Spring Training is the first really happy point of the year for us baseball nerds. The Super Bowl is fun (even if it was a frustrating, agonizing game for those of us who don’t like the Pats), but nothing compares to the first cracks of the bat and pounding of the ball against the mitt. Spring means rebirth, the start of something great. Other than the holidays with the family, it’s my favorite point of the year.
Then I remember that I’m a Cardinals fan and, while the Cubs have completely changed the outlook of their franchise and the dynamics of the NL Central for years to come, the Cards still have had a lot of recent success. Going back to 2000, they’ve had 4 trips to the World Series, two championships, three 100 win seasons, 11 seasons of the greatest right handed hitter of my lifetime, and several division championships. In short, despite the Cubs seemingly unstoppable team, life ain’t that bad as a Cards fan.
However, the 2016 season can only be seen as an abysmal failure from any perspective. The front office lost two key free agents to the Cubs in John Lackey and Jason Heyward. Now, Heyward was awful last season at the plate (72 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR) and there are legit concerns that, since he isn’t an elite bat and his value is tied up in defense and base running, he won’t age well, but Lackey’s 188 innings of 92 ERA- would have looked better than Jaime Garcia’s 171 innings of 114 ERA- or Wacha’s 138 innings with an ERA- of 124. Had the Lance Lynn injury (he had Tommy John Surgery in November of 2015) been known sooner, maybe they push harder for Lackey so it’s hard to fault them a ton (and a 2 year deal is not totally insane for a pitcher of Lackey’s age, especially since he seemed to do pretty well pitching in a pitcher’s park in the NL the previous season and a half). Having to settle on Mike Leake (who’s fine but not an elite presence by any means) after losing on David Price (who signed a crazy deal with the Red Sox) and Heyward definitely meant a step down in the rotation, but not one that could have been disastrous. And, Leake was relatively fine last year, at least as solid as he had been in the past, which is what the Cards needed after losing about 400 innings to injuries and free agency.
The problems in 2016 were simple: defense and base running. According to Fangraphs, the Cards ranked 17th in the Majors in defense, at only +2.3 defensive runs above average. The Cubs, meanwhile, ranked first with a crazy, seems to be unrepeatable +115.5. How can that be fixed? Well, the loss in the offseason of Matt Holliday (-8.7) and Brandon Moss (-4.0) will help. Replacing them will be Randall Grichuk (playing left field, which plays more to his strengths) and newcomer Dexter Fowler in center field (who will be OK but not great). Matt Carpenter, as of this moment, is sliding across the diamond to play first base where his not-so-great defense won’t be as much of a hindrance so that helps to a degree. Aledmys Diaz and Kolten Wong are slotted in to be the double play tandem. Wong is an excellent defensive second baseman, and hopefully he is able to keep his position this year (he was abysmal at the plate). Diaz is not a great shortstop, but short of trading for Andrelton Simmons, I don’t see how the Cards could improve there. Plus, his bat was incredible and made up a lot of value for him. He could be a light version of a healthy Jhonny Peralta, which I would be fine with. Yadi is Yadi, but older and maybe not quite as good behind the plate.
But, the main thing that hurt the team was base running. The Cards were second to last in the Majors in base running runs with -19.8 runs above average. That means that the base running cost them nearly 2 wins, which was the difference between making the playoffs and missing out entirely. Part of what will fix the problem is the more regular time for Wong and the addition of Fowler. Another part is the third base coaching. Longtime third base coach Jose Oquendo missed last season with a knee issue, and wants to shift towards working in FL with the Minor Leaguers. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and I certainly hope he is happy and healthy. But, his replacement was bad. I remember one time, against either the Pirates or Reds, Peralta was coming from second to third on a hit into the left field corner. All of a sudden, the third base coach starts to wave him home. The catcher had enough time to field the throw, go into the stands and get a beer, bring it back onto the field and drink it while sitting in a lounge chair, and still beat him by like 50 feet. The coaching needs to know the limitations of the players; they can’t ask big guys like Peralta or Matt Adams to try to take the extra base anymore than they should expect Wong to become the home run leader of the club. If the coaching improves, the base running will be much better. Not great, but better.
I’m excited to start the 2017 season and I hope you all are as well. Wait, just got a text alert on my phone. Hang on one second.
–checks phone, sees Alex Reyes out for the year with Tommy John Surgery. Cries in the corner for an hour. Comes back to blog–
Well that burst the bubble. But, it hopefully won’t be too damaging. If they can either snag someone like Doug Fister or Jered Weaver on a one-year deal, that would be super helpful.
See you tomorrow.