The season came to a quiet and uninspiring end for the 2016 St Louis Cardinals with a disnterested 10-4 loss in the Wild Card game at the hands of the eventual NL World Series representative New York Mets. Following a 10-game winning streak in May, St Louis jumped out to 49-39 at the All-Star break before limping to a 37-39 2nd half record. Only a late season 7-1 record pulled them into a three-way tie with Washington and Colorado for the second Wild Card berth on the season’s final day. St Louis went on the road and defeated the Rockies and Nats (12-11 and 8-4, respectively) before running out of gas in Flushing following a disappointing outing from staff ace Lucio Cruzado (15-5, 2.50 ERA).
While their 86-78 record looks good on paper that mark included taking nine of their last 11 games, including the play-in wins. Coming off last year’s 97 wins and perceived roster upgrades, 2016’s results can only be construed as a disappointment to management. This season also marked the first time the Cardinals failed to qualify for the playoffs and the fourth straight year where total runs scored declined. Management remains steadfast in its conviction that 2017 is the year their #4 ranked minor league system begins to yield fruit with IF Juan Espinoza (#14 ranked prospect), SP Bill Black (#18), OF Carroll Curtis (#49) and SP Jeffery Leblanc (#33) nearly MLB-ready. OF Albert Almora, acquired in the Adam Wainwirght deal, put up a .320/.395/.509 line at AA Springfield before a midseason injury knocked him out for the year in late June. He likely will be a candidate to compete for the team’s 4th OF next Spring alongside Chase Greene and Esteban Sanchez (.395 OBP, 56 SB in 63 attempts). After reloading the pipeline following the trade of AL Rookie of the Year favorite Lucas Giolito (14-6, 3.36 ERA, 217 K) for Giancarlo Stanton in 2014, this year’s starting staff exceeded expectations despite nominal injuries to Cruzado and Cole Hamels (4.02 ERA in 20 starts). Most notable were Tyler Skaggs (14-11, 3.17 ERA, 1.12 WHIP in 32 starts) and perennial innings eater Rubby de la Rosa (3.18 ERA over 212 IP, 1.29 WHIP). Rounding out the starting staff, Jeff Niemann, Jairo Heredia (1.15 WHIP in 8 GS over 72 IP), Matt Lollis (62% QS % in 8 starts) and Cory Luebke (6-3, 56% QS % in 18 starts) all made solid contributions throughout the year. The bullpen was bolstered with the deadline acquisition of Huston Street (16/16 in SV opportunities as a Cardinal) as he supplanted Drew Storen (26 SV, 1.13 WHIP in 86 appearances) as the stopper in the ‘pen. All-Star Casey Mulligan (2.73 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 103 K) finally lived up to management’s lofty expectations as the primary set-up guy and RH specialist, appearing in a MLB Pro-leading 93 games. Rounding out the pen, LH specialist Bill Bray notched 79 appearances and limited inherited runners to a 7% success rate v LHs while delivering a microscopic 2.19 FIP v lefties. RH Cesar Aguilar filled in admirably as a middle relief guy, appearing in 72 IP and striking out 83 over 72 games.
The Cardinals were offensively challenged throughout the season, failing to top .700 OPS in every month with the exception of May & September. OF Christian Yelich put up some of the team’s strongest offensive numbers, hitting .303 with 16 HRs and 28 SBs. Management rewarded his efforts thus far in STL with a 6yr/$47m extension, following a July where he hit .376 with a .969 OPS, which will keep him in St Louis through his age-30 season. Giancarlo Stanton put together another solid season in his 2nd season as a Cardinal, pounding 33 HRs and a 4.6 WAR. 3b Evan Longoria (.244/.385/.430, 7.2 WAR) remained a steady influence in the middle of the lineup but struggled immensely in July/August with a .181 average. C Matt Wieters was rewarded for his strong campaign with his 2nd MLB Pro All-Star selection and ended the year with a 3.8 WAR solidifying his reputation as one of the best backstops in the NL. 1b Allan Dykstra (.239/.330/.382) took a step back in 2016 following last year’s .282/.384/.467 slash line. Rookie IF Andrew Douglas (13 HRs in 299 AB) was a pleasant surprise, getting time at 1b, 2b, 3b and in the outfield while putting up a .309/.384/.627 line against LHs. Douglas appears staked to a significant role in the future as the front office envisions him as a super utility guy who can slide into a starting role when necessary. SS Jonathan Roof’s (.273/.332/.333, 1.3 WAR) contributions, while not wowing anyone on the stats sheet, were immeasurable when he was healthy and management likes his defensive abilities at 2b/SS. At 27, he received a contract extension of four years following the trade of incumbent SS Pete Kozma to Cleveland. Corey Seager, one of the key, young prospects in the system, was promoted to the big-league club in mid-August and delivered offensively with a .716 OPS over 162 PAs. He was forced to learn 2b on the job at the big league level and his defensive performance left much to be desired as he committed 11 errors over 136 chances at 2b, SS and 3b. He will likely see extended Spring Training time at 2b to learn the position as Mike Matheny sees him as the team’s top 2b candidate and, at worst, a platoon solution at 2b/SS. 24-year old OF Jun Harada (9 HRs and 12 SB, 1.1 WAR over 245 AB) surprised throughout the 2nd half in a starting role after the trade of Anthony Gose and looks to have the inside track as the team’s starting CF next season with Almora and Curtis eagerly waiting in the wings.
2016 Offseason / 2017 Preview
Management does not anticipate participating in the free agent market this offseason as a rather thin FA class and a desire to see how some of the top prospects can contribute at the big-league level supersedes a need for going outside the organization in the offseason. 1b looks to be the one spot where there will most likely be an open competition come next February. Stalwart Allan Dykstra is likely to be non-tendered ahead of the arbitration process with Douglas, Allen Jacobs (.308/.377/.463 at AAA), Sanchez and top spec Juan Espinoza viewed as candidates to inherit the responsibilities. Behind the plate, super sub Hank Conger (3.7 WAR in 600+ PAs over last two years) is likely too costly as a backup and many within the organization view 26-year old Christian Vazquez (34 HRs at AAA) as a suitable replacement to supplant Wieters when he needs a day off. IF Brock Holt, who saw extended playing time at both 2b and SS, does not appear to be in the team’s plans heading into the offseason with Ildemaro Vargas, Carlos Correa and Espinoza viewed as superior alternatives in the middle infield.
The starting rotation will see little turnover in 2017 with four of the five starters likely to return. Cole Hamels’ team option will almost certainly be exercised with Matt Lollis and Antonio Cruz seen as the top contenders for the 5th starter spot. Cory Luebke and Jeff Niemann have both pitched their final innings for now in St Louis and will be allowed to test free agency. Top specs Black & Leblanc along with swingman Jairo Heredia are darkhorse candidates for the back half of the rotation next season. In the ‘pen, Bill Bray and Chad Bettis appear to be on the outside looking in as arbitration and free agency looms. Matheny & Co. see Ryan Verdugo (184 ERA+, 1.13 WHIP in 2013-16 v. LHs), Andrew McKirahan (2.57 ERA, 1.21 WHIP in AAA Memphis) and Mace Thurman (0.51 ERA, 1.02 WHIP over 49 appearances vs LHs at AAA) as viable replacements for Bray following his impressive two-year run as the team’s primary LH specialist.