The St. Louis Cardinals are probably the most consistent franchise in all of baseball right now. The Cardinals have made the postseason each of the past five seasons and have had winning records in the last eight. Prior to their last losing season in 2007, the Cardinals had winning season in the past eight seasons as well. The most recent version saw the team win 100 games and there are many reasons think the team can perform at that same level.
The one player who is considered the heart and sole of the Cardinals franchise is catcher Yadier Molina. The reigning seven time All Star and eight time Gold Glover has a value to the Cardinals that it is hard to match for any other player for any team. Molina has proven to be a clutch hitter and is and has been the best defensive catcher in the game. Most importantly, Molina has made the Cardinals pitching staff as good as it is and is considered one of the best game callers with his preparation being perhaps the best the game has ever seen. Offensively, the .283 career hitter has not fallen off. He hit .270 last season, though his on base plus slugging dropped to .660, the lowest it has been in a season since 2006. The 33 year-old has battled injuries over the past two seasons, costing him the deciding game in the 2015 National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs as well as three games of the 2014 National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants. It is safe to say there are few players more important to their team that Yadier Molina is to the St.Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals lost starting pitcher Lance Lynn (12 wins, 11 losses, 3.03 earned run average, 167 strikeouts, just over 175 innings pitched) for the 2016 season to Tommy John surgery. John Lackey (13-10, 2.77, 175, 218) left to join the rival Cubs as did star right fielder Jason Heyward (.293, 13, 60, .797). The Cardinals did sign right hander Mike Leake (11-10, 3.70, 192 innings pitched) as a free agent and are counting on the return of top starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (2-1, 1.41, 7 games, 4 starts). The Cardinals also traded outfielder John Jay to the San Diego Padres for infielder Jedd Gyorko (.247, 16, 57, .694). The acquisition of Gyorko seemed like a depth move because of the Cardinals infield situation. Second baseman Kolten Wong (.262, 11, 61, .707), shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.275, 17, 71, .745) and third baseman Matt Carpenter (.272, 28, 84, .871) all played in over 150 games last season. However, the sudden injury to Peralta will cost him the first two or three months of the season and Gyorko will get to see a lot of time at shortstop. Ironically, Gyorko played 29 games at shortstop in 2015, a position he had never played professionally before. Perhaps it was the seasoning he needed to help the Cardinals in 2016. Expect the Cardinals to be active in trying to find a more natural shortstop to help out defensively. The Cardinals also signed reliever Seung Hwan Oh, a top relief pitcher from Japan, to help out the back of the bullpen.
The Cardinals have a lot of depth both in infield and the outfield. Outfielders Randall Grichuk (.276, 17, 47, .877) and Stephen Piscotty (.305, 7, 39, .853) have become everyday players. Matt Holliday (.279, 4, 35, .804) is coming off an injury plagued 2015 but is playing some first base with the hopes of preserving his legs for the season. The Cardinals also have first baseman Matt Adams (.240, 5, 24, .657), himself limited to just 60 games last season. The addition last season of left hand hitting Brandon Moss (.226, 19, 58, .711) gives the Cards essentially five players to use in their four positions. Brayan Pena (.273, 0, 18, .659) has been brought in to give Molina a little more rest. Perhaps having a legitimate backup will allow for manager Mike Matheny to rest Molina a little more throughout the season and Pena can start behind the plate for weeks at a time if Molina were to have to go on the disabled list. With a healthy Peralta, hopefully in two months as opposed to three, the Cardinals have as deep of a bench as anybody in baseball.
The Cardinals lineup I would go with right now is Carpenter 3B, Piscotty RF, Grichuk CF, Holliday LF, Moss 1B, Molina C, Gyorko SS, Wong 2B. Adams will play some first with Moss filling in for the corner outfielders. Tommy Pham (.268, 5, 18, .824) is likely to make the team because he provides insurance in center field, something the team does not have anywhere else.
The key to the Cardinals rotation will be how much of an impact Wainwright will have as he returns from his injury. He looked great towards the end the season, however, the Cardinals expect him to be their ace. Wainwright's second and third seasons back from Tommy John (2013 and 2014) saw him return to the pitcher he was at just prior to the operation in 2009 and 2010. Those four seasons saw Wainwright win a total of 78 games, finish with an ERA between 2.38 and 2.94 each season and also finishing in the top three in the National League Cy Young voting all four seasons. While it is not silly to think he can pitch as well as he did in those four seasons, I think it is important to question his durability at this point in his career. He may defy the odds, but he will be 35 this season and is being counted on to be the team's top starter. However, having Leake, Michael Wacha (17-7, 3.38, 153 Ks in just over 181 innings pitched) and Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.01, 184 Ks, just under 180 IP) may allow for a transition in power in the Cardinals rotation. If Wainwright can pitch well as a number three starter and two of the three can pitch well enough to be a one and a two, the Cardinals rotation looks a lot deeper. Left hander Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43, 20 starts) had a solid bounce back season coming off injuries that have sidelined him for the past couple seasons. Let us see if Garcia can handle an increased workload, perhaps as many as the just under 1995 innings he pitched in 2011.
Trevor Rosenthal (2-4, 2.10, 48 saves, 83 Ks, just less than 69 IP) has become one of the more dependable closers in all of baseball. Oh, who dominated for eleven seasons in Korea and Japan with 357 saves and averaging almost 11 K per 9 innings pitched, joins a solid mix with fixtures Kevin Siegrist (7-1, 2.17, 90 Ks, less than 75 IP) and Seth Maness (4-2, 4.26, 76 games). Maness had a couple rough outings in 2015 but overall pitched as well as he did the year before. The Cardinals could possess one of the better bullpens in the entire National League if they can get a major contribution from Jordan Walden, the forgotten player in the Shelby Miller/ Heyward trade. The one time Los Angeles Angels closer has averaged nearly 11 Ks per 9 IP. Jonathan Broxton and Mitch Harris will also be in the mix.
On the Cardinals radar this season should be top overall prospect Alex Reyes. The right handed pitcher managed to strike out 15 batters in just over 101 innings in three different levels last season. Perhaps he is the first to come up to the rotation if there is an injury as the Cardinals really do not have a ton of depth past their top five. Left handers Tyler Lyons and Marco Gonzalez will also be in the mix, both being pretty highly touted themselves a couple years ago. Shortstop Edmundo Sosa looks to have the ability to be a very good offensive player. If the 20 year old can move through the minor league system this season, maybe he can get a look as a September call-up this year. If not, he may have a shot to make the team out of spring training next season.
The Cardinals really have not gotten enough credit for being as consistent as they have been for the last 15 years. They have done a great job developing young players and working them in to replace some of the veterans. Losing Peralta is not the end of the world, but it hurts. Losing Lynn is not going to determine their season, but it is worth noting. Wainwright and Molina are going to need to be healthy if this season is going to go as expected (the Cardinals are always expected to do well). I see this team as fragile, though they are very talented. Las Vegas has the Cardinals at 87.5 as their over/ under and I will take the under. I have the Cardinals at 80-82, third place in the National League Central.