day.  Many say that he played his way out of the starting role last year, that he had plenty of chances.  He didn’t have the strongest April (.226/.306/.226) but had just 62 plate appearances.  For comparison, Matt Carpenter had 109 (and was hitting .230, though with more power), Matt Holliday 85, Stephen Piscotty 101, Yadier Molina 94.  That’s what starter level is.  He was 30 PA behind the catcher–granted, the Cardinals use their catcher much more than other teams, but still–and 40 behind every day starters.  That’s basically 10 games worth of plate appearances, in a month where there were only 26-27 games.

So given the fact, as he’s stated recently, that Wong needs a rhythm and regular time to play, it is difficult to argue he got that coming out of the box last year.  Which, after a solid 2015–again, I acknowledge that the second half was iffy, which does raise some questions–has to make a player wonder about his standing, especially one as emotional as Wong.

There’s also a faction of folks that have supported Wong in the past but turned on him with the latest comments.  As Jon Doble said in his recent post about the situation (and I completely agree with the communication issue, something I’ve faulted this front office and management for a number of times in the past), we always say we want players to be authentic and honest.  What we really mean is we want them to be funny or say things that we agree with.  We saw with Dexter Fowler earlier in the year that it doesn’t take much out of those waters for folks to get irate.  Wong may have spoken in the heat of the moment, may have said things that perhaps he shouldn’t have, but you can understand where he’s coming from.  It’s more real than hearing the “whatever’s best for the team” cliche again, especially when there is real hurt there.

And I think that’s the major issue here.  It’s not that Wong’s losing playing time, which definitely doesn’t sit well, but it’s the fact that the organization continues to not trust him to play that sits heaviest on the second baseman.  Imagine you’d been told at work that you were going to be in charge of a project.  You spent the time to start preparing for that.  Maybe you worked on a few things that would make you better as a leader.  Then, soon before the project was to start, they put someone else in charge with you.  What would you think the company thought of your abilities?  Some folks would take that as a challenge to work harder, which is fair, but even so you are still going to feel that your employer doesn’t actually trust you enough to lead, right?

It’s a similar situation with Wong.  He dedicated himself this winter to the game.  He spent the winter in St. Louis instead of his home in Hawaii (which, man, talk about sacrificing for your craft).  Even as he said the right things at the Winter Warmup about going in to compete for a job in Jupiter, you have to figure that with Matheny and Mozeliak continuing to stress defense and baserunning and saying that he’s their second baseman because he can do both things, he had to at least have the mindset that he was in good shape when he got to spring.  You can argue if he should have thought that, if he should have had more of an edge, but it would be reasonable to think that he was the starter going into camp.

What do we say about starters in the spring?  That their results don’t matter, that they can focus on making adjustments, on working on things, and not care that their average is low.  That’s what we are seeing with Piscotty this spring.  He’s working on his swing and is hitting .157, but few are terribly concerned about him and there’s no talk of him not starting.  Not saying there should be, don’t get me wrong, but if he hadn’t been anointed the starter, the conversation around him would be significantly different.

So Wong could have (I don’t know that he did, but it’s reasonable) felt that he could work on getting better in spring instead of worrying about being the best he could be so he’d have a job.  From the outside looking in, it feels like Wong got dumped into a competition that he didn’t necessarily know he was in.  When you lose such a competition, it’s not surprising that you’d explode a little bit.  There’s a lot of frustration when the parameters shift without you being aware they did.  There’s a strong argument, as Craig Edwards wrote over at Viva El Birdos yesterday, that Matheny’s not really that interested in improving defense and baserunning.  It’s like going to put that final piece in the puzzle, only to find out the picture has completely changed.  There’s got to be a feeling of helplessness there.

Now obviously Jedd Gyorko has to play some of the time.  The man did have 30 home runs last year, though I want to point out that the team hit a lot of home runs and they missed the playoffs.  I feel like people are grabbing hold of that number as a lifeline.  Power is good, but that’s not usually the way the Cardinals win.  Ask Mark McGwire how far 70 and 65 homers got him in the playoffs.  Gyorko is a great asset to have, mainly because of his flexibility.  He’s going to need to play third, he’s going to need to fill in at second, he’ll probably even do a little shortstop.  So having him at second sometime is expected, not the end of the world.

And, honestly, I expected Wong to wind up sitting against lefties a lot of the time this season as well.  No matter if the Cardinals had announced Wong as their everyday second sacker, I was pretty sure that he’d be on the bench for Opening Day against Jon Lester.  I think at times handedness gets taken too far, but there was little chance that Wong (or Matt Adams, for that matter) would see a tough lefty.  Which is fine–guys do need to sit at times and taking them out on a day when they aren’t likely to have a lot of success makes sense.  There’s a difference between Lester and your back-end lefty, though, something that doesn’t always get acknowledged.

