As many of their fans would be the first to tell you, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the toast of the National League Central over the past three years. They’ve taken three consecutive division titles and have appeared in the Postseason in five straight seasons. But with the Pittsburgh Pirates continuing to nip at their heels, the Chicago Cubs looking like a powerhouse, and a slew of injury concerns, is this the year their stranglehold on the Central comes to an end? That could very well be the case.
Depth Chart (as of 3/10):
C: Yadier Molina
1B: Brandon Moss
2B: Kolten Wong
SS: Jedd Gyorko
3B: Matt Carpenter
LF: Matt Holliday
CF: Randal Grichuk
RF: Stephen Piscotty
SP: Adam Wainwright
SP: Michael Wacha
SP: Carlos Martinez
SP: Jaime Garcia
SP: Mike Leake
CL: Trevor Rosenthal
New Faces: Mike Leake, Jedd Gyorko, Brayan Pena, Seung Hwan Oh
Departures: Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Jon Jay, Steve Cishek, Tony Cruz, Peter Bourjos, Pete Kozma, Mark Reynolds
Position Battles: For all intents and purposes, the Cardinals lineup has been solidified for the upcoming year. That is, of course, with the exception of shortstop following Jhonny Peralta’s thumb surgery. Jedd Gyorko appears to be the guy that’ll hold down that spot for now, but the Cardinals could bring someone in from the outside to compete with him (Erick Aybar, former Card Pete Kozma, etc.). Similarly, Brayan Pena will snag the bulk of the playing time should Yadier Molina miss time with his own thumb injury, following the departure of Tony Cruz.
In non-injury-related position battles, there could be some daylight at first base or in center field, if someone seizes an opportunity during the spring. While Randal Grichuk isn’t quite better than Kris Bryant, as some Cardinal fans would have you believe, he is the frontrunner to start in center for the Red Birds this season. He finished with a respectable 3.1 WAR and flashed plenty of pop, posting a .272 ISO for the year. He’ll try and fight off Tommy Pham for that starting gig in center field. While Pham makes contact at a higher rate (75.9% for Pham vs. 69.8% for Grichuk), Grichuk definitely does more with his contact (only 15.9% soft contact against 23.0% for Pham), while he also posted some favorable defensive numbers in center. He’s in the driver’s seat for that spot, with Pham likely representing a serviceable fourth outfielder/Matt Holliday injury replacement.
At first base, Brandon Moss and Matt Adams will duke it out for playing time, with Stephen Piscotty also available to play some there. Given that both are lefties, any type of platoon situation can be immediately dismissed. Moss can play the outfield some, though, so in the event that Holliday does spend some time on the disabled list, Adams can slot in at first, Moss can drop back into right, and Piscotty could move over to left. Which means that while there’s a logjam at first, it’s something of a benefit for the Cardinals. It’s worth noting that very few projections like either of Adams or Moss, but Steamer just barely likes Adams (1.0 WAR vs. 0.9 WAR) and ZiPS just barely likes Moss (1.1 WAR vs. 0.8 WAR).
Injury Concerns: Really anywhere you look on this roster, there’s an injury concern. Lance Lynn is already out for the year, and Jhonny Peralta is out for at least half of it. Yadier Molina’s status is completely up in the air with his thumb injury. Matt Holliday had his spring debut pushed back because of back issues that continue to linger. Not to mention the fact that Jordan Walden is trying to come back from a shoulder injury that limited him to just a dozen games last season. Also, Adam Wainwright isn’t too far removed from that Achilles injury that held him to only seven appearances last year. The core of this team isn’t getting any younger, and this slew of injuries, many of them of the nagging variety, isn’t going to make things any easier.
Underrated Asset: I’m using this short space here as a Matt Carpenter plug, first and foremost. Sure, he saw his contact rate slip up last year, but he added the power to his arsenal and should be a consistent five WAR guy, at minimum, moving forward. But onto a truly underrated player, at least in the sense that they’ll contribute more than people probably realize in 2016.
