Our look at the NL Central teams, part of our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, concludes with the St. Louis Cardinals, who came in second place in the division last season.
The Cardinals’ biggest acquisition of the winter to help in their pursuit of catching the defending World Series champion Cubs in the division was a former Cub, signing OF Dexter Fowler to a five-year contract. He’ll be joining OFs Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. The infield will once again by led by veteran C Yadier Molina and 1B Matt Carpenter, who missed the World Baseball Classic and some spring training action with tightness in his lower back. SP Adam Wainwright still sits atop the starting rotation, while RP Seung-hwan Oh handles closing duties out of the bullpen. Among the losses the Cardinals experienced this winter were SP Jaime Garcia, who they traded to the Braves, and OF Matt Holliday, who signed with the Yankees. The team will also be without SP Alex Reyes, who underwent Tommy John surgery in February that will result in him missing the 2017 season and potentially cause him to miss the start of the 2018 campaign.
Last year’s team hit .255, which matched the MLB average, and hit 225 home runs — the most in the National League and second-most in the majors — with a .767 OPS that was fifth in the majors. Piscotty had one of the best overall seasons among the Cardinals’ hitters last season, hitting .273 with 22 home runs and a .800 OPS, while Grichuk hit 24 home runs in 132 games to go along with a .240 average and .769 OPS. SS Aledmys Diaz hit .300 with 17 home runs and a .879 OPS in 111 games, and Carpenter hit .271 with 21 home runs and a .885 OPS in 129 games. Jedd Gyorko, who is expected to provide depth filling in around the infield, led the team with 30 home runs last season, which just missed making the top 10 in the NL, to go along with a .243 average. Molina played in 147 games, which is a lot for a catcher, and hit .307 with 8 home runs.
The pitching staff finished in the top half of the majors with a 4.08 ERA, but the team’s 1,290 strikeouts was below the league average. The bullpen recorded just 38 saves, the eighth-fewest in the majors and fewer than six closers had individually. SP Carlos Martinez led the starters with a 3.04 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 195.1 innings over 31 starts. Coming off an injury that limited him to four starts in 2015, Wainwright was able to start 33 games but didn’t put up good numbers; his 4.62 ERA was the worst of his career and his 161 strikeouts were the fewest since 2008, when he made only 20 starts. SP Michael Wacha also put up a career-worst 5.09 ERA and struck out 114 batters in 138 innings over 24 starts (27 games overall). In his first season in the majors after playing in Japan, Oh made 76 appearances, saving 19 games in 23 opportunities, to go along with a 1.92 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 79.2 innings.
The Cardinals have a good-enough offense to win games, but it’s their starting pitching that could limit their success this season. The offense could take a step back from last year, though, with Holliday gone and Carpenter dealing with the back issues that could cause problems if it continues into the regular season. Wainwright has a history of pitching well, but he’s now 35 and on the backside of his career, so his down year in 2016 is likely part of the natural decline as a pitcher gets older. If he can’t return to form with the way he pitched earlier in his career, someone like Wacha will have to step up to make up for some of the production lost with Wainwright.
The Cardinals are a good team but are disadvantaged by being in the same division as the Cubs, who are likely still the best team in the majors. The Cardinals are clearly the second-best team in the NL Central and should win enough games to get one of the National League’s wild cards, but they likely won’t be able to keep up with the Cubs unless the Cubs are hampered by injuries during the season.
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