The problem is, as some folks pointed out on Twitter yesterday, Matheny doesn’t really platoon.  Wong saw over 20% of his plate appearances come against lefties last year.  It’s more that Matheny has two guys at a position and he plays who he wants or who has the “hot hand” or whatever rationale there might be, but it’s not at all a strict platoon where Gyorko faces lefties and Wong faces righties.  That’s never really happened under Matheny and I don’t think many expect that it’ll happen now.  Say Gyorko hits a home run opening night.  Will Wong start against Jake Arrieta on Tuesday?  Or will Matheny “reward” Gyorko for a good game?  If he gets two hits on Tuesday, would he then be the “hot hand” and need to start Wednesday while he’s doing well?  I don’t know, but it’s not an unreasonable scenario.  It’s one a lot of folks would expect.

Credit where credit is due, though.  They have given Wong a lot of spring at bats.  I know we half-jokingly complained when Wong wasn’t in the first lineup of the year, but he’s put up 49 AB this spring, as many as Jose Martinez and only four shy of camp leader Randal Grichuk.  Spring’s not the best place for a rhythm guy, given that you don’t play every day, there’s a lot of stops and starts to the at bats, but he has had opportunities.  He has brought at least some of this on himself.

That’s the rub, of course.  You can argue the reasons for the fact that he’s hitting .184, but if he’d hit .250 everyone would be a lot quieter.  That said, we all lived through the Pete Kozma experience, where the argument was that the lineup was strong enough that you could carry a .217 hitter because he had a stellar glove.  There’s no doubt that Wong’s glove at second base is stronger than anyone else’s.  Gyorko is serviceable there, but Wong makes Mike Leake and company much better.  So the question is, is this lineup strong enough to carry a glove-first man?  If it is, then why isn’t Wong out there most of the time?  If it’s not, why not?  Where’s the problem?

It figures that I started this post hesitant to tackle the topic and I’m ending it over 2000 words later.  Wong’s that kind of topic, one that seems to inspire/frustrate/aggravate a lot of fans.  It’s starting to feel like we are heading toward a Wong-or-Matheny situation and while I know there would be a good chunk of Cardinal Nation that would take the former, odds are the latter wins that one.  Maybe Kolten will come out of the gates hot and put a lot of this to rest.  If not, expect to hear his name in trade rumors all summer long.

I hope Wong can figure it all out and I hope that Matheny can get to the point where he trusts him enough to run him out there regularly and see what the Cards have.  I don’t have a lot of expectation that will happen, though.

0 comments

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!

Texas Rangers
95-67, first in AL West, lost in LDS
Last year’s Pepper

It’s been a good run for the Texas Rangers.  Save the 2014 aberration, the club has been first or second every year since 2008 and last year won the second-most regular season games in that span, just short of the 96 put up by the 2011 squad that went to the World Series.  However, since Nelson Cruz was unable to catch David Freese‘s drive, October hasn’t been kind to the club.  They’ve lost a Wild Card Game and two LDS, including being swept by the Blue Jays last year.

We’ve got four bloggers to talk about this interesting squad.  Jamey and Chris are old hands at this, but we welcome in Alex and Brandon and their perspective on the club.  Follow them all on Twitter for some great Rangers content!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Jamey Newberg The Newberg Report NewbergReport Spitballin'
Alex Al-Kazzaz Nolan Writin' BearManofTX
Chris Fox The Texas Rangers Blog TTRBTweets
Brandon Land One Strike Away onestrikeaway

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?

NR: It was unrealistic to expect Texas to pony up for Chris Sale (in trade) or Edwin Encarnacion or Ian Desmond (in dollars), but I was hopeful that the club would find a way to trade for Chris Archer or Jose Quintana, and sign Mike Napoli and Carlos Gomez. They got the latter two moves done, and while they didn’t add someone to the top of the rotation to join Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish (notably, no team met Tampa Bay’s or Chicago’s price on Archer or Quintana), the prospect of Tyson Ross returning to health and to form on a pillow deal is intriguing. I’m a little less bullish on Andrew Cashner but open-minded given that his production — mostly for underachieving teams — has seemingly fallen short of his upside.

Another thing that is frequently overlooked with this club is that its July moves are often designed not only to boost that season’s pennant run, but also to address roster needs for the following season. As in 2015, when Texas added Hamels, Sam Dyson, and Jake Diekman before the trade deadline and had multiple years of control of all three after that summer, the Rangers added Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress last summer with more than just 2016 in mind. (Gomez and Carlos Beltran were on expiring deals, but of course they re-upped with Gomez.) So when judging the Rangers’ winter, it’s only fair to dial back to the trade deadline to see who was acquired a few months — and an extra pennant race — early. Adding Lucroy, Gomez, Napoli, Ross, Cashner, and Jeffress is a pretty solid haul.