I’m a big Tommy Pham guy. Cardinal fans love them some Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, both of whom burst onto the scene last year, but Pham should be a steady contributor to the effort for the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals. Given the amount of injury concerns on this team, the opportunity for Pham is going to arise at some point. He’s on the depth chart as a fourth outfielder right now, maybe a fifth if you consider Brandon Moss to be in that group. But should someone go down, even for a short period of time, Pham is going to slot in somewhere. And while he isn’t particularly anywhere near elite in any category, he can bring one of several things to the table if the Cardinals need it.
He contributed a 1.5 WAR last season, a number which ZiPS has him getting back to in 2016. He reaches base at a steady clip (.347 OBP), albeit in only 147 plate appearances last year at the Major League level. He brings decent speed, with seven doubles and five triples, and some pop, with five home runs and a 16.1% homer to flyball ratio. Combine that with his ability to play across the outfield and the additional Cardinals Devil Magic supporting him, and some opposing teams will probably be cursing Tommy Pham by year’s end.
Can the Cardinals fend off both the new-look Cubs and the Pirates with their subtractions and their injuries?
It’s not a question of whether this team is talented enough on paper, or if we’ll see someone from the system come out of the woodwork and be a regular contributor for the Cardinals in 2016. On paper, they’re still a quality team, and we’ve come to assume that a seemingly madeup name will find his way onto a big league roster in St. Louis and lay some clutch hit down in the box score. But with the Cubs now a surefire contender and the Pirates still lingering, do the Cardinals have what it takes to fend off both of these teams?
When it comes down to what’s on paper, and what the Cardinals are currently dealing with injury-wise, and what they lost over the course of the winter, the answer is a simple “no”. The Pirates were already near-equals, and the Cubs were just barely behind both of them with a team that consisted largely of rookies. With the Pirates maintaining most of their roster, and the Cubs continuing to develop that elite rookie talent, in addition to poaching Jason Heyward and John Lackey from the Cards, simple logic tells us that not one, but both should overtake the Cards in the NL Central standings. But if history has taught us anything, it’s to never count out the Cardinals. Even when it seems like it’s the simplest thing to do, as it seems right now.
Best Case Scenario: We know what the best case scenario looks like. The Cardinals acquire a shortstop, like Aybar, to hold down the fort until Jhonny Peralta comes back, thus limiting that blow. Matt Holliday somehow remains healthy, and Yadier Molina progresses from his thumb injury. Randal Grichuk is able to replicate and build on his rookie success, while Stephen Piscotty shows us that his small sample size was no fluke. Adam Wainwright continues to do his thing, while Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake have career years in St. Louis. They become a playoff lock again. But can this team, as currently constructed, get past the Cubs, Pirates, Dodgers, Giants, and even the Nationals even in the best case?
Worst Case Scenario: We’re almost seeing the worst case scenario unfold before our eyes. Peralta is out for an extended period of time. Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday, two key cogs, are dealing with lingering injuries. Matt Adams and Brandon Moss do not make for an effective first baseman if they were one person, let alone two separate people. Randal Grichuk could take a step back, as could Piscotty. Martinez, Leake, and Jaime Garcia struggle in the rotation, and the bullpen simply doesn’t go as deep as it needs to in order for the Cardinals to be successful. Even with another All-Star campaign from Matt Carpenter, the Cards still take a backseat to the Cubs and Pirates in the division.
Realistic Prediction: That last sentence in the ‘Worst Case’ is, unfortunately for fans of the Cardinals, what we could very well see take place in the case of the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals. Look, the Cardinals lost both Jason Heyward and John Lackey. Not only did they lose them, they did so to a Cubs team that was already barely behind them in the NL Central standings last season. They’re a team that’s getting older and is currently dealing with a slew of nagging injuries. Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty performed well last season, but neither one is a really proven quantity, as much as Cardinal fans might like to think they are after last season.
As stated earlier, 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.
Of course, their Devil Magic does go a long way.