Top 5 Cardinal Stories for 2016

Every year, as part of the general United Cardinal Bloggers calendar, members are encouraged to write about their picks for the top five stories that happened in the last calendar year.  I forgot to remind the membership to do that this year, but I figured I’d go ahead and take a crack at it anyway.

5. Aledmys Diaz steps in and steps up.  When Jhonny Peralta went down with a thumb injury during spring training, it looked like a critical blow to the Cardinals.  Sure, Diaz was doing well in spring training, but March’s results often dissipate like fog on a summer morning.  The club wasn’t sold on his spring strength, nor the strong six weeks he put in during 2015 after being designated off the 40-man roster, and went out and signed Ruben Tejada who had been released by the Mets.

Thankfully for the club and for Diaz, Tejada came up lame in the last spring training game, clearing the way for Diaz to shine.  All he did was hit .500 through his first 48 professional at-bats.  He hit .423 in April and while obviously he cooled from that during the year, he still managed to hit .300, crank 17 home runs (including a powerful one after the loss of his best friend Jose Fernandez), and make the All-Star team after Matt Carpenter had to withdraw due to injury.

It wasn’t all perfect, of course.  Diaz’s defense was rough at times, though it seemed to improve as the season wore on.  He’s not likely to ever be a Gold Glover, but he shouldn’t be as shaky as he was in the first half of the season, when he made most of his 16 errors.  He slumped occasionally at the plate, though did work his way out by making adjustments to the adjustments being made to him.  John Mozeliak has indicated that he believes Diaz can be the future at short, at least for the near-term.  2017 is going to be big for Diaz, who needs to prove he’s not a one-hit wonder.

4. Cardinals lead the NL in home runs.  For fans of Whiteyball, when Whitey Herzog was fairly sure his team’s home run total would catch Roger Maris, this season must have been a shock to the senses.  St. Louis hit 225 home runs, second only to Baltimore’s 253 in the major leagues.  They would tie a record with a home run in 25 straight games during the season and set a record with three pinch-hit home runs April 8 against the Braves.  Jedd Gyorko, who hit 30 homers on the year, cranked one while playing every infield position.  With Matt Holliday‘s dramatic homer in the last homestand, they had six players smash at least 20 long balls and nine that got 10 or more, with Tommy Pham falling one short of making it double digits for double digits.

Obviously, as we’ll discuss in a bit, home runs by themselves do not a successful team make.  That said, there was something exciting about knowing the team never was really out of it, that there were a number of players that could come off the bench and tie up a one-run game.  It was a strange season for the Cardinals and it’s unlikely this portion will be repeated, but it was an interesting oasis in the regular less-than-powerful run of the Redbirds.

3. Cardinals sign Dexter Fowler to a five-year deal.  When the offseason started, John Mozeliak identified some issues that he wanted to address to make the team better.  At the top of the list was getting more athletic and to improve the defense.  All eyes turned to center field, which seemed the easiest way to deal with that, but as the winter meetings came and went, nothing had been finalized to fix that position.

As the team’s brain trust returned from Washington D.C., though, a press conference was called and it was soon learned that the club had signed Dexter Fowler, their top offseason target, to a five-year, $82.5 million deal.  Fowler, who probably had a career year last season with the Chicago Cubs, brings a OBP presence and some speed to the top of the lineup, bumping Matt Carpenter down (probably to third, though second might be the better spot).  There are differing opinions about his defense, but the combination of Fowler/Randal Grichuk should be stronger than Grichuk/Holliday was last year.

Fowler already is ingraining himself to the club and the fanbase, being an active Twitter user and using the account to retweet fans and host giveaways.  His Instagram of his young daughter wearing a Cardinals cap was an immediate hit.  Mozeliak stated at the press conference that he looked forward to seeing Fowler’s personality modify the clubhouse, though we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out.  All in all, it seems like the Cardinals have a winning move on their hands with the new addition.  If nothing else, Cardinal Twitter had improved at least 100% with this kind of personality being on there.

2. Alex Reyes makes his major league debut.  We’d heard about him for quite some time.  The fireballing phenom.  The top ace talent that was on his way.  We saw him make some of the top prospects in the game look silly at the Futures Game out in San Diego.

And then, finally, he was here.  August 8th, it was announced that Alex Reyes would be joining the major league squad as a bullpen piece, while Luke Weaver would come up later in the week and take over Michael Wacha‘s spot in the rotation.  He made his debut that night in a loss to the Reds, but showed everyone just what the hype was about.

Reyes could hit 100 mph like he was just casually playing catch.  His offspeed stuff could make folks look silly.  While his command was still a work in progress, it was notably better in the majors than it had been on his climb up, which may have been a case of heightened focus, it could have been a case of getting to work with Yadier Molina.  Whatever the case, Reyes eventually worked his way into the rotation as others stumbled and likely would have been the Game 1 NLDS starter had the Cardinals won the play-in game behind Carlos Martinez.  Reyes finished four innings shy of losing his rookie status, meaning he’ll be one of the top contenders for Rookie of the Year next season.  Having him in the rotation for a full year is one of the more exciting things to anticipate for 2017.

1. Cardinals miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.  October baseball is not only expect but demanded in St. Louis.  The Cardinals won 86 games, which is a nice total, but fell one game short of “the playoffs” when the Giants swept the Dodgers during the last weekend while the Cards were doing the same to the Pirates.  (OK, so technically they were one game short of tying the Giants, so they’d had to play a Game 163 before actually making the playoffs, but pedantry doesn’t look good on you, to be honest.)

When you come that close to your goal, there are lots of different reasons for not getting it.  Many folks pointed their fingers at Mike Matheny and it’s fair to assume that his contributions could have been netted into one loss.  There was also a pitching rotation that didn’t come anywhere close to expectations, much less the historic heights they reached in 2015.  There was a bullpen, most notably Trevor Rosenthal, that blew more than their share of games before things got sorted out.  There was the loss of Lance Lynn all year due to Tommy John surgery.  There were injuries to Carpenter, Brandon Moss, Holliday, Diaz.  There was the terrible slide Moss had to end the season.  Turn around any of those and likely the Cards at least get that wild-card chance.  (Of course, it also helped the Giants cratered in the second half, otherwise it wouldn’t have been that close.)

Adding insult to injury, of course, was the fact that for the first time in 108 years the world lives under the auspices of a Chicago Cubs championship.  (There’s a reason everyone hates 2016.)  To see the rivals succeed when the Cardinals failed is tough to swallow.  There seems little doubt that 2017 will be another strong year for the North Siders, so hopefully the roster changes plus some returns to form will help the Cardinals get into October and, perhaps, end that Cubbie reign.

Honorable mention: Matt Bowman’s successful Rule 5 season, Weaver’s major league debut, Adam Wainwright‘s struggles, Molina’s second half, Seung-hwan Oh saves the bullpen, Wacha injured again.

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