NW: I think it was a decent off-season for the Texas Rangers. After a heart-breaking early exit from the playoffs last season, it was going to be a long and tough off-season. But that’s in the past and this team needs to focus on the future. They did do what they needed to do. They brought back some needed players, as well as sign some players. To me, Arlington is the land of opportunity! Well, for baseball players, anyway. Because this off-season and many prior off-seasons, they signed some players with derailing careers. Texas brought them in and gave the chance. That’s a good way of building a roster. Bring guys in, give them a chance, and boom. Well, I would have loved for Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo to sign with Texas. There were rumors that it maybe JUST maybe it would happen, but truth be told, I knew Texas wasn’t going to risk it due to their very high payroll. I think Texas did the right thing by not giving big contracts to free agents. In my opinion, Texas is planning to save up to re-sign Yu Darvish, and extend Rougned Odor, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Nomar Mazara. It’s wiser to keep young guys rather than aging guys. Keep in mind, a franchise needs players with FUTURES and not PASTS. 

TRB: The offseason was typical for the Rangers. I never really expect them to make a splash, because they don’t typically go after any of the big names. I think they filled the holes they needed to with the highest value players they thought they could get. The starting pitching usually makes me nervous going into the year, and everyone in the outfield played very well at times, but showed inconsistency. It was tough to watch Ian Desmond leave, but they were never going to pay him that kind of money. He was a leader in the clubhouse, and seemed to come up with some huge hits last year for a team that needed a lot of late inning heroics. I would have loved for them to pick up somebody like Cespedes, who could hit a ton at The Ballpark, but that’s not realistic, given they don’t spend big money in free agency right now.

Forget everything I just said. This was a very successful offseason because they didn’t even entertain the idea of offering Jose Bautista a contract.

OSA: It’s unclear just yet how good or bad the offseason was for Texas. The front office, still led by Jon Daniels, appears to have taken a low-risk high-reward approach. That is, they signed a number of reclamation projects in hopes that even a few of them will stick and provide excess value. Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner are both pitchers that are coming off of disappointing seasons — Ross due to injury, Cashner due to underperformance — but the organization seems to think there might be something there to tap into.

Beyond that, the Rangers were able to bring Carlos Gomez back on a one-year deal. The hope will be that he’s closer to the player he was in the second half of 2016 rather than the first half while he was in Houston. If so, center field looks really good for Texas in 2017.

C70: How exciting was it to see Ivan Rodriguez enter the Hall of Fame on his first ballot?

NR: More exciting for me than I expected it would be (as I spelled out in this story). I’m not a big awards guy, and knew Pudge would eventually be in Cooperstown, but the fact that it happened on his first ballot did fire me up . . . unexpectedly.

NW: When I heard that Ivan was going to be inducted, I was filled with joy. I said to myself, “It’s about time!” He’s one of the greatest players in history. Truth be told, he may be the greatest catcher in history. I was beyond excited. The news broke out on my birthday, so that added a lot of happiness. Ivan truly deserves it. I am very happy for him. 

TRB: It was amazing. There aren’t enough Rangers hats in the Hall of Fame. He was incredible to watch, because there really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, an amazing catcher who could hit 30 HR’s and steal bases. One of the best things I read about him around his induction was that his career base stealing percentage was higher than the players that tried to run against him. And he came up in the system. To me, he was still a Ranger after he left, and it was no surprise that he retired that way.

OSA: Seeing Ivan Rodriguez make it into the Hall of Fame was a pretty neat moment for me. As a child, Pudge was the first player I ever idolized, and it was because of him that I played catcher for many years growing up. Back in 1996, my family and I inadvertently stood in line for a Pudge autograph session because we thought it was the line just to get into the gift shop at the ballpark. Turns out, Pudge was my first autograph.

C70: What one thing has to go right for this to be a successful season?

NR: It’s always health. But if you’re asking for a specific key for the club, I’d say it’s going to be for Hamels to pitch like he did in the first half last season and for Darvish, in his contract year, to take his game to another level that we all know is in there. If those two pitch to capability, there should be enough offense and bullpen depth to overcome questions in the back half of the rotation — and Texas is always prepared to boost the club at trade time in July.

NW: The key for the Rangers to have a successful season is to STAY positive. They need to stay healthy and focused. If they can do so, they can win series after series, which prevents negativity from invading. The Rangers have got plenty of talent. The type of talent capable of going to the World Series and bringing the title to Arlington.

TRB: The one thing they have to do is fix their run differential. I think they ended last year at +8, and it would be incredibly difficult to see them duplicate that stat and win 95 games again. They certainly got blown out a handful of times, which skews that stat, but it’s mainly a factor of winning something like 36 one-run games. As exciting as last year was, if we rely on it playing out like that again, I think we’ll be disappointed.

OSA: The one thing that needs to go right for the season to end up as a successful one is the starting pitching. Health in the rotation would obviously be the first indicator of that, but beyond health concerns, Texas will need contributions from the back-end of the rotation. Yes, the Rangers were historically good in one-run games in 2016. However, that’s not exactly a repeatable skill that you can hang your hat on as a baseball club. The offense is going to score. Run prevention will be the key for the 2017 club.

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

NR: While many eyes are on Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar to see whether both can restore the elite status they had as prospects and fulfill their promise, Ryan Rua is a player who could sneak up on folks and put up the kind of unexpected production that helps good teams get where they want to be. Rua punishes left-handed pitching, is versatile defensively, and will likely be counted on heavily.

