Winning the NL Central probably wasn’t going to happen for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. Not with the rival Chicago Cubs assembling a juggernaut at the top of the division with eyes on a World Series championship. But the Cardinals always compete for a postseason spot and have proven that just getting into the playoffs can be all the opportunity a team needs.

Yet just how far behind St. Louis finished behind the Cubs was a surprise. The Cardinals still finished second in the NL Central, but by a 17.5-game margin. The Cubs were far and away the class of the division, leaving St. Louis to wrestle with the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets for a wild-card bid. Unfortunately, a lackluster September fueled largely by too many holes in the lineup and poor pitching, especially from the starting rotation, was too much to overcome — even by the slightest of margins.

Preseason Prediction: […] there are going to be nobody’s that come out and perform for this team like always, but they simply don’t have the firepower, at least as they stand right now, to take another division crown. Does that leave them out of the wild card picture? No, not at all. they’ll compete for one of the two wild card spots, and could very well be right in the middle of that group if healthy and some key additions are made as the season wears on. But the Cards’ reign is likely over in the Central. (Randy Holt, March 11).

What Went Right: With the injury to Jhonny Peralta during the spring, shortstop was a big concern for the Cardinals going into the season. St. Louis looked like it might luck out when the Mets released Ruben Tejada, but the team ended up finding a far better long-term solution. Aledmys Diaz emerged as the everyday shortstop, posting excellent offensive numbers (.300 average, .879 OPS, 17 home runs, 28 doubles). Advanced metrics weren’t kind to Diaz’s defense (-3 Defensive Runs Saved, -8.1 Ultimate Zone Rating) and his 16 errors, but the Cardinals were surely willing to accept that with Diaz’s production at the plate and stability at shortstop.

Diaz’s emergence allowed manager Mike Matheny to strengthen the overall infield by moving Peralta to third base once he returned, and using Matt Carpenter to shore up second base (for Kolten Wong’s disappointing production) or first base (for Matt Adams’ various injuries) when needed. Jedd Gyorko turned out to be a very valuable pick-up as well, playing second base and allowing Carpenter to fill in at first, while also leading the Cardinals with 30 home runs. That versatility could end up helping St. Louis in the outfield next season, whether it’s moving Wong to center field or using Carpenter in left to replace the departing Matt Holliday (whose option won’t be picked up).

A shoulder injury to Trevor Rosenthal also allowed Seung-hwan Oh to show he was capable in the closer role, racking up 19 saves in 23 opportunities while striking out 103 batters in 79.2 innings. The Cardinals will surely bring him back on his $2.75 million option for 2017, giving Matheny a nice problem to have at the back-end of his bullpen. Oh or Rosenthal could take either the closer and eighth-inning setup role, while Kevin Siegrist and Jonathan Broxton make up the rest of the setup crew. Or might Rosenthal move to the rotation, if needed?

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 05:  Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals in action during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 5, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA – SEPTEMBER 05: Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals in action during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 5, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

What Went Wrong: To have any chance of competing with the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central or contending for a wild-card spot, the Cardinals were going to need strong starting pitching. That didn’t really happen. Though the starters’ ERA of 4.33 ranked in the middle of the NL, St. Louis didn’t get reliable performances from free agent pick-up Mike Leake (4.69 ERA), Michael Wacha (5.09) or Jaime Garcia (4.67) — though the left-hander did make 30 starts, which has to be considered something of a victory.

But the Cardinals’ didn’t get ace-caliber pitching from their No. 1 starter either. Adam Wainwright had his worst season as a major leaguer, posting a 4.62 ERA while allowing 10 hits per nine innings. Though he did make 33 starts, Wainwright struggled with his mechanics and locating his curveball all season long, allowing opposing hitters to sit on his other pitches. At 36, his days of being the Cards’ No. 1 starter are probably over, with Carlos Martinez ready to take the top spot in the rotation. But St. Louis is obviously a far better team when Wainwright is pitching at a high level, rather than putting him out there and crossing their fingers.

Two of the three outfield spots were also a season-long question mark for the Cardinals, with Matt Holliday struggling with injuries and declining skills, while Randal Grichuk bounced between the majors and minors due to poor performance. Brandon Moss provided power, slugging 28 home runs, but only batted .225 with a .784 OPS. The Cardinals may decide to let him go via free agency. As mentioned, Wong could be in the center field mix next season, while Tommy Pham and Jeremy Hazelbaker could help out too. But this might be one position that general manager John Mozeliak ends up addressing in free agency.

Most Surprising Player: Diaz could certainly qualify as a surprise, since he wasn’t considered part of the shortstop mix when the season began. But Alex Reyes turned out to be a nice late-season addition to the starting rotation. Actually, he was probably added too late. Granted, Reyes’ 4.96 ERA for Triple-A Memphis wasn’t terribly impressive, but he did strike out 93 batters in 65.1 innings. The Cardinals didn’t call him up until early August, and it’s worth asking if that might have prevented them from getting one of the NL’s wild-card playoff spots.

In 12 appearances (five starts) for St. Louis, Reyes excelled, compiling a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings. Had the Cards called the 22-year-old up sooner or if Matheny had added him to the rotation sooner, might that have resulted in the two wins St. Louis needed to win a wild-card bid? We’ll never know. But with Reyes and Martinez, along with a hopeful turnaround from Wacha, the Cardinals have a promising young trio to build their rotation around as Wainwright transitions toward the end of his career, Leake holds up the back-end of the staff and the front office decides what to do with Garcia next year.

ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 7: Matt Holliday #7 during a game against the Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium on August 7, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO – AUGUST 7: Matt Holliday #7 during a game against the Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium on August 7, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

Most Disappointing Player: The Cardinals scored 779 runs this season, good for third in the NL. But how much more potent would their offense have been if the lineup got better production from the No. 3 spot in the batting order. Matt Holliday had been a rock in that position during his previous seven-plus seasons in St. Louis, consistently putting up 25 home runs, 30 doubles, 100 RBI, a .300 average, and .875 OPS in the middle of the lineup. But after a rough, injury-filled 2015, the bottom dropped out for the 36-year-old veteran this season.

In the No. 3 spot, Holliday batted .233 with a .754 OPS, 17 home runs and 53 RBI. A broken thumb certainly didn’t help, but that just wasn’t good enough, even with Stephen Piscotty and Yadier Molina providing consistent production in the fourth and fifth spots in the batting order. The Cardinals got production at the top of the order from Matt Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz, but Holliday couldn’t reliably move runners along or drive them in, creating a hole before the other run producers got to the plate. St. Louis has already decided not to pick up Holliday’s 2017 option (opting for a $1 million buyout versus $17 million contract) and will move on, hoping to find a better bat for the middle of the lineup.

The Future: Though the Cardinals do have some significant holes to fill, notably in left field, there’s no reason to believe that this team won’t contend as usual in 2017. No, the Cubs are probably out of reach for the foreseeable future, but St. Louis is still a step (maybe two) ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who may be undergoing some offseason transition, and the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds are in the midst of rebuilding projects.

While the Cardinals may not have any standout prospects in the minors ready to make an immediate impact next season, plenty of young talent has developed to help during the past few seasons. The emergence of Reyes basically fills that need and should take care of one of the top rotation spots, while Diaz has resolved the team’s shortstop issue. That should mitigate the roster showing some age in a few places (catcher, third base, left field, maybe first base). Just being healthier next season will make a huge difference. But it also wouldn’t hurt if the Cardinals played better defense, something that Mozeliak may address in the offseason.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.