NW: Matt Bush. A few years ago, Bush was serving a prison sentence. When he was released, the Texas Rangers gave him a shot, and it worked out very well. Now he’s performing at the Major-League level and he’s doing great. He’s come a long way from being the #1 overall pick in the 2004 MLB Draft, to being a convicted felon, to now making his way to becoming a star for the Texas Rangers. 

TRB: I almost use this as my answer for #3, because I think they need one more really good starting pitcher. I think Tyson Ross could very well be that man if he can stay healthy. Going into last year, he was a dark horse Cy Young candidate for a lot of people. His season was completely derailed when he got injured in the 1st game; he never made it back last season. There still isn’t a lot known about recovering from thoracic outlet surgery, but if he can get, and stay, healthy, he could be a great #3 for the Rangers. Martin Perez might still get there, but last season wasn’t encouraging. and the rest of the potential staff is uninspiring. AJ Griffin was a feel good story last year, but he gives up far too many home runs. And Andrew Cashner has shown flashes in his career, but if he’s a starter, he’ll be injured for much of the year. So, I’m keeping my eyes on Ross.

OSA: Given the front office strategy I mentioned previously, it’s hard to pick any one player as “the guy to watch”. But if you’re putting a gun to my head, I would probably go with Mike Hauschild. Hauschild is a right-handed starting pitcher that Texas picked up from Houston in the Rule 5 draft. He pitched at Triple-A last season, and while there, but up fairly solid numbers. His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he posted up a solid K/BB ratio, and if he can do more of the same, he just might have a spot in the Texas rotation at some point, if not directly out of Spring Training.

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

NR: I checked to see how I answered this last year. Back then I said: “I hate predicting records in March, but this feels like an 89-win team — and there’s always a strong possibility with this club that an impact player or two is added in July, and that could boost the win projection further.” They then went out and won 95 games, most in the AL.

I think I’d issue the same prediction this year — 89 wins, and probably a couple more if the club is playing well enough in July to invest prospects in a trade deadline deal or two.

NW: Hard to say. They’ve certainly got the talent to win a third consecutive A.L. West title, there’s no doubt about it. I can’t predict a record, but I predict they win more than 90 games, win the A.L. West again, and this time, they’ll get past the first round again. 

TRB: I think there’s going to be some regression this year. Their infield is great, and if the outfield can be the better versions of themselves from last year, then the team could score more runs this year. The pitching obviously leaves me feeling less certain. I’ll put them at 87 wins, which I think puts them neck and neck with the Astros, and a few games ahead of the Mariners. I’m going to say it ends up with the Rangers on top, but it will be incredibly close, and if the Astros add anymore pitching, this could change.

OSA: Projecting the team’s record is where it gets a little tough. I truly believe that this year’s club will actually be improved from the one a season ago, but I’m not sure that translates as well in the W-L column. Houston is improved, and it’s virtually impossible that they finish as poorly against Texas as their 4-15 record in 2016 would indicate. That alone could swing much of the momentum in favor of Houston. Seattle also figures to be, at the very least, a tough team in 2017. I’ll go with 88 wins and a 2nd-place finish for the Texas Rangers, with a high probability of playing in the Wild Card game.

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

NR: Adrian Beltre.

I feel like to explain why would take either a thousand words, or none.

I’ll go with the latter.

NW: My favorite Ranger of all-time is Michael Young. My top 5 favorite Rangers: Michael Young, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Nolan Ryan, and Rusty Greer. Young is my favorite because I grew up watching him. When I was 11, I won an essay contest at school. My reward? Two tickets to a Ranger game. I went with my Dad. Texas won the game. At that time, Young was playing shortstop, and in that game, he went 3-5 and scored two runs. That game was my very first Ranger game and when I saw how great of a player Young was, he became my favorite. And one day, I really hope to meet him. 

TRB: So, this is probably based solely upon my childhood, but it’s probably Ruben Sierra. He was the man when I started becoming more aware about baseball. I had just started collecting baseball cards, and I tried to emulate his swing when I was playing ball with friends. I still love Nolan, and wish he were still part of the team, and there were quite a few other obvious choices, but it’s Sierra for me.  

OSB: This one actually isn’t terribly difficult. Adrian Beltre. The man just has fun and keeps producing at a level well beyond what any of us could have expected at his age. He’s a real treasure, and the day he retires will be a sad one for baseball.

Appreciate all these guys letting us have a little more knowledge about the Rangers.  Should be another hot season down in Texas!

1 comment

After a weekend where plenty of characters and lots of air time (including some of my own) was used dissecting what the deadline for a contract extension laid down by Yadier Molina meant, yesterday Jon Heyman reported that significant progress had been made toward that extension, giving Cardinal fans hope that perhaps a deal could be reached by Opening Night after all.  A topic that seemed to have stalled all winter long seems to have finally picked up steam.  Whether that’s a correlation to the recent media press Yadi and his brother Bengie Molina have put on the Cardinals or just coincidental timing, I don’t know nor is it really important.  The important thing is that the club and the catcher are talking about keeping him around.

When this news first hit the Internet yesterday afternoon, I had a good back and forth with Rum Bunter, the account for a Pirates blog.  Their point of view, which is perfectly reasonable, is that no matter the situation, overpaying for a player is not a good thing.  Our discussion culmunated with this Tweet from them:

Again, I get that completely.  Almost every time, that’s what you want to see out of your front office.  You don’t want to see them spending willy-nilly on everybody that’s played in your team’s uniform.  You don’t want them just throwing around money like StlCardsCards throws around insults.  You want a smart, disciplined front office to make sure your team is competitive year in and year out.

Which the Cardinals have!  There’s a reason they’ve been the most successful National League team (and perhaps the most successful MLB team) over the past two decades.  While they’ve offered some big contracts that haven’t been accepted, they’ve also not just given a blank check to players, whether it is folks they want to entice (David Price), folks they’d like to retain (Jason Heyward), or folks that are franchise icons (Albert Pujols).  I’m not suggesting that they make a significant change in their operating procedure.  Jhonny Peralta will have been here four years at the end of the season, but you don’t hear anybody saying that they should back up the vault truck to try to keep him.

To borrow some imagery from Cassie’s latest blog post on Kolten Wong (a post you should read and a topic I’ll try to get to in this space soon, though Tara did a pretty good job covering it on Gateway), Yadi sits the intersection of Iconic Drive, Available Money Lane, and Short-Term Deal Parkway.  It’s an intersection that, frankly, nobody else has been at in a long while.  Pujols was iconic, but his deal wasn’t going to be short-term and could have really bogged down the payroll for a long period of time.  Nobody else has risen to that level.  Perhaps the last player that you could say this about was Chris Carpenter, who signed a two-year extension worth $21 million in the afterglow of his amazing 2011 postseason.  Obviously, that didn’t work out great for the Cardinals, but I have never heard anyone complain about the fact Carpenter ended his career with the Cardinals, even if the money would be technically deemed money ill spent.

That gets us back to our friends at Rum Bunter.  What does love have to do with it?  Should emotion play any part in a front office’s approach to a player?  Are they going against their “fiduciary duty” (as it were) when they aren’t completely analytical with how they spend their money?

I don’t think so.  Again, you have to know the situation and you can’t be completely ruled by emotion, otherwise you turn into a Sith Lord and….oh, wait, wrong obsession of mine.  No, baseball is a business and has to be treated as such.  However, in the good businesses, long-time employees are rewarded.  Yes, it might be a better practice to let the person that’s been with the company 30 years go because they are starting to be less productive as it relates to their salary, but it’s also terrible public relations.  You hear about that from a friend or on the news and you don’t immediately clamor to do business with that company.  Quite the opposite.  (I’m not talking about economic downturn or anything, to be clear.  Obviously situations like this happen more frequently when the company is struggling.)

The Cardinals are awash in cash and they’ve not even started the new $1 billion FOX Sports Midwest deal yet (that kicks in next year).  Viva El Birdos looked at the upcoming salaries in December (before the Carlos Martinez extension) for the next five years.  Zach Gifford of Redbird Rants and The Redbird Daily had a more up-to-date one for the next three seasons that he shared on Twitter and I’m shamelessly stealing to put in here.

Zach has some estimates built into this (obviously Yadi doesn’t have anything for 2019 yet, nor does Adam Wainwright) but it’s a good place to start.  Right now the Cardinals (according to this site) rank right in the middle of the pack when it comes to payroll.  Obviously you have to factor in some factors, such as market size and the like, but it’s not unreasonable to think they could support a payroll that was more like the fifth or sixth highest in the game with the devoted fanbase, the new television contract, and all their ancillary avenues of revenue such as their share of MLBAM, merchandising, etc.

When you are pinching pennies, of course you can’t let emotion flow into your decision making.  You have to get the most out of your dollar that you can.  As I’ve said, all front offices should do that, but there are rare times like this that when you have the extra money, you can afford to be a little sentimental.  Front offices are made up of people, after all, and that’s what people do.  It’s the whole entire reason that there’s a site like ThinkGeek.  If you want to get the most out of your money and be completely practical, you aren’t buying the R2-D2 popcorn maker.  If you love Star Wars and popcorn, though, and have the extra cash, you might splurge.

You can’t clean out the front offices and let a simulation game like OOTP18 take over.  There are humans running a team for the benefit of other humans and that’s great.  You have to be able to recognize the intangibles of what a player like Molina gives you, something that a spreadsheet can’t calculate.  I don’t want this to seem a rehash of the old sabermetrics versus scouting/gut feeling battle, because it’s not, but what John Mozeliak has done a great job of is marrying the analytics to the human.  Those thoughts, those emotions, have to play a role.

And it’s not like the Cardinals are trying to extend a broken-down has been just because he’s got ties to the organization.  Yadier Molina, at least right now, can still play.  Will he be able to do that for the next three years?  That’s a gamble.  But right now, given how he played in the second half of last year and his stellar performance in the World Baseball Classic, Molina still has the profile of a starting major league catcher.  If a contract gets done, it’s not entirely a sop to the fanbase and a long-time employee.

Not only that, but there’s a value to having Molina around while a new generation of young pitchers is making its way to Busch Stadium.  You can discount the legend of Yadier Molina, Pitcher Whisperer by 25% and you still have a remarkable teacher and player with insights on the game.  The mind of Yadi has as much to do with the player that he is than any physical attributes.  What price do you put on that?  How do you include that variable into what you offer him?

Then factor in all the jerseys, shirts, and other memorabilia that you can sell forever if Molina ends his career as a Cardinal.  Sure, you see Pujols and others around the ballpark, but when was the last time the clubhouse store sold a Pujols shirt?  I can’t imagine they’ve stocked them since 2011.  Yet you can find Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Stan Musial, and the like.  If a player can end their career in St. Louis as a beloved figure, the club is going to be able to make money off of it over the long haul.  There’s a financial benefit to locking up Yadi as well.

I don’t know if this is going to get done.  The Cardinals are usually pretty secretive about their contract dealings, so having this leak out is a little strange.  Perhaps it’s their way of putting it more on Molina if things don’t get done.  Perhaps they did feel the fan heat–Yadi’s the rare player that I’ve heard sabermetricians and casual fans agree should be paid, whatever the deal requires–and they are letting folks know they are making a late push.  All I know is that if the contract gets done, it might not be the most business-savvy move, it will likely be a deal Molina can’t live up to, and it will definitely have us discussing Carson Kelly‘s future.  (I still hope for the graduated transition we talked about in December.)  I do know that keeping Yadi in St. Louis is not going to torpedo the club and will allow the fans to enjoy the entire career of a legendary player, a player they love.  I’m fine with that.  Every once in a while, you have to do something at least somewhat illogical.  Helps prove you’re human, I think.

It’s not logical that we love this game and these players like we do.  Occasionally, it’s fine if the front office remembers that.  This is one of those times.

1 comment

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!

Tampa Bay Rays
68-94, fifth in AL East
Last year’s Pepper

For whatever reason, it seems like the Rays have slipped a bit from the collective consciousness of the baseball scene.  Whether it’s due to Joe Maddon moving on to some other team we don’t need to talk about or three straight sub-.500 years taking a bit of the bloom off the rose, Tampa Bay is now a bit of an afterthought, especially in what is a powerhouse AL East.

There’s still good things going on in Tampa, though, and we’ve got some bloggers here to prove it.  We’ve got a mix of Pepper veterans and a newcomer to talk about the Rays for 2017, so check out their stuff and read on!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Althea Pashman Rays Colored Glasses TBSportExaminer
Mat Germain D Rays Bay MatGermain76
Anthony Ateek X-Rays Spex XRaysSpex

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?

RCG: So far, it looks to be an outstanding offseason, though they made numerous trades, and signed a few free agents, which included trading starter Drew Smyly and second baseman Logan Forsythe, the return will not only help in 2017 but for the future as well. So far, they have done just about everything they have needed to do – first landing a catcher in Wilson Ramos, adding a defensive centerfielder in Mallex Smith along with a power bat in Colby Rasmus. However, they are still looking for a right-handed bat/1B/DH type of player and another arm for the bullpen.  

A move that I wished they had done was trade Tim Beckham. Nothing against him personally, but the Rays have treated him since day one with respect and class as a person and player, and given him every opportunity – and so far he has done nothing in return. I hope that his time in the doghouse last fall was a wakeup call.

DRB: In a sense, it was a typical offseason for the Rays this offseason in that they dealt away some salary and acquired depth of talent in return. However, the feel this year has more of a “going for it” feel than in previous years. It may not seem like much, but the free agent signings of Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, Shawn Tolleson, and Nathan Eovaldi all point to buy low options that the Rays hope will break out and provide the kind of talent the Rays can’t normally afford on the FA market. Between them, we’ve got a gold-glove caliber C (for the first time in Rays history one that balances the bat and the glove), an outfielder who can man LF at a gold-glove caliber (combined with KK in CF it should have a major impact on pitchers), a potential setup man who has closing experience, and a potential late year pen addition that will certainly help the club in 2018.

They absolutely did what they needed to do. They not only added to their weak spots, but they got a potential middle to top of the order arm in Jose De Leon for a 2B that was going to be replaced by a cheaper option anyhow and had likely reached his peak in both performance and affordability for the Rays. They added a LHP that some believe will be the same kind of pitcher as the one he was acquired for (Drew Smyly) and also added speed and OF depth in Mallex Smith, something that was lacking in 2016 when they only managed 60 SB. The Rays needed to be able to win games in different ways than just the long ball (surprisingly in top 6 in both ISO and HRs last season), and that should help address it. Not only did they acquire those two great options that could help in 2017, but they also acquired a high ceiling SS/3B in Carlos Vargas that they wanted to grab in the international market but couldn’t due to a $300K restriction. Along with up-and-coming Adrian Rondon and Kevin Padlo, he’ll compete to eventually replace Evan Longoria in TB.

There are two moves they could have made that stand out to me over any other, and they’re tied together position wise. Logan Morrison was a huge disappointment in 2016 and is nowhere near the defensive player that Mitch Moreland is. With Moreland at 1B, the Rays would have added yet another GG caliber defender, and they likely would have received a better offensive performance, all for a small increase in costs (approx $3M). Take away the $2M they’re spending on Eovaldi’s healing period – during which they’ll receive nothing at all, and it’s a mere $1M difference. That was a big miss imo. As for Morrison, I would have rather the Rays use Miller at 1B and kept 2B a battle between Franklin and Beckham than to spend money on someone I view as a lesser option than Casey Gillaspie.

XRS: I would call it a decent offseason. The Rays made some good moves, like the acquisitions of Wilson Ramos and Colby Rasmus – which shore the defense behind the plate and in the outfield – as well as the re-inking of Logan Morrison. In kind, the addition of Mallex Smith, who is a Gold Glove caliber outfielder at all three spots, adds to the Rays superb outfield.

However, they lost fan favorite Logan Forsythe in the trade with the Dodgers for Jose De Leon, which set them back in certain terms. Tampa Bay could use another left-handed relief pitcher, an outfielder and/or bench depth, and someone who could increase the on base percentage numbers of this lineup.

C70: Evan Longoria seemed to have a bit of a bounce-back year last season. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 31. What are the expectations for him this year?

RCG: Longo had an outstanding 2016 and there is no reason why 2017 will be any different. Kiermaier (#2) and Miller (#4) will likely sandwich Longo (#3), plus doubles hitter Matt Duffy and Steven Souza Jr. in the 5th and 6th hole adds plenty of protection.

DRB: In truth, I’m a massive supporter of Longoria and he has been playing through injuries of late, something that hurt his performances. Just
as with Adrian Beltre in Texas, he’s the rock of the infield and deserves more credit than he’s received for managing the highest WAR rating among 3B (47.1 to Beltre’s 46.1) since he broke into MLB in 2008. As to what to expect in 2017, he apparently was upset about the loss of Logan Forsythe, but we believe that once he sees Willy Adames play, he’ll understand why the move was made. I expect that if healthy, a similar season to 2016 should be expected with a chance to improve on the number of runs driven in as he gets more support in the lineup late in the season from Ramos, Adames, and possibly Casey Gillaspie.

XRS: Regression happens, and Longoria will likely regress from last season’s campaign. How much will he regress is the question.

The ZiPS projection system has Longoria slashing .266 BA/.318 OBB/.485 SLG/.803 OPS/.336 wOBA/113 wRC+ with 30 homers, 79 runs, 88 RBI and a 3.5 fWAR – down from last season, yet not terrible by any stretch of the imagination. ZiPS also projects a 12% drop in ISO (from .248 to .219), however, his exit velocity and improved launch angle suggests that might be a tad pessimistic.

C70: What kind of job competition will go on during spring training?

RCG: The biggest competition during spring training will be for second base if the Rays decide to fill the position internally, which will come between Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham. However, I have a feeling the Rays will move Brad Miller, because of his athleticism over to second as they make way for their right-handed bat/1B/DH.

DRB: That was a major focus of the front office this offseason. In 2016, for example, there was no player pushing Steven Souza or Corey Dickerson for playing time. Their jobs were fairly secure. The front office wanted to create a competitive environment, so they brought in Rasmus and Smith, giving them 4 outfielders fighting for 2 spots. The same can be said in the infield, where both Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham will get to fight it out with Brad Miller for the 2B position, while Morrison and Dickerson fight it out with those players for the DH role when not on the field. Then we have MLB ready players like Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames ready to step in when needed. But by far, the biggest battle for the Rays in 2017 is the fight for the 5th spot in the rotation. I recently wrote a piece noting how deep the Rays rotation is and how many MLB ready arms they have to use. It’s incredible, really, particularly when contrasted to the shallow rotations in Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore.

XRS: There is competition at the catching position with three players – Curt Casali, Luke Maile and Jesus Sucre – vying for two roster spots. This, of course, is while the Rays await the return of Wilson Ramos, who is recovering from knee surgery.

On the infield, with Matt Duffy’s slow recovery from offseason heel surgery, INF Daniel Robertson — who’s looked better at the plate, and in the field, since the start of Spring Training — could make the team as a utility infielder behind Tim Beckham, given their newfound need for a right-handed bat. That, however, depends on whether the Rays add a right-handed hitting outfielder. Robertson is also competing against Michael McKenry and Nick Franklin for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

As for the bullpen, Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno are certainties, as are Brad Boxberger, Shawn Tolleson and Erasmo Ramirez. Beyond that, Danny Farquhar, Ryan Garton, Ryne Stanek and Jose Alvarado are battling for spots.

There have been trade rumors swirling around Ramirez, which would open a roster spot, while Boxberger is expected to start the season on the DL, which will open another.

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

RCG: Matt Duffy – I truly believe that if he stays healthy the Rays will see the Duffy of 2015 when he came in 2nd for the NL Rookie of the year, batting .295 with 12 home runs and 77 RBIs. These numbers are match-able.

DRB: It’s funny, we just had that discussion recently and the truth is that the Rays are extremely dangerous because so many of their players could break out. Souza, for example, was on pace for a career year and 30+ HR before he sustained a hip injury. Look at his stats the first two months of 2016, and it tells the tale. Both Franklin and Beckham finished the year on a tear and will be asked to do more this season, and Corey Dickerson finished the year with a .323/.356/.594 line through his last 100 PA. There’s a lot to look forward to at the plate.

XRS: That’s a tough question, but I have to go with Mallex Smith if only for the amount of work he puts into perfecting the art of bunting.

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

RCG: I truly believe that the Rays will have a chance for the post-season in 2017 especially if they remain healthy and get solid pitching performances from Archer, Odorizzi, Snell, Cobb and De Leon and as well, a repeat season of offensive production from Longoria, Miller plus further development from Steven Souza. New hitting Chad Mottola has his work cut out, but he has done wonders and fans should see a remarkable difference in the hitters approach under his direction. Where will the Rays finish… third place at 89-73 behind the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.

DRB: As we already saw this offseason with Eduardo Rodriguez‘ knee issues and Chris Tillman receiving a PRP shot in the shoulder, pitching is a fragile thing and depth will be required. It’s not an if, it’s a when. So, with that in mind, the improvement I expect to see at the plate, the major improvement expected from Ramos and Adames, and the pending addition of Jose De Leon as the 5th starter, I expect the Rays to be above .500 this year. How far will depend on how the other teams in the AL East hold up. If either David Price or Chris Sale were to falter, for instance, it significantly changes the landscape. For now, as a wild shot, I’ll but the Rays at 86 wins with a chance to win 90 if the lack of depth on their AL East rivals impacts them. Overall, they should be in the fight for a wild card.

XRS: If only I could see into a crystal ball. Instead, I will defer to analytics and computers.

Bouncing back from a 68 win season is no easy task, yet the PECOTA projection system likes the Rays’ off-season moves and is forecasting Tampa Bay as the sixth best team in the American League, and second best team in the AL East with a mean average of 84 wins to 78 losses. A lot of things will have to go right for the Rays to end the season as contenders.

An interesting side to the projection, PECOTA pegs Tampa Bay’s defense to save 27.0 fielding runs above average (FRAA) — tied for fourth best in the AL. When compared with the other teams in the AL East, the Rays (tied with Toronto) the others by a fairly negligible margin…unless you’re the Baltimore Orioles and are projected for a -4.3 FRAA.

Overall, the Rays are projected for a total WAR of 32.6 (12.1 pitching and 20.5 non-pitching) — second best in the AL East behind Boston (39.4).

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

RCB: My favorite Ray is Rocco Baldelli and you ask why? To see a player with such athleticism and baseball abilities have his career cut short due to a debilitating muscular disorder (Mitochondrial Channelopathy) at age 29, and never give up hope that it ain’t over, till it’s over is remarkable. He learned to overcome his baseball struggles as a hitter and quickly rose through the Rays organization and if not for Mitochondrial Channelopathy, which is a cell disorder that causes muscle fatigue, a promising career that would have turned into something really special.

DRB: Evan Longoria, and it’s not even close. The character is off the charts, the performances is above all others at the hot corner since he’s been in MLB, and to me he’s the first clear cut HOF player the Rays will send into Cooperstown unless things get seriously derailed between now and the time he hangs up the spikes. Just to put it into perspective, with 4 more seasons at 25+ HR and 3 more seasons at 20+ HRs, he’ll be above 400 HRs. Only 28 players in the HOF have more than 400 HRs. He sits at 806 RBI and if we avg his next 7 years at 75 RBI, he reaches 1325 which puts him in the vicinity of recent inductees Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez and well above the AVG HOFer which is 1221. Longoria has a .834 OPS so far, which puts him ahead of guys like Paul Molitor, Barry Larkin, and Andrew Dawson and ties him with Roberto Clemente. And finally, with an average of 150 hits through the next 7 seasons and a few more at 100, he’ll exceed 2500 hits, which puts him ahead of the average HOFer and in the range of Frank Thomas. In short, he should be everyone’s favourite Rays player ever, because he’s been the absolute best and has been nothing but determined to win throughout his tenure in TB.

XRS: Hands down, Ben Zobrist. The former Ray, in my opinion, exemplifies what it means to be a solid ball player and an all-around good human being. And while he may be regressing – growing older has an effect on all of us – Zobrist still works hard and his reputation precedes him.

I met BenZo a few years back when I taught at a different elementary school. A student had won a promotional contest in which his class got the opportunity to meet him. Knowing my love of the Rays, the school’s community coordinator went out of her way to let me meet Zobrist privately. And while it was like talking to Springsteen, in that I geeked out really hard, Zobrist’s character and everyman demeanor shined through and put me at ease. Being the nerd that I am, I will always cherish the baseball he autographed for me.

My thanks to these gentlemen and lady for their thoughts on the Rays.  It’ll be interesting to see if they can bounce back into the heart of that tough divisional race